on 18 May 2000
This is the first Philip Roth novel I read, and I haven't been able to read any more since in case none of them are as good. Sabbath's Theater is a dangerous, exhilirating, outrage-inducing read. It demands concentration and engagement, and rewards with an intellectual and emotional honesty rarely found in modern fiction. Mickey Sabbath is by turns profoundly wise, utterly execrable, and uproariously, devilishly, humanly funny. I defy anyone not to feel a guilty elation of recognition at the whole scene of crying and duplicity in Mickey's friend's apartment. The first line of the novel is a masterpiece of an opening - the roaming, desperate energy of the entire book and a landscape view of the plot all crammed into less than ten words. The perfectly crafted shock of the last lines is like a piledriver in the chest. And everything that's in between is a revelation. Whether you're a man or a woman, DO NOT read this book unless you are prepared to be a) offended and outraged, and b) humbled and educated. Or, on the other hand, just read it anyway.
on 16 December 2002
In Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth finally showed us he could write a book in which neither Philip Roth nor his thinly-veiled stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, made an appearance.
The theme of Sabbath's Theater has been done before: a lecherous, unconventional man railing at the ravages of time and the dwindling of the sexual potency by which he has defined his very existence. Most of the time, however, this theme is poorly written, the characters trite and cliched. Roth, not surprisingly, invests this novel with more lyrical energy, more sexual frankness, sharper comedy and deeper seriousness than has any writer before.
Although Roth does make use of both flashback and association, the plot of Sabbath's Theater is brisk. Mickey Sabbath, who went off to sea at the age of eighteen just so he could visit the world's brothels, is a loathsome character. His abiding philosophy of life is simply to do whatever he pleases and never to worry about pleasing anyone else. Nothing phases him, in fact, he seems to take pleasure in his uncanny ability to antagonize others. Their outrage seems to be only a reflection of his own self-worth. Mickey Sabbath manages to hurt, deceive, betray, offend, insult and abuse just about everyone with whom he comes into contact.
A true degenerate, Mickey Sabbath may seem to lack any sense of moral conscience. Although anyone meeting such a character would deny it, Sabbath actually spent an idyllic childhood on the Jersey shore; a childhood that was shattered by a traumatic dual loss. In an effort to deal with his loss and the resultant pain, to stamp out the brutality of life, and, to affirm his own sense of aliveness, Sabbath turns to carnal pleasures with a vengeance, indulging each and every sexual impulse.
Even as Sabbath indulges his crasser nature, however, and casts a satirical eye on those who deny their sensual impulses, he still endeavors to understand himself and the workings of the universe. In fact, much of the novel's comic pathos is derived from the tension that exists between Sabbath's base nature and his lechery and his seemingly incomprehensible yearning for cosmic illumination.
There is a lot of graphic sex in Sabbath's Theater and most readers will probably find it simply too perverse. I did not enjoy reading this book, and, although I think I understand Mickey Sabbath, I have to admit that I hated him. He suffers, that cannot be denied, but he is simply so perverse, and his behavior so amoral, that I really didn't care.
To be fair, I do have to admit that the perversity in this book did enhance and advance my understanding of Mickey Sabbath and the conflicts in which he is embroiled. And Philip Roth is certainly better at creating degenerate, or at least morally ambivalent characters, than he is at creating the lofty or the solemn. His "good" characters are simply too good to be true, while Sabbath, much as we may despise him, is completely credible. He may be despicable and perverted, but at least he knows it.
The writing in Sabbath's Theater is absolutely first-rate; it is pure Philip Roth and it crackles with more energy and exuberance than Portnoys' Complaint. The characters are more complex, the narrative more sophisticated and the tonal range wider than many of Roth's other works. The ending of the book virtually drips with irony. This is a multi-layered novel and one that is brilliantly original. It also contains some of the funniest writing to be found anywhere in American fiction today. Sabbath's Theater is, at its heart, a darkly comic masterpiece of complexity from one of America's finest authors. But it is simply too perverse for most readers to enjoy.
In his 1995 novel Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth once again demonstrates that he has few (if any) equals among modern novelists when it comes to the ability to morph profanity into profundity, and, in this work, he does it in such an apparently effortless manner which leaves this reader mightily impressed. In my recollection, not since the days of Henry Miller 60 years ago has a writer produced such an exhilarating and unexpurgated tale of debauchery as does Roth in this magnificent and explosive work. In Roth, we are, of course, talking about the author who achieved global literary notoriety with his similarly extravagant and sexually explicit 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint - a compelling novel in its own right, but one which, for me, Roth has probably surpassed with Sabbath's Theater.
The novel is narrated in flashback by 64-year old ex-puppeteer and (still) sex-obsessed Mickey Sabbath, and takes us (in loving detail) through the fractious and turbulent journey of Sabbath's various lives and loves. Roth is typically uncompromising in creating what is essentially a loathsome hero, one who has embarked on a succession of adulterous relationships, whilst spurning two marriages and apparently betraying just about every friendship that ever came the way of anti-hero Sabbath. But, gradually as the tale unfolds, it becomes apparent that there are facets to this abomination that are not wholly repugnant, none more than Sabbath's underlying maternal love and his hero-worship for his soldier brother Morty, sadly lost fighting the Japanese in 1944 whilst Mickey was still only a teenager.
The concluding sections of the novel, where Mickey negotiates potential sites for his own burial plot and where he happens upon a lost centenarian cousin, thereby finding another route for communicating with the memories of his long-lost brother, are particularly affecting and poignant.
Perhaps literary critics in fifty years time will find it odd how the novels of the past one or two generations vested so much importance in sex – just as, say, property and marriage obsessed nineteenth-century British writers. Sabbath’s Theater’s primary interest is indeed in sex. Or rather sex and death, two subjects that sell well. (I feel entitled to write that as, in one of his novels, The Human Stain I think, Roth pokes fun at Kundera for drawing on sex and philosophy for appeal.) Sabbath, the novel’s ageing hero is both uninhibited and free from convention. He is plain spoken to the point of inconsiderateness, boorishness even, making both for high comedy and curious situations – as when Sabbath attempts to seduce the wife of the friend who has just rescued him from destitution, all the time toying with their (adult) daughter’s underwear. But was Sabbath’s life lived to the full, free from the shackles of convention, or was it rather wasted? Did his hero brother do better to die at twenty after his plane crashed on a pacific island in WWII? As Sabbath begins to look for a cemetery spot and becomes ever more consumed by his family past, one begins to doubt. Sabbath was a puppeteer, leaving him to take all relationships as instrumental until it is too late. The risk is that he will find himself stranded on life’s highway, his own strings at last cut off.
This may be unfair, but I tend to think of Philip Roth as a rip-off of (his precursor) Saul Bellow. They have much in common, including the ability to fascinate through the minute dissection of scenes and situation whatever they are, and they are both consistently entertaining. I have run out of Saul Bellow. If you have not, I highly recommend considering his works alongside Roth’s.
on 11 February 2002
Is life just a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing? Waht else is there but sex and death? Mickey Sabbath rages against the dying of the light by indulging in sexual excesses. Roth writes brilliantly about male sexuality. Believe me, some of my Sunday league soccer team would do Mickey proud (I exaggerate only slightly). Roth's novels are consistently honest, energetic and filled with clear-sighted intelligence. More! More!
on 1 September 2012
Sabbath's Theater finds Roth on top form, challenging and sometimes reactionary, probing the angst of a generation. His hero, Mickey Sabbath, is a grotesque egotist whose career as a puppeteer is an analogue of his self-absorbed, control-freak nature. Throw in the guilt of Sabbath's two failed marriages, a raft of messy sexagenarian couplings, and familiar themes from his other works, and Roth is comfortably at home with his subject-matter. In the end the semi-suicidal Sabbath is sustained not by sex, love or family, but by his capacity to go on loathing: 'How could he leave? Everything he hated was here.'
on 3 October 2010
There are serious themes here: Sabbath has not covered from the death of his brother 40 years ago (nor, ever, did his mother); his first wife does not recover from the death of her mother (and disappears and Sabbath also does not recover from that); his second wife cannot come to terms with the death of her father. And the novel starts and ends with the death from cancer of Sabbath's long-time mistress. And he spends the second half asking "to be or not be" just in case we've missed the point. He also visits a funeral and buys a funeral plot.
But this is not how the book is constructed; and it comes as a shock to realise on reflecton that maybe this is what it's about. Such is the brilliance of its construction.
To the reader, we witness simply Sabbath moving through the world, troubled by memories of set piece acts of outrage in the past (or not troubled by them) and committing ongoing acts of outrage in the present with his "indecent theatre", the set pieces are highly memorable. And the outrages to normal civilised behaviour communicate themselves vividly to the reader. There is also occasional comedy: for example, an unforgettable note from Sabbath to his wife in rehab purportedly a letter from her dead father recounting a counselling session with Satan...
on 6 December 2013
Gripped by the novel from the start. At the risk of using the old "page-turner" adage, I literally could not tear myself away from this roller coaster ride straight out of Newark! New to the Roth novels (my third and not my last) I was "stunned" by his audacious style of writing. Page after wonderful page of surprises and not for the faint-hearted either. The perfect fiction which leaves an indelible print on the mind long after the last page has been closed.
on 27 November 2014
Not quite Roth at his very best - but as his very best is very good indeed that still makes this top drawer. As ever his work challenges the reader and pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in contemporary literature. Roth manages to make the protagonist sympathetic despite his many failings and deals openly with the fading sexual prowess of an aging Don Juan in the twilight of his years. Warning! Do not read this book if you are easily offended!
Through the eyes and thoughts of the protagonist, Micky Sabbath, Philip Roth opens a dark box for us to peer into, if we dare, where we can examine some as yet to be discovered, or acknowledged, layers of ourselves. This dark, serious, comic book uses intelligent and satisfying prose to suggest some of the less obvious, and often disturbing, truths about human existence.