Reading a Philip Roth novel, I find, represents something of a commitment. This one took me the best part of two weeks to get through. For me, reading Roth is not unlike reading Balzac – the first 100 pages seem like heavy going, but once you’ve got through the detailed exposition, then you become completely absorbed in the remaining 350 pages. Sabbath’s Theater, I thought, was one of his best.
Mickey Sabbath is a failed street puppeteer and theatre impressario, a sex addict haunted (literally) by the ghost of his mother and his memories of childhood (in particular the death of his hero-brother). As he contemplates suicide, his life and all its failures start to unravel, but although Death has claimed all those closest to him, there is no refuge for Sabbath himself.
The theatre referred to in the title recalls a failed production of King Lear in which Sabbath himself unconvincingly played the title role, and the play remains a theme running throughout the novel. Sabbath is himself the old king, deserted by those he loves, driven to madness by his own grief and foolishness. Yet Sabbath is also the Fool, ever playful and insightful, subverting convention with his outrageous behaviour. His whole life continues to be a performance, but beneath the many roles he plays and his shocking amorality, we catch occasional glimpses of his humanity and vulnerability and it is this that always brings him back from sinking deeper into his own depravity and the edge of oblivion.
This is as rich and intense a piece of writing that I have read of Roth’s, but it is not a quick read. It demands that you take your time over it and deservedly so.