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Saturday, December 04, 2004

All's well that ends well....

Today's Guardian Book section leads with the "favorite books of the year" recommendations of a long list of UK (and some US) literary "notables" and political pundits. Not surprisingly, Roth's The Plot Against America (TPAA) was the one work that received positive comments from several of the contributors. Despite some disappointment expressed about the book's ending, the work is regarded as this year's best read.

I agree on both counts -- wonderful to read and somewhat disappointing in the way it concludes. But more important is the way the Roth makes it seem so “realistic”; there is nothing in his scenario about a Lindbergh nomination and victory in 1940 that seems too fantastic to believe; nor were the politics and policies of the imagined Lindbergh administration so outrageous as to seem beyond belief.

What struck me early on in my reading of TPAA was how much it reminded me of Victor Klemperer's diaries of the first years under Hitler in the first volume of I Will Bear Witness, and I suspect those of us who express disappointment in Roth's "happy ending" in TPAA (if it can be consider such) were more likely to accept that the darker forces of political cultures are not so easily countered once unleashed.

And who can blame us; we have the historical record of the 20th century to support our dismal outlook on the human capacity to treat others with distain.

But perhaps Roth's seemingly "all's well that end's well" resolution in TPAA is more than just a writer's coming to terms with the need for a satisfactory ending to his novel. In Hope and Memory : Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tzvetan Todorov offers the insight that modern "critical" humanism -- the kind of humanism emergent in Roth's young protagonist -- is defined by its comprehension of and reaction against the "horrific evil that people can do" to each other. From the awareness and experience of the many collective atrocities of the 20th century, he argues, comes a belief in the possibility of good. Todorov uses the lives and writings of six individuals he labels as "critical humanists" to make his general point, and I suspect Roth's effort in TPAA to highlight the human-ness of his main characters -- from his parents and brother to a martyred Walter Winchell -- would warrant a place in some future revision of Todorov's list.

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