Wednesday, August 17, 2016

... to you Columbus, we say thank you, thank you and goodbye. We will miss you, in the fall, in the winter, in the spring, but some day we shall return. - Philip Roth

Goodbye, Columbus, both the title novella and the entire collection of stories, remains my favorite of Philip Roth's books. The constraints of the time reigned in his sometime (often times) over the top language.

I've never been to Columbus before ... well, almost, I've come to Dublin, Ohio (flying into the Columbus) for business at OCLC. This trip, coming for the International Federation of Library Associations World Library and Information Congress (IFLA WLIC 2016) -- that's a mouthful! -- inspired a re-reading of Goodbye, Columbus. 

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It is also doubly interesting since Neil, the narrator and protagonist, is none other than a librarian. He never, sadly comes to Columbus (or Dublin) to visit OCLC (which wasn't yet created in the 1950's). In fact, it's actually Brenda, his summer romance's brother that is the alum of Ohio State University.

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So, without delay, as I too say farewell ... Goodbye, Columbus ...

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

There were two wet triangles on the back of her tiny-collared white polo shirt, right where her wings would have been if she’d had a pair.

I felt her hand on the back of my neck and so I tugged her towards me, too violently perhaps, and slid my own hands across the side of her body and around to her back. I felt the wet spots on her shoulder blades, and beneath them, I’m sure of it, a faint fluttering, as though something stirred so deep in her breasts, so far back it could make itself felt through her shirt. It was like the fluttering of wings, tiny wings no bigger than her breasts. The smallness of the wings did not bother me—it would not take an eagle to carry me up those lousy hundred and eighty feet that make summer nights so much cooler in Short Hills than they are in Newark.

did not want to voice a word that would lift the cover and reveal that hideous emotion I always felt for her, and is the underside of love. It will not always stay the underside—but I am skipping ahead.

The stairs were an imitation of a staircase somewhere in Versailles, though in their toreador pants and sweaters these young daughters of Italian leatherworkers, Polish brewery hands, and Jewish furriers were hardly duchesses.

John McRubberbands was in his last year at Newark State Teachers College where he was studying at the Dewey Decimal System in preparation for his lifework. The library was not going to be my lifework, I knew it. Yet, there had been some talk—from Mr. Scapello, an old eunuch who had learned somehow to disguise his voice as a man’s—that when I returned from my summer vacation I would be put in charge of the Reference Room, a position that had been empty ever since that morning when Martha Winney had fallen off a high stool in the Encyclopedia Room and shattered all those frail bones that come together to form what in a woman half her age we would call the hips.

I had strange fellows at the library and, in truth, there were many hours when I never quite knew how I’d gotten there or why I stayed.

I flipped on the light at the foot of the stairs and was not surprised at the pine paneling, the bamboo furniture, the ping-pong table, and the mirrored bar that was stocked with every kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl—all the bacchanalian paraphernalia, plentiful, orderly, and untouched, as it can be only in the bar of a wealthy man who never entertains drinking people, who himself does not drink, who, in fact, gets a fishy look from his wife when every several months he takes a shot of schnapps before dinner.

...but then why should I worry about all that: the library wasn’t going to be my life.

“Sure. I got all the Andre Kostelanetz records ever made. You like Mantovani? I got all of him too. I like semi-classical a lot. You can hear my Columbus record if you want . . .” he dwindled off. Finally he shook my hand and left.

All I heard were bells moaning evenly and soft patriotic music behind them, and riding over it all, a deep kind of Edward R. Murrow gloomy voice: “And so goodbye, Columbus,” the voice intoned, “... goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye . . . ”

But it was more than that: the union of Harriet and Ron reminded me that separation need not be a permanent state.

People could marry each other, even if they were young! And yet Brenda and I had never mentioned marriage, except perhaps for that night at the pool when she’d said, “When you love me, everything will be all right.” Well, I loved her, and she me, and things didn’t seem all right at all. Or was I inventing troubles again?

They looked immortal sitting there. Their hair would always stay the color they desired, their clothes the right texture and shade; in their homes they would have simple Swedish modern when that was fashionable, and if huge, ugly baroque ever came back, out would go the long, midget-legged marble coffee table and in would come Louis Quatorze. These were the goddesses, and if I were Paris I could not have been able to choose among them, so microscopic were the differences. Their fates had collapsed them into one. Only Brenda shone. Money and comfort would not erase her singleness—they hadn’t yet or had they? What was I loving, I wondered, and since I am not one to stick scalpels into myself, I wiggled my hand in the fence and allowed a tiny-nosed buck to lick my thoughts away.

we were heading through the Lincoln Tunnel, which seemed longer and fumier than ever, like Hell with tiled walls.

Now the doctor is about to wed Brenda to me, and I am not entirely certain this is all for the best. What is it I love, Lord? Why have I chosen? Who is Brenda? The race is to the swift. Should I have stopped to think?

We slept together that night, and so nervous were we about our new toy that we performed like kindergartners, or (in the language of that country) like a lousy double-play combination.

“The year, 1956. The season, fall. The place, Ohio State University . . .” Blitzkrieg! Judgment Day! The Lord had lowered his baton, and the Ohio State Glee Club were lining out the Alma Mater as if their souls depended on it. After one desperate chorus, they fell, still screaming, into bottomless oblivion, and the Voice resumed: “The leaves had begun to turn and redden on the trees. Smoky fires line Fraternity Row, as pledges rake the leaves and turn them to a misty haze. Old faces greet new ones, new faces meet old, and another year has begun . . .”

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Music. Glee Club in great comeback. Then the Voice: “The place, the banks of the Olentangy. The event, Homecoming Game, 1956. The opponent, the ever dangerous Illini . . .” Roar of crowd. New voice—Bill Stern: “Illini over the ball. The snap. Linday fading to pass, he finds a receiver, he passes long long down field—and IT’S INTERCEPTED BY NUMBER 43, HERB CLARK OF OHIO STATE! Clark evades one tackler, he evades another as he comes up to midfield. Now he’s picking up blockers, he’s down to the 45, the 40, the 35—”

There was goose flesh on Ron’s veiny arms as the Voice continued. “We offer ourselves to you then, world, and come at you in search of Life. And to you, Ohio State, to you Columbus, we say thank you, thank you and goodbye. We will miss you, in the fall, in the winter, in the spring, but some day we shall return. Till then, goodbye, Ohio State, goodbye, red and white, goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye . . .”

Not me. I sell a quality bulb. It lasts a month, five weeks, before it even flickers, then it gives you another couple days, dim maybe, but so you shouldn’t go blind. It hangs on, it’s a quality bulb. Before it even burns out you notice it’s getting darker, so you put a new one in. What people don’t like is when one minute it’s sunlight and the next dark. Let it glimmer a few days and they don’t feel so bad.

Maybe two other times in my life. To tell the truth I don’t even enjoy it. All the time I’m riding I’m watching the meter. Even the pleasures I can’t enjoy!”

Aachhh! Everything good in my life I can count on my fingers! God forbid some one should leave me a million dollars, I wouldn’t even have to take off my shoes. I got a whole other hand yet.”

How would I ever come to know her, I wondered, for as she slept I felt I knew no more of her than what I could see in a photograph. I stirred her gently and in a half-sleep she walked beside me out to the car.

What had probably happened was that he’d given up on the library and gone back to playing Willie Mays in the streets. He was better off, I thought. No sense carrying dreams of Tahiti in your head, if you can’t afford the fare.

Let’s see, what else did I do? I ate, I slept, I went to the movies, I sent broken-spined books to the bindery—I did everything I’d ever done before, but now each activity was surrounded by a fence, existed alone, and my life consisted of jumping from one fence to the next. There was no flow, for that had been Brenda.

You kept acting as if I was going to run away from you every minute. And now you’re doing it again, telling me I planted that thing on purpose.”

Suddenly, I wanted to set down my suitcase and pick up a rock and heave it right through the glass, but of course I didn’t. I simply looked at myself in the mirror the light made of the window. I was only that substance, I thought, those limbs, that face that I saw in front of me. I looked, but the outside of me gave up little information about the inside of me.

What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing—who knows—into winning?

I looked hard at the image of me, at that darkening of the glass, and then my gaze pushed through it, over the cool floor, to a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved. I did not look very much longer, but took a train that got me into Newark just as the sun was rising on the first day of the Jewish New Year. I was back in plenty of time for work.

Goodbye, Columbus is a 1959 collection of fiction by the American novelist Philip Roth, comprising the title novella "Goodbye, Columbus"—which first appeared in The Paris Review—and five short stories. It was his first book and was published by Houghton Mifflin.
In addition to the title novella, set in New JerseyGoodbye, Columbus contains the five short stories "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," "Epstein," "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings," and "Eli, the Fanatic." Each story deals with the concerns of second and third-generation assimilated American Jews as they leave the ethnic ghettos of their parents and grandparents and go on to college, to white-collar professions, and to life in the suburbs. - Wikipedia

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