Adam Wilson's Schooldays


In February 1960, on my 10th birthday, my father, an observant London Jew who was the company secretary of the United Synagogues of Great Britain, the United Kingdom’s central Orthodox authority and administration, gave me two books as presents. A small 1854 leather-bound edition of Keightly’s Mythology and a paperback copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of  King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.  The following year I received two faux-leather books bound in navy blue with their titles in gold lettering: Alexandre Dumas’s The Black Tulip and Thomas Hughes’s  Tom Brown’s Schooldays. This ecumenical gift-giving in the literary sphere was of a piece with the broad culture of my father’s Anglo-Jewish appreciations. He abided by all the, for him, liberating restrictions of Jewish life, but in his intellectual pursuits he embraced the open society.

When the time came for me to pass on books to my sons I followed, quite unconsciously, the liberal path that my father had trod. I distinguished myself from my father, however, in at least one significant area. My father  recoiled, to an extent, from what he considered to be vulgar art. He didn’t like “bad language” and while he could certainly appreciate, let’s say, a nude by Matisse, he was enough of a puritan to purchase a dark plastic cover in which to hide his copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover (he was not alone in choosing modesty for D.H.Lawrence; Penguin, knowing its audience, had offered the jacket to all shoppers who went out to purchase the book after its 1963 obscenity trial). My own view has always been that there is no “bad language,” only bad writing. To this end, and perhaps in a strange inversion of my father’s desire to have me embrace the world of the Greek, French, and British classics, when my oldest son, Adam, was a teenager, one of the first books that I urged upon him was Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.  I also gave him Leonard Cohen’s two strange and remarkable Montreal-based novels, Beautiful Losers and The Favorite Game, and I threw on his bed Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas along with Charles Bukowski’s Post Office. What was I thinking?

Clearly, I did not have any “educational” ends in mind, except in the broadest sense. Primarily, I wanted to share some books I had loved with someone I loved who seemed to be at an age and developmental stage of consciousness when certain works might appeal. After all, we lived in the heart of middle-class Jewish suburbia, and my son seemed pretty interested in the things that grabbed the attention of most middle-class Jewish boys in Newton, Massachusetts: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. I wasn’t trying to encourage him to take LSD trips in the desert á la Hunter S. Thompson, any more than I would be urging him to murder an old lady by suggesting that he read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What I was trying to do was excite his imagination, demonstrate that the world of books was wild, strange, and various.

I didn’t anticipate that we would actually talk about the books after Adam had read them. Book-reading is a private matter, and despite the dictates of book-club culture you don’t have to share your reading experience with someone else; although it is, of course, frequently pleasant to do so. But we did talk about the books: I can’t remember what we discussed but I do recall that our voyages around these novels made me very happy.

Portnoy's Complaint is, I affirm, as important a rite of passage for a young Jewish boy as his bar mitzvah. I have taught Roth’s great novel—as wonderful an American work as The Great Gatsby—in college for three decades. It has stood the passage of time. Over the years, of course, Sophie Portnoy and her constipated husband have come to embody the familiar character traits of my students’ grandparents rather than those of their parents. Nevertheless, a core identification with Jewish desire and Jewish guilt remains. Perhaps I offered Portnoy’s Complaint to Adam as an explanation: “This is how it was for me with my mother, have pity on your old Dad.” Or perhaps as an act of expiation: “I’m sorry to have laid all the guilt—but as you see, it’s endemic to our people.” Maybe my presentation of Fear and Loathing was intended as a corrective: “You don’t have to stay imprisoned in the Jewish suburbs. You can go off to Vegas with your Samoan attorney, and when 'White Rabbit' peaks you can demand to have the radio thrown in your bath.”

But all this is stuff for the analyst’s couch and, negligently, I didn’t get to it during the quarter of a century that I was on one. “La chair est triste, helas! et j’ai lu tous les livres,” (“The flesh is sad,alas! and I have read all the books”) Mallarme says. I have friends who once led literary lives and who now, for one reason or another, have more or less given up on reading. I don’t think I will ever do that. Reading, for me, is an antidote to sadness. That’s what I wanted to pass on via the novels. Mae West famously opined “If in doubt, take a bath.” My (Jewish?) version would be “read a book.” Let’s see what Adam has to say.