Misreading Roth

Is The Controversy that Follows Philip Roth Justified?


Philip Roth

Why does controversy seem to follow Philip Roth around? His first book, Goodbye, Columbus, touched off a riot of a reaction in the Jewish- American community when it was published in 1959. Roth, his detractors said, went out of his way to depict his fictional suburban Jews in an unpleasant light, a portrayal that would only give succour to antisemites. Ten years later, in 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint somehow scandalised an America that had witnessed a shocking number of political assassinations, watched nightly the televised carnage of Vietnam, and feared the revolutionaries that seemed to be taking over its cities. (To be fair, most Americans had never before read a depiction of an adolescent masturbating with a piece of liver.) None of the scandals that followed ever reached the heights of these first two, but Roth has, despite writing within a culture that seems to have less and less time for the printed word, shown a consistent talent for making headlines.

So it is not surprising that an apparently uncontroversial event — Roth, America’s grand old man of letters by now, receiving the Man Booker International Prize, a sort of lifetime achievement award for writers — was accompanied by yet more rancour and fuss. Carmen Callil, one of the prize’s three judges, supplemented the announcement of the award with her own announcement: she vehemently disagreed with the other judges’ choice of Roth, and was stepping down. Her stated reasons for contesting Roth’s win? “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” and, in a turn of phrase for which Roth scholars will be forever grateful, “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” She would later clarify her position by rather sensibly arguing that North American writers such as Roth receive more than their share of such awards, and that in giving the Booker to Roth the judges missed an opportunity to highlight some of the significant writers of other literary cultures. But it is her criticism of Roth as monotonous, always writing about the same thing, that was printed in bold type. The charge strikes me as both lazy and unsupported, and yet it is one Roth has heard from critics for decades.

In 1972, back when Roth was still living in Alexander Portnoy’s shadow, the distinguished cultural critic Irving Howe took it upon himself to take the author down a notch or two. In the pages of Commentary magazine (where Roth had made a splash in 1961 with his essay Writing American Fiction), Howe tore Roth’s books apart, asserting that they were held, “in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence.” The contention throughout the piece, anticipating Callil by nearly 40 years, is that Roth goes on and on about the same subject: himself. This criticism would haunt Roth, intensifying whenever he wrote a book featuring his Roth- like alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. Claiming that Roth wrote only about himself became an easy way to bash him, and to ignore the ways in which his books diverged from his biography. Carmen Callil, in dissenting from her fellow judges, has joined herself to this hallowed tradition.

What’s maddening about criticism such as Howe’s and Callil’s, to my mind at least, is that it lowers the discussion about literature to a nearly childish level. To respond to the charge that Roth, “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book” is to descend into absurdities: Look, I want to say, Roth writes about plenty of subjects — sixties radicalism! Jewish settlers on the West Bank! Baseball! Racial passing! But what kind of a perspective on literature is this? Do we read and re-read Lolita to find out more about paedophilia? Has The Great Gatsby endured merely because readers are fascinated by the roaring twenties? Surely readers find something more vital beyond a book’s subject matter — a pinhole that lets light into the dark tunnel of our own subjectivity, an urgent reminder of the variety and fullness of experience, the mysterious way a book — pages filled with typed words — comes alive in our hands. I am befuddled by those who see nothing but an author’s biography in a work of fiction, or who read a representation of subjectivity as self-obsession and solipsism. This seems to me a very simple-minded form of misreading. Isn’t this fundamental stuff — some of the very first lessons we learn when we begin reading fiction? What’s clear is that it is a criticism that has rankled Roth over the years, provoking him to respond vociferously in interview after interview, and respond, often provocatively, in his fiction.

In Roth’s 1981 novel The Anatomy Lesson, Nathan Zuckerman is beset by the twinned calamities of chronic pain and writer’s block. These afflictions are compounded by a vicious critical takedown in the pages of Inquiry magazine by critic Milton Appel, “an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical.” Appel is modelled, of course, on Irving Howe and Roth has great fun with Zuckerman here, milking the righteous anger of a writer wronged for pages and pages of unhinged vitriol. Zuckerman, hopped up on painkillers, pot, and alcohol, calls Appel in a rage and semi-coherently gives the elder writer a piece of his mind. But more than that bit of inspiration, Howe’s piece plays a bigger role in The Anatomy Lesson, as the novel has Roth seemingly taking Howe’s central criticism seriously: what if it were true that Roth can only write about himself? What if Howe’s diagnosis is right, and Roth only has a talent for plastering himself all over his pages? He plays out these questions through Zuckerman, who has grown sick of mining his self for literature, and feels that he has exhausted that self. Zuckerman muses, “If you get out of yourself you can’t be a writer because the personal ingredient is what gets you going, and if you hang on to the personal ingredient any longer you’ll disappear right up your asshole.” The novel takes flight when Zuckerman decides to quit the writing life to go to medical school, all the while impersonating Milton Appel, and introducing himself as a pornographer, the publisher of a magazine called Lickety Split. More than just two fingers up to Irving Howe, the book seems to show how different Zuckerman is from his author: while Zuckerman attempts to escape the writing life because he has exhausted his self, Roth clearly has no such problem, steadily producing another installment in the Zuckerman saga, his third in four years, finding no shortage of material to keep him going.

A more adventurous critic than I could make the case that not just The Anatomy Lesson, but nearly all of Roth’s 1980s publications were in some way written in perverse response to the oft-repeated criticism that he only writes about himself, that he insufficiently fictionalises experience. There are the first five Zuckerman books, each taking noticeably from Roth’s biography to enact the comedy of late-twentieth century America. There is The Facts, a seemingly straightforward autobiography bookended by letters to and from Zuckerman, throwing a wrench into the non-fictional works (the latter is a passionate missive from Zuckerman to his creator, urging him not to publish the preceding memoir). There is Deception, a novel as transcription of conversations, featuring a writer named Philip who sounds for all the world like Philip Roth. The plot, such as it is, centres on whether or not Philip will publish his notebooks (which we have been reading) as is, or change all the names (including changing “Philip” to “Nathan”). At one point, Philip barks, “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” Roth’s first novel of the 1990s, Operation Shylock, took things a step further. Subtitled ‘A Confession’, the book is told in the first person by Philip Roth, who tells us the ostensibly true (though obviously false) story of how he went to Israel to put a stop to the hijinks of a man who calls himself Philip Roth, and is agitating for a meshugge cause called ‘Diasporism which advocates the wholesale migration of Israeli Jews back to Poland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. Each of these books seemed provoked in some way by a bee in Roth’s bonnet that looked and sounded an awful lot like Irving Howe. The books seem to dramatise the process of taking experience and converting it into writing, taking great pains (and many pages) to show just how grey the area between fact and fiction really is. I happen to think that there’s a lot more going on in these books than Roth making the same point over and over again, but if ever there was a time to criticise Roth for only writing about himself, it was in 1993, after Operation Shylock capped 14 years of books that each seemed to put Philip Roth front and centre.

But something drastic changed after Operation Shylock, something that makes Carmen Callil’s recent comments all the more mystifying: Roth forgot about Irving Howe and began a stretch of books that had, at least on the surface, little to do with his old oppositions of fact and fiction, life and writing, Philip and Nathan. In 1995, he published Sabbath’s Theater, a frankly stunning steamroller of a novel, centering on the despicable Mickey Sabbath, an obscene, arthritic, and now disgraced puppeteer who wants, more than anything, to die. It is hilarious and sad and provocative and, although it does feature a white male of Roth’s vintage and plenty of talk about sex (two Rothian hallmarks), the book pretty clearly sets its sights far beyond the writing life. This was followed by the already-canonised “American Trilogy”: American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). Nathan Zuckerman returns for these novels, but it is a changed Zuckerman, one content to stay on the sidelines and narrate other lives, each tied to a different significant period in American history. It is these books that, for right or wrong, got many critics to sit up and take note of Roth’s greatness, often for the very reason that the books seemed to move past Roth’s old preoccupations. “What happened?” Ken Gordon asked in Slate, “The new books seem to recognize the existence of other people.” The books that have followed since the turn of the century have similarly branched outward from Roth’s comfort zone and, although their relative merits have been debated, seem to have tossed aside that old chestnut that Roth only writes about himself. To my mind, that criticism was never very convincing — doesn’t it misunderstand the very nature of literature? — but it’s all the more puzzling to hear in 2011, from a distinguished literary editor no less.

But enough already on the subject of Roth’s many subjects; I’d like to talk about a more subtle misreading that has crept into recent Roth criticism. Beginning with the publication of The Human Stain in 2000, the list of Roth’s prior publications in his books’ front matter, instead of being displayed in a single chronological block, now appears broken up, with the books divided into various categories: “Zuckerman Books”, “Kepesh Books”(the three books featuring David Kepesh as a narrator), “Roth Books” (including The Facts and Operation Shylock), even a grab-bag category called “Other Books”. One effect of this division is to highlight the diversity of Roth’s back catalogue: another shot across the bows to those critics who claim Roth has but one subject. But a more subtle effect can be seen in the way the categories seem to be telling us how to read Roth, how to conceive of his long and varied career. Just as we should be wary of readings that can’t see beyond the author’s biography, there are plenty of reasons to distrust reading Roth the way Roth tells us to. Roth long ago proved himself to be a most unreliable guide to his own work — in interviews he maintained for instance, that Operation Shylock was 100% true — and to take the author’s word for it when interpreting a book is merely the other side of the coin from assuming that he’s always writing about himself.

This phenomenon has particularly cropped up in the response to the publication of Roth’s most recent novel, last year’s Nemesis, which brought with it a new category in the book’s front matter. “Nemeses: Short Novels” includes four of the last five books Roth has published: Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and, now, Nemesis. Each of these books, so the reviews have told us, is a short, spare meditation on fate and death. They are the products of an aging author who has seen many of his friends, and his only sibling, die within the last few years. They are the works of a man bravely staring down his own mortality, and responding with an appropriate “late style”. This is, of course, a valid reading. But why should it be the only one? Discussion of Roth’s fiction should not be left to the likes of Howe and Callil, who cannot see past their prejudices as to how much distance an author must keep between himself and his books. But the discussion should not be determined by Roth either. Roth may offer an interesting reading of his own work, and can certainly grant us insight into the creative process, but it must be up to us, the dwindling mass of serious readers, to deliberate over a work’s meanings.

Nemesis tells the story of Bucky Cantor, who, in 1944, is the 23 year old gym teacher and playground director who must preside over the children of Weequahic (Newark’s Jewish neighbourhood) during a terrifying polio outbreak. After afflicting most of the city, the disease reaches Weequahic, and two of Bucky’s eighth grade charges become infected and die. Bucky’s fiancée arranges for him to take a job as a counsellor at a children’s summer camp out in the country. He initially declines the invitation, insisting that he cannot abandon his post. But then, in a change of heart nearly inexplicable to himself, he accepts and flees “equatorial Newark” for the safety of rural Pennsylvania, where the camp is a world away from the overheated, overpopulated precincts of Newark. But within a week of Bucky’s arrival, one of his campers falls prey to polio and is sped off to the hospital. Bucky himself tests positive for the disease. It spreads quickly and the camp is shut within days. In a wickedly tragic irony, Bucky, who flees Newark to escape polio, ends up bringing it with him to the camp; not only is he powerless to protect the children of Newark, he helps the disease infect still more children. After a long and painful recovery that leaves him debilitated, Bucky becomes a recluse, rejecting his fiancée (he doesn’t want her to be tied down to “a cripple”), forever cursing God for creating polio. Although polio does not kill him, his once-promising life is essentially over. He never forgives himself for his role in spreading polio, or for his fateful abandonment of the kids of the Weequahic playground.

My brief summation does not begin to do the novel justice. But it’s enough to convey the fact that, yes, Nemesis shares certain features with Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling. All four feature protagonists reckoning with the fateful circumstances that shape a life. All four are written in a spare, direct prose style with little of the humour that has characterised much of Roth’s previous work. And, if you see Bucky as having effectively died as soon as he discovers he is the polio carrier, all four protagonists end up dead. But when I first read Nemesis, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Roth’s earlier books — The Plot Against America and Goodbye, Columbus, in particular — and of an interview with Roth from 1984, in which he explained why he hadn’t dealt with the Holocaust directly in his fiction like, say, William Styron had:

“It works through Jewish lives less visibly and in less spectacular ways. And that’s the way I prefer to deal with it in fiction. For most reflective American Jews, I would think, it is simply there, hidden, submerged, emerging, disappearing, unforgotten. You don’t make use of it—it makes use of you.”

Although Nemesis is set among American Jews in 1944, the Holocaust is conspicuously absent. There is much talk of the war but no reference to the fate of European Jews. Might this be because, as in The Plot Against America, the book imagines an alternate history for American Jews, one in which they lose the security they were blessed with in reality?

“Our Jewish children are our riches,” a mother of one of Bucky’s students cries out. “Why is it attacking our beautiful Jewish children?” Although polio, of course, does not discriminate, throughout the book the danger is figured as specifically coming after the Jews of Weequahic. In a striking early scene, a group of hooligans from Newark’s Italian neighborhood drive up to Bucky’s playground and threaten to spread polio to “you people”. As the disease spreads, many parents decide to keep their children confined at home until the danger passes. And when the outbreak reaches epidemic proportions within Weequahic, there’s talk of barricading the neighbourhood, creating a ghetto to quarantine the Jews. For some in Newark this doesn’t go far enough: “Some of them sound as if they think the best way to get rid of the polio epidemic would be to burn down Weequahic with all the Jews in it.” I don’t want to push these parallels too far (or make too much of the fact that the false haven is presented here as a camp); it is certainly not necessary to read Nemesis as an allegory. I am merely suggesting that a fictional polio outbreak allows Roth to put his American Jews in the hands of the sort of historical threat they never had to face.

It is a testament to Roth’s success here that Nemesis is about much else as well. Bucky’s indecision over whether to stay in Newark, or flee to the safety of pastoral Pennsylvania recalls Neil Klugman’s dilemmas over assimilation in Goodbye, Columbus. The book’s depictions of 1940s Newark are as vivid as any in Roth’s canon, and it manages the difficult trick of presenting the past in a way that doesn’t read like costume drama. And I enjoyed the book’s knotty narrative structure, in which the narrator, Arnie Mesnikoff, one of Bucky’s playground boys, only reveals himself halfway through the novel. Before then, the events are narrated in the first-person plural, the ‘we’ an unusually effective way to convey the sense of camaraderie and affection the boys have for their hero, Bucky Cantor. What a book like this, so richly rendered, seems to me to produce is not a single, distilled meaning, like Carmen Callil might suggest (Roth once again resurrecting Jewish Newark), but rather a multiplicity of meanings, with a suggestive power that reaches out in many directions at once; it is, at once, ‘about’ polio, or the Holocaust, or assimilation, or the tragedy of having a body that ages, or the glories of growing up in Newark in the 1940s. You might say that its meanings go on and on and on, though I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way

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