Philip Roth: The Great Escapist

David Gooblar celebrates Philip Roth at seventy-five


Philip Roth
Philip Roth

For a writer who has claimed that ‘the art of impersonation’ is ‘the fundamental novelistic gift’, impersonating his own interviewer came naturally enough to Philip Roth. In 1973, at the age of forty, having published seven books, he took a moment to sit back, reflect and interview himself on the shape of his career to date. Asking himself about his alternation between the ‘serious’ and the ‘reckless’, Roth gave a long response that eventually cites Philip Rahv’s 1939 essay ‘Paleface and Redskin’, which posited two polarised types of American writer. Paleface writers, like T.S. Eliot and Henry James, were refined, educated, East Coast figures, exhibiting an old-world interest in moral concerns. Redskins, like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, were the writers of the frontier and the big city: emotional, vernacular and energetic, whose work reflected the new world’s vitality and the explorer’s spirit of curiosity. After introducing Rahv’s dichotomy, Roth claims membership in a new, hybrid category of American writer — the ‘redface’, who remains ‘fundamentally ill at ease in, and at odds with, both worlds’. It is telling that Roth does not go on to claim that he writes like some combination of paleface and redskin — there is no assertion here of the ways in which he has been influenced by, say, both James and Twain — but rather it is the alternation between opposing modes, the awkward uncertainty as to which path to choose, that is emphasised:

To my mind, being a redface accounts as much as anything for the self-conscious and deliberate zigzag that my own career has taken, each book veering sharply away from the one before, as though the author was mortified at having written it as he did and preferred to put as much light as possible between that kind of book and himself.

This year, as we mark Roth’s seventy-fifth birthday, and inevitably reflect upon his by now mountainous body of work, this ‘self-conscious and deliberate zigzag’ seems as apt as ever a characterisation of the man’s oeuvre: Roth the sharp-eyed chronicler of the affluent Jewish – American suburbs; the best-selling celebrity author of sexual transgression; the keeper of the flame of Jewish humour; the self-hating Jewish writer, eager to drag his people through the mud to sell a few more copies of his books; the politically incisive satirist in the tradition of Swift and Orwell; the self-obsessed teller of psychoanalytic tales of the self; the champion of the work and traditions of Eastern European writers behind the Iron Curtain; the playful postmodernist, blurring the lines between fiction and fact; the nostalgic bard of Newark, New Jersey; and the unabashed Great American Novelist, writing works that condense and comment upon whole decades of American experience. How are we to make sense of such a career?

Roth’s work has a way of making literary critics — or at least those critics prone to sweeping, summarising statements — look silly; just when you think you’ve got him pegged, he goes off in the opposite direction, with apparent glee at proving you wrong. Asked by Hermione Lee whether he writes with a Roth reader in mind, he admitted, “No. I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, ‘How he is going to hate this!’ ”That can be just the encouragement I need.’ I have begun to think of Roth as possessing the characteristics of The Escapist in Michael Chabon’s novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay — using his superpowers to break out of handcuffs, straitjackets, chained trunks and the assorted confinements imposed upon him by critics, ordinary readers, and sometimes by himself. As if by magic, Roth has been able to wriggle out of the many traps set for him over the years: the trap called ‘the Jewish-American writer’, the trap called ‘the counter-culture provocateur’, the trap called ‘self-hating Jew’. This last trap was first set during Roth’s origin story. Every superhero needs an origin story, a set of extraordinary events that grant him his unique powers. Roth’s origin story, the story of the birth of ‘Philip Roth’ the public writer, is also the story of the birth of the ‘anti-Roth reader,’ the superhero’s nemesis, always right behind him, an enemy never fully vanquished.

Roth was twenty-six when his first book was published in 1959. Goodbye, Columbus, a collection including the title novella and five short stories, was an auspicious debut, a picture of American Jewish communities in flux, having awoken to find themselves not poor, urban and precarious but wealthy, suburban and secure. Neil Klugman, Eli Peck and Nathan Marx, three of the book’s protagonists, all find themselves caught between old ways and new ways — and respond to this predicament with a moral seriousness and sense of responsibility that is the mark of Roth’s youth. Despite the reputation he would earn himself with Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth was a very serious, bookish young man, a graduate student of the 1950s, proudly disdaining the simplifications of mass culture for the complexity and difficulty of art (in particular, of Henry James and the great modernist writers). But it was not Roth’s depiction of moral complexity that many of his Jewish readers noticed in Goodbye, Columbus; it was his portrayal of Jews — some of them (imagine!) less than perfect human beings — that stirred up a controversy that would instantly define the young writer’s career.

It began with the publication of ‘Defender of the Faith’ in The New Yorker in March of 1959, and continued when the story was reprinted as part of Goodbye, Columbus three months later. Defender of the Faith, narrated by US army sergeant Nathan Marx, takes place on a base in Missouri during World War II. One of the base’s new recruits, Sheldon Grossbart, proceeds to extract a series of favours and privileges from Marx, based upon their shared Jewish heritage. ‘All I ask is a simple favor,’ his refrain goes, ‘a Jewish boy I thought would understand.’ Although Marx is deeply uncomfortable and confused about giving Grossbart special treatment, Grossbart takes advantage of Marx’s compassionate nature for his own ends. The story deals with Marx’s troubled conscience, as he must eventually decide between his allegiance to a fellow Jew and his allegiance to his own sense of justice. It was the character of Sheldon Grossbart, a manipulative, conniving, greedy — and human — Jew, that enraged readers; fictional characters like Sheldon Grossbart would only provide fuel to the fire of anti-Semites, eager to characterise all Jews as Sheldon Grossbarts.

Almost immediately after the story was published, letters poured in, both to The New Yorker’s editorial office and to Roth himself. One reader wrote, in a personal letter to Roth, ‘With your one story, ‘Defender of the Faith’, you have done as much harm as all the organised anti-Semitic organisations have done to make people believe that all Jews are cheats, liars, connivers.’ Another letter, to the New Yorker, imparted the message that ‘we cannot escape the conclusion that [this story] will do irreparable damage to the Jewish people. […] Clichés like ‘this being art’ will not be acceptable.’ The controversy soon spread to American synagogues, where Roth and his work became the subject of intense debate. Rabbis made Roth the topic of their sermons, pointing out the dangers that lurked within Goodbye, Columbus. One rabbi wrote in his synagogue newsletter that ‘the only logical conclusion any intelligent reader could draw from [Roth’s] stories or books, is that this country — nay that the world — would be a much better and happier place without the “Jews”.Another rabbi wrote to the Anti-Defamation League, asking, ‘What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.’ At the age of twenty-six, with a single book published, Roth had acquired greater notoriety within the Jewish community than anyone could have predicted.

Although Roth would later claim that ‘the last thing I expected, having chosen this vocation — the vocation — was to be charged with heartlessness, vengeance, malice, and treachery’, his response to his critics did not reveal a young writer overwhelmed by a disproportionate and shocking attack. Instead it seemed to bring out Roth’s inner pugilist, the hidden part of him that — no matter how serious he tried to be — was looking for a fight. Many of his angry correspondents may have been surprised to find Roth’s even-tempered, thorough refutations of their letters waiting in their mailboxes. He went to many synagogues and Jewish community centres to speak, taking questions from the often-angry audience members. And in 1963, he published ‘Writing About Jews’ in Commentary, an essay that explored in great detail the attacks upon him and his work. What stands out, even today, from ‘Writing About Jews’ is the energy, the avidity, with which Roth takes on his critics. It is an astonishing piece of critical writing, an impassioned defence of his own work, and a point-by-point demolition of his critics’ accusations, pulled off with apparent relish. Although his mode is neither aggressive nor arrogant, it is not conciliatory either; re-reading the piece, I cannot find one point that he concedes to his critics. Nonetheless, the wrongheaded response to the stories of Goodbye, Columbus did force Roth to do what few writers ever do: explicitly outline a conscious, well-reasoned justification for what is usually spoken about, vaguely and mysteriously, as a writer’s ‘sensibility’, ‘approach’ or ‘sense of life’. In having to defend himself, Roth had to think long and hard about the purposes and aims of the literary arts, for he had been charged with perverting them. Perhaps this was the unexpected benefit of the ordeal, the fostering of a valuable literary self-consciousness that would guide Roth through a long career of fiction-making. But there was also the value of antagonism itself: the thrill of having to argue his case, the dramatic possibilities of verbal attack and defence. To my mind, this is the true legacy of Roth’s origin story.

Of course, the ‘self-conscious and deliberate zigzag’ of Roth’s career has itself been a sort of argument, one held with himself, each new book in some way ‘refuting’ what came before it. This began at the beginning as well. In 1962, Roth took the stage at New York’s Yeshiva University, alongside Ralph Ellison and the Italian – American writer Pietro di Donato, for a symposium on ‘The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction’. Despite the lofty title and his esteemed colleagues to share the attention, the evening soon devolved into a full-blown tribunal for the case of Philip Roth’s Crimes Against Jewry. At the end of the event, Roth was quickly surrounded by some of the more vocal audience members, who crowded him and shouted insults into his face. Describing the evening in his 1988 autobiography, The Facts, Roth remembers it as ‘the most bruising public exchange of my life’,bringing with it ‘as harsh a judgment as I ever hope to hear in this or any other world’. Afterwards, over pastrami sandwiches at the Stage Deli, Roth told his friends that he would never write about Jews again. He had already followed up Goodbye, Columbus with Letting Go, a long, dreary novel that uprooted his Jewish characters and placed them in the seemingly humourless environs of the American midwest. Now though, he would go one better: his next novel, When She Was Good, also set in the midwest, is a book without Jews. It is also a book largely without comedy, and thus a very strange work in the Roth canon. As a seeming reaction to the controversy over Goodbye, Columbus this was a clear example of a writer painstakingly attempting to write outside of what he knows. When She Was Good is interesting precisely because it shows Roth fighting against the unspoken assumption that was implied by his Jewish critics: aren’t accusations of ‘you, of all people, shouldn’t write that way about us’ another way of saying, ‘you are ours’? Whatever else When She Was Good is, it is an argument against those that would label him a Jewish writer — with whatever restrictions that label implies. Roth has said that his protagonist ‘has to be in a state of vivid transformation or radical displacement. “I am not what I am — I am, if anything, what I am not!”. It is this paradoxical, self-denying statement that seems to underlie many of Roth’s artistic choices: he writes his way into a corner, then somehow writes his way out of it.

Of course, Roth’s time as a writer of finely wrought, morally complex tragedies without Jews would not last long. Within months of the publication of the humourless, uptight When She Was Good, came a new story from Philip Roth, distinguished author and winner of the National Book Award, in the pages of Partisan Review, the hallowed magazine of the New York Intellectuals. Entitled Whacking Off, it begins, in medias res, with the following sentence:

Then came the years when half my waking life was spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet, or into the soiled clothes of the laundry hamper, or with a thick splat, up against the medicine chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers to see how it looked coming out.

One of four excerpts from Portnoy’s Complaint published in various magazines over the next year and a half, ‘Whacking Off’ is a segment of the psychoanalytic monologue of Alexander Portnoy, Jewish son of Newark, New Jersey, sex-obsessed chronic masturbator, guilt-filled bearer of his parents’ love and expectations, and the Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York. Filled with Portnoy’s graphic, first-person descriptions of his sexual exploits (both with women and on his own), in prose equally informed by pop culture and Freud, and very, very funny, Roth’s fourth book was his big break — both in literary terms, as a break with the seriousness that had characterised his earlier writings, and in cultural terms, as the book that would make Roth a celebrity. As a raucous, vulgar, sexually candid book about Jews, Portnoy’s Complaint was also another shot across the bows to Roth’s earliest critics. Whereas When She Was Good seemed motivated by a desire to show that he could write about other people besides the Jews he knew, Portnoy seemed fuelled by an equally provocative desire to show that he could — and would — write about Jews in any manner he wished. Of course, I sell Roth’s considerable artistry short by discussing these books as purely resentful responses to misguided readers — Portnoy’s Complaint is a masterpiece of a literary monologue, surprisingly durable for a book so seemingly tied to its era — I merely want to suggest that the vividness and energy so apparent in Roth’s writing may have its roots in a writer’s stubborn need to settle a score.

‘Half of being a writer is being indignant. And being right. If you only knew how right we are.

Show me a writer who isn’t furious about being misrepresented, misread, or unread, and who isn’t sure he’s right. You can’t.’ Roth is speaking here of his 1984 novel The Anatomy Lesson, in particular the presence of esteemed literary critic and Jewish intellectual Milton Appel, a character clearly modelled on Irving Howe, who famously demolished nearly all of Roth’s writings with great relish in a 1972 piece in Commentary magazine. Zuckerman, Roth’s Roth-like novelist protagonist, slighted by Appel in much the same way, writes draft after draft of impassioned, insane rebuttals. Doped up on painkillers, he angrily phones Appel, and takes him to task for his sanctimony, fulfilling every novelist’s fantasy of telling his harshest critic where to get off. Later, Zuckerman masquerades as a pornographer (he publishes the magazine Lickety Split), named, you guessed it, Milton Appel. Contemporary critics, reading The Anatomy Lesson upon its publication, eagerly seized upon these scenes as clear evidence of payback: this was Howe’s comeuppance for having bashed Roth in print. But it’s worth noting that, in Roth’s novel, it is Zuckerman — the Roth-figure — who comes off far worse than Howe’s stand-in. Milton Appel, aside from the crime of writing a negative review of Zuckerman’s fiction, is portrayed as a sensible, mature figure, whereas Zuckerman makes a fool of himself in his rage and unhinged lunacy. ‘Of course you give the other guy the best lines,’ Roth explained, ‘Otherwise it’s a mug’s game.’ The lesson to be learned here is not that Roth uses his fiction to settle scores, to win arguments or even to prove a point or two: it’s that Roth has recognized the dramatic appeal of argument itself.

The pleasure of re-reading ‘Writing About Jews’ should remind us that, if he had wanted, Roth could have used his considerable talents to be an excellent career critic instead of a novelist. His astute command of rhetoric, his naturally ironic mind and the easy mix of learned professor and streetwise cynic all lend themselves to critical writing of a rare quality. Instead of writing to win arguments (and isn’t that a critic’s job, most of the time?) he has chosen to stage these arguments in his fiction, pulling the strings as he sees fit to create the maximum dramatic effect. People are always arguing in Roth’s novels, regardless of whether they have someone to argue with. Think of the dinner Henry sits down to in the West Bank in The Counterlife, one person shouting over another, each frighteningly compelling on the subject of Israel’s future. Or Philip and his wife in Deception, at loggerheads over what he will or will not include in his seemingly non-fictional novel. Or Seymour Levov’s brother Jerry, in American Pastoral, who, when Seymour opens his heart about his daughter’s disappearance, takes the opportunity to lecture his brother on everything he’s done wrong. When Zuckerman, in narrating Coleman Silk’s story in The Human Stain, talks about ‘the antagonism that is the world’, he is thinking about the many ways that the world conspires to frustrate individual self-definition — in particular the antagonism that puts an end to Silk’s attempt to author his own story free of the historical realities of race and ancestry. But in much of Roth’s fiction, ‘the antagonism that is the world’ need not be seen as the tragic sense of life; it is an exciting, provocative and life-affirming antagonism, embodied in the countless human voices straining to be heard between the covers of Roth’s books. There are many joys to be found in Roth’s writing, but few are as consistently dependable as the simple joy of a heated argument between characters armed with some of the most gloriously vivid prose in all of literature.

Responding for the millionth time to an interviewer’s question about his role as a Jewish author, Roth once remarked that, if his books are to be considered Jewish in some way, it’s not due to their subject matter. What makes his books Jewish is ‘the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the play-acting — above all the talking. The talking and the shouting. It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish — it’s that the book won’t shut up’.

So perhaps Roth’s earliest Jewish critics did succeed, if indeed their goal was to make him more of a Jewish writer. Those angry and self-righteous readers, so intent on teaching Roth a lesson on how to write (and how not to write) about Jews, may have been valuable teachers after all. For, if nothing else, they taught Roth the value of antagonism, the fact that crazily impassioned argument, even if it’s at the service of foolish prejudice, is nothing if not compelling. With that lesson taken firmly to heart, Roth was granted the ability to transform from an ordinary, mild-mannered, nice Jewish boy into, if not a superhero, something far more interesting.

David Gooblar recently completed a PhD on the work of Philip Roth at University College, London. He lives in London.

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