Books April 2012

Roth v. Roth v. Roth

The complexities and conundrums of reading Philip Roth’s work as autobiography
Chris Maluszynski/Moment/Redux

Nowadays, to attempt a critical investigation of the work of Philip Roth is to put oneself in the humiliating position of the flatfoot arriving at the scene of the crime only to discover that, yet again, he’s been beaten to it by the private eye, the eye who has not just cracked the case but got the girl and held the press conference. The eye is, of course, Roth himself. Any idea that might occur to us about the author has already occurred to him, only more intelligently. Roth, for these purposes, includes his brilliantly self-diagnosing and self-disputing writer-narrators Nathan Zuckerman, Peter Tarnopol, David Kepesh, and of course the invented character Philip Roth, Roth the author of fiction, Roth the (pseudo) memoirist, and Roth the interviewee, self-interviewer, and essayist. His first collection of critical writings is titled Reading Myself and Others: not only does he read himself like a book, he reads us like a book, too. Still, we must plod on. A crime has been committed and someone has to do the paperwork. Moreover, there is something fishy about the case: the perp, by his own confession, is none other than the private eye. Philip Roth did it.

Before we can go further into this conflation of art and criminality—before we can go anywhere—we must get some kind of a handle on the corpus. A new Roth publication these days includes, in the front matter, a “Books by Philip Roth” page on which his works are listed in subgroups (devised by the author, I assume) such as “Zuckerman Books” and “Roth Books” and “Nemeses: Short Novels.” The 31 (so far) titles course all the way down the page until they reach the distinctly deltaic shape made by “Other Books.” We’re looking at a kind of Nile of writing.

It is hard to contemplate a body of work of such magnitude and grandeur without a little melancholy. Few literary writers younger than, say, 60 have much chance of achieving a comparable yield, and one wonders how many would even want to. The Rothic dedication to productivity seems anachronistic, even uncalled-for, in a culture ever less hospitable to the demands made by a lengthy written text, the most basic being that the reader sit down for hours without some powerful electronic agitation of the senses. Roth himself has predicted—with excessive gloom, I hope—that before long the reading of novels will occupy a niche not much more significant than the one currently occupied by the reading of poems in Latin. But neither pessimism nor, phenomenally, age has held Roth back. Since 2000 he has come out with eight books, and that’s not counting the seven volumes of Library of America definitive editions, most recently The American Trilogy, comprising American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). As Philip Roth pushes 80, the writing flows out of him more voluminously and urgently than ever.

I suppose there are people who believe that even good novels spring from an instrumental urge on the part of the writer to explore his “themes.” If that were true, the work of Philip Roth would be largely reducible to his pressing and often recurrent interest in Jews in America (and Israel and Europe); the social history of Newark; sex; marriage; illness and aging; the prostate gland; pain; persecution and disgrace; the political landscape of post-war America; masturbation; death; writing; identity and masquerade; desire; life; Nixon; racial and sexual politics; childhood; the dealings of men and women; and baseball. (Roth himself has compared his repertoire to his father’s conversation: “Family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew.”) But of course, there is no reason why such preoccupations, of neutral worth in themselves, would result in writing rather than some other activity—chatter, say. Furthermore, themes come and go. If we dropped Philip Roth on a cartoon desert island, we could expect a book featuring a solitary palm tree and the predicament of a fictional Philip Roth marooned on a desert island.

This last scenario would suggest an autobiographical critique. Roth writes about himself: to know the life is to know the work. Certainly, by using narrators who are nominally Roth or may be easily taken to be his shadows, he may be understood to be inviting such an approach. Also, hasn’t he admitted to being an “autobiographical writer” whose only real beef, in this regard, is with misconceptions surrounding “the autobiographical writer that I am thought to be”? Hasn’t he written of “the facts” as his “way of springing into fiction”? Maybe so; but as someone who has trouble reading even autobiographies as fact and finds mostly arid the concept of a novel as a portal to its author, I receive Roth’s stories with a no doubt simplistic acceptance of the fictivity they obviously (albeit postmodernly) assert. In this sense, I take his fiction at face value, even as the very notion of the face as a site of value is put in question by the “masks, disguises, distortions, and lies” with which Roth imagines actuality.

Still, one must take into account certain basic facts. Roth himself has done so, in The Facts (1988).

Philip Roth comes, as used to be said, from nothing, his nothing being a densely Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, named Weequahic. The grandson of Galician immigrants, he grew up as the “good boy” and the “gorged beneficiary” of a gentle, domestically expert mother “who raised housekeeping in America to a great art” and of a loving, bossy father educated only through eighth grade but determined and able enough to ascend into middle management at Metropolitan Life. Family and community enabled Roth to enjoy the “intensely secure and protected childhood” that we recognize as Nathan Zuckerman’s in American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and that we encounter also in those fruitfully nostalgic short novels Everyman (2006) and Nemesis (2010). Even as an adult, Roth remained powerfully filial. Parental presences are strong in his prodigious debut, the story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959); in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969); in the underestimated tragicomedy My Life as a Man (1974); and in the irregular roman-fleuve of the Zuckerman stories. Over the course of these and other books, mother and father figures, troublesomely overbearing at first, appear in a progressively heroic and frankly loving light. The weight and fragility of sonhood is most directly evidenced in Roth’s nonfiction. He has written movingly, if relatively briefly, about his mother (“who still, in my mind, seems to have died inexplicably—at seventy-seven in 1981”) and extensively about his father, who died in 1989. In his marvelous paternal portrait, Patrimony: A True Story (1991), Roth realizes:

If not in my books or in my life, at least in my dreams I would live perennially as [my father’s] little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father, sitting in judgment on whatever I do.

Beyond family are the professional and the personal. Roth’s celebrated professional life needs little elaboration. He is the most prizewinning English-writing author alive, even though one or more Swedish blackballers continue to deny him the Nobel. No one can say that Roth has not always worked very hard. He seems to be in the grip of an artistic dedication that, if it is anything like Zuckerman’s, involves a fear of all connections and activities that threaten to separate even briefly the writer from his desk.

Presented by

Joseph O’Neill

Joseph O’Neill’s most recent novel is Netherland. He teaches at Bard College.

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