Roth v. Roth v. Roth

The complexities and conundrums of reading Philip Roth’s work as autobiography


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.

As for the personal, Roth, though evidently blessed with decent health, has not enjoyed immunity from life’s distressing hazards, which in his case include a “crack-up” in his mid-50s and two marriages that came to grief. The second of these was to the English actress Claire Bloom. Bloom wrote a memoir, presumably not postmodern, touching on their marriage, but Roth has not gone there. His first marriage, on the other hand, became a source of anguished written reflection, notably in The Facts and also in My Life as a Man, a novel that in key passages “precisely duplicates the autobiographical.”

At 23, Roth became romantically involved with Margaret Martinson Williams, a divorcée and noncustodial parent of two children. She worked at the University of Chicago in a secretarial job, he (after short-lived graduate studies) as a composition instructor. Williams, four years his senior, was “blond without” but also, as a consequence perhaps of a miserable Michigan upbringing and an early marriage gone very wrong, “raving within.” Grounded in an estimation of her as “a woman of courage and strength for having survived that awful background,” and animated—according to the self-analysis offered in The Facts—by a kind of rescue complex and by the desire “to work at life under more difficult conditions,” young Roth pursued the relationship. After more than two years of wildly driving through marital red lights—crazy quarrels, reproductive fraud (Williams faked a pregnancy and an abortion), separations, and other irresistible evidence of incompatibility—Roth, acting under the influence of “a disastrously confused, unaccountable sense of personal obligation,” wed Williams in 1959. The union was as bad as he could have subconsciously hoped for. Williams withheld her consent to a divorce; nevertheless, Roth was forced to make onerous alimony payments that ended only when she was killed in an automobile accident in Central Park in 1968.

Aside from Roth v. Roth, the great contentious drama of this period was Certain Hyperanxious Jews v. Roth: the brouhaha involving the author and a small, loud portion of American Jewry that, beginning with the appearance of Roth’s early short story “Defender of the Faith,” accused him of anti-Semitism and other tribal wrongs. On this subject, Roth saw fit to abandon his desk. He gave talks, wrote articles, took part in symposia, submitted to public questioning. From this distance, it all seems a little overblown. How could anyone credibly maintain that Roth’s writing at any point damaged or even dented (perceived) Jewish interests—or vice versa? Even allowing for the sensitivities arising from his membership in a Jewish generation confronted in the United States with educational and professional bias and confronted elsewhere with genocidal murder, the degree to which Roth took the complaints to heart—and, by his public appearances, voluntarily fanned them—is striking.

This entertaining episode of mutual paranoia illustrates the productive grandiosity that so often (and of course self-consciously) energizes Roth. Grandiosity is an obvious comic ingredient in such novels as Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993); more subtly, it underlies and draws our attention to the adversarial moral excitement that is central to almost everything Roth has written.

As a youth, Philip Roth aspired to the legal profession: before transferring to Bucknell University, he was a pre-law student at Rutgers University’s Newark campus. To judge from his literary performance, he’d have made a terrific litigator, and not only because he would have been ready to work at all hours.

Especially in many of his mature works, Roth proceeds, like a lawyer, arguendo: the novelistic inquiry asserts a factual premise, makes fiction’s argument based on that premise, then makes a different argument based on factual assumptions put in the alternative to the initial factual assumption. The Counterlife (1986) offers a famous example. Nathan Zuckerman’s brother, Henry, suffers from a heart condition that finally kills him; alternatively, Henry survives the heart condition and emigrates to Israel; alternatively, Nathan and not Henry suffers from the heart condition. This system also arises in a more theoretical context. In Operation Shylock, it is averred that the book is a factual account by Philip Roth of an Israeli adventure that resulted in his real-life recruitment by the Mossad (Roth gave a very funny metafictional interview to TheNew York Times confirming the book’s purely factual nature); alternatively, and save the aforesaid, the book is part factual, part fictional, and is to be read mutatis mutandis; in the further alternative, and without prejudice to the foregoing, the book is a work of fiction.

What, though, is at issue in these proceedings? My Life as a Man ends with Peter Tarnopol having finally seen off his horribly antagonistic wife. Turning, he sees his new girlfriend sitting there, waiting. “Oh, my God, I thought—now you. You being you! And me! This me who is me being me and none other!” Here is one fundamental, never-ending suit that cannot be settled: that between the self and the other. In question is the ethics of human proximity, with special reference to the conflicts of interest created by the demands of love and/or marriage. Then there is the matter, unusually important in Roth’s writing, of self and community. And finally, of course, there is the quarrel that subsumes every other: Self v. Self v. Self v. Self, ad infinitum. Hedonist Roth v. Hermit Roth v. Husband Roth v. Good-Son Roth v. Bad-Jew Roth v. Good-Jew Roth v. Zionist Roth v. Diasporist Roth v. American Roth v. Israeli Roth v. Child Roth v. Adult Roth. It adds up to “a kind of intricate explanation to myself of my world,” as he has put it, rather mildly. Or, as a youthful character in American Pastoral says, “He’s someone who is very caught up in issues of right and wrong and being punished for doing wrong and the prohibitions against sex.”

No wonder so many Roth novels turn on unjust condemnations: the hounding of Coleman Silk on charges of racism and sexism; the destruction of Ira Ringold for membership in the Communist Party; the wrongful expulsion of Marcus Messner from college; the public disgrace of Mickey Sabbath for sexual misconduct; the bringing-down of blameless Swede Levov by cruel life itself … The legalistic bent of these dramatic undertakings is heightened by the often summary nature of Roth’s speedily expository prose, in which he freely disregards the workshop rule of showing and not telling. Everyman is a wonderful instance of this almost post-novelistic method—it reads practically like a set of medicolegal findings, only terrifically so. “His special talent,” Zuckerman helpfully writes about someone, “was for dramatizing inquiry, for casting a strong narrative spell even when he was being strictly analytic.”

Much of the action in these novels takes the form of the claims and counterclaims and rationalizations and cross-examinations and mea culpas and shame-on-yous pronounced by the disputants or bystanders. Consequently, the characters deliver long, brilliantly penetrating monologues that contradict the verbal and psychological realism with which their worlds are otherwise presented. How does Roth get away with it? You could say that the problem doesn’t even arise in the Zuckerman books—after all, if Nathan Zuckerman in his writing takes liberties with reported speech, that is a matter for him, not Philip Roth, to answer for. (Clever author, to eat his cake and have it too.) You could also defend the inconsistency pragmatically: the characters’ implausible oral powers of advocacy are a price you happily pay for the writing’s overall true-to-lifeness. Theatrical plays can work this way. (As it happens, Roth has a weakness for play-like dialogue that is, in fact, a weakness. Deception [1990], written entirely in the form of conversations, is unproductively hard going, and the playlets scattered in some of his novels have a low wattage.)

But the actual reason we accept unreal speechifying in Roth’s books is, of course, that he is an extraordinarily good artist, good enough to create his own idiosyncratic but persuasive version of reality. This is from the wonderful early pages of American Pastoral:

Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakeable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.

Note the two long sentences, written to be wolfed down. Note the final heart-stopper. Note the boyish innocence of the observer, that susceptibility to faith that is a prerequisite of susceptibility to scandalization. Can You Believe It?—that could be the subtitle of any of Roth’s books; he cannot stop being taken aback. “To record, one must be unwary,” noted F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the appealing things about Philip Roth is that the more he clothes himself in knowingness and worldliness, the more he reveals his inextinguishable Adamic innocence.

And he’s very funny. How about Cousin Apter, the Holocaust-surviving painter bothered by the fact that “even Hitler painted better than I do”? Or “wicked” Mickey Sabbath, he of the “dog-red cock”? Or Milton Appel, the voluble, repulsive pornographer whom Zuckerman reinvents himself as? Or poor David Kepesh, transformed into a giant breast by reason of “an endocrinopathic catastrophe”?

The Breast notwithstanding, reservations have been expressed about the stubborn masculinity of Roth’s fiction, in which, moreover, there is no shortage of women who are paragons of femininity, who are sexual playthings, or who are (enter Lucy Nelson, Sybil Van Buren, Katrina Van Tassel Grant, Delphine Roux, Eve Frame and her sinister daughter, Sylphid …) nemeses of men. I suppose it would be possible to mount a detailed defense of, or attack on, the author on charges of gender misrepresentation, but that seems beside the point in Roth’s case. Surely it is beyond serious dispute that he writes with all the probity and bravery at his disposal, and thus with a remarkably subjective candor that is inevitably and indeed conscientiously male—and Jewish, and white, and heterosexual. That being so, I read all his work with ethical trust, a trust that remains unbroken even when his constructs do not meet with my imaginative agreement.

But things are not that straightforward: the trust of the reader is distrusted by Roth. Hence the games he plays with authorial identity and with crossing our lines of decency. It’s as if the only ethically tolerable situation, for Roth the artist, is that of being under permanent accusation—his most diligent accuser being himself. And what is the accusation? That, in breach of the paternal injunction, he is not being good. That he is being bad. But the world is what it is. Philip Roth can rewrite it, can protest it, can serve as our proxy vexatious litigant against the indifferent respondent gods—but he cannot make it otherwise. Philip, it’s not your fault. You didn’t do it, son.