Outside discussion of Philip Roth's 1959 story, the expression "Defender of the Faith" has applied mainly to Christians. It began I believe as a title given to King Henry VIII.... more
It was one of the naughtier books—but not the naughtiest—in a long line of books that scandalized some and enticed many in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even if you.... more
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The whole story of a modern writer
Philip Roth is a writer I'd been reading a long time, checking out a new novel every couple of years, catching up on older efforts, without ever thinking of him as being one of the "greats". Just Philip Roth, ruminating on what it's like to be a young-then-middle-age-then-older, male, middle-class, Jewish, sexually obsessed intellectual in contemporary America.
Each novel had entertained or annoyed, as intended, but nothing had ever stood out as his Big Book. Nothing obviously destined to endure as a classic.
But then, with the news that Roth in his old age was giving up writing novels, it suddenly seemed apparent: this is one of the great writers of our time. Not for any one book perhaps, but for his lifetime of book writing. Or, to be more specific, for his lifetime of writing about his lifetime.
This revelation has come to others besides me. The man whose early works were derided by high-brow critics as immature, trivial, sexually obsessed best-selling potboilers—not to mention misogynistic, self-hating and anti-Semitic—now is classed with Saul Bellow and John Updike among the top three American writers of the past half century. The greatest of them, claim a respectable minority.
And he reached this plateau through the accumulation of small works—each a narrow, intense (I want to use the word "obsessed" one more time), sometimes political, often hilarious, usually dark examination of one or a few aspects of life as Philip Roth. Or life in Philip Roth's world. Growing up poor and Jewish, handling acclaim as a misanthropic writer, overcoming sexual repression, escaping racial identity, railing against political correctness, aging.
But put it all together and you have a lifetime opus, something like Balzac's grouping of multiple, concise works into the sprawling Human Comedy, but covering in Roth's case American life in the latter twentieth century.
Like the French master's overall output, Roth's can be subdivided into shorter series. For example, there's the nine Zuckerman books from the perspective of the Roth-like author Nathan Zuckerman, starting with The Ghost Writer (1979) and finishing with Exit Ghost (2007). And nestled within the Zuckerman series is the so-called American trilogy of American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000).
At least twenty other novels and collections—in series or stand-alones—make up the rest of Roth's human comedy.
True, Roth's total oeuvre doesn't have quite the social breadth of Balzac's or other classic writers' work. There is a certain narrowness to Roth's subject matter that Roth-haters pounce upon. His characters don't exactly range across American strata. There's a preponderance of writers, professors, students and others in intellectual circles. Roth generally writes the people he knows, especially himself. (Though, to be fair, when he does venture into adopting different perspectives, he is a convincingly imaginative writer.)
The Jewish question
And there's that focus on a certain ethnicity. Some have complained that Roth writes about Jewish mothers, Jewish sons, Jewish academics, Jewish authors, New Jersey Jews, New York Jews, rich Jews, poor Jews....
Funny thing though. When I first started reading Roth in my somewhat oblivious younger years, I was vaguely aware of the Jewish components of the books but I never really dwelt on them. I dwelt on the interesting characters and their sometimes familiar and sometimes strange behaviour. If I were Jewish, I imagine they would have engaged me differently then, same as I'm sure I read stories about people from my own background with a different intensity from how others read them. But I never thought as I was reading Roth, "Ah, that's what Jews are like", or even "That's what Roth is saying Jews are like".
When I first read the infamous Portnoy's Complaint (1969)—my and many others' introduction to Roth's writing—I obviously recognized the main character was a young Jewish man who had serious Jewish-mother issues and who railed on about the Jewish community he grew up in. But for the young non-Jewish man who was me then, the novel was mainly about sexual frustration, relations with overbearing parents, relations with young women, psychoanalysis and masturbation. Naturally, Roth wrote about it from the perspective of a young Jewish male of his time and place, and much of the novel may have been scoring points specifically about the Jewish community, which went over my head back then. Portnoy's Complaint was of greater interest than some kind of ethnocentric cultural critique.
To say reading Roth is always reading about American Jews of his generation is like summing up the works of James Joyce by saying they're about early twentieth-century Irish. Or Charles Dickens is all about nineteenth-century Londoners and Tolstoy about his generation of Russian aristocrats. Partly true, of course. But not close to the whole story. If it were, few of us non-Jewish, non-Irish, non-Londoner, non-Russian aristocratic readers would continue to find these writers of much vital interest.
Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus: And Five Short Stories (1959), first elicited the unfair criticism that Roth was a "self-hating Jew"—an anti-Semitic Semite. The novella in that collection, Goodbye, Columbus, concerns a working class Jewish kid in New Jersey trying to fit in with his rich Jewish girlfriend's family, which was more assimilated into mainstream gentile culture than his own. I read it—going back to Roth's earlier work after my Portnoy intro—as a study of American class structure, the Jewish assimilation angle again going over my head.
This made the attached stories a bit of a shocker. What really got some of the critics going on about anti-Semitism was the short stories in the Goodbye, Columbus collection, especially the first two, whose titles alone could raise hackles. "The Conversion of the Jews" has a thirteen-year-old boy questioning Jewish orthodoxy and going to dramatic lengths to convince his community to accept Christianity. "The Defender of the Faith" is narrated by an army sergeant who struggles with a group of soldiers trying to wheedle favours out of him based on their shared Jewish ethnicity. No way I could gloss over the sharp self-critique of Jewish-American culture in these.
Yet I did find these stories engaging and provoking. Why? I'm not sure. Three decades after publishing the collection, Roth recalled in a preface to a new edition his amazement over readers being interested in the collection's "store of tribal secrets, in what he knew as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan—about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success".
I guess I was one of those mysterious readers.
As Roth's novels have continued to appear every year or two, this background has become less an issue. If present in a book it's just accepted, as Roth has become more widely accepted as a respected literary writer. In some novels, ethnicity does becomes essential, as in The Plot Against America (2004), in which Roth takes up the perspective of himself as a child while his family defends itself against genuine anti-Semitism in an alternative America turning fascist. In other novels, this particular background hardly seems to matter at all. In The Human Stain the nominally Jewish narrator takes up a case of altogether different racial identity.
The sex question
The sexual preoccupation in Roth's work I have more difficulty with, though perhaps not in the way you expect. There's nothing unusual about the author's longtime interest. It's hard to think of any prominent American writer since the Second World War who's not fixed on sex to some degree. Norman Mailer, John Updike, Gore Vidal.... It's a sign of our times, for sure.
Nor am I concerned about his continually masculine attitude toward sex. His books are written from male perspectives, often in the first person, and having those males reflect on sexuality from their perspective does not make Roth a sexist or a misogynist (another common charge against him). It just makes him repetitive and, increasingly, old-fashioned.
While the early works had been—sometimes shockingly—liberated in their depiction of sexuality, the later works started to seem constricted in their intimate aspirations to dirty-old-man territory. Then late in Roth's writing career, when fictional alter ego Zuckerman has become impotent (as revealed in 1998's American Pastoral), he seems to move on past sexuality as an obsession, although it remains an important part of human life—almost as if Roth has finally grown out of his adolescence.
Fortunately, in contrast to another common cavil about his work, Roth creates interesting characters of both genders. As another admirer has written, he doesn't shame women for their sexuality, he celebrates them.
And, even where the sexual insight is skimpy, there's so much else in his stories to move along to. There's something interesting in almost every Philip Roth book. It's why he's continued to be read long after those controversial early works.
In fact, his longevity—the look at his entire opus that is now allowed us—makes even those early works seem more significant in their place. Each work may be slight and perhaps too much of its time, somewhat ephemeral, but seen in the context of a life's work they together form an impressive body of work.
I don't know if any of it will make sense, or appear of any importance, to readers fifty years from now. But at a this point early in the twenty-first century it seems an essential picture of our times. Perhaps not the whole picture, but several significant slices of it.
COMMENTARY | BIBLIOGRAPHY