Book review: Roth Unbound: A Writer and his books

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Philip Roth’s best subject is himself – but there’s no hint of narcissism in his novels, says Martin Amis

American anti-Semitism, which was running high throughout the 1930s, steadily increased after the onset of war. During the entire period, polls showed, well over a third of the populace stood ready to back discriminatory laws. In Manhattan’s Washington Heights, every synagogue was desecrated (and some were smeared with swastikas); in Boston, beatings, wreckings and defilements had become near-daily occurrences by 1942. The disgraceful fever, which ruled out all but a trickle of immigration and so cost countless lives, reached its historic apogee in 1944 – by which time the Holocaust was more or less complete.

And what of the media? News of the killings emerged in May/June 1942: a verified report with a figure of 700,000 already dead. The Boston Globe gave the story the three-column headline “Mass Murders of Jews in Poland Pass 700,000 Mark,” and tucked it away at the foot of Page 12. The New York Times quoted the report’s verdict – “probably the greatest mass slaughter in history” – but gave it only two inches.

Philip Roth would use this soiled and feckless backdrop in The Plot Against America (2004), his 26th book; but anti-Semitism and its corollary, anti-anti- Semitism, wholly dominated the publication of his first, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959). “What is being done to silence this man?” asked a rabbi. “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” Roth’s cheerful debut, some thought, shored up the same “conceptions … as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our time.” So he wasn’t only contending with a “rational” paranoia; he was also ensnared in the anguish of comprehension and absorption, as the sheer size of the trauma inched into consciousness. After a hate-filled public meeting at Yeshiva University in New York in 1962, Roth solemnly swore that he would “never write about Jews again.”

It was a hollow vow. But Roth, remember, was still in his 20s; and one of the snags of starting young is that you’re obliged to do your growing up in public. He was a proud American, as well as a Jew; a robustly bloody-minded talent, such as his, would have known at once that fiction insists on freedom: indeed, fiction is freedom, and freedom is indivisible (hence, later on, his passionate support for the writers of Czechoslovakia). Still, it could be argued that with one thing or another Roth took about 15 years to settle into his voice. The later career was conventional; the early career was wildly eccentric – a mysterious and fascinating flail.

Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation), in her lively and clever monograph, says that Roth’s first full-length novel, Letting Go (1962), is “about not letting go”: not letting go of responsibility, obligation and a general crew-necked earnestness; and, importantly, not letting go of Henry James. Here, the large cast is pluralist; but ethnic anxieties seemed to linger. So what next? Well, at this point Roth put aside a book called “Jewboy,” and after “years of misery” (five of them), produced When She Was Good, a straight-faced, all-goy saga set in a prim Midwestern town. And here we were given our first real glimpse of the succubus that was eating his soul.

I remember thinking at the time that there was something extreme and frighteningly inordinate about the heroine, Lucy Nelson (she is adhesive, devouring and remorseless); I remember thinking, too, that she was only a part of an untold story. It is a profound portrait – flaringly alive in a book that often struggles for breath. Critics said that it could have been written by a woman, others that it could have been written by a WASP. Still, what the reader was looking for, around then, was a novel that could only have been written by Philip Roth.

That novel was Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – a time bomb of cawing, stinging comedy (it is even typographically explosive, setting the aggregate record, in mainstream fiction, for exclamation marks, block caps and italics). Here the tensions and conflicts of the Jewish-American experience are reduced to their core: shiksas. The word’s Yiddish root means “detested thing”; by matrilineal logic, male goys are tolerable, but shiksas spell assimilation and are therefore forbidden. Forbidden, detested – and all the more hotly desired. Roth attacked this crux with incomparable energy; and it seemed that a turbulent talent had finally found perfect pitch.

Now the story becomes passing strange. Portnoy, readers assumed, was Roth’s letting go. But it turned out there was something else, and something quite intrinsic, to be let go of. Having ceased to care about that thing called “good taste”, Roth, dismayingly, ceased to care about literary value. Our Gang, written in “a mere three months,” is a grimly unfunny satire of the Nixon administration; The Breast, written in “a few weeks,” transforms its hero into a giant mammary gland (an abnormally unpromising donnée); and The Great American Novel, 382 pages about baseball, is a hobbyist’s exercise in virtuoso facetiousness. In tight succession, 1971, 1972, 1973, Roth – clearly something of a genius – pulled off three unqualified duds.

The lurid light surrounding Lucy Nelson, the five-year hiatus, the sense of an unaired wound, the mad cackle of Portnoy, the revolt against high seriousness and the embrace of frivolity: now the answers started coming in with My Life as a Man (1974). This tells the tale of Roth’s “horrific” first marriage and its aftermath, a relationship that began in 1956 and ended only with an accidental death in 1968. It is a novel you read between the fingers of the hand you keep raising to your face. The puzzle is that Roth evidently colluded in his own entrapment; and the explanation, as his proxy, Peter Tarnopol, puts it, is that “literature got me into this.” The attraction to difficulty, to complexity, even to agony, is real enough in an intensely bookish young man. There are numerous instances of writers who hunt down the most fantastic entanglements; they make misery their muse, or they try.

Roth had found his subject, which is to say he had found himself. And the self, seen through an intricate mesh of personae, doppelgängers and noms de guerre, would provide the framework (with a couple of exceptions) for his remaining 19 novels. John Updike once argued that although fiction can withstand any amount of egocentricity, it is wholly allergic to narcissism. There is no narcissism in Roth; the creature in the mirror is given merciless and unblinking scrutiny. .

Portnoy was described in Haaretz as “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying,” more toxic even than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Over the years the animosity of Jewry has slackened – to be replaced by the coordinated or at any rate choric animosity of feminism. Pierpont conscientiously deals with these objections, rightly pointing out that Roth’s women cover a very broad range. But I think the charge of misogyny is just a straightforward category error. As with the rabbinical critique, there is some historical justification, but both are sociopolitical, not literary; they are in fact anti-literary. Besides, isn’t women’s fiction crammed with male louts and rats? Isn’t men’s? The right-on heroine (a violin-playing, corporation-running mother of five, say, with an enlightened husband and a virile young lover called Raoul) is of no conceivable interest to any genuine writer; besides, she is well-represented in any number of admiring narratives – and you can get them at the airport.

Roth Unbound is a critical biography of the old school, though one invaluably topped up with reported comments and judgments from the Philip Roth of today. Eighty years old, and “done” with writing (or so he says), he comes across as droll, sagacious, self-deprecating, high-spirited and warm. By the end one consents to the verdict of the Roth impersonator in Operation Shylock, who says to the “real” Roth: “But your eyes melt a little too, you know. I know the things you’ve done for people. You hide your sweet side from the public – all the glowering photographs and I’m-nobody’s-sucker interviews. But behind the scenes, as I happen to know, you’re one very soft touch, Mr Roth.”

Apart from “Portnoy” and the balefully powerful My Life as a Man, there are, by my count, three further masterworks. I am thinking of the lapidary burnish of The Ghost Writer, the daunting intellectual rigor of The Counterlife and the lush Victorian amplitude of American Pastoral. And, throughout, there are certain motifs that unfailingly ignite Roth’s eloquence: Israel; ageing and mortality; sickness and suffering; this whole business with parents; and, most surprisingly, this whole business with children.

In Sabbath’s Theater, the hero is shamefaced about having once had a wife, and consoles himself with the thought that at least he never had a child – he’s not that stupid. Novelists don’t always need to try things out for themselves (and believing otherwise brought him his Lucy Nelson, and 12 blighted years). Here we see the routine and elementary miracle of fiction. Look at Swede Levov and Merry in American Pastoral. You can write beautifully about children without having had any; you simply apply to the surrogate mother of the imagination.