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Roth Redux

Philip Roth’s defenders point to his later, more serious works to argue for his place in the canon. In truth, those books make clearer his weaknesses.

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Philip Roth, 2009. (Beowulf Sheehan/Pen American Center)
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Last week, I wrote an unflattering column about Philip Roth. I focused most of my attention on Portnoy’s Complaint, and argued that its author was undeserving of his vaunted perch atop our collective esteem. Many of our readers were incensed, and most offered a common criticism—by ignoring Roth’s later work, went the cri de coeur, I was robbing him of his finest moments as a writer. In one variation or another, the question rang out: What about American Pastoral? Or The Plot Against America?

It’s a fair argument, and to address it we have to begin by taking stock of Roth’s evolution as a writer. Like Henry James, he has produced a body of work that is best experienced chronologically. Read your way through James from The Europeans to The Ambassadors, say, and you see a sketcher of tender, confined psychological scenes bloom into an artist capable of capturing transcendence, freedom, and others of the most elusive spirits that beat wild in human chests. What would you see if you read your way from Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus to Nemesis?

At first, youth, breathlessness, bravado, playfulness, glee. A child who grew up on the fault lines of modern America’s fiercest tremors—the Great Depression, World War II—Roth felt just enough of a quiver to sense the menace creeping underground but not enough of the heat to be forged, like steel, into a man whose words and deeds cut quick. Hence, the early novels. Hence, the giddy denunciations of community, of class, of expectations.

Roth himself summed it up best in an introduction he wrote for the 30th-anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus: “With clarity and with crudeness, and a great deal of exuberance, the embryonic writer who was me wrote these stories in his early 20’s. … In the beginning it simply amazed him that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his 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.”

His own idea of success soon led Roth away from these exuberances and toward loftier realms, the ones, possibly, he imagined more befitting of truly literate writers and their audiences. Sometime in the 1970s, Roth went meta.

There is, for example, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s famous alter ego, being born as a creation of Peter Tarnopol, another of Roth’s alter egos, in the 1974 novel My Life as a Man. And there is Zuckerman again, five years later, in the lovely The Ghost Writer, sharing a stuffy country house with E.I. Lonoff, a thinly veiled version of Bernard Malamud, maybe, or Henry Roth, as well as a mystery woman who may or may not be Anne Frank. By 1993, with the uproarious Operation Shylock, we have Roth—or someone who bears his name and his facial features, or both—twirling cloaks and daggers in Jerusalem, chasing doppelgängers and observing history unfold, as only post-modern history can, like bits of mosaic falling off an ancient wall.

This stage in Roth’s career was a bacchanal, and like all festivities it, too, had to end. When it finally did, the historical stage began.

To this period—lasting roughly from American Pastoral in 1997 to The Plot Against America in 2004—belong the works that seem to inspire the greatest awe in Roth’s readers. As is evident anywhere from newspaper columns to Tablet’s inflamed comments section, the perceived wisdom holds that Roth finally matured in this period into the sort of writer he was always meant to be, America’s finest portraitist, on whom nothing of the nation’s past and whims and ills is lost.

A close reading, however, reveals his canvass to be much smaller. Roth the historical is Roth at his most myopic, unconvincing, and insecure. Confined to Lonoff’s cottage, Roth was radiant; freed in a fictitious America where Charles Lindbergh is president and Jews are reviled, Roth is lost.

To make sense of history, he applies patterns: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Plot Against America are all told from a child’s point of view or revolve around memories constructed in childhood; all involve a once-Olympian hero falling to earth; and all are thrust into chaos by rampant, radical ideology shredding the fabric of what would have otherwise been an idyllic American society.

The most famous of these humbled men is Swede Levov. The protagonist of American Pastoral begins his life as a star athlete, an affluent son, and a beauty queen’s husband. He ends it in the squalor of a New Jersey ghetto with his daughter, a Weather Underground bomber living on the lam. She is skeletal, sickly, the victim of serial rape and stern beliefs. The meeting between father and daughter is the meeting between America’s sweet promise and its inexplicably sour present. This is how Roth ends the book: “They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” It’s a question Roth never answers.

Others, however, have. In her fantastic 2006 novel Eat This Document, Dana Spiotta imagined a heroine who’s a lot like Merry Levov. After an act of violence gone awry and decades living under a false name and an assumed identity, the woman, now known as Louise Barrot, considers turning herself in and confessing her crimes. Like Roth’s novel, Spiotta’s, too, shifts frequently between past and present. But Spiotta is never content with terse, simplistic statements like “they’ll never recover.” She is capable of seeing much more than the curdling of expectations. Even amid the howls of politics and fate, she finds the time and the grace to allow her characters the subtleties and small fears of which we all are made. Her Louise, skipping from one persona to another, rarely raising her voice above a whisper, lives not just with the burden of having detonated explosions but with the far more unbearable weight of never really “being truly known by anyone.” Even though they’d lived a very similar life, she’d have little to say to Roth’s Merry, a creature of so much black and white that she converts to Jainism and plans her own self-starvation just to resolve the conflict of her existence.

In The Human Stain, Zuckerman feels the same burden. Even though he is released, in this novel, from the yoke of reflecting on his childhood and is permitted instead to observe the affairs of adults as they unfurl in real time, he is still bubbling with the sort of childlike indignation upon discovering that the world just isn’t fair. It’s a condition the critic Laura Miller nicely diagnosed: The screed with which Roth opens the book, she wrote, decrying the silliness of l’affair Monica Lewinsky, “has a certain Swiftian magnificence, but as a description of what happened in America in 1998 it is dead wrong. The nation was not caught up in a puritanical witch hunt; rather, Americans largely refused to be whipped into such a frenzy, in defiance of the best efforts of right-wingers and certain media figures.”

Roth is right there with the right-wingers and the hyperbolic media in his passion for the Manichean. To him, isms are always toothsome and vices always on the rise and America never more itself as when it teeters on the verge of self-destruction. But America isn’t so simple. The 1950s, McCarthyism and all, weren’t the Grand Guignol Roth made them out to be in I Married a Communist. And the 1960s, with all their rage, weren’t Merry Levov’s stark hideout. Even the dilapidated 1990s had more charm than Roth knew what to do with. Far more hysterical than his fellow Americans, then, he concluded his historical period by abandoning the real for the imaginary.

In The Plot Against America, Roth finally allowed himself to feel fear and loathing uncomplicated by these pesky nuances that well-formulated characters unfailingly force on a novelist. There were intricacies to his plot, sure, and a few haunting and beautiful moments, but there was no mistaking the book’s life force for anything more than a feverish exercise in what-if. The real anti-Semites that taunted the author as a child—taunts that transcended mere racial hatred and were colored by a myriad of other factors—were now full-blown murderous goons, trying on their jackboots in anticipation of pogroms to come. This is the same clarity, crudeness, and exuberance Roth had described as his chief motivator early on in his career, only now the glee gave way to gloom. And the gloom never dissipated: It is very much present in Roth’s recent books, marking the latest phase of his career. Uncharitably, I’ll call those novels of the last few years the novels of dying. Charitably, I’ll refrain from discussing them at all.

Looking back at Roth’s career one sees the same flightless narcissism growing stronger from one novel to the next. The bigger the challenge, the greater the disappointment. Stumbles that would have been forgiven in a book dedicated to smut and effervescence are much more noticeable in attempts to tell America’s history. Even when his prose his sharp—whether or not it is would be best left to personal taste—Roth lacks the ability to climb outside of his own head and give us the world writ large, the sole ability that has ever united the truly great practitioners of the craft, regardless of their styles and sensibilities.

What keeps him from transcendence isn’t necessarily solipsism. His friend and contemporary Saul Bellow shared the same preoccupations with the self; even his admirer Alfred Kazin noted that Bellow was “a kalte mensch, too full of his being a novelist to be a human being writing.” But when Bellow wrote, he soared. Augie March, Moses E. Herzog, Charlie Citrine—all are very much Saul Bellow, but also very much not him. They were born, like Athena, from their creator’s forehead, and then took to earth seeking justice, courage, and wisdom. They are us. They are humanity. They’re the stuff a Nobel Prize in literature is made of. They’re nothing like Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh and Mickey Sabbath, all of whom are only ever Philip Roth and never anything more.

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miha ahronovitz says:

“Roth lacks the ability to climb outside of his own head and give us the world writ large, the sole ability that has ever united the truly great practitioners of the craft…”

I do not know about “the ability” to climb outside my own head. Literature is NOT something like “Today I will climb outside my own head” This is perhaps the little red book of Mao.

Would we say- for example- Woody Allen did rise above his own head? I know people who hate Woody Allen, and I am not one of them.

I must admit though that reading Phillip Roth today is a major effort In one book he describes the effects of a prostate operation whose incontinence makes his hero leave a a line of urine each time he swims. This is a severe punishment of the lover of young women and the details of sex among Jews and gentiles (usually)

This is a sadly reductive and shallow account that avoids engaging with the genuine complexities and yes, soaring, exuberant language and imagination of Philip Roth. Rarely has a writer grappled so meaningfully with the complexities of Jewish identity as Roth (no mention here of two of his most brilliant, sophisticated works, *The Counterlife* and *Operation Shylock* nor the tour de force *Sabbath’s Theater*). This is the kind of witless criticism that says more about the critic than the novelist under discussion.

JCarpenter says:

I enjoyed The Ghostwriter; the rest of Roth, meh. I’ll take Bellow and Malamud and Potok as the finest contemporary Jewish writers.

jacon.arnon says:

Liel’s views on Roth remind me of the early attacks on his work by critics such as Irving Howe.

Their veiw point is moral and not literary. Mr. Howe despised Roth because he wasn’t sufficiently “political.”

Later on feminist critics joined the chorus of attacks.

It’s not superising that in a time of economic turmoil Roth should come under attack again.

Still, these people are misreading Roth.

Frist his sexual subject matter was in part parodic. Let’s not forget that when Roth started writing the Orgone box was all the rage.

To read Roth as supportive of such a view is to misreadnig. He parodied these views.

Sex in Roth is not the road to heaven but to pergatory.

richard jaffa says:

Liel Liebovitz should not give up his day job if he has one.His childish attempt to assassinate Philip Roth really only shows Roth’s qualities in greater depth. Roth may not be as brilliant as Bellow but who is? Nevertheles he has produced a great range of work – not always consistent- but very few great writers are. Liel writes like an undergraduate who has had a bad night on the pop.

jacon.arnon says:

Miha I wouldn’t compare Roth to Woody Allen.

The only great film he ever made was Purple Rose of Cairo the rest were pretty shallow and a vehicle for his narcissism.

Liel. I often agree with you. Here I do not. I think you too easily dismiss Roth thinking and writing about American Jewishness, Zionism, power, and identity. You ignore Counterlife, Operation Shylock, American Pastoral, and the Human Stain, all of which are much more complex than the sexual cartoonery of Portnoy (Alexander, not Eddy, of course.)

jacon.arnon says:

Finally, I found Liel’s reference to Alfred Kazin telling.

I just read Joseph Epstein’s essay on Kazin’s diaries and if anyone was self absorbed it was Kazin.

He was also a wife beater who broke one of his wives fingers because she criticized Castro.

This isn’t fiction, Liel, it’s real life.

Hence to cite Kazin as an authority on Saul Bellow’s character is kind of weird.

Roth learned a lot from Bellow which he acknowledged and many of his novels have indirect references to his work.

Dick Mulliken says:

All great writers are intensely narcissistic. “Madame Bovary, c’st moi”, says Flaubert and he speaks as well for Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi Hemingway, Faulkner and the whole crew. I think our critic here is offended by the tone of Roth’s narcissism. But that is who Roth is, as a writer. One cannot erase his genius simply because that was his tone.

Its both sad and amusing to read a lesser talent tear down a greater one.

Evelinsche says:

Dick, you have taken “Madame Bpvary, c’est moi” out of context. “All great writers,” and most other people, may be narcissistic, but Flaubert meant that he took so much care to get Emma Bovary just right that he had to look deeply into his own humanity, not only into his own personal singularity. He’s been on my shelves since college but Roth goes to the library book sales.

It’s not clear Roth does this. But I’m not a rabid fan of Roth’s because I believe he folds at the end, instead of resolving what he has so carefully and interestingly set up. I suppose I read him to find out what he’s up to now and what we American Jews are about through his unique filter, ie, I kinda hafta. The filter doesn’t disappoint, but the plots do. I prefer Bellow, no Everyman, who didn’t resolve his dilemmas by declaring them over; and the Nobel committee chose Bellow. They’re not fool-proof, of course. Every year their previous mistakes are resurrected in the news. Will Roth prove to be one of them?

Shalom Freedman says:

Roth is a writer of genius. Two of the books he has written in the past ten years , ‘Everyman’ and ‘Nemesis’ are to my mind masterworks. I do not think any writer even Beckett has told the story of human aging and decline with the power and effectiveness that Roth does in ‘Everyman’. I do not think any writer since Orwell and ‘Animal Fair’ has created a parable of human goodness and evil on the level of ‘Nemesis’.
I find it disheartening that instead of searching for the good works and the great achievements Mr. Leibowitz focuses on shortcomings only.
The critic has sinned i.e. missed the mark in a true way. The novelist has and will have many other far better interpreters.

Hal Dresner says:

Roth has said that he is serious about the playful stuff and playful about the serious. That has made him one of our most entertaining and profound writers although perhaps not in the order that Leibowitz prefers. But Roth’s place is Literature is secure. Carpers, beware.

Video game ph.d Liel trenchantly dissects Roth and consigns him to the trashbin of literature along with such other medocrities as Charles Dickens (novels “told from a child’s point of view or revolve around memories constructed in childhood”) and Jane Austen (“lacks the ability to climb outside of [her] own head and give us the world writ large, the sole ability that has ever united the truly great practitioners of the craft, regardless of their styles and sensibilities”).

Jameson says:

I have to agree that there is an odd feeling of deja vu to this: almost 50 years of bad Roth criticism served up as one man’s thoughts.

Not Michael says:

Roth is a perfectly okay writer, but he is not the greatest living American writer, and he certainly isn’t deserving of the Nobel Prize.

Hello, Tablet, anyone there? says:

Sadly reductive and shallow seems to be Liel’s calling card. Tablet, this writing is a cheap way of bringing in hits and does nothing to boost the intellectual level of the conversation here. Once or twice is cute and interesting. The 100th time it’s just sad.

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Liel has leveled more than one charge against Roth. Most of us have been answering the charge that Roth is not a worthy writer.

This is obviously false.

However Liel also accused Roth of persuading younger writers to adopt his narcissistic views.

Here, Liel has turned Roth into a kind of latter day Socrates.

This charge is not just false it’s ridiculous.

Since Liel doesn’t go into detail it’s hard to know which writers he has in mind.

Nathan Englander is a “younger writer” and whatever fault his novels and stories have he certainly is not a “narcissistic” writer.

“The Ministry of Special Cases” is hardly about Englander.

One writer who claims to have read all of Roth and has taken him very seriously is Jeffrey Eugenides who is not Jewish and not a narcissist.

I would like to know who and what Liel had in mind when he accused Roth of ruining the “young?”

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Brahmsian says:

I am confused. People think Portnoy’s Complaint is just a joke? Or that its mainly a sociological novel? Have they missed its purely formal innovations? Roth’s main characters are always Roth, but his play turns your head around. I think folks maybe aren’t reading him for what he needs to be read for.

Evelyn Waugh once remarked that a great writer’s books can be reread repeatedly and with new insights. Using that definition I find it difficult to call PR a great writer.A recent attempt to plough through his books again was not a success and left me with the feeling that PR early on installed exciting new word-processing software that eventually was turned on automatic. Much sifting is needed to get to the truly delightful passages, the original observations and the fluent intellectual seductions in his books.

mark weintraub says:

Leil: your first article on Roth was a breath of fresh air: I, like many, in the 60’s wandered into Roth and was excited by his assault on convention; for some reason, over the decades, I could not join in Rothmania- I just didn’t feel the greatness of his later works; your piece gave words and reason and analysis to my gut feeling. I consistently find your pieces to be incisive and original.


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Roth Redux

Philip Roth’s defenders point to his later, more serious works to argue for his place in the canon. In truth, those books make clearer his weaknesses.