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Since When Is Philip Roth an Idol?

He went from bete noire to laureate. Why'd we lose track of his flaws?

REUTERS/Eric Thayer

“If you’re from New Jersey,” Nathan Zuckerman says in The Counterlife, “and you write thirty books, and you win the Nobel Prize, and you live to be white-haired and ninety-five, it’s highly unlikely but not impossible that after your death they’ll decide to name a rest stop for you on the Jersey Turnpike. ... For a New Jersey novelist that’s as much immortality as it’s realistic to hope for.” There is not, as yet, a Philip Roth rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike (they could always replace Joyce Kilmer), but the prospect no longer seems far-fetched, and the plausibility of such a beatification speaks volumes about the fate of Roth’s reputation. A writer who, in the first part of his career, seemed defined by transgression—against Jewish self-esteem, against sexual decency, against the conventions of fiction—has been transformed, over the last fifteen years, into an official American classic. The fate that Zuckerman mocked has befallen his creator: Roth, the rebellious son, the fleshliest of writers, is turning into a monument before our eyes.

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s book is both a history of this process and a contribution to it. By addressing Roth’s books in chronological order, from Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 to Nemesis in 2010, Pierpont allows the reader to see how the scandal that greeted Roth’s early work started to give way, in the 1990s, to reverence. Already in 1971, when he published the Nixon satire Our Gang, Roth was famous enough to be taken note of in the Oval Office. Pierpont quotes the sinister conversation that Nixon and Haldeman had about the book: “A lot of this can be turned to our advantage. ... I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us,” the president muses, to which his chief of staff adds, “There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews aren’t.”

But times and parties changed, and in 1998 Bill Clinton gave Roth a medal, and in 2011 Barack Obama gave him another medal. In the intervening years, he won just about all the major literary prizes on the planet, some of them more than once—with the exception of the Nobel Prize, which seems destined never to be given again to an American writer, even the most deserving. (When Roth turned eighty in 2013, the celebrations seemed like an almost conscious act of reparation for the missing prize.) Most significantly of all, Roth became one of a handful of living writers to be published in the Library of America. Even if you think that the Library of America ought to wait for posterity’s judgment about the writers of our time and not rush to marmorealize all their books as classics, it is hard to protest Roth’s appearance on this particular shelf. How can the history of twentieth-century American literature be written without him?

But then, how will a historian be able to convey the shock and—to use a very Rothian word—the indignation that this abundantly belaureled novelist once caused? The first sentence of Pierpont’s first chapter is “What is being done to silence this man?”: it was the question asked by a rabbi in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League after the publication of Goodbye, ColumbusThe New York Times editorialized against the “revolting sex excesses” of Portnoy’s Complaint. Later, as Pierpont shows, feminists took up the burden of complaint from Jews: Vivian Gornick inveighed against the “unacknowledged misogyny” and “dehumanizing vileness” of My Life as a Man. And Roth himself fired back: at the Jews in the figure of the sanctimonious Judge Wapter, in The Ghost Writer, at the feminists in the figure of Delphine Roux, the professor who brings down Coleman Silk in The Human Stain.

Pierpont, who is a friend of Roth’s and a pre-publication reader of his work, does not skirt these arguments, but she does not allow them to worry her. She approvingly quotes Roth’s explanation that to portray individual Jews as absurd or flawed—like the complacent Patimkins in Goodbye, Columbus or the overbearing, stool-examining Sophie Portnoy—does not constitute stereotyping a whole group: “He noted that people read Anna Karenina without concluding that adultery was a Russian trait; Madame Bovarydid not lead readers to condemn the morals of French provincial women en masse. He was writing literature, not sociology or—Bellow’s helpful phrase—public relations.” Later, when it comes to the issue of Roth’s “misogyny,” Pierpont is equally absolving: “He considers himself a man who loves women, and he counts many women among his close and lifelong friends. ... His books contain an immense variety of female characters, of every moral and emotional persuasion. And they are no more ‘good’ or ‘bad’ than his male characters. ... His work was being misread by some contemporary feminists as it had once been misread by Jews—and for reasons not so very different, involving the depiction of flawed or comically conceived characters.”

This passage, with its note of extenuation and protectiveness, says a lot about both the strengths and the weaknesses of Roth Unbound. Pierpont is a fine reader of Roth’s books, thoughtful and sympathetic but not afraid to make criticisms. She points out that he has produced uneven work throughout his long career, and she allows the reader who has never sought out When She Was Good or The Great American Novel to continue to not read them with a good conscience. In turn, this makes her high opinion of Roth’s best books—especially The Ghost Writer and The Counterlife—easier to trust. The structure of Roth Unbound does not allow Pierpont to delve very deeply into any particular book, but then this is not an academic study. It is more in the nature of an introduction, ideal for readers who know Roth’s reputation and one or two of his books but want to get the whole picture.

There is a price, however, for Pierpont’s personal and critical closeness to her subject. The reader of Roth Unbound often has the sense of Roth looking over the author’s shoulder, authorizing or at least advocating certain interpretations. And Pierpont’s evident pleasure at being in Roth’s inner circle—she tells an anecdote about the writer introducing her to Mia Farrow, who has a picture of her wedding to Frank Sinatra on her cellphone—seems to make her want him to be a likable person. This is fair enough when she bats back the criticisms of Roth made by his ex-wife Claire Bloom, which remain on the level of biography or gossip. But when Pierpont uses Roth’s female friendships to defend the portrayal of women in his fiction, as in the quotation above, she allows her benign sense of Roth’s personality to color his achievement, which is powerfully un-benign.

The idea that Roth’s female characters and Jewish characters are individual creations, which we are meant not to judge but to understand—just as we ideally do with real people—suits our liberal, humanist expectations of fictional freedom. But Roth is not Henry James—that is the explicit message of The Ghost Writer—and it is a mistake to look to his books for the kind of free and rounded characters that classical realism gives us. On the contrary, the power of his fiction comes in large part from his recognition that the old variety of realism is no longer very compelling—that what interests us now is not so much the work as the mind at work in the work. The questions we ask in reading Roth—What drives a man to write so furiously about Jews, about women, about death and sex and America? What inner experience and conflict is he forever symbolizing in his books?—are mostly about Roth himself. He is the true protagonist of his books.

That we are right to ask such questions is proved by the way Roth, speaking in Pierpont’s book, adamantly resists them. Roth, who underwent a long psychoanalysis and cast Portnoy’s Complaint as an analysand’s monologue, despises “psychoanalytic reductivism.” More, Pierpont writes, he rejects the notion “that we are psychologically complicit in our fate.” The sheer contingency of fate, the moral irrelevance of suffering, is one of the themes of Roth’s late work, starting with American Pastoral, in which the good, kind, upstanding citizen Swede Levov produces a daughter, Merry, who is a violent and insane terrorist. This turn of events, Roth writes, initiates the Swede “into a mystery more bewildering even than Merry’s stuttering: there was no fluency anywhere. It was all stuttering. In bed at night, he pictured the whole of his life as a stuttering mouth and a grimacing face—the whole of his life without cause or sense and completely bungled. He no longer had any conception of order. There was no order. None.”

If there is no order, then character cannot be fate. Yet what writer is more obviously the product of his character, more self-similar in his obsessions, than Philip Roth? The young Roth, the well-loved child of a protective Jewish family, writes  Goodbye, Columbus, throwing a bomb at Jewish pieties. The Jewish establishment is outraged, so he writes Portnoy’s Complaint, which is even more offensive to Jews. Then he creates Nathan Zuckerman, who is the author of Carnovsky, a book that outraged the Jewish establishment, and punishes Zuckerman with all the remorse and estrangement from family that in real life—as Pierpont shows—Roth himself never suffered. (Zuckerman’s father calls him a bastard on his deathbed, whereas Roth lovingly cared for his father in his dying days, as he described in Patrimony.) And when the postmodern tangle of Roth and Zuckerman is left behind, and Roth moves on to create, in Swede Levov, a character as unlike himself as possible, what does he come up with? A Jewish father who is wounded by the inexplicable rebellion of his well-loved child, who becomes a bomb-thrower—in this case, a literal one.

Sam Wolfe Connelly 

It is not true that every writer is the teller of one tale, but it is close to being true of Roth. Again and again he stages the rebellion of desire against duty: sexual desire, most famously in the Kepesh novels and in Portnoy’s Complaint, but equally, in the Zuckerman novels, the desire for glory and artistic achievement. Both sex and art are forms of self-assertion, pitting the individual against the needs of those he is supposed to love—wives, parents, children, mentors, co-religionists, nation. Put so abstractly, however, the power of Roth’s fables of egotism is hard to grasp. In a culture as liberated as ours, as dedicated to the fulfillment of individual desire, as impatient of tradition and taboo, where is the tragedy in Roth’s tale? It was one thing when, to use Roth’s examples, Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina committed adultery: they stood to lose everything, including their lives. But when Maria Freshfield, the ideal lover-muse of The Counterlife, conducts an affair with her downstairs neighbor Zuckerman, she doesn’t even worry about losing custody. Only in Sabbath’s Theater, perhaps, does Roth imagine a character so committed to transgression that he is actually destroyed by it—though even Mickey Sabbath embraces destruction too avidly for the book to be a tragedy.

To give his plots danger and moral weight, to make them feel like more than just stories of bored middle-class people pairing off—to avoid being John Updike, whose rivalry and touchy friendship with Roth is discussed in Roth Unbound—Roth has resorted to several strategies. One is melodrama: Henry Zuckerman, the dentist brother of Nathan in The Counterlife, is forced to choose literally between his sex life and his life, when he must decide whether to risk a heart operation that would restore his potency. And he willingly pays the price, since life is only worth living if he can go on getting blow-jobs from his dental assistant: “Wendy is his freedom and his manhood,” Nathan observes, “even if she happens to look to me a little like boredom incarnate.” (Decades later, in Indignation, oral sex similarly starts the chain of events that leads to the death of Marcus Messner in the Korean War.) If sex is worth dying for, Roth implies, it must be worth destroying one’s marriage and one’s family for; sex must be worth everything.

This elevation of sex to the summum bonum is one of the most dubious elements in Roth’s work. Perhaps what makes it so resistible is that, unlike most writers deeply devoted to sex, Roth does not try to make it a symbol of a broader liberation; he is immune to any Lawrence- or Mailer-like mysticism of the orgasm. Sex, for him, is never far removed from just getting laid. The preeminence of sex in Roth’s universe also goes some way toward explaining the persistent sense, which Pierpont simply dismisses, that Roth’s work is unfriendly to women. After all, if sex is not about mutuality but only about self-assertion, then a man having sex with a woman is using her for his private purposes. For those purposes one does not necessarily even need a partner: remember Mickey Sabbath masturbating at his lover Drenka’s grave, or Zuckerman on E. I. Lonoff’s couch, declaring his literary independence by polluting the master’s house.

Roth’s treatment of sex is also the part of his work that has aged least well, as American culture has grown more permissive. It may not be quite true, as Irving Howe once said, that the cruelest thing you can do to Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice, but Roth’s most famous book (the typography on the cover of Roth Unbound alludes to the cover of Portnoy’s Complaint) now feels much less courageous and emancipating than it did in 1969. To fully appreciate the power of Roth’s jokes and provocations, you would have had to grow up, as he did, in the 1940s and 1950s, when sex was still rigorously policed. Today, when mainstream movies feature, for instance, a teenage boy fucking a pie, the image of Alexander Portnoy fucking a liver no longer feels so groundbreaking.

In his late work Roth clearly recognized this evolution, which may be why he chose to set several of those books in the years of his childhood. American Pastoral concludes with a tour-de-force dinner-party scene, in which Swede Levov’s aged father, Lou, complains about the mainstream success of Deep Throat: “We are talking about a movie where a grown woman, from all reports, goes in front of a movie camera, and for money, openly, for millions and millions of people to see, children, everyone, does everything she can think of that is degrading.” The scene ends with Lou getting stabbed in the eye with a fork by a drunken guest, as “the American berserk,” which has already claimed his granddaughter Merry, turns out to have infected even respectable middle-class life.

It may seem surprising to find Roth vindicating the worst fears of a puritanical father. Indeed, it seems like a recantation, and it is no coincidence that American Pastoral inaugurated the stage in Roth’s career when he went from provocateur to patriarch of letters. But this same period saw Roth resurrecting the lustful David Kepesh in The Dying Animal and overtly using fiction to defend Bill Clinton against Kenneth Starr in the essayistic The Human Stain. And in very late books such as The Humbling and Exit Ghost, he once again makes the equation of impotence with death. It is not that Roth changed his mind about sex. Rather, he was acknowledging that sex, in order to carry moral and fictional weight, must be a force of opposition: to the father, to social order, to death itself. The ban makes the transgression possible. But the ban on sex had already faded in the culture for which he wrote. Perhaps it was never as vigorous as Roth made it out to be. The prudery that he set out to offend was never the whole story of pre-1960s America.

There has always been another source of moral authority in Roth’s work, another set of prohibitions, which are even more important to him than the sexual. Here again Roth’s denials turn out to be significant. Pierpont quotes him telling an interviewer: “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me. If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” He says something similar in the bland PBS documentary about him that aired earlier this year, and in neither the book nor the movie is he challenged. But for Roth to say that he is not, or not primarily, a Jewish writer is absurd. It would be more accurate to say that the author of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and The Ghost Writer and The Counterlife and Operation Shylock and even American Pastoral is a Jewish writer or he is nothing.

The interesting question is why Roth feels the need to deny this. Perhaps it is because he does not like to recognize how completely the moral stakes of his archetypal story depend on it being an American Jewish story. After all, a sensitive young writer who emancipates himself from his family and community by writing about them, holding them up for criticism or ridicule, is following the oldest of scripts: he is Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, or Willa Cather in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Or he is Philip Roth in Newark, New Jersey, writing about the local vulgarians in the novella Goodbye, Columbus:

Then there was Mrs. Patimkin’s brother, Marty Kreiger, the Kosher Hot-Dog King, an immense man, as many stomachs as he had chins, and already, at fifty-five, with as many heart attacks as chins and stomachs combined. He had just come back from a health cure in the Catskills, where he said he’d eaten nothing but All-Bran and had won $1500 at gin rummy. When the photographer came by to take pictures, Marty put his hand on his wife’s pancake breasts and said, “Hey, how about a picture of this!”

Not a valentine, certainly, but Herman Wouk got in some shots almost as wounding in Marjorie Morningstar and no one called the ADL. No, what caused the rabbis to want to silence Roth—what made Judge Wapter, in The Ghost Writer, ask Nathan Zuckerman, “If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?”—was the way he exposed, in his early work, the deepest anxieties of postwar American Judaism. In “Defender of the Faith”—the story that, as Pierpont shows, caused the greatest commotion, when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1959—a Jewish soldier is manipulated into giving special treatment to his fellow Jews. It read to many American Jews like a revival of common anti-Semitic tropes, showing Jews as clannish, disloyal, and dishonest. Yet Roth, Pierpont writes, claimed that the only secret he was giving away was the fact “that the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority.”

Here again, the disingenuousness is something we must question. For it was not human nature that was flawed in “Defender of the Faith.” The story presents a specifically Jewish dilemma that cannot be translated into the terms of any other “minority.” So too with “Eli, the Fanatic,” a prescient story, in which assimilated American Jews panic at the arrival in their suburb of a yeshiva full of Orthodox Holocaust survivors. If the same story were written about, say, a Catholic school, it would make no emotional sense.

Although Roth claims he never expected the kind of hostile Jewish reaction he got to these early stories, another of them, “The Conversion of the Jews,” tells a different truth. This unforgettable story, in which a Hebrew school student manipulates his rabbi into declaring belief in Jesus by threatening to jump off the synagogue roof, is a kind of parable about the true values of the American Jewish community. Its teaching is that the loyalty of Jews to one another, and especially to their children, far outweighs their professed religious belief; and also that rebellion against Jewishness is one of the most authentic and acceptable forms of Jewishness. This final trust is what makes the story so moving, and it is not hard to see that Roth counted on the same trust for his own provocations.

In fact, he received it. He may have been heckled at Yeshiva University—an occasion he wrote about in The Facts—but as Pierpont points out, Goodbye, Columbus won an award from the Jewish Book Council. The year before the same award had gone to Exodus. Uris’s melodramatic patriotism and Roth’s mischievous provocation could both be recognized—both were recognized—as authentic parts of Jewish literature. And when Roth raised the stakes in Portnoy’s Complaint, putting (as he said) the id back in Yid, Gershom Scholem may have obtusely compared the book to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but Roth sold four hundred thousand copies in hardcover, lots of them to a healthy percentage of the American Jewish population. This is a writer who rebelled and was rewarded for his rebellion, by readers if not (at first) by the establishment, because so many American Jews of Roth’s generation understood his angry and contrarian impulse and even shared it.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty News
Philip Roth, receiving the 2010 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

Which is not to say that Roth’s guilt was not genuine. It was precisely because the guilt was genuine that it served his literary purposes so perfectly. After the Yeshiva University incident, Roth declared that he would never write about Jews again, and in his next books—Letting Go and When She Was Good—he tried to stay away from the subject. (Pierpont writes well about the disastrous marriage that consumed Roth’s personal and literary energies during these years.) If he returned with a bang in Portnoy’s Complaint, it was surely because he recognized the odium of the Jewish establishment as the inspiration that he needed. Here was real guilt, which proved that his transgression, his art itself, was real. The self-assertion of art needed something to push against, if it was not to lose its energy and even its moral substance; and official Jewish piety proved to be a target with just the right degree of resistance.

This was a psychological equation that could have balanced only for a writer of exactly Roth’s age. For Saul Bellow, who was thirty years old in 1945, the Holocaust came too late to really enter into his fictional imagination; it would take decades before the subject truly engaged him, in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. For Roth, who was twelve when the war ended, the condition of the Jews was an unavoidable subject. How dangerous was that condition, really? How much solidarity did it demand, and how much freedom could it afford? In his early essay “Writing About Jews,” Roth quotes a letter from a rabbi accusing him of inciting anti-Semitism, of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” He rejected the premise: “I should agree to sacrifice the freedom essential to my vocation, and even to the general well-being of the culture, because—because of what? The ‘crowded theater’ has absolutely no relevance to the situation of the Jew in America today. It is a grandiose delusion.” Yet that exact “delusion” became, in 2004, the premise of The Plot Against America, a book whose secret, real title is The Plot Against the Jews: Roth’s imagination had still not fully escaped from the crowded theater. In a hundred years, if people want to understand what it was like to be an American Jew in the late twentieth century, the first things they will need to read are Nathan Zuckerman’s fantasia on Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer and his visit to the West Bank in The Counterlife.

In fact, Roth’s outrages against Jewish opinion have served him well, imaginatively speaking, in three distinct phases of his career. Early on, they were a form of self-assertion and emotional release, in Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint; then they were a portal to self-examination, in the Zuckerman books and Operation Shylock. And in his late work, reflection on his own temerity led Roth to realize how very lucky he had been: he was born in one of the few times and places in history where such Jewish risks were rewarded rather than punished. This realization led to the harrowing, self-tormenting guilt scenarios played out in The Plot Against America, where the Roth family falls victim to domestic fascism; and in Indignation, where a boy exactly Roth’s age is expelled from college and dies in the Korean War; and in Nemesis, where a Jewish teenager from Newark is paralyzed by polio. It could all have gone wrong so easily, Roth’s last books seem to say: the sexual adventure, the Jewish adventure, the life of art. But here are Roth’s books to testify that it all went right.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Why Trilling Matters (Yale).