Roth and the Jewish-American novelists who followed him had very different attitudes to their cultural inheritanceby David Herman / June 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
What is striking about the flood of tributes to Philip Roth since his death at the age of 85 is not what has been said but what is missing. There has been plenty about Roth and sex, Roth and Jews, Roth and America. How funny he was, what a great conversationalist and, above all, how talented.
There has been remarkably little, however, about Roth and the great theme of 20th-century Jewish-American literature: the often difficult search for a subject. In 1961 Roth visited Bernard Malamud in Oregon. Roth was still in his twenties and had just published his first book of stories, Goodbye, Columbus. Malamud was almost 50 and one of the most famous writers in America. This meeting was immortalised in one of Roth’s greatest books, The Ghost Writer. In this 1979 work, a young writer, Nathan Zuckerman, visits EI Lonoff, a first-generation immigrant modelled on Malamud, who found a new voice for Jewish-American literature. He had found a voice but, more importantly, he had a subject: “life-hunger, life-bargains, and life-terror”—a Jewish experience rooted in the traumas of east Europe and Russia.
There is a third novelist in The Ghost Writer, Felix Abravanel, “a writer who found irresistible all vital and dubious types, not excluding the swindlers of both sexes who trampled upon the large hearts of his optimistic, undone heroes.” Abravanel, of course, is Saul Bellow. Zuckerman heard him speak at Chicago, just as the young Roth had recently met Bellow in Chicago at a literature class.
There is one more writer present in The Ghost Writer: Anne Frank. What is interesting about her appearance is not the shock value, but what Roth does with her. Anne Frank, of course, has a subject too, one of the subjects of the 20th century.
Zuckerman, like Roth, was too young to have experienced either the old country or early immigrant life that is Lonoff’s (and Malamud’s) subject. At the same time, born in safe America, he was spared the Holocaust. Instead, throughout his career, Roth searched for a subject: from the Jewish suburbs of Goodbye, Columbus to Prague and Israel, and then in the 1990s to America’s post-war history. This allowed him to bring together American history and Jewish characters (including Zuckerman, now much older), humour…