Is Philip Roth the greatest of living American novelists?by Jason Cowley / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
In 1993 Philip Roth published Operation Shylock: a confession, a hysterical exploration of the disintegrating self. No writer had been more adept at exploiting postmodern ideas of the instability of the self and the slippage between autobiography and fiction, but this time it seemed as though Roth had reached a terminus, the point at which his stylised self-obsession had become a poetics of despair. As John Updike wrote, “this cultivation of hypothetical selves has become an end game.”
At the time of the publication of Shylock there was talk of Roth having suffered a breakdown and the novel reads as if it were written, if not exactly while he was in therapy, then in a kind of rapture of self-absorption: a Jewish-American writer called Philip Roth travels to Israel after a period of ill health to track down an imposter, a fanatic who is also called Philip Roth and who is scheming to lead the Jews out of the promised land. When Roth finally meets his avenging double, he is startled: “His face was the face I remembered seeing in the mirror during the months when I was breaking down. His glasses were off and I saw in his eyes my own dreadful panic of the summer before, my eyes at their most fearful when I could think of nothing else but how to kill myself.”
Shylock is a technically audacious, disturbing and, at times, very funny book; but it is also relentless, opaque and wearisomely self-congratulatory. In fact it reads how it is: the culmination of Roth’s fictional obsession with his own life. “Making fake biography, false history,” he has said, “concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life.” In Shylock the American Roth may or may not be working as a spy for Mossad; he may or may not be married to an English actress called Claire (Roth at the time was married to Claire Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated); and his career may or may not be identical to that of the actual Philip Roth, whose picture peers beakily from the dust jacket. In an elaborate preface, Roth suggests that Shylock is “as accurate an account as I am able to give of actual occurrences that I have lived through during my middle fifties and that culminated, early in 1988, in my agreeing to undertake an intelligence-gathering operation for Israel’s foreign intelligence service.” This was a period when, as it turned out, Roth was indeed falling apart: his marriage was disintegrating (it exploded in 1996 when Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, in which she condemned Roth’s misogyny and narcissism); he suffered some kind of mental collapse after taking the sleeping pill Halcion; and was being tormented in Jerusalem by an anti-Zionist imposter using his name.
But then, in a note at the end of the book, Roth reports that the confession we have just read is false. So have we read a confession or not? As always, it seems, Roth was adopting a strategy of complete disclosure interwoven with complete disavowal. “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography,” he has said. “I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction.”
In Shylock he was writing about himself for no one but himself. He had nowhere else to go—except, as it turned out, to go back to the beginning, to a time when he was more interested in the world than in himself. The result was something unprecedented in the history of modern letters: in his seventh decade, when most of his peers were entering the long twilight of their careers, Roth began to get better. He began to write better books: his best books—and none of them were explicitly about himself. Rather, he began writing the kind of state-of-the-nation novels that we in Britain have long since ceased to expect from our writers, in which national history is recast and the big picture is animated.
Roth began his comeback with Sabbath’s Theater (1995), the story of an arthritic 64-year-old former puppeteer called Mickey Sabbath who is driven to near madness by the death of his Croatian lover, Drenka, a woman so fabulously promiscuous that she once enjoyed four different lovers in a single day. It is a work of sexual frenzy: debauched, febrile, invigorating. We see Sabbath masturbating on Drenka’s grave as he recalls the self-obliterating ferocity of their sexual relationship and we follow his journey into the past and descent into Lear-like nothingness. We see him wandering the streets of New York, lost in the sublime of his own mind.
If Sabbath’s Theater was a study of tormented consciousness, the trilogy that followed—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)—were different again. Here were novels of public protest, drawing inspiration from the epochal changes in post-war US society. Their pessimism of tone and implicit conservatism have led many in the US to assume that Roth had followed Saul Bellow in becoming a man of the right, in revolt against the tarnished freedoms of the 1960s, a period which did so much to form him as a writer and an individual.
Roth’s old fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman narrates the trilogy, living in semi-reclusive retreat from the world and his own turbulent past. Zuckerman was always childless but now, in his late sixties, after a life of tormented sexuality, he has become impotent and incontinent too. But these novels are not about him. “My seclusion is not the story here,” he says in I Married a Communist. “I don’t want a story any longer. I’ve had my story.”
So Zuckerman is less an active presence than a vehicle for other people’s stories; he becomes a device, the ideal chronicler who hospitably listens to the stories of others so as to remind us that, as Thomas Mann once put it, “in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” Each of the novels is angry and elegiac. Each has a tragic dimension and has as its hero an aspirant everyman who is ruined through becoming entangled in a web of public politics and private deceit.
American Pastoral is about a Jewish businessman called Seymour Levov who, as a youth growing up in Zuckerman’s neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, was known locally as “the Swede” because with his blond hair, blue eyes and vigorous athleticism he could not have seemed less like a Jew. The Swede was a schoolboy hero of Zuckerman’s: a sports star who lived the American dream, marrying an Irish beauty queen with whom he settled down to a life of affluent contentment. Early in the novel, Zuckerman runs into the Swede in a New York restaurant. They have not seen each other for decades and they begin chatting. Zuckerman is struck by Levov’s conventional simplicity: his life has been a chain of smooth successes, “just great, right in the American grain.” But not long afterwards, at a high school reunion, Zuckerman meets the Swede’s brother. The Swede is now dead; he was suffering from cancer at the time of his meeting with Zuckerman. Slowly we learn more about the Swede’s life: that in 1968 his beloved 16-year-old daughter, Merry, a member of the antiwar group called the Weathermen, blew up a post office, killing a doctor. After that she went on the run, withdrawing deeper into the underground, beyond the reach of the law and of her parents. The Swede’s marriage was destroyed by the vilification of his daughter; his business faltered and then failed. Meanwhile, the Vietnam war goes on and resentment seethes.
Zuckerman is astounded by his misreading of the Swede—”Never was I more mistaken about anyone in my life.” In an act of imaginative appropriation, he decides to retell the story of the Swede’s collapse. In so doing, he returns to the neighbourhood of their youth and finds that the once quiet, harmonious streets of Newark have become a moronic inferno of violence and racial hatred. This then is not so much an American pastoral as a counter-pastoral; what Roth calls the “indigenous American berserk.”
I Married a Communist follows a similar trajectory. Once again, Zuckerman meets an old acquaintance, this time it is his former schoolteacher, Murray Ringwold. He has news of the terrible fall of his brother Ira Ringwold, who was widely known as the actor Iron Rinn, star of a popular radio series. The communist of the title, Ira is destroyed twice over-by the betrayal of his wife, the actress Eve Frame (a thinly disguised portrait of Claire Bloom) and by unsubstantiated denunciations in a time of McCarthyite paranoia. Growing up in Newark, Ira had been something of an inspiration and surrogate father to the young Zuckerman, who recalls his own journey into political awareness while offering an authentic portrait of a 1940s and 1950s America, often soft-edged with melancholy. (Throughout his career, Roth has returned to the lost Newark of his boyhood, where he grew up the son of an insurance salesman, as if he were retracing his own steps in search of when his life took a wrong turn.)
John Updike has written disparagingly of what he calls the “blocks of talk” in Roth’s books—the hectoring, didactic dialogue and the speechifying excesses. Large sections of I Married a Communist are static, unfurling in pages of unbroken dialogue as Murray relays his brother’s story. Too much of Ira’s life is told, not shown-his early political engagement; his courting of, and subsequent battles with, Eve Frame, whose bourgeois indulgences represent all that he once loathed; his wartime experiences in Iran, which radicalised him. As a result, we struggle to feel the pathos of Ira’s fall; we simply have to take his brother’s word for what happened.
I Married a Communist may be flawed—written perhaps too quickly—but it remains, like all of Roth’s recent work, a powerful attempt to show how individual idealism is dislocated and then destroyed by the forces of senseless history. Ira longed to become his “own uncorrected first self,” a new man in the communist model; but Roth reminds us that hopeful provincials such as the Swede and Ira are never truly free: they are always liable to be “impaled on their moment,” caught in “the traps set for them by their era.”
The Human Stain is the most urgent and most contemporary of the trilogy: set in the summer of 1998, the “summer of Monica” and a president’s humiliation. It is essentially a novel about that most incendiary of issues, both in the US and increasingly in Britain: race. Coleman Silk is a distinguished Jewish professor of classics at Athena college in New England. He is imperious and remote, “an autocratic ego” who is sceptical of the theoretical turn in the liberal arts. His colleagues have long nurtured resentment of him and seize their opportunity to topple him when he describes two long absent pupils as “spooks”—meaning ghosts. In the tense, riven world of American academe, his remark is misunderstood as a racist slight as these pupils are black.
When Silk meets up with Nathan Zuckerman he is defeated: his wife has died, he has been denounced as a racist and forced to leave Athena and a former female colleague is pursuing him ruthlessly. His only compensation is that, with the help of Viagra, he has been enjoying a passionate relationship with an illiterate cleaner (how often Roth’s characters find lovers among the poor and uneducated). When Silk dies suspiciously in a car accident, Zuckerman discovers that he was not born a white Jew, but a fair-skinned African American, that his whole life had been an elaborate deceit, an attempt to evade the truth about his racial identity. Zuckerman’s role in the novel, as in American Pastoral, is to listen and then to recreate the story of Silk’s counterlife, which once more returns him to the Newark of both his and Silk’s adolescence.
Coleman Silk’s attempt to escape from his own biological narrative is at once a metaphor for the American dream of being reborn, of remaking yourself in a new land, and also a continuation of the question raised in the first two books of the trilogy as to how free the individual is when confronted by the inexorable forces of history. Roth’s view of history is dark, dystopian and deterministic: the Swede, Ira Ringwold and Coleman Silk are all essentially decent men who have been destroyed by forces outside of their control, the forces of history to which they are remorselessly fettered.
They are also victims of the “tyranny of propriety” in American public life: the Swede is wounded by the contempt of those who blame him for the monstrosity of his daughter; Ira is publicly eviscerated after his wife publishes a confessional memoir which alleges that her former husband was a Soviet spy, just as Claire Bloom published a memoir about Roth; and Silk is destroyed by academics so sanctimonious that they have allowed little policemen to live inside their heads. And yet these three men are in a way culpable, authors of their own decline, because they have allowed themselves to believe in the possibility of America, in the immigrant’s dream of affluent fulfillment: searching for secular redemption they longed to become the engines of their own self-creation, freed from the past. But Roth reminds us, again and again, that the founding dream of America is an illusion; paradise was lost long before it was ever found.
Roth’s latest novel, The Dying Animal, is different from and yet an extension of the trilogy’s preoccupation with recent political history. It is narrated by David Kepesh, a callous libertine on the book chat circuit, whom we last encountered in The Professor of Desire (1977). Before that, in the parable-like The Breast (1972), a baroque farrago which must count as one of Roth’s worst novels, Kepesh mutated into a gigantic breast. Now, in this new book, he has fallen in love with, well, a breast—a pair of them, to be precise. They belong to one of his students, a wealthy, charming 24-year-old Cuban-American, Consuela Castillo, whose thrilling desirability enchants, infatuates and tortures Kepesh.
We first meet Kepesh eight years after his affair with Conseula began, and we discover that he has been wounded by the experience, that he thinks about this woman, whom he no longer sees, continually. He often masturbates to the memory of her body and his jealousy is undiminished by the years of her absence.
Consuela and Kepesh’s relationship is bathed in a flow of body fluids and copulation. Roth is a self-styled “extremist writer.” Almost from the start he splashed in a pool of obscenity, indulging his desire to offend—not least the Jewish community in which he grew up, with his depictions of ordinary secular Jews struggling to adapt to a life of superabundance and temptation in assimilationist America.
Kepesh is a product of 1960s rebellion. Long ago he renounced any pretence at living what he sees as a conventional life, one constrained by monogamy and routine relationships, and he is used to sleeping with his students, with any number of women. But Kepesh’s relationship with Conseula is different. For a start, he is maddeningly jealous of her youth, of the boyfriends she has had and may have, when he, an aged and shrunken star of the ephemeral microphone, is dead. Or worse, impotent. And it is death, which gives this novel its remarkable charge and compulsion (and its devastating denouement).
In The Dying Animal, sex is Kepesh’s protective shield, which enables him to affirm his solitude, to live under extremes of isolation and threat. But it is not enough. Kepesh, at the end of his life, has been humbled, forced to re-evaluate the codes by which he has lived-the licentiousness, the irresponsibility, the refusal to conform. Later, when Conseula becomes (cruelly and schematically) ill with breast cancer and seeks help from Kepesh, the professor has to choose between self-affirmation and some kind of fellow-feeling.
The Dying Animal is full of startling inversions and political reversals. Here we re-encounter Kepesh, the old sexual adventurer, at a moment of profound crisis: What if my life has been wrong, he seems to be asking himself? What if my perpetual pursuit of sexual satisfaction was a kind of defeat? Have the costs of living through the revolutionary period of the 1960s been too great to wider society?
Roth is here presenting a portrait of the emptiness of the 1960s and an argument against them. In this, he shares a thematic preoccupation with the maverick French writer Michel Houellebecq, a former communist whose novel, Atomised, is a corruscating denunciation of the decade of sexual liberation, which, he thinks, destroyed the traditional family, “the last unit separating the individual from the market.” In Houellebecq, as in Roth, the freedoms of the radical decade have turned out to be a kind of imprisonment; battles were won but the dead are everywhere, victims of the fallout from the counter-culture.
The Dying Animal has received a mixed reception in the US, with Roth once more accused of indulging his libidinal anguish. Zoë Heller, in the New Republic, booed the loudest. “To hold Roth accountable for the dispiriting strain of… womanphobia that runs through his novels is not idly to confuse Roth with his characters. It is, rather, to acknowledge that one of the areas in which a writer most nakedly asserts himself or herself is in the choice of subject. Roth’s implied moral commentary on Kepesh is all very well, but if he did not believe that an old goat’s agonising about a pneumatic 24-year-old was not representative of the human dilemma—was not deserving of our sympathetic attention—he wouldn’t be writing about it, would he?”
Roth may, as Heller suggests, reveal his moral prejudices through returning fanatically to the same subjects—the fragmentation of family, the failure of feminism to liberate men and women from mutual antagonism, the corruption of rampant individualism—but at least his chosen subjects are inherently interesting, they matter. In fact they are as one with the faultlines running through modern political discourse, whether in the anguished dialogue taking place between liberals and social conservatives within the Labour party in Britain, or the recent moral confrontations in France and Germany, where so many senior politicians are being forced to account for the excessive irresponsibility of their revolutionary youth.
Roth’s women may be a force of chaos, deliverers of destruction-predictably depicted as sexual predators or wounded victims, as vengeful wives or remorseful lovers, complicit illiterates or book-smart academics—but Roth’s men fare little better. Kepesh, Zuckerman, Mickey Sabbath-they are either defeated or in retreat from the world, exhausted survivors who are diminished by illness and guilty memory. So perhaps it is not so much that Roth is a mechanical misogynist as a clear-eyed realist: he sees us as we really are, with the façades down-and both suffering and the need for patience are perpetual.
In an interview with David Remnick in the New Yorker last year, Roth spoke of how he no longer listens to the standard criticisms of his work: that he is a self-hating Jew; that he is in thrall to gruesome effects; that his work is ego-ridden and exhibitionistic; that he actually hates women. There was a time, however, when he used to listen too much, especially after the controversy that followed the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) his semi-pornographic study of a young middle-class Jewish adolescent’s journey into disenchanted maturity (the young Portnoy famously masturbates using a piece of liver).
Portnoy was an international bestseller which made Roth rich. In writing the novel Roth, according to New York magazine, had “kicked the nice Jewish boy bit, the stance of the Jamesian moral intelligence, and unleashed his comic foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed demon. His true self.” For a time he became one of the most famous people in the US, a regular on talk shows and in gossip columns, a writer-celebrity. “To become a celebrity is to become a brand name,” he wrote. “There is Ivory soap, Rice Krispies, and Philip Roth. Ivory is the soap that floats; Rice Krispies the breakfast cereal that goes snap-crackle-pop; Philip Roth the Jew who masturbates with a piece of liver. And makes a million out of it.”
Ever since then it seems Roth has been in retreat from what Saul Bellow called the “event glamour” of contemporary society, from the buzz of gossip and consumerism that so defines our modernity. Today he has withdrawn still further, living alone in semi-reclusive seclusion in rural Connecticut. There, after the painful and very public collapse of his marriage, he has found a kind of autumnal freedom, working to his own austere rhythm, sometimes writing all day and into the night. He has endured major heart surgery, his health has been erratic, but he told the New Yorker-“I have to tell you that I don’t believe in death, I don’t experience my time as limited. I know it is but I don’t feel it. I could live three hours or I could live 30 years, I don’t know. Time doesn’t prey upon my mind.”
It is hard to believe him when he says this-because his recent work is saturated in death and illness, with an imminent sense of an ending. In any event, as Nathan Zuckerman wrote, in a letter to his creator, Philip Roth: “With autobiography there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented.” So why should we accept Roth’s word now when we were encouraged never to believe him in the past?
Certainly, reading the trilogy and Sabbath’s Theater you sense that here is a writer, even at the age of 68, who burns to invent. His fiction has a 19th-century grandeur, an existential frenzy of the kind once familiar from the work of, say, Dostoevsky, Conrad or Céline but which has largely disappeared from the Anglo-American novel. So the more you read of the late Roth, the more you are convinced that, despite his own protestations, he is writing against extinction: he is a writer who works to the sound of death panting behind him—and what death-haunted work he has produced so late in the day.
Speaking in 1960, not long into his career, Roth marvelled at the fantastic nature of modern reality and of how the writer will struggle to compete with the bewildering nature of American history. “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Yet Roth has remained true to his youthful vision of the writing life, his mission to document the defining particulars of his age, to submerge himself in waves of contemporary reality, to cover the world in fiction. No other American writer-not overwriting Bellow, with his anti-hero Herzog; not Updike, with his family of Rabbits and their hick everyman musings; and not DeLillo, with his cast of paranoids-has created characters as memorable or alive as Nathan Zuckerman or David Kepesh, or endowed his books with such philosophical urgency, making us think that the novel still matters.
There is a reason for this, I think. John Updike’s vision of the world is essentially benign; he is a professional writer, comfortable with his talent and affluence and seemingly selecting his subjects with the insouciance of a child-what will it be today, the court of Hamlet or miscegenation in Brazil? He is also a believer in God, so he has his consolation. Bellow, though agnostic, believes in the soul: to him empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. This other reality is always sending us hints that we cannot receive without art. As for DeLillo, if he believes in anything, it is the power of conspiracies, the mysterious networks and covert connections that shape our lives.
But Philip Roth believes in nothing except the world of his fiction. He is fearlessly beholden to no one. He is a hard nihilist. All political schemes to remake the world, he seems to be saying in recent novels, are doomed. If we are anything, we are liars: the truth about us is endlessly mysterious and we know nothing of those around us. His fictional alter egos, his tortured, superfluous men, are resolutely earth-bound as they muse on the futility of ambition in the face of certain annihilation. Their respite is found in an intense erotic abandon, a willful succumbing to preposterous desires-and, as David Kepesh puts it, to the relentless “stupidity of being oneself,” to the “unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all.” But always in Roth it is too late, the world is already out of joint. As the Swede must discover in American Pastoral, “the worst lesson that life can teach is that it makes no sense.”