This essay was first published in Göteborgs-Posten, 31 May 2018.
‘The epithet American-Jewish writer has no meaning for me’, Philip Roth once said. ‘If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.’
Since the American novelist’s death last week, there have been many fine eulogies to Roth, and to his place in the modern literary pantheon. Some critics have focused on his themes of Jewishness and sex, and with his obsession with himself. Others have looked upon his work as chronicling the condition of America. Few, though, have linked the two, and shown how it is in the relationship between the inward and the outward gaze that Roth’s claim to greatness lies.
Yes, Roth was a novelist of Jewishness and of male lust. His life, and his experiences, were central to his work. Roth’s subject, Martin Amis once wrote was ‘himself, himself, himself’. It would be wrong, however, to read him, as many have done, as a narcissist. In 2011, when Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, one of the judges Carmen Callil dissented. ‘Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there’, she wrote. ‘His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist.’
She could not have been more wrong. Roth may have begun with himself. But he, and the fictional alter egos he deployed, became vehicles for exploring that which lay beyond him. As the narrator puts it in Roth’s 1974 novel My Life As a Man:
His self is to many a novelist what his own physiognomy is to a painter of portraits: the closest subject at hand demanding scrutiny, a problem for his art to solve – given the enormous obstacles to truthfulness, the artistic problem. He is not simply looking in the mirror because he is transfixed by what he sees. Rather, the artist’s success depends as much as anything on his powers of detachment, on denarcissising himself.
For all his self-obsession, Roth’s work engages deeply with moral questions of mortality and creativity, suffering and betrayal, loyalty and love. His novels engage, too, with the history of modern America, from the Second World War, McCarthyism and Vietnam to the sexual revolution, terrorism, and the politics of identity. Since November 2016, some have reread Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America as a prophetic anticipation of Donald Trump.
It is difficult to comprehend today’s world without an understanding of narcissism. From the rise of what Tom Wolfe, another great American writer who died last month, called the ‘me generation’ to the fixation with ‘consumer choice’ to the influence of the politics of identity, the self occupies a central place in contemporary politics and culture. But it’s a very different self to that found in Roth’s work. The contemporary obsession with the self is often a means of shutting out the world, of creating a ‘safe space’ within which one can disengage. Roth’s fascination with the self, on the other hand, was, paradoxically, an attempt to forge a lens through which to look out. He began with himself and his preoccupations as a means of engaging with the world, not of retreating from it.
Roth was born in 1933 at the beginning of the New Deal era. He described himself throughout his life as a ‘Roosevelt Democrat’. He came of age in Eisenhower’s America. Much of his work is about questioning and unpicking the comfortableness of that world. For some it may have seemed like the golden age in which to be born American was to have been touched by destiny. Yet, it was a world that had come out of Depression and world war, Hiroshima and the Holocaust. And it was a world that would give way to McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, terrorism and populism. That historical consciousness was ever-present in Roth’s work. Ever-present, too, was a desire to discomfit the sense of American ease. His novels were laugh-out-loud funny. But Roth wanted to unnerve readers, and he did.
Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, was a satirical look at middle-class Jewish-American life, laying bare what he himself described in the preface to the book’s 30th anniversary edition, as their ‘tribal secrets’: ‘their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection’. It drew the ire of influential figures in the Jewish community, who denounced him as a ‘self-hating Jew’. According to the critic Judith Thurman ‘a leading educator at Yeshiva University wrote to the Anti-Defamation League to ask, “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”’
A decade later came Portnoy’s Complaint, his fourth novel, and the one that for many defines Roth and his work. It was filthy and funny and taboo-breaking. There probably still is no book with as many references per page to masturbation, nor with so many descriptions of sex with everyday objects – a milk bottle, a sock, a baseball mitt, a piece of liver. Written as a monologue by Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst, it tells the story of a young Jewish man trying to break free of his suffocating parents and attempting to confront his sexual neuroses. Governments banned it. Libraries refused to stock it. The Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem claimed that it was more hateful than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
If Jewish critics saw him as a traitor to his community, many feminists have seen him as a misogynist. ‘If in Bellow misogyny was like seeping bile, in Roth it was lava pouring forth from a volcano’, wrote Vivian Gornick. ‘Roth’s female characters are not nearly as filled out as his male ones’, the novelist Lionel Shriver has claimed. There is truth to Shriver’s observation. But the charge of ‘misogyny’ misses the point.
Roth’s novels are full of men who obsess about sex, objectify women, and are often contemptuous of them. This, however, is how Roth understands the male gaze. There are many passages in his novels that can make readers, male and female, deeply uncomfortable. But that surely is the point?
If the books in the first decade of his career established Roth as a literary force, the books of the last two decades carved out his place as perhaps the pre-eminent chronicler of modern America. In the years leading up to the millennium came the loosely connected ‘American trilogy’: American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). Written in sparser prose than his earlier works, Roth picks apart in these books the American Dream.
American Pastoral tells the story of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, an all-American hero, and the man with everything: personal riches, sporting prowess and seemingly the perfect family. His life is thrown into turmoil when his daughter, Merry, sets off a bomb during an anti-Vietnam War protest, killing a bystander, and being forced into hiding. The disintegration of Levov’s life is the disintegration, too, of the American Dream. ‘You wanted Miss America? Well, you’ve got her, with a vengeance, she’s your daughter! You wanted to be a real American hotshot with a beautiful Gentile babe on your arm? You longed to belong like everybody else to the United States of America? Well you do now’, Levov’s brother tells him.
I Married a Communist jumps back to the fifties to explore the culture of betrayal in MacCarthy’s America. The Human Stain moves forward to the 1990s to explore race, identity and self-invention in an America infused with ‘the ecstasy of sanctimony’ and brimming with ‘righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish’.
Roth wrote many mediocre works, especially in his middle period. But in his best books, the academic and critic Sarah Churchwell has observed, ‘the great omniscient perspective of the 19th-century American novel stands up and looks askance at the mess of the 20th century, making its wry disgust known.’ And this is what makes the charge of narcissism so peculiar. It is the contemporary world that all too often is inward looking, fragmented and self-obsessed. And it is Roth who shines a light upon it, allowing us to understand both ourselves and that world a little better.
The photo of Philip Roth is by Irving Penn, ‘Philip Roth, New York, 1983’ / © The Irving Penn Foundation.