On the Death of Novelist Philip Roth

READING THE COUNTERLIFE. Last week we learned about the death of Philip Roth, a novelist thought by many admirers both inside and outside the university, to be among the best American writers of the post-World War II years. Described as a “literary lion” and a “genius,” Roth produced more than 25 novels across 51 years. His first work, Goodbye Columbus (a short story collection) was published in 1959, but it was Portnoy’s Complaint, published a decade later, that brought him to the attention of the world. It is with this work about the musings of a striving but guilt ridden young Jewish man on his psychiatrist’s couch that was a succes de scandale. It deepened the stereotype of the meddlesome Jewish mother, it made self-pleasuring an acceptable topic for fiction, and to the chagrin and embarrassment of many Jewish-Americans, it aired the group’s dirty laundry. It brought upon Roth the charge of anti-Semitism, a charge that would last his lifetime and against which he offered countless defenses. This early fame and notoriety came at a time when Jewish-America writers (e.g. Malamud, Bellow, Mailer) were the most powerful analysts of life in America at midcentury.

I have taught Roth’s work with pleasure and enthusiasm. Most recently I taught Nemesis (2010), his last novel; it’s a remarkable story, written by Roth in his late 70s, that follows the doomed trajectory of a Newark- born Jewish athlete who is felled by the polio epidemic and is thus disqualified from joining the military during the Second World, a move that would have bestowed upon the hero the full measure of his masculinity and upon his ethnic group its full integration into and acceptance by American culture. Like many of Roth’s novel, this novel explores the cultural geography of a Newark, New Jersey. Roth’s ability to evoke the characteristics of Jews in a particular place at a particular time and to evoke the communal fright about the epidemic is extraordinary. Roth’s novels are indispensable to our understanding of Jewish-American life, and, by extension, of other marginalized ethnic groups.

To observe the death of Roth, I pulled off my shelf a work that I purchase a few years after its 1986 publication but had remained untouched. It’s a mid-career novel that is grouped by Roth critics as one of the Zuckerman novels, referring to the inclusion in the novel of a Roth-like writer named Nathan Zuckerman. It’s been the preoccupation of Roth’s many biographically-inclined readers to see how the fictionalized novelist stacks up against the writer who creates him.

The presence and importance of Nathan Zuckerman is a typical feature of a many Roth novels. It’s a sign that Roth is a “meta-fictional writer,” that is, a writer who is equally interested in showing in the text of the novel how the work is made and a writer who is interested in commenting on the role of the writer in society and the place of the literary work in a world that seems to prefer film narrative. Roth has been cagey about answering questions about the correspondence between him and his fiction-writing creations. He fully acknowledges that writing from life inevitably means distortion and manipulation of the character to fulfill thematic ambitions. And he has plead quilty to the charge that he has exploited the lives of family and friends for the ground of his fiction. This ‘inside baseball” dimension of the novel excited many readers (myself included) but leaves cold readers who prefer linear stories in realistic settings.

In The Counterlife, Roth’s inventive playfulness, comes through in many ways, the least of which is the way in which he explores the complicated relationship between Nathan and his successful dentist brother Henry, who lives ostensibly a very bourgeoisie suburban existence, with a pliant wife, three talented kids, and a mild allegiance to his faith community. (Roth too had a younger brother who had an ambivalent relationship with his older and more talented sibling.) Despite grievances toward one another formed in childhood (despite the influences of well-meaning, upwardly-mobile parents), Nathan commiserates with his brother about his impotence due to a heart condition that might require surgery and the awkwardness of the affair that Henry is having with his office assistant. The psychologically-oriented novelist has fun trying to understand and identify with his libidinous brother’s efforts to escape suburban suffocation and a search for meaning in a secularized, consumerist society. This documentation of male sexual anxiety is a constant feature of his work. (The focus on male sexuality has led many readers to reject Roth because of his misogynist attitudes and his failure to understand the inner lives of women.)

In a work divided up into five non-continous sections, Roth uses the fourth part to provide “the counterlife,” giving to Nathan the same health problem and its psychological repercussions. Nathan proves to be no further along the path of personal liberation than is his brother.

Henry has sought escape in his sexual affair with his assistant, but when that proves to be a dead end, he gives up New Jersey entirely in order to move to a settlement in the occupied territories (of the West Bank) in order to discover his true Jewish self through a study of Hebrew and an immersion in Jewish history. Although the end of the novel, which returns to focus on Nathan, raises question about whether an essential self exists, the skeptical Nathan discovers that Henry has reached a state of contentment under the tutelage of Lippman, a zealous Zionist who preaches the belief that it’s biblically ordained that the Jews occupy Judea even if that means the subordination if not elimination of the Palestinians and their rightful claim to the land. Lippman is a defender of Menachem Begin, the Zionist militant in pre-statehood days who served as Israeli Prime minister from 1977-1983.

One of the pleasures of reading Roth is to be at the receiving end of extended monologues by characters like Lippman. Roth gives full voice to these characters, displaying their verbal power and conviction. A fanatical Israeli Jimmy, hell bent on blowing up the plane that carries him and Nathan to London in order to show that Jews can no longer be seen as the weak and ineffectual individuals so easily led into the gas chambers. Rabbi eulogists and aggrieved spouses are also given their time on stage.

While we may sense the implied narrator’s repudiation of Jimmy’s crazy ideas, Roth is fair to the various voices on the spectrum of Jewish opinion. Roth is extremely help in our efforts to understand the “troubles in the tribe,” that is the divisions within American and Israeli Jewish communities around issues like the creation of the settlements, the treatment of the Palestinians, the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and the diplomatic and financial support of the American government. Roth is no minimalist writing about sibling rivalry on a small canvas; he’s interested in showing how the personal is embedded in the political and that his fictional creations are impacted by forces both small and large.

Roth demonstrates that his location on this spectrum is among those who believe that criticism of Israel is not automatically anti-Semetic. This work, like many others, is an attempt, in part, to escape from underneath the charge that its writer is a “self-hating Jew.” In the last section of the novel, we find Nathan married to a well-to-do English woman whose aristocratic mother’s prejudice about Jews is a source of irritation to the novelist who finds that it is impossible to entirely stand outside one’s tribal history.

There’s no consensus around which of Roth’s novels is the best, so there does seem to be some mild agreement that the Counterlife is one of his best. It’s a novel that shows Roth at his full power as cultural historian analyst, student of crooked human nature, experimenter of fictional forms, and artisan of a compelling style. This may not be the best “introduction to Roth” book (Roth’s first work might serve that purpose better), but it’s one that the reader should pull of the shelf for the many pleasures defined above.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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