Saturday, 26 May 2018


My essay about Philip Roth went out yesterday on the BBC Radio 4 obituaries programme Last Word. You can find it on the IPlayer here (it's the second item on the running order). When I pitched it to the programme the piece was titled "Philip Roth And The Great American Novel", but I was then asked to make it a bit more of an obituary: the extra material required some cutting, but it still ran a bit long. The producer, Neil George, had found the quotes he'd like to include; one of them as it happened, I'd already written into the script. He re-ordered a little of the material, and cut a few bits. But it worked nicely, I thought, as it was broadcast.

What follows is the final original script, with the obituary-additions included. I've marked some of the bits that didn't make the final cut in brackets. There were also some things I either cut from my first draft or didn't include because it was not a literary essay, or the discussion would have run too long, so I've included them as footnotes.


Philip's Roth's literary career coincides nicely with my own adult reading life, and it was probably with adult reading in mind that sometime in 1969 I grabbed a copy of Portnoy's Complaint, his first book whose explicit frankness about sex, especially masturbation, made it a huge best-seller. It was also funny, but as a teen-aged student of literature I was not impressed. As the son of a Jewish mother myself, it may have cut too close to the  bone. (Audio: from Portnoy)

Soon after, I saw the film Goodbye Columbus, and went back to read Roth's 1959 novella which inspired the movie. Again funny, but also a sharp-edged dissection not just of Jewish families, but of the American Dream they pursued. It's about assimilation, snobbery, money and its uses. About the class structure of education and its value. It reflected Roth's own childhood in Newark's Jewish Weequahic section, contrasted with the ritzy suburb of Short Hills. And it's about love and sex. You didn't need a Jewish mother like mine to see how Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin's relationship was doomed. (1)  (Audio: Roth on GC).

In 1973 Roth published The Great American Novel. It wasn't. Set it the world of baseball, it wasn't even the Great Baseball Novel; {Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris and especially Robert Coover had beaten him to that}. But in its exuberance and self-conscious over-kill it was parodic comment on the burden of what Norman Mailer called 'the great bitch on one's shoulder', that feeling that any American writer, to be 'great' had to write THE book. Mailer battled the ghosts of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but even  conceded Moby Dick was American writing's Great White Whale. Roth seemed to be saying he would not chase that whale. And Joseph Heller had already written Catch 22. (2)

{Roth's Jewish comic act, a harsher Woody Allen, became less captivating}. (3) Critics castigated him as a self-hating Jew, pigeon-holing him in a literary ghetto. But his characters, striving for assimilation, transcended that. I could see easily, in Roth's Jewish fathers, echoes of my own Swedish dad, like Roth's the son of immigrants. Roth left Newark to attend the Waspy (white Anglo-Saxon protestant), Bucknell Colege. He went on to the University of Chicago, then became one of the first products of university writing programmes. (4)

He used the material of his life, and the lives of those he knew, as grist for his mill. His unhappy first marriage to Margaret Martinson; her tragic death later in a car crash. He was a novelist. He wrote. His writing, for better or worse, came first, subsumed his life.In the Seventies he created a fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman and retreated into solipsism, taking his scalpel to writing itself. He never sought public acclaim, like Mailer or Gore Vidal; he didn't deal in journalism. But didn't The Great American Novel need to address a stage bigger than the writer's office or the neighbour's wife's bedroom? (5)

In The Counterlife in 1986, something changed. Roth took apart a story about Zuckerman, and told it from myriad angles. It seemed to free him to unleash Sabbath's Theatre, a bravura celebration of his own so-called faults. It won him his second National Book Award 35 years after Goodbye Columbus.

He was 62. In the space of 15 years he published 11 consistently fine novels. (6) When Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, he could not have imagined this unprecedented run of autumnal success. The themes were familiar, his life was still material. His turbulent marriage to the actress Claire Bloom led to her writing a memoir, which Roth answered with vitriol in I Married A Communist. But he was also looking outward. In Operation Shylock the self-hating Jew turned the story of a Philip Roth impersonator in Israel into a riff on Jews making Europe great again. 

But the more he got away from himself, the better he got. In American Pastoral, his greatest novel, he created Swede Lvov, an answer of sorts to his almost exact contemporary John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom. The Swede's success in pursuing the American Dream gets tragically ambushed by the Sixties. I recognised Swede's daughter Merry as an alternate world version of Brenda Patimkin; I'd known women like her. Then In The Plot Against America, Roth created an alternate America, which many now see a prophetic.

Sex, Death and America are the great themes of American literature; Roth now wove them together. He transcended his own story, but that 'big book' never came. I don't think he intended it to. But to my great surprise and pleasure, his late novels Indignation and The Humbling came full circle back to the America of Goodbye Columbus, as if it were unchanged, except the writer. (7) And his final book, Nemesis, returned to the days when polio threatened, randomly, as death always does, all of us children.

No writer prepared us so well for his passing. (Audio: Roth on retirement) Announcing his retirement, Roth said he'd like one last big idea. But he didn't need a Great American Novel as validation. Nor a Nobel Prize, after Bob Dylan pipped him (8). As he also said, he'd done the best he could with what he had. And that was great in itself.


(1) You could tell by the casting! Richard Benjamin gets Ali MacGraw? Get outta here. The same year she played Jewish here, McGraw also played Italian in Love Story, which subsumed Goodbye Columbus. But this time Waspy Ryan O'Neil gets the ethnic girl. So she dies. Mike Nichols should have directed Goodbye Columbus.
(2)  I left out the comment on other baseball novels because it was off-topic, but you really should read Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, which was published in 1968 and which I am sure influenced Roth's book. I'm also sure Roth's book was a parody, not of the literature itself, as much as the quest. It's better than many people affect to believe. He throws a lot in, like Melville, but the Patriot League isn't quite the Pequod. But I don't think he was actually trying to write TGAN; though most of the critics assumed he was. I also don't believe he came close in those early years. Also, I'm not saying Catch 22 actually is the Great American Novel, though it may be the best of its generation. 

(3) The Roth/Allen comparison is obvious: Roth was a novelist who used Jewish comedy, Allen a comic who wrote stories as well as writing and directing movies. We could argue for pages about which came first, Roth's novel The Breast or the breast section of Allen's movie Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (both in 1972). Certainly Portnoy had opened the door. But there's another link: Richard Benjamin. Actually Mia Farrow. After breaking up with Woody, Mia 'dated' (as they say) Roth--their houses in Connecticut were probably not that far apart. Mia then published a memoir of her own, shades of Claire Bloom. That year, Woody's film Deconstructing Harry, a more vicious and Jewish riff on Bergman's Wild Strawberries  featured a Philip Roth-like novelist who makes barely disguised fiction out of his life. And Benjamin, who starred in the movie of Portnoy's Complaint as well as Goodbye Columbus, got cast as one of Harry's alter-ego characters, Allen's version of Roth's Zuckerman if you will. Meow.

(4) Roth taught at a number of the early creative writing programmes, and his early stories (which as best I can see have never been collected) appeared in literary magazines (and political ones like Commentary) before making the jump to Esquire and the New Yorker.

(5) One could try an essay on the way creative writing programmes tend to write about writers and teachers somewhat disproportionately and how Roth reflects this. 

(6) This was the hardest part of the essay to write. I'm convinced about the turning point, but the next two books Deception and Shylock, are really still working out bits of The Counterlife. It may have just been aging, the acquisition of gravitas. Look at the contrast in his photos. Up to this point I'd agree with those who find Roth's work repetitive, not challenging, very much inward looking. It had its moment. But starting with Sabbath's Theatre I'd argue each of his novels is brilliantly controlled (even the seeming chaos of Sabbath's, and his status as a major writer (as opposed to one known for Portnoy) is cemented by them.

(7) Indignation is a campus novel, set in the early 50s, with all the class differences and sexual double-standards of Goodbye Columbus. Although The Humbling offended some readers when its aging actor protagonist has an affair with the lesbian daughter of two of his friends, the way 'Mike', the woman, feels compelled to hide the relationship from her parents reminded me one last time of Brenda Patimkin. I also didn't address the misogyny of which Roth stands accused. Here the accusation might be 'self-hating man', because he is so straight-forward about the men's weakness and fear of women, and the way it is inculcated in them. This may be a more generous analysis than some would give.

(8) First Arthur Miller, then Roth. Though I'm not sure his world view is Nobelesque, in the sense of the kind of idealism Alfred sought, but then, was Pinter's? I wonder if Joni Mitchell will pip Margaret Atwood?

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