Philip Roth Essay - Roth, Philip (Vol. 6)

Roth, Philip (Vol. 6)

Roth, Philip 1933–

A Jewish-American novelist and short story writer of the first rank, Roth has been attacked by both Jews and "Wasps" for his burlesques of their ordinary, real worlds. He himself remains steadfast in his assertion of the novelist's right to invent reality—even a kind of sanity—in a world gone mad. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The Great American Novel] is undoubtedly at its best on [its] simplest level—as a burlesque history of baseball. This kind of writing can be done successfully only if the author has a genuine feeling for the game—its excitements, its legends, its heroes, and its disasters—and Mr Roth clearly loves baseball. (Oddly enough, it is virtually the only human activity he does show much feeling for in this novel.)… His success in this respect is probably due as much as anything to the nature of baseball itself, a thoroughly democratic entertainment which, however seriously it is taken, always has room for a ribald, wise-cracking humour. (p. 1073)

As an historical-political allegory, The Great American Novel unfortunately has little or none of this high-spirited inventiveness. The failure has more to do with Mr Roth's execution of his design than with any fundamental weakness in the design itself. His central idea is a good one…. In fact, Mr Roth seems to be about to embark on a fairly sophisticated theme—the perception that in the past thirty years America has been its own worst enemy.

This promising scheme fails to work, however, largely due to the mechanical parallel between baseball and politics…. What we have here is not creative satire but simply a mechanical act of translation.

This unenterprising method is part of a general failure of comic invention where Mr Roth's political material is concerned. The reality of modern America is frequently more weird and more laughable than anything he can contrive. His radio interviews reproduce accurately the silliness and vulgarity of the media, but they never achieve the phantasmagoric quality of Richard Nixon's "little dog" television broadcast of 1952. The Watergate Committee on a dull day is livelier than Mr Roth's Un-American Activities hearings…. [The] actuality of politics [has] entered an absurd world which he does not begin to imagine. As a satirist of American public life he appears to be working at secondhand, to be using the ideas and observations made current by writers like Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy. His writing lacks precisely that quality which gives theirs its incomparable sharpness and originality—an intimate and fascinated acquaintance with the events of the day. If he enjoyed the tragi-comedy of politics as much as the drama of baseball, he might have succeeded.

The failure of Mr Roth's literary parodies is related to this weakness. In order to burlesque great literature successfully, a writer must have some feeling for what he parodies…. The fictitious Jacobean tragedy which Pynchon constructs in The Crying of Lot 49 is excellent not only because it is funny but because the author is sensitive to the imagery, the verse movement, and the sombre atmosphere of his models…. Mr Roth's parodies are [callous and offensive]…. One is confronted here not with a refreshingly ironic vision of American literature, but with the clichés of the emptiest kind of academic criticism—indeed, Mr Roth's parodies are so barren in perception that they often read like a mediocre work of criticism or a dull undergraduate essay.

The Great American Novel, though it is deficient in its feeling for literature, is in a bad sense much too literary. Almost everything in it seems second-hand and derivative. Even the idea of using a baseball story to satirize the myths of America is not new: it has been anticipated in a better novel, Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Mr Roth's work has often tended towards a rather uninteresting kind of academicism, and, in particular, towards reflecting the influence of university schools of creative writing. At its worst, this influence results in a sterile formalism—a superficial knowingness about fictional technique, the literary uses of myth and symbol, and a small range of literary models; and a corresponding lack of attention to the firsthand observation of manners and the maturing experience of life which have traditionally characterized the novel as an art form. (pp. 1073-74)

The Great American Novel, both in its limited success and its numerous deficiencies, is quintessentially of its time and place. It doesn't have the inventive brilliance of The Crying of Lot 49, nor the underlying seriousness and compassion of Catch-22, nor does it struggle heroically against an adverse cultural situation as Saul Bellow did in Herzog. Mr Roth takes the form of the novel as he finds it, and in the circumstances does reasonably well—at least he is entertaining. All the same, The Great American Novel does not fulfil the promise of his first volume, Goodbye, Columbus, and that is a measure not so much of his personal failure as of the wrong turning American fiction has taken in the past fifteen years. (p. 1074)

"The Diamond Forever," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 21, 1973, pp. 1073-74.

Although Philip Roth's novels have got steadily sillier since Portnoy's Complaint (1969), the quality of his prose has continued to improve. Indeed, the panache with which Roth recreated the soft fantasies of The Great American Novel (1973) makes even the most impressive pages of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) seem rather college-boy by comparison. My Life As a Man, Roth's miraculous mess of a … novel, marks a return to the heartache-in-the-humanities circuit of the early books—most obviously that of Letting Go (1962)—but in other respects it keeps up the recent tradition: however lazy, fanciful or lugubrious he gets, Roth can still write like a fallen angel; his sentence are dapper and sonorous, always eventful, never congested. (p. 625)

[We] encounter the standard Roth preoccupations. The perils of having an over-literary mind—perils which The Breast (1972) so unenlighteningly dramatised—are once more examined…. Allied to that complaint is the old Portnoy one about the temperamental inability to get 'on good terms with pleasure'…. And then there's the Jewish blues, too, of course.

Now either these events and concerns are the stuff of self-revelation or My Life As a Man is a museum of perversity. The unhealthy, and at times embarrassing, solipsism takes two main forms. Firstly, it shows itself in Roth's neurotic deference to his neuroses…. Psychological accuracy, after all, is not the same as literary shape;… and artistically Mr Roth would be better employed baying at the moon once or twice a week. The second giveaway has to do with the novel's surface. My Life As a Man sags with the minutiae that belong to life and not to art; it displays a wooden fidelity to the inconsequential, a scrupulousness about detail which isn't significant, merely true.

And yet the book is alive. I read it twice with constant disapproval and no loss of interest and pleasure. As a valediction, however, one might remind Roth that there is a lot of fictional terrain between what happened to you yesterday and Richard Nixon's attempts to coax votes out of foetuses, between bitching about your wife and turning into a mammary gland, between your psychiatrist's couch and a hinterland of baseball—the terrain he glimpsed in When She Was Good (1967). There are, in short, people in the world other than middle-class Jewish Professors of English Literature: to paraphrase Moe Tarnopol, one of the superbly compact cameos in this ragged hold-all of a book—enough with them already. (p. 626)

Martin Amis, "Getting Hitched," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 1, 1974, pp. 625-26.

My Life As a Man …, about a writer hounded by his loathsome wife, is Philip Roth's most complex, most ambitious and best novel to date. Obsession, sexual catatonia, the attraction of humiliation and the prisons we build for ourselves—these are Roth's themes. Probably no more intolerable a marriage has ever been seen in American fiction, nor have Roth's shrieks of pain and laughter been hitherto so well controlled. (p. 62)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1974.

The Breast is the work of art, and the work of art is The Breast: the stark simplicity of the title page design even in the mass-marketed paperback edition—no pornographic tableau, but a gold-lettered title, and a black-lettered author's name of equal size on a background of virginal white—points to this identification, rather than to the "filthy and disgusting" titillation decried by Geoffrey Wagner. In fact, in The Breast, Roth is himself functioning both as disabused critic and as author, though the work itself is essentially creative.

The Breast bears a striking resemblance, in both manner and substance, to the recent critical work by that guru of the French New New Criticism, Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte. But American critics are accustomed to treating Barthes with reverence … or bewilderment (the latter may well engender the former), whereas they are inclined to treat their compatriot, for all his gifts, with contempt and even pity for his supposed "sexual hangups" which, as [one critic] puts it, "undermine the authority" of his work. Both Roth and Barthes, however, are shaping a hybrid genre which partakes almost equally of the creative and critical visions and which leaves a tremendous literary space to the reader. Most importantly, Roth and Barthes both remind us, in surprisingly similar metaphors of oralsexual gratification, that the aim of art, and of criticism which is itself a form of literature, is to give pleasure in a holistic sense. (p. 28)

What Roth has created is an elaborate literary joke—with serious overtones. David Alan Kepesh, his young professor of comparative literature from Stony Brook, is transformed into a six-foot breast. But the whole point about the breast is that others have to react to it. It has no limbs, they can get no handle on it—"but where was one to get a purchase on a phenomenon such as this?"… cries Kepesh, in a statement whose humor is derived from its literal as well as conceptual appropriateness. Yet the meaning is embedded within it, a kind of "Jonah in the whale"…, as Henry Moore's ideal statue is embedded within the block of stone and needs only to be chiseled away.

A self-conscious metamorphosis is no metamorphosis at all: Kafka's Gregor Samsa would never have referred to Ovid's Metamorphoses. Roth's work is hermetic, a jeu d'esprit implying the androgynous nature of the artist. Kepesh, like Barthes' modern man, is in quest of his identity, of reintegration and fusion of flesh and spirit in an overly cerebral, analytic age suffering from what T. S. Eliot called a "dissociation of sensibility." We seem to be retracing the cycle from the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am" which is at the heart of the modern technological universe to Rousseau's "I feel, therefore I am." David Kepesh must relearn feeling: he has already over-intellectualized. (pp. 28-9)

What is ultimately "grotesque" to our final perception is the memory of the apparently "normal" Kepesh of the introduction, who was locked into a tidy, orderly existence, rather than the liberated, sensual "Breast" of the rest of the book. (p. 29)

Elizabeth Sabiston, "A New Fable for Critics: Philip Roth's 'The Breast'," in The International Fiction Review, January, 1975, pp. 27-34.

Roth was still in his twenties when "Goodbye, Columbus" made him famous in 1959; ten years later, after "Portnoy's Complaint," he became a national public figure, the most notorious writer in the country except Mailer. Since then he has searched restlessly for something new to do, to break out of his apparent bondage, and the results have not been good. Everyone knows Roth can write beautifully and that he can be very funny, but the writing has become self-regarding and the humor has dwindled to giggles. Of course Roth may well have great productive years ahead, but at this point he has suffered badly from demands made on him, by himself and others, to think of himself as a major talent when what he has to work with is an excellent minor genius….

"Letting Go" and "When She Was Good," Roth's grindingly realistic and mostly Midwest fictions, seemed not to satisfy, though they seem to me his best work, because in them he really is being the deadly serious and almost holy writer he set out to be, and in them he was not seriously influenced, so far as I can see, by external pressures.

Then came "Portnoy's Complaint," at the climax of what Roth calls the de-mythologizing sixties, and "Portnoy" did a lot of de-mythologizing…. No point in repeating "Portnoy's Complaint," no way to get back to the grim patient realism of his two previous novels. Surely there must be something that can be done with the humor, because "Portnoy's Complaint," whatever else, is both funny and fun in many places. But what?…

"My Life as a Man" tries to get back,… and so, though it is a book mostly swamped in self-justification, there are some passages in it that are moving and lyrical, signs enough that of course Roth can still write. But the rest is all forced, writing projects that seem thought up, abstractions, things that have to be bludgeoned into existence by style. He may one day recover, but as of now everything good he has written is derived from life he had led or known before he became a writer, childhood stuff, growing-up stuff, starting-out-in-life stuff. That material seems to be gone now, and fame and undeserved infamy have taken care of the rest. His present companions, as he says, are Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness; in such pure form, these can hardly be anyone's best friends; worse still, they become practically enemies when they are one's only friends. (pp. 7-8)

Roger Sale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 25, 1975.

A Jewish writer's mother might have sleepless nights worrying about her boy straining his health to produce five books in the last five years, but Roth's health seems fine; the maladies displayed in Reading Myself and Others are merely local irritations, nothing terminal. This is the kind of book an actor writes while resting between engagements….

My Life as a Man brought to an end one phase of that life and the art is sustained, worked out the logic of a terminology given, but incomplete, in Goodbye, Columbus. In Roth's fiction there is one story and one story only: it goes somewhat like this. There is this nice Jewish boy, a credit to his mother, gives no trouble, his father wants to give him the world and knows he deserves it, lovely boy. (p. 21)

The Jewish boy wants to transcend his nature, run wild…. But the Jewish novelist, his brow furrowed by the labor of three grave books on grave themes, wants to transcend the nature of his art by introducing obscene elements as play. He does not compete with Sade or even with Henry Miller. Our Gang is a joke in bad taste, like most jokes. The Breast takes its seriousness from Kafka and its wildness from Gogol. I am not in a position to say what it takes from Henny Youngman, but the whole mixture, now playful, now gruesome, settles down comfortably enough as satire. I do not find that it hurts, even when I laugh. Grant Roth his jinks, he is still a nice Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey. It is not my business to speculate on the turn his art will take, now that its first logic has apparently worked itself out. (p. 22)

It is still an open question whether Mr. Roth has in his own fiction destroyed the stereotype of "the Jew" that enrages him; or has merely replaced one stereotype by another, that of the nice Jewish boy who plays with freedom and gets caught in its toils…. Roth envies Bellow the old grace or magic or urbanity that turns away the anger of rabbis; while he, the author of Portnoy's Complaint, is denounced in every state of the union. (p. 23)

Denis Donoghue, "Nice Jewish Boy," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 7, 1975, pp. 21-4.

The nearest parallel to Howl is not another Beat work but Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, [also] a disembodied voice of outraged mockery, of immaturity and of a demented demand for justice. Ginsberg was obsessed by Moloch, the Canaanite god of avaricious plunder. His poem is a work of demonic prophecy, with no Jehovah to fall back on. Portnoy's Complaint is the flailing of a voice narcissistic and possessed, a voice of adolescence with no adulthood to arrive at.

The evolving Jewish voice has a bracing power of movement. Its defect is that the voice gets farther away from the Word, it becomes increasingly trivial, self-mocking, loose, fragmentary. It does on paper what a good borscht-circuit comedian does orally, offering a series of skits that make up in verbal excitement for their lack of believability—something they never aspired to in the first place. Roth's novels have come increasingly to resemble such a series of skits. (p. 699)

Judah Stampfer, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 27, 1975.