Philip Roth Essay - Roth, Philip (Vol. 1)

Roth, Philip (Vol. 1)

Roth, Philip 1933–

Roth, an American novelist and short story writer, is the author of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Jews, in writing about other Jews, do not often strike; the appeal to raw human nature, to the individual in his human complexity and loneliness as a mere human creature, is less common than the grand collective themes of Jewish life, of Jewish solidarity in the face of oppression. Even the most gifted and profound writers among Jews tend to describe love and hate, misery and savagery, as if they were merely symbols of the depth and range of Jewish experience. The unusual thing, Mr. Roth's achievement, is to locate the bruised and angry and unassimilated self—the Jew as individual, not the individual as Jew—beneath the canopy of Jewishness….

I admire the edge and fierceness of Mr. Roth's mind, but his book [Goodbye, Columbus] leaves me worried about his future. For he has put so much of himself into being clear, decisive, straight, his stories are consciously so brave, that I worry whether he hasn't worked himself too neatly into a corner. He shows himself too anxious in each story not only to dramatize a conflict but also to make the issue of the conflict absolutely clear. He has intelligence and courage aplenty; what he needs is more of the creative writer's delight in life for its own sake, in figures that do not immediately signify a design.

Alfred Kazin, "Tough-Minded Mr. Roth" (1959), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 258-62.

Philip Roth's first full-length novel, Letting Go, is an extremely depressing book, and not only because it has so many sad stories to tell. More fundamentally, it is depressing in the way of all bad novels which are also serious. It arouses great expectations in the reader without ever managing to satisfy them…. There would, obviously, be gloominess enough here even if Roth were less relentless in his insistence on rubbing our noses in the grime and the muck of everyone's life. Yet he seems unable to relax for even an instant. There is hardly a scene in Letting Go that is not played out against a backdrop of squalor…. The effect of this … is finally to make us lose all patience with these people and their nasty little woes…. Roth would apparently like us to think that these things matter: certainly he describes them with the solemnity befitting important events. But the truth is that he also does everything in his power to prevent us from developing enough respect for his characters to see much meaning or significance in their climactic moments.

This, surely, is a curious way for a novelist to act: undercutting his own characters, subverting his own design and ultimately sabotaging his own book. How are we to account for such behavior? Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the nature of Roth's talent, which—on the evidence not only of Letting Go but of the stories collected in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus—is simply not suited to the kind of exploration in depth that he attempts [in Letting Go]. Roth is so much the born satirist, so naturally driven by an instinct for seizing on these gestures and traits of personality by which people expose their weaknesses and make themselves ridiculous, that he has the greatest difficulty in seeing the world from any other point of view…. This limitation, it would seem, is the price that the Muses have required him to pay for the brilliance and authenticity of the satiric gift they have put into his hands. (In my opinion, Roth has it in him to develop into a satirist of the very first rank, but never the big tragic novelist he is struggling to be in Letting Go.)

Norman Podhoretz, "The Gloom of Philip Roth" (1962), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 236-43.

I felt the presence of a persona rather than personal voice in Philip Roth's When She Was Good. As a novelist, he seems to have assumed a role, as though he has devoted himself manfully to the idea that one can still write that recognizable novel about the old moral concerns. Reality becomes Roth's subject matter and immediately sets him at a theoretical distance from his audience. Here is my novel—full of life and the world as you know it! And because he is in command of his technique, his characters breathe, dialogues are the real thing—exhausting, repetitive, indiscreet. In the midst of a lovers' quarrel Roth breaks in ingenuously, "Was this Roy? Was this Lucy? Was this them together?" It's "them" all right and Roth seems to avoid control of their endless harangues.

Maureen Howard, in Partisan Review, Winter, 1968, p. 145.

The laughs, and there are many, have made several reviewers suspicious of the quality of [Portnoy's Complaint]: a comic masterpiece, yes, but don't forget the adjective. Implied is a general distaste for this sort of thing, though Roth does rather well with the genre: Portnoy is an amusing pervert at least, not one of those earnest deviates who would foist their vices on you and call them virtues. Doubts about the novel's high seriousness haunt these notices, frighten them out of unqualified praise, as though laughter and profundity don't mix. Portnoy's Complaint does not fail on the side of levity or frivolity; Gulliver's Travels is a comic work, and it's dirty too. (The laughs, by the way, decrease sharply toward the end of the novel—that is, we come to recognize the gravity of Portnoy's malady.) And again, whatever satire turns on Portnoy's parents, their Jewish-ness, sweeps him up also, for in a ghastly way which Alexander continually tries to explain, the joke is on him: his pleasure is not the reader's—the joke drives him mad.

Henry Sloss, "Coriolanus in New Jersey," in Shenandoah, Winter, 1969, pp. 97-100.

I did not find Mr. Roth's book [Portnoy's Complaint] funny. Fluent, lively, articulate, vivid, energetic—all that and more; but as the stream of Jewish-joke-type incidents and epigrams and soliloquies thickened, I found myself hankering for some variation, something less ambiguously multi-edged, a bit of farce or a comic line at which one was not invited to laugh once and cry twice and gag three times and rage four times—especially that. The book is in essence a heavily orchestrated yell of rage, rage that is nonetheless rage for being presented as often excessive and ridiculous, and rage wears one down….

Portnoy's Complaint is not a narrative, not simply in that it is incoherent, but in that the commentary swamps, erodes, and drowns out character and incident. As well as being written in the first person, it is written to and for the first person, by, with, and from the first person. (A perennial trap in autobiographical fiction, as the classic Way of All Flesh shows.) Mr. Roth's unconcern to narrate is connected with his unconcern to invent—I may be wrong about this; perhaps everything here has been made up out of his own head; but I do not think so. A writer of fiction is doing well if, as often as once in his career, something turns up in his experience which can, without too much alteration, be transcribed in the form of a short story, let alone a novel. But in our time, perhaps with D. H. Lawrence as the first influential example, it has become all right to supplement the deficiencies of one's personal life as source material, not by re-arranging it, editing it, extrapolating from it, but merely by coating it with style and tone of voice. Could we have a modest return, or advance, to fiction as fiction?

Kingsley Amis, "In Slightly Different Form" (1969), in his What Became of Jane Austen?, and Other Questions, (reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters and Company), Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1970, pp. 102-08.

Philip Roth's vision of American life is too dark for him to offer panaceas for the predicament of his principal characters. But by placing these characters in juxtaposition with some brilliantly conceived minor characters, he does communicate his lack of confidence in certain bromidic solutions….

Letting Go is a major novel and deserves to stand with the works of the master whose name Philip Roth so often and appropriately invokes. Like [Henry] James, he is one of those writers on whom very little is lost.

Scott Donaldson, "Philip Roth: The Meanings of Letting Go," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 21-35.

Important books are seldom best sellers, and vice versa. Usually, revolutionary books which deviate radically from popular cultural norms must smolder for years before bursting into flaming relevance, or just dying. But once in a while an important subversive book has an immediate and sensational success. That Portnoy's Complaint has already changed the course of literary history is apparent. Let us hope that it has social impact too, for its values are intelligent, healthy, and very important, and they need to be generally recognized and accepted before it is too late.

Howard M. Harper, Jr., in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 220.

Philip Roth has become as hard to classify as Norman Mailer. His first book, [Goodbye, Columbus], a fitfully brilliant collection of short stories on Jewish-American themes, won the 1960 National Book Award. Was he the new Bellow? His next, [Letting Go] (1962), was a regression to conventional Jewish-American fiction, turgid with angst and alienation. The new Malamud? Five years later he published [When She Was Good], a psychological dissection of a sick (gentile) heroine in the context of a sick (gentile) society done with 19th-century amplitude. It didn't work. Is a new Flaubert or Eliot (George) possible?

Then, after a decade of false starts he found his true voice—like an actor who discovers his limitations and so his possibilities—with [Portnoy's Complaint] (1969), which didn't win the National Book Award. [Portnoy] was the Jewish novel to end all Jewish novels (which it unfortunately hasn't), a ribald, frenetic Bronx cheer to the whole schtick all the more effectively disturbing because it was delivered with love and even a kind of nostalgic reverence. It was important to Roth personally—killing not the father but the momma. But its importance to him as a writer was greater: he discovered his congenial mode, satire, and his natural style, the vernacular, which he used with an unerring ear to get humorous effects that are most serious when they are funniest.

Dwight Macdonald, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1971, pp. 31-2.