The Counterlife

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Philip Roth introduced Nathan Zuckerman in a 1974 stock-taking novel entitled My Life as a Man. In that work, Nathan is a fictional creation of Roth’s own fictional creation, Peter Tarnopol, who used him as a persona in two stories within his novel to exorcise the effects of a bad marriage and to help define himself as a man and an artist. In Roth’s next novel, The Ghost Writer (1979), Tarnopol disappears and Nathan takes the stage as Roth’s own immediate persona, an aspiring young writer who pays a visit to his artist mentor to be confirmed in his own work and to find an intellectual father figure. In the next work in the series, Zuckerman Unbound (1981), Zuckerman is thirty-six and trying to cope with the fame (and the infamy) of writing a notorious best-selling book on growing up Jewish. Finally, in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Zuckerman is forty and suffering from a sense of having lost his subject and his ability as an artist.

Now in this, Roth’s fourth Zuckerman book (he published the first three in a single volume in 1985 under the title Zuckerman Bound, which also included a novella, The Prague Orgy, featuring Zuckerman as protagonist), Zuckerman is forty-five and caught not only in his desire to be a father and to have a family, but also, more centrally, in the web of his own fictionality, for in this novel Roth becomes even more self-consciously concerned with the artifice of his craft and his role as an artist than in the first three. The Counterlife, which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of fiction, begins conventionally enough with a brief introduction focusing on Nathan’s brother Henry, who, because of medication he must take for heart disease, is impotent. This italicized section ends rather abruptly with Henry’s decision to have heart surgery rather than face a sexless life. When the reader discovers that the opening section has been written as a eulogy for Henry by Nathan himself, however, the novel shifts from the conventional to the metafictional. The rest of Part 1 focuses on Nathan at his brother’s funeral, reconstructing from his notes the sexual dilemma that led to Henry’s death.

Much of Henry’s reason for risking unnecessary surgery centers on his assistant Wendy, with whom he is having an affair, and a beautiful, blonde Swiss woman he met ten years previously named Maria. Although Henry fantasized running away to Basel to live with Maria, he denied himself this romantic escape from middle-class Jewish respectability only to sacrifice himself (much to Nathan’s astonishment and dismay) for his purely sexual desire for potency with Wendy.

This first section, however, entitled “Basel” (after Henry’s fantasy of running away to Switzerland with Maria), is undercut by the second section, entitled “Judea,” which presents Nathan on a trip to Israel to visit Henry, who has, in spite of his announced death in Part 1, survived the surgery and run away to Israel to reaffirm his Jewishness, which he has discovered is the root of his life. Even more confusing is the fact that in this second section, Nathan is married to an English woman, who, like Henry’s earlier Swiss lover, is blonde, has a young daughter, and is named Maria. Nathan is living in England in this section, having fulfilled his desire, after four childless marriages, to have a home and a family.

Much of the “Judea” section consists of conversations about being Jewish, held first in England between Nathan and Maria’s friends (whom Nathan finds anti-Semitic) and then in Israel with Henry and his new companions, who are powerfully pro-Israel. In this Israeli section of the novel, the focus is primarily on the difference between American-Jewish intellectuals in the West, such as Nathan, who enjoy a comfortable and secure existence, and the freedom fighters in Israel. Henry’s presence in Israel is seen by Nathan as primarily the result of Henry’s romanticized fascination with, particularly, the guns and the power of the Jewish state. Indeed, Henry is presented as having become what Nathan calls a “born-again Jew.” So much of the “Judea” section is taken up by discussions about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Jewish position in the world that it is less narrative than discursive polemic. Henry now sees his stress back in the United States as the result of what he calls “Diaspora abnormality,” exemplified by his fantasy about Maria—the Jewish dream of escape to Switzerland with the blonde and beloved shiksa. All of this makes Nathan think about what might be the thematic focus of the book itself—that is, the kind of stories that people turn life into and the kind of lives that people turn stories into. Thus Nathan sees Henry’s journey to Israel as simply another attempt at escape from his hedged-in, middle-class life.

The novel shifts once again in the third section, entitled “Aloft,” this time from straightforward polemic about the Jewish struggle in Israel to a madcap and manic flight which Nathan takes back to London. Inserted into this section is a long letter from Nathan to Henry, in which he points out the irony of Henry becoming a Jewish activist while Nathan has become a bourgeois husband, and a long phone conversation, recorded...

(The entire section is 2174 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In presenting his "counterlives," Roth uses a variety of traditional techniques, such as flashbacks, interior monologues, dramatic skits, and...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In a positive context, critics see The Counterlife as a prime example of Roth's artistry. He captures the details of his scenes and...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Roth resurrects the characters of his trilogy, Zuckerman Bound (1985), to create his best novel since Portnoy's Complaint...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The closest precedents in contemporary literature to The Counterlife are John Barth's use of himself as a character in some of his...

(The entire section is 62 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The earlier life of Nathan Zuckerman appears in Peter Tarnopol's "Useful Fictions," the first two sections of My Life as a Man (1974)....

(The entire section is 104 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Furman, Andrew. “A New Other’ Emerges in American Jewish Literature: Philip Roth’s Israel Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 36 (Winter, 1995): 633-653. Explores the Jewish literary theme that centers on Israel and projects the concept of “Other” on the Arab. Although Roth seems to have escaped this literary trend, Furman argues that in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, Roth subtly reiterates the Other.

Halkin, Hillel. “How to Read Philip Roth.” Commentary 97 (February, 1994): 43-45. Although some critics maintain that Roth is steering away from themes of Judaism, Halkin argues that his later works contain strong Jewish themes. Offers critical analyses of several of Roth’s novels, including The Counterlife.

Lyons, Bonnie. “ Jew on the Brain’ in Wrathful Phillipics.’” Studies in American Jewish Literature 8 (Fall, 1989): 186-195. Lyons reads The Counterlife in relation to the other Zuckerman writings. She concludes that the novel’s strength derives from Roth’s handling of the variety of Jewish identities.

Searles, George J., ed. Conversations with Philip Roth. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. Reprints thirty-eight interviews with Roth. Extended discussions of The Counterlife appear in the interviews by Mervyn Rothstein, Paul Gray, Alvin Sanoff, Katherine Weber, and Hermione Lee. Includes a brief introduction and a useful chronology.

Shechner, Mark. “Zuckerman’s Travels.” In The Conversion of the Jews and Other Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Shechner argues that the importance of The Counterlife derives from its combination of “theatrical lightness” and “historical density.” Shechner’s essay should be read in connection with his lengthier discussion of Roth’s earlier work in After the Revolution: Studies in the Contemporary Jewish American Imagination (1987).

Shostak, Debra. “ This Obsessive Reinvention of the Real’: Speculative Narrative in Philip Roth’s The Counterlife.” Modern Fiction Studies 37 (Summer, 1991): 197-215. Shostak reads the novel as a “speculative” fiction about “the sources, meaning, and power of narrative” and about the self as narrative. Roth’s “commitment to—and redefinition of—the real’” enables him to transcend “the implicit nihilism and anxiety of the postmodern decentered or indefinite self.”