Roth, Philip (Vol. 1)

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1804

Roth, Philip 1933–

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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 entire section contains 1804 words.)

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