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Philip (Milton) Roth 1933–
American novelist, short story writer, and critic.
A prominent contemporary author, Roth often draws on his Jewish background to present his recurring thematic concerns: an individual's search for identity, the effect of American culture on self-realization, and the relationship of art to life, among others. Roth's humorous, often outrageous satires of American life have inspired a considerable amount of critical debate, often centering on the irreverence toward Jewish life perceived to permeate his fiction. In interviews, essays, and even in his fiction Roth has defended and explained his work. He has both enthusiastic supporters and vehement detractors among critics, as well as a large, appreciative audience of readers. In defense of Roth's fictional treatment of Jewish life, Alfred Kazin stated that Roth portrays the "Jew as an individual and not the individual as a Jew." Irving Howe, one of the major challengers of the value of Roth's work, declared that "the talent that went into Portnoy's Complaint and portions of Goodbye, Columbus is real enough, but it has been put to the service of a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity." Nevertheless, most commentators agree on Roth's exceptional skill in rendering Jewish dialect and evoking place and praise his exuberant inventiveness and his stylistic talent.
Roth introduces one of his major thematic concerns, the individual's search for identity, in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (1959). In the title novella, Neil Klugman, a poor boy from Newark, falls in love with nouveau riche Brenda Patimkin. Roth examines the conflicting emotions of Neil, who struggles to fit into an "alien culture." By contrasting the backgrounds of these two young people, Roth is also able to satirize the American dream of financial success. Gabe Wallach of Letting Go (1962), Roth's first novel, also experiences conflicts of identity in his various relationships.
Roth's most flamboyant portrayal of a character in search of himself is Alexander Portnoy. The best-selling Portnoy's Complaint (1969) vaulted Roth into widespread public and critical scrutiny. Some critics called it the funniest "serious" literature they had ever read and reacted sympathetically to the hero's machinations to free himself from the suffocating restrictions of his Jewish background. Others objected to the sexual explicitness and what they considered Roth's degrading treatment of Jewish life, claiming that the novel led nowhere. The Breast (1972) fantasizes the transformation of a professor into a six-foot mammary gland. Those who were drawn into the fantasy claimed that the determination of David Kepesh to come to terms with his "reality" demonstrated the human will to survive with dignity.
Particularizing his theme in order to focus on how literature affects an individual's self-realization, Roth, in My Life As a Man (1974), depicts himself as an author writing about a novelist, who is also writing about a novelist. Many critics suggest that this is Roth's best novel. The Roth-Tarnopol-Zuckerman character reappears in Roth's recent Zuckerman trilogy, a satiric view of artistic recognition in America. In the first of the novels, The Ghost Writer (1978), Zuckerman is a young author who recalls Roth himself. Once again, the hero is trying to establish his identity and Roth uses the situation to pose some provocative questions about the relationship of life to literature. The subsequent volumes, Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983), trace Zuckerman as he experiences the joys and disadvantages of fame and then eventually succumbs to the terrors of writer's block. Many critics faulted the self-preoccupation of the narrator but did appreciate some of the hilarious and imaginative entanglements in which Roth's hero finds himself.
Three other novels exemplify the versatility of Roth: Our Gang (1971), specifically a political satire of President Nixon, but also a critical view of political logic and doubletalk; The Great American Novel (1973), a parody on the mythology of both baseball and the idea of "the great American novel"; and When She Was Good (1967), Roth's only novel to feature a female character and to be set in a protestant, midwestern milieu. As usual, these three works met with sharply divided response.
The gamut of negative criticism to Roth's work ranges from charges of anti-Semitism, degrading depictions of women, obscenity bordering on pornography, repetitiveness of theme, lack of humanity toward characters other than his alter-ego hero, and the joylessness of his humor. But the positive response to his work is equally strong and maintains that Roth is a deeply moral writer, that his books are fantastically humorous, even if darkly so, and that his satires, although written from a Jewish perspective, offer insight into the foibles of American life. The quality and variety of critical opinion that greets each new book by Roth indicates that he is a novelist to be taken seriously. Although he may not please everyone, he is, in the words of John Gardner, "on good terms with the hunchbacked muse of the outrageous."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 28; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3905
Philip Roth is a singular figure in recent American fiction: he is a social realist who adamantly refuses to withdraw from the field, even though he sees around him no smiling aspects of American life. Taking as his domain the recognizable present, Roth has been the most prolific—and the most controversial—writer in America in the last decade and a half. His immense popularity in the universities and the marketplace has raised appreciative eyebrows and elicited cries of outrage, in some cases both at the same time. Irving Howe reveals the ambivalence that Roth's fiction typically generates when he says, "His reputation has steadily grown these past few years, he now stands close to the center of our culture (if that is anything for him to be pleased about)," and "we are in the presence not only of an interesting writer but also of a cultural 'case'" [see CLC, Vol. 2].
Roth's wonderfully rich and varied works—the sharp-edged and well-crafted stories in the Goodbye, Columbus collection (1959), the gloomily realistic Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), the serio-comic Portnoy's Complaint (1969), the fabulistic The Breast (1972), the satiric Our Gang (1971) and The Great American Novel (1973), the candidly autobiographical My Life As a Man (1974)—illustrate important insights into America's cultural predicament as Roth sees it from his own vantage point: up close and personal, as the television commentators say. No other living writer has so rigorously and actively attempted to describe the destructive element of experience in American life—the absurdities and banalities that impinge upon self-realization in this "The Land of Opportunity and the Age of Self-Fulfillment" (as David Kepesh in The Breast says). And no other writer so clearly bridges the buoyant optimism of Jewish-American writers of the fifties and the dark, despairing world view of such recent writers as John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Anthony Burgess and Jerzy Kosinski. Yet Roth is more often than not dismissed as a cultural "case," as if that explained away the variety and vision of his fiction or mitigated the acute embarrassment that accompanies the spectacle of brash young soldiers obstinately continuing in losing battles.
But of course Howe is right: Roth is a cultural "case" in that he has been both attracted to and repelled by the shaping forces of society—and who of us has not? Here, perhaps, is a key to the popularity that Roth enjoys as a spokesman for a growing sense of disgust, outrage and impotence felt by so many Americans who view the Vietnam War, the Watergate affair, the sensationalism of the press, the fatuousness of popular novels, television sit-coms, broadway shows, indeed the entire phenomenon of American society, with fascination and repulsion. As Norman Podhoretz says in taking issue with Howe, "Roth is now central not because he has sold out … but because in the course of his literary career more and more people have come along who are exactly in tune with the sense of things he has always expressed in his work and who have accordingly and in increasing numbers come to recognize him as their own." (pp. 3-4)
Roth's struggle with American culture has developed along two fronts, one religious and the other artistic. By far the more important of the two has been the artistic battle, one that calls upon the artist to confront American society, "the real thing," head-on. This, Roth feels, is a confrontation that is essential to the writing of fiction and to the writer of fiction. It is, then, with some regret that Roth discovers how uncommon his artistic stance is—and how alone he seems to be in his fight. In a seminal essay entitled "Writing American Fiction" Roth charges that there has been "a voluntary withdrawal of interest by the writer of fiction from some of the grander social and political phenomena of our times." (p. 5)
[Roth] believes it is the writer's task to make an imaginative assault on "the corruptions and vulgarities and treacheries of American public life."… Roth's complaint, like Portnoy's is a sweeping observation about the cultural predicament facing the sensitive, creative individual: American reality, Roth concludes, "stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination,"… and hence it is understandable, perhaps, that many modern writers continue in the romantic strategy of evasion, which involves, as Walter Allen notes, the "opting out of society." (p. 6)
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the hard core of social realism at the center of Roth's artistic creed: it qualifies the most romantic of Roth's early stories and explains his most recent ventures into social and political satire (Our Gang, The Great American Novel) and fantasy (The Breast); it gives credence to Roth's exploration of stereotypes and stereotypic attitudes promulgated by mass media and accepted by some segments of the American public; and, perhaps most importantly, it generates the central conflicts and basic themes found in Roth's fiction. (pp. 6-7)
In emphasizing the predicament that the modern writer faces, Roth suggests a broader predicament, one that is faced, he feels, by many people. Although he has the writer specifically in mind, there is no doubt that the problem he describes is cultural. Making note of Benjamin DeMott's observation that there seems to be today a kind of "universal descent into unreality," Roth goes on to observe that he too is often overwhelmed by the "unreality" of the world that he wants to describe in his fiction…. (p. 7)
"What the hell," exclaimed John Barth recently, as if confirming Roth's observation, "reality is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there, and literature never did, very long…. Reality is a drag." Yet it is precisely this predicament that fascinates Roth, captivating his imagination and feeding his creative impulse. He will not be defeated; he will not turn to other matters, other worlds. Like Kafka before him he will turn the familial, communal, and cultural pressures facing him into the very substance of his art. The problems facing the artist become, in Roth's fiction, human problems to be faced by the hero; the "unreality" of American public life exercises a brutal power which the hero can attempt to conquer but cannot evade. Like the hero of Ellison's Invisible Man, whom Roth so admires, the Rothian hero must go out into the world—even if it is only to discover that he is a man without a country, invisible, homeless, a stranger to himself and his deepest beliefs—before he can go underground to wait for a new spring and the promise of hope. (p. 8)
The religious issues raised by Roth's fiction have precipitated a battle of a different sort, yet one that Roth has entered aggressively. Jewish readers and literary critics alike have taken stands on the "Jewishness" of Roth's fiction…. Praised as a Jewish moralist and condemned as a self-hating Jew, Roth has been offered, as David Baroff says, as a "kind of shibboleth for American Jews; they define themselves and other people in terms of how they react to Philip Roth."… The controversies that swirl around the "Jewishness" of Roth's fiction have clouded, in most cases, the more essential questions of Roth's artistry: his affinities with social realism, his vision of human potential, his assault on American reality. It seems, however, that Roth has been called, ironically enough, to bear the standard in a dubious battle, while more fundamentally Jewish writers like Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow have been allowed a graceful retreat behind university walls. (p. 21)
The complaints most often made against Roth's fiction by the Jewish community do not legitimately come under the heading of literary criticism in that such complaints do not derive from an analysis of the fiction. It is true, however, that the values that emerge from Roth's fiction often serve as a point of departure for charges of anti-semitism. After Goodbye, Columbus was published, many rabbis and other members of the Jewish community responded with letters and sermons denouncing Roth's fiction. (p. 22)
The charge of anti-semitism against a Jewish writer is not, of course, new…. In Roth's case, however, charges of anti-semitism have extended beyond the stage of initial reaction, and the question of his Jewishness continues to occupy not only the Jewish community but also serious literary critics—both Jewish and non-Jewish.
If anything is clear about the controversies surrounding Roth's depiction of Jewish life, it is that there is no agreement among respected critics on just how traditionally Jewish Roth's values are. (pp. 23-4)
Roth and his fiction do not yield easily to Jewish-oriented theses about Jewish-American writers and their fiction, primarily because Roth is the most "marginal" of Jews. His reliance on Jewish materials and Jewish values is qualified by an essentially secular and skeptical perspective, a perspective that he has defended vigorously, even in the camp of the supposed enemy—in, that is, Jewish magazines like Commentary and Jewish symposia like the one held in Tel Aviv in 1963. His defense of himself is occasionally acerbic, in large part because of the intense and often heated attacks directed at him and his fiction by critics both inside and outside the Jewish community; his own point of view is, however, both consistent and illuminating, and thus serves as a helpful context for understanding his intentions and achievements as a Jewish-American writer.
Perhaps the most obvious and necessary observation that can be made is that Roth is very tentative about his relation to Judaism. He said in a recent symposium held by Commentary that "there does not seem to me a complex of values or aspirations or beliefs that continue to connect one Jew to another in our country"; rather, Jews are held together by a disbelief in Jesus as Christ. Such a relationship is "enervating and unviable," for any religious, social, or moral community "springs not from disbelief, but faith and conviction." Roth feels that "neither reverence toward the tradition, nor reverent feelings about the Jewish past seem … sufficient to bind American Jews together today," and he himself "cannot find a true and honest place in the history of believers that begins with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." (pp. 29-30)
This is not to say that Roth does not regard himself as a Jew…. Roth feels, however, that the American Jew does not inherit a body of law and learning, but rather a psychological shell without clear historical, cultural or moral substance. Thus, Roth believes, "one had to, then, I think, as one grew up in America, begin to create a moral character for oneself. That is, one had to invent a Jew…. There was a sense of specialness and from then on it was up to you to invent your specialness."… This challenge to invent moral responses and attitudes is for Roth both a blessing and a burden, for it provides one with unique obligations and a special perspective. He concludes, "If I can make any sense about my Jewishness and of my desire to continue to call myself a Jew, it is in terms of my outsideness in the general assumptions of American culture." (pp. 30-1)
It is, of course, precisely this "outsideness in the general assumptions of American culture" that supplies much of the impetus to the satire found in Roth's fiction. Roth does not, however, bring a strong sense of Judaistic heritage to either his fiction or his view of himself as a writer. He makes a fine, but important, distinction when he says, "I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew. The biggest concern and passion in my life is to write fiction, not to be a Jew." (p. 31)
Roth insists … that as a writer and as a thinker his arena of interest is in no sense strictly Jewish, a point that is emphasized, to some degree, by the lack of attention to Jewish characters and to the Jewish milieu in "Novotny's Pain," When She Was Good, Our Gang, and The Great American Novel. He is, if anything, a humanist whose concerns are broadly moral and social, and whose artistic vision, though rooted in the particularities of Jewish life, extends outward to the common humanity shared by all men. (p. 32)
So much is Roth interested in the "human situation," in fact, that he feels no particular empathy for the Jewish characters in his first full-length novel, Letting Go; rather, the "distinction between Jewish characters and Gentiles was not always present in my mind. They existed as individuals, as people." (p. 33)
Roth has repeatedly answered his critics from the Jewish community by insisting that as a writer he has no obligation to write Jewish "propaganda."… [He has said,] "I cannot help but believe that there is a higher moral purpose for the Jewish writer, and the Jewish people, than the improvement of public relations." In regard to his own fiction, Roth strikes a similar note in responding to his critics. When, for example, Jews objected to Roth's depiction of a Jewish adulterer in one of his stories, Roth was quick to point out that adultery is not a uniquely Jewish but rather a human possibility; and when Jews objected to his depiction of a malingering Jewish soldier, Sheldon Grossbart in "Defender of the Faith," Roth responded, "He is not meant to represent The Jew or Jewry…. Grossbart is depicted as a single blundering human being."… Jewish critics, Roth maintains, confuse the purpose of the writer with the purpose of a public relations man. Jews feel that Roth is "informing" on Jews when he should be providing a picture of the positive aspects of Jewish life; Roth argues that he is indeed an informer, but all that he has told the gentiles is that "the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority." (pp. 33-4)
It is perhaps one of those interesting ironies that Roth, like Kafka, is the most marginal of Jews who, nonetheless, must fight the hardest against religious and communal pressures to deliver himself from his past into his future. If it is true that as a social realist Roth keeps his eye steadily on human character and heroic potential as it is developed in or defeated by communal life in America, it is equally true that his own potential and his own character have been tested by the community—and Roth has responded to the challenge openly and directly, not only in interviews and nonfictional essays but in his fiction as well. Clearly, however, if we would understand Roth's intentions and achievements as a writer of fiction, we must look at his central characters not as Jews in an ideological, traditional, or metaphorical sense, but as men yearning to discover themselves by swimming into dangerous waters beyond social and familial strictures: beyond the last rope. Only by so approaching Roth's fiction are we likely to see what it is that the stories are really about. (pp. 35-6)
In examining the "circumstances of ordinary life," Roth has employed a wide range of artistic techniques resulting in a fictional canon notable for its variety. In fact, the diversity of Roth's fiction has generated evident difficulty in assessing Roth's intention and achievement as a writer of fiction. Certainly most critics acknowledge Philip Roth as a major talent, as one who has been keenly responsive to the human condition as it is revealed in contemporary American experience…. Despite such acknowledgment, however, the critical community has been divided in its response to Roth as a significant contemporary author. Critics have taken stances toward his achievement that are as diverse as the fiction itself: he has been called an anti-semitic and a Jewish moralist, a romantic writer and a realistic writer, a polemicist, a satirist, a mannerist, a sentimentalist, and a liar; he has been praised for having "a clear and critical social vision," condemned for having a "distorted" view of society, and accused of entertaining an "exclusively personal" vision of life that does not include society at all. Whereas Alfred Kazin recently spoke so confidently of what he calls Saul Bellow's "signature," it seems that from the collective viewpoint of the critical community Roth's mark has been something of an indecipherable scrawl. (pp. 199-200)
The uniqueness of Roth's "signature" is intimately associated with his commitment to social realism, to a willingness to confront the community—its manners and its mores—as subject for his art. The confrontation between the hero (activist or victim) and world, between private and public realms, between "un-isolated" individuals and the shaping forces of general life, is the confrontation that is central to the realistic mode—and the fiction of Philip Roth. Certainly many critics have detected in Roth's fiction a noticeable attention to manners, to moral issues, and to literary realism; too often, however, Roth's most characteristic mode has been dismissed…. It is my contention that we can best assess Roth's artistry by viewing him, rather broadly, as a writer whose artistic intentions are "moral," whose method is realistic, and whose subject is the self in society.
Given Solotaroff's contention that Roth's sensibility is embedded in a Jamesian concern for motives and for what Trilling calls "moral realism," it is altogether possible to think that Roth writes, in part, to fill a void that Trilling pointed out in 1948 [in "Manners, Morals and the Novel"]:
Perhaps at no other time has the enterprise of moral realism ever been so much needed, for at no other time have so many people committed themselves to moral righteousness. We have the books that point out the bad conditions, that praise us for taking progressive attitudes. We have no books that raise questions in our minds not only about conditions but about ourselves, that lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses.
As our examination of Roth's fiction has shown, the question of what lies behind "good impulses" is one that virtually every major character in his fiction asks. The crises depicted in Roth's fiction are not so much ontological as they are moral, for although the character may begin with the question of identity and selfhood, he is likely to conclude with the questions of Neil Klugman, Gabe Wallach, and Peter Tarnopol: what do I owe to my fellow man, and how do I explain my actions toward him? What is my relation to society, and what are the dangers of the moral life? To what extent have I been victimized by false ideals and self-deceptions grounded in the society of which I am an ineluctable part?
Inevitably, when we hear such questions we think immediately of Tolstoy, Conrad, Dostoevski, Gogol—the great European novelists—and Henry James, America's most prominent novelist of manners and moral realism; nor is it surprising that allusions to these novelists and their works appear frequently in Roth's fiction…. The burdens of responsibility, the clash between the actual world and the "invented reality" that grows out of what one "sees and feels," the moral difficulties of "letting go" (a phrase that Roth borrowed from Mrs. Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton, who tells Fleda Vetch, "Only let yourself go, darling—only let yourself go!")—all these are concerns that Roth has in common not only with James but with other European novelists of manners and moral realism as well. (pp. 202-04)
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Roth's moral interests is that they extend clearly into his conception of art (and here the affinity between Roth and such writers as Henry James is at its strongest). (p. 205)
For Roth, as for James, fiction not only treats moral issues, but has the purpose of elevating and liberating the reader's social and moral consciousness through realistic examination of "man's condition." Just as "those of us who are willing to be taught, and who needed to be, have been made by Invisible Man less stupid than we were about Negro lives," so can the stereotypes of Jewish malingerers, Jewish mothers, Jewish family life, and Protestant Midwestern fathers, mothers, sons and daughters be put into new perspectives—for "the stereotype as often arises from ignorance as from malice." (pp. 206-07)
A strong social and moral consciousness, coupled with a readily evident persuasion toward a realistic portrayal of man in society, points toward Roth's distinctiveness as a contemporary American author, for it is the prevailing opinion that such concerns have never been central to the American literary tradition. In 1948 Lionel Trilling asserted, "The fact is that American writers of genius have not turned their minds to society…. In America in the nineteenth century, Henry James was alone in knowing that to scale the moral and aesthetic heights in the novel one had to use the ladder of social observation." Trilling's contention that "Americans have a kind of resistance to looking closely at society" is not a startling observation, most critics of the American novel would agree. (p. 207)
Certainly Roth is not a proponent of the documentary social novel or a novel of manners in the European sense of the term (for, as Trilling persuasively argues in "Art and Fortune," such a novel is not possible in America); nonetheless, Roth's relation to his contemporaries is more sharply defined if we consider him as a social realist—as a writer, that is, who does not yield to the romantic impulse as defined by Chase, Allen, Lewis, and others. Roth has been characteristically associated with such Jewish-American writers as Mailer, Salinger, Bellow, Malamud, and Gold, when in fact his closest associates among American authors are Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, John P. Marquand—writers who, as James Tuttleton demonstrates, are primarily "concerned with social conventions as they impinge upon character." (p. 208)
In Roth's view, Salinger and Malamud are two of America's best authors, yet their works seem to be curiously out of touch with the actual world. Neither writer "has managed to put his finger on what is most significant in the struggle going on today between the self (all selves, not just the writer's) and the culture."… In the fiction of Saul Bellow and William Styron Roth finds a similar inability or unwillingness to confront the social world in all of its recognizable aspects. In Roth's opinion, the fiction of Bellow and Styron, peopled by heroes who affirm life in foreign and unrealistic climes, is further evidence that our best writers have avoided examining American public life…. Roth's objection to the novelistic strategies of Bellow and Styron certainly places his own attitudes clearly in front of us: the author must confront the social world squarely if he is to describe human character faithfully, and affirmation achieved through geographic displacement or metaphoric evasion is, finally, no affirmation at all. (p. 211)
Roth's assault on the American experience—his exploration of moral fantasy, his concern for moral consciousness, his willingness to confront the grander social and political phenomena of our time—is, I think, the most significant aspect of his art. Despite the diversity of Roth's fiction, despite the variety of themes, values, and characters that emerge from his novels and short stories, we see an abiding faith beneath Roth's pessimism…. Roth has demonstrated a willingness to explore the limits of his artistic creed with a deeply felt concern for man and society, a concern that is detectable beneath his ponderous realistic novels and his most vitriolic satire. (p. 214)
John N. McDaniel, in his The Fiction of Philip Roth, Haddonfield House, 1974, 243 p.
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Prometheus remains the quintessential rebel-hero, the mythological figure who defied Zeus, stole the secret of fire from Hephaestus, and gave it to mankind. For that liberating act, he was punished—chained to a rock where an eagle pecked away at his liver. Nathan Zuckerman is a paler post-Modernist version. He defied the American Jewish community, exposed its dirty little secrets and then blabbed the whole business in public—i.e. Gentile—print. For that liberating (?) aesthetic act, he became Rich and Famous, Remorseful and Troubled. Zuckerman's portrait of the assimilated American Jew specialized in warts. No wonder his readers cried "Foul!" when they saw the mirror he held up to their nature.
Nathan Zuckerman is, of course, Philip Roth's fictionized extension, his way of paying off old debts, of exorcizing old guilts, at the same time that he can, and does, insist that one keep author and character forever separated. In large measure the device worked in My Life as a Man (1974) and it was brilliantly effective in The Ghost Writer (1979), but, this time, even True Believers will have trouble swallowing the latest installment of Nathan Zuckerman's "complaints."
Zuckerman Unbound is about the surprises that success brings. Like Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, it is an exercise in biting the hands that have fed them, at the same time that it aspires toward confession. In earlier, simpler times, a writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald could believe that "The rich are different from you and me" and set about writing fiction that would convince his countrymen that the mystique was true…. Poor Zuckerman lives in a tougher-skinned, less romantic decade. Nobody is interested in hearing about how hard life in the fast lane can be because, as Nathan points out, "a poor misunderstood millionaire is not really a topic that intelligent people can discuss for very long."
Nonetheless, Nathan Zuckerman cannot not discuss his put-upon, beleaguered life, and Philip Roth cannot resist any chance to play "defender of the [aesthetic] faith."… But Zuckerman protests too much about highmindedness. He is yet another of Roth's Temper Tantrum Kids, this time with the Harvard Classics at his fingertips and the Modernist Giants firmly in his handgrasp. When Zuckerman yells, he insists on good literary company: "What would Joseph Conrad do? Leo Tolstoy? Anton Chekhov? When first starting out as a young writer in college he was always putting things to himself that way…." The rub, of course, is that none of those writers grew up Jewish in Newark…. Out of the nearly equal measures of attraction and repulsion, of frustration and self-righteousness, about American Jewish life, Nathan Zuckerman's art is made.
By now, all of this has a familiar look—not only in terms of Roth's canon …, but also in terms of the longer tradition of American Jewish letters. Zuckerman is uncomfortable—yea, guilt-ridden—about the money that crashes in as copies of Carnovsky roll off the presses…. In Abraham Cahan's scathing portrait of the alrightnik, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), success is synonymous with an ashy taste. Despite his millions (or, more correctly, because of them), Levinsky tries desperately to reestablish contact with his earlier, authentic (read: Jewish) self. Roth is perhaps the first American Jewish writer to give the scenario a literary twist; now High Art, rather than the garment industry, can make one wealthy and estranged.
Roth has specialized in this corner of the American Jewish saga. He writes about Jewish kitsch as if that alone constituted the cultural whole. His voice—half wise-guy, half Jeremiah—is still his greatest resource. And yet, it is when Roth waxes poignant, as he does when describing his father's death and its aftermath, that he can generate passages that move us in ways that his broad assaults on Jewish motherhood, however funny, never quite do. Zuckerman Unbound ends with a symphony to fatherhood we have not heard as powerfully since the last pages of The Professor of Desire (1977).
Given Roth's penchant for self-analysis, it is fitting that the last words about Zuckerman Unbound come from one of Roth's own characters. For some time Roth has been writing with his head arched over his shoulder, as if his reviewers and critics might be gaining on him…. Nonetheless, in The Ghost Writer, a much younger Nathan Zuckerman sought out an established writer to act as his mentor, father-figure, and role model. In Zuckerman Unbound, his secret-sharer is Alvin Pepler, the wacky know-it-all who can match Zuckerman paranoia for paranoia, self-righteousness for self-righteousness. In his unfinished review of Carnovsky, Pepler/Roth makes a very savvy point:
Fiction is not autobiography, yet all fiction, I am convinced, is in some sense rooted in autobiography, though the connection to actual events may be tenuous indeed, even non-existent … yet there are dangers in writing so closely to the heels of one's own immediate experience: a lack of toughness, perhaps; a tendency to indulgence; an urge to justify the author's ways to men.
The same things could be said, in spades, about Zuckerman Unbound. (pp. 53-4)
Sanford Pinsker, "Zuckerman's Success," in Mid-stream, Vol. XXVII, No. 10, December, 1981, pp. 53-4.
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Interpretative fantasies, from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy to Finnegans Wake, Pale Fire, and Gravity's Rainbow, have traditionally concerned themselves with such problems as "validity," "discursivity," and "reality" vs. "textuality," particularly with the status of fictional texts, their origins, ends, and authoritative power. Philip Roth's recent novel, The Ghost Writer, is part of this tradition: it is about origins, and the problems of originality that any serious writer eventually comes to face. It is the kind of novel that forces us to reflect upon the act of writing, in a traditional sense, as an embodiment of "selfhood," and less traditionally, as the place where the "self" may be lost in the warp and woof of the text. In this first-person narration of writer Nathan Zuckerman's quest for a spiritual and aesthetic father, Roth presents us with a parodic reflection upon the notion of "textuality," or language in search of its source of power and authority, orphaned by the very contingencies that make it come into being. Yet the parody here is paradoxical and serious; the novel is a kind of "deconstruction" that mines both customary and revolutionary notions of inspiration, influence, interpretation, authority and literary production. That this comes from one of our finest parodists, whose greatest success thus far is a send-up of the autobiography or confession in Portnoy's Complaint, where ideas of "self" and "generation" are comically considered, is unsurprising. In The Ghost Writer, Roth renews his essential concern with the limits of writing and fiction.
One first notices that The Ghost Writer is filled with "texts." Among these are the forgotten stories of E. I. Lonoff, a Jewish writer who, years ago, escaped civilization for the Thoreauvian respite of his country home in the Berkshires. Lonoff's response to the tedious question, "how do you write?" is a wearying parody of the writing process: "'I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence.'" There is the text of The Ghost Writer itself, narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a novelist who bears a ghostly resemblance to the Philip Roth, and who recounts his two-day stay with Lonoff "more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman."… Within this double textual inversion—Zuckerman the hero of the fiction he will one day write—we are given Zuckerman's reading of Henry James's "The Middle Years" late at night as he examines the riches of Lonoff's study: James's story tells how an author, reading his own latest novel, is led through an encounter with a young admirer to assess the value of his life and art. His imagination stirred by James, by Lonoff, and by a vigorously overhead encounter between Lonoff and the surrogate daughter/lover who lives in the house as a "research assistant," Zuckerman produces another text. He recounts an internalized fiction in which the girl, Amy Bellette, is revealed to be Anne Frank, now in America, in disguise, anguished over the fact that she has had to disown yet another text, her famous diary, so that it might not lose its effectiveness as a dispossessed portrayal of dispossession. And, within this infinite regress of texts, there are dozens of references to other writers—James, Kafka, Hemingway, I. B. Singer, Isaac Babel, Poe, Joyce, Mann, Felix Abravanel (a thinly disguised combination of Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow)—as well as a barrage of fragmentary marginal discourses in The Ghost Writer, including letters, recorded conversations, and Lonoff's underlinings of everything from James to articles on the television industry.
Summary alone of the flurry of texts in the novel creates a kind of fictive vertigo. We are compelled to wonder if Roth is not attempting to write what Roland Barthes has referred to as an "ideal," infinite text, wherein "the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text … has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one." Such attempts, Barthes avers, must fail, but the Chinese-box effect of receding texts in The Ghost Writer, like the labyrinthine intertextuality of John Barth's LETTERS or the fragmented textual archaeology of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow suggests, by implication, the possibility of an "infinite" text. Roth's novel may be seen as a vortex in which "texts," kinds of discourse—Roth's, Zuckerman's, Lonoff's, James's, Anne Frank's—whirl about disconnectedly, collide, and vanish, their "authority" and literalness subverted.
Roth is an unusually economic writer, and the spare fiction The Ghost Writer is may seem too frail, indeed too "ghostly," to support the weight of entangled discussions of textuality. Yet this slight narrative is laden with references to, and inversions of, acts of perception and interpretation that cause us to question the critical act of making, and reading, fictions. We know, for example, of Roth's debt here to Henry James, who established for modern fiction the relative, changeable relationship between the viewer and the view, the reader and the text. James's "The Middle Years" is quoted and summarized in The Ghost Writer, and the narrative "framing" of Roth's novel, in its inverted complexity, resembles that of James's classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. There, we never know what the "true story" is, but if we approach the narrative from the outside moving in, we listen to a series of narrators as we make our way through a maze of texts that allows us to approach, though never to uncover, the "real" events at Bly. (pp. 365-67)
So too, in The Ghost Writer, a phantom double, in many respects, of James's tale, there are a series of narrative inversions. A diagram of the narrative frames in Roth's novel reveals a spare fiction with a highly complex structure…. (p. 368)
The consequences of the narrative structure in Roth's novel are similar to those elicited by The Turn of the Screw, but with some interesting differences. By the time we get to the last false bottom of The Ghost Writer, the events of a diary contained within a story imagined by the younger version of the narrator to whom we are listening, the sense of "story" has been entirely destroyed for us, and what the novel seems to be about is the parallel lives different kinds and levels of discourse lead. The encounter between Zuckerman and Lonoff, which might be termed the subject of the former's recollection, takes up only part of our attention: a dinner with Lonoff and his wife, Hope, a halting after-dinner conversation, and a brief meeting between master and epigone the next morning amidst a chaos of departures is all there is to the "story." The bulk of the novel is given over to preamble, reflection, transcription, interpretation—to the many other "texts'" of The Ghost Writer.
Unlike The Turn of the Screw, The Ghost Writer does not encourage us to traverse a series of narrative screens in order to reach a central, if unrelatable text. Rather, the texts of Roth's novel seem ghostly, orphaned repetitions of each other, leading nowhere, resonating with the false notes of self-conscious, dispossessed "fictions." (p. 369)
The textual inversions and displacements … are complicated and deepened by the metaphorical search for self and parent that comprises nearly the entire "plot" of The Ghost Writer. The quest for or questioning of parental authority parallels the fictional pursuit or denial of origin, source, and authority, those qualities that confer upon the "word" of the novel its value and validity, its reflective authenticity. (p. 370)
The refusal of parenthood and the lack of generation in The Ghost Writer is almost parodically self-evident. While Zuckerman is having difficulties establishing a relationship with his spiritual father, he has already, through his art, alienated his real father. His most recent story, "Higher Education," is a humorous portrayal of an aunt's determination to put her twin sons through medical school by selling roof shingles and siding…. Zuckerman's tale of his relative's moxie enrages his father, who declares that it represents only the partial truth about "Jewish family life," a story that the goyim will hold up as proof of stereotypical greed, stubbornness, and family in-fighting…. The partial, treacherous words of the story parallel the shattering of the bond between father and son, the thwarted passing on of life and "truth."
Other texts in The Ghost Writer reflect a similar pattern. (pp. 371-72)
The separation that texts engender is revealed with the greatest complexity in Zuckerman's "story" about Amy Bellette, née Anne Frank. Anne's Diary is the most dramatically orphaned text in The Ghost Writer, its author denying her existence as she lives under a pseudonym in America, refusing her father, Otto, the knowledge that his daughter is still alive: the denial of parentage to the text concurs with the denial of the biological parent. Anne's self-abnegation as the originator and author of the Diary occurs for good reasons. She feels it will lose impact if the dead girl who is its heroine reappears, a live ghost. But the power of textuality has been purchased at a great price, for Amy wonders if "having outlived the death camps, if masquerading here in New England as somebody other than herself did not make something very suspect—and a little mad—of this seething passion to 'come back' as the avenging ghost."… That is, she has had to make herself ghostly, like the dead girl in the Diary, in order for the memoir to survive; authorial suicide is committed in the generation of the text as its creator vanishes, reappearing only as the phantom avenger behind the text who pursues revenge upon the criminals who have "killed" her. (pp. 372-73)
In essence, Zuckerman's narration of the writing of the Diary and the fate of its author exhibits the vertiginous prospect of a live girl pretending to be dead, reflecting upon a text she wrote when she was "alive," talking to a phantom about the fact of her own emotional ghostliness in relation to her parents, embodied in her continual nightmare of being orphaned. In a double negation, she disinherits her text while orphaning herself from her real father. Zuckerman's fiction about Amy (itself authorless, since Zuckerman quickly denies its validity to himself the next morning) is a textual hall of mirrors in which authors are reflected only as ghostly progenitors of texts that, themselves, threaten to vanish if authorship or parenthood is put under question. (pp. 373-74)
Of all the authors in The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman plays the dead man's game most avidly. He is a marvel of self-effacement as he takes on the role of humble supplicant before the "master," Lonoff…. Through his fiction, Zuckerman has established his filial relation to Lonoff, but it is one in which the strong will of the son, his word, is subsumed by a spurious parental authority. The disparity between the psychological importance Zuckerman detects in his relationship with Lonoff and the "reality" of the situation is comic (we hardly need Roth's nudging pun) but it also reflects the complex sexual aspect of the problem of authority and textuality the novel pursues. Zuckerman can "write" his fiction about Amy because he revels in his voyeuristic vision of Lonoff ("Dad-da") consoling his "little girl," Amy, on his knee while Zuckerman stands on a book (James's "The Middle Years") so that he can overhear their conversation in the room above him. The psychological reversion of this comically Oedipal scene matches the byzantine textual complexity of the novel. It is an allegorical rendering of the son's, Zuckerman's, accession to a ludicrous and impotent patrimony, a relation in which self-effacement and masturbation—Zuckerman's response to Amy's late night entry into her bedroom—are the exercises through which the text is generated. Distancing, effacement, submission, all seem to be activities that Zuckerman must partake of in order to become the literary son who will one day, himself, become a full-fledged author.
But all of these serious considerations are travestied when we think about the form of The Ghost Writer. In a novel that uses the concept of narrative framing to undermine the accepted relationship between text and author, text and text, text and "reality," the final irony comes with our realization that The Ghost Writer is itself "framed" by its formal function as a parody…. The Ghost Writer parodies the formal constraints of many different "texts." It is a Künstlerroman in which Zuckerman seriously portrays his quest for artistic maturity, but the novel is more apparently an imitation of the "growth of the artist" that ridicules the entire notion of an artistic son searching for an artistic father, whether he be an individual figure, literary tradition, or some historic geist to which the apprentice submits himself even while he rebels. The birth of the artist portrayed in The Ghost Writer is hilariously incongruent, especially when we consider the principals involved: Zuckerman, supplicating before the inconsequential Lonoff, or lusting after the "femme fatale" Amy, really an intelligent but uninspiring co-ed from the local educational institution, Athene College. The novel is also a parody of James's The Turn of the Screw as well as of Roth's own Portnoy's Complaint: it burlesques the narrative inversions and ghosts of the former while parroting the confessionalism, psychological confusions, and "Jewish life" of the latter. (The fact that Portnoy's Complaint is, itself, a parody of the autobiography seems more than appropriate.) Within the novel, there is the presentation and parodying of Anne's Diary, and of the process of excerpting, revising, and commenting upon texts—the act and art of interpretation. This parodying of several texts is yet another manifestation of the novel's concern with "textuality." Parody is usually defined as an imitation of an original for the purposes of ridicule, burlesque, criticism, or reinvention. The thoroughly parodic nature of The Ghost Writer defines its lack of "originality," its status as imitation, ever removed from its literary sources in the Künstlerroman, the confession, or the autobiography. The novel is a text made of texts that mimic and duplicate other texts. It lacks the definitive text that would authorize all the others and ground them in some version of the "true" or "real" from which their variation would suggest some traditionally interpretable source of meaning.
We may then see Roth's novel as a kind of deconstructive fantasy in which some important relations, those between artistic fathers and sons, authors and texts, texts and meanings, are questioned and parodied. But the textual problems and inversions that the novel raises might also be seen as parodic: Roth could be ridiculing here the of times spurious and overly intricate complications promoted by some recent theoretical considerations of textuality, reading, and interpretation. Opposed to the present-day critical Byzantium, Roth could be offering a return to "reality" that contrasts with the prodigiously self-conscious fictionalizing that takes place in the novel. (pp. 374-77)
But the "reality" of The Ghost Writer is also questioned and parodied, so that if Roth is offering any alternatives to the intricacies of écriture, they are ambiguous and, themselves, undermined. Hope may seem some figure out of medieval allegory who will lead Everyman to the bliss of concreteness, but she is "in reality" a carping woman whose world is confined to the task of piecing together domestic fragments…. Amy is childish and petulant, and seems in person only a ghostly, immature reflection of the Amy/Anne whom Zuckerman creates. The "real" Lonoff is fussy and pedantic, as Hope describes him, a petty domestic tyrant…. [The] fictions of the novel, no matter how unrestrained, invalidated, uncalled for, and unreliable, no matter how "unreal," seem much more satisfying and inspired, certainly more "original," than these portrayals of the novel's "real" characters. Amidst the flurry of disappearing texts that The Ghost Writer embodies, Roth engages the old conflict between fiction and reality without attempting to resolve it; clearly, his reduction of "reality" in the novel to merely one level of discourse among many, through the use of parody, suggests this. The effect of The Ghost Writer's parodies, inversions, and refractions is to make us question the search for "validity" and "reality" in literary texts, that critical discovery of certain origins, grounds, and meanings which, traditionally, comprises the act of interpretation and from which Roth's labyrinthine discourse disinherits us. He thus creates a fiction whose "meaning" is embodied in the unravellings of its constructions and in the wake of its vanishings. The novel thereby generates the anxiety and doubt of the reader confronting a text, or the author confronting "life," forging scandalously out of that uncertain relation the unreliable, unfounded fictions produced by reading and writing. Analogically, Zuckerman's confession stands as a parodic attempt to deny the artistic and "real" fathers in whom reside the origins of self, life, inspiration, authority, and the seminality of meaning. Ultimately, The Ghost Writer unmoors us from certainty, and convinces us to agree with James's Dencombe that "'Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task,'" to accept the doubt about the nature of "reality" that inspires the "task" of art. If so, then Roth has conceived a most passionate portrayal of our doubt, as we observe the ghostly productions of the imagination. (pp. 377-78)
Patrick O'Donnell, "The Disappearing Text: Philip Roth's 'The Ghost Writer'," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 365-78.
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In "The Anatomy Lesson"—Philip Roth's rich, satisfyingly complex conclusion to his Zuckerman trilogy, of which "The Ghost Writer" and "Zuckerman Unbound" formed the first two parts—the writer Nathan Zuckerman has a pain….
It is a pain that has forced Zuckerman to give up writing and spend most of his time lying on the floor in his apartment on a play mat….
Does Zuckerman learn anything from his mysterious ailment, as Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich did from his? Do the cemetery and hospital settings of the final scenes of "The Anatomy Lesson" suggest that Zuckerman has come to terms with death and suffering like the protagonist in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"? It's difficult to say.
Zuckerman is not Philip Roth of course; art is not to be confused with reality…. Moreover, there is a perceptible distance between the narrator of "The Anatomy Lesson" and its protagonist, most distinctly at the end, where Zuckerman's determination to escape his separateness as an artist becomes just strained and ridiculous enough to suggest that Mr. Roth is treating it ironically, if not with outright ridicule.
Still, we do get an awful lot of Zuckerman in "The Anatomy Lesson." He can be passionately articulate in his rage against his tormenters, and he can be a wildly funny-black comedian in his role as Milton Appel the purveyor of sex. But he can also be a little tedious in his endless self-absorption and scab-picking.
Moreover, as with the two great precursors Mr. Roth's trilogy so consciously evokes, "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "The Magic Mountain," there is sufficient ambiguity of tone to make it difficult to judge exactly how much distance lies between the self that created the book and the self that the book creates. In the case of Joyce and Mann, it helps to know that they went on to write books in which the selves that dominated the earlier works were reduced to relatively insignificant characters. One cannot be so sure that Philip Roth will do the same thing. Clearly enough, he would like to. But it remains to be seen whether his next book will prove "The Anatomy Lesson" to be the last installment of the Bildungsroman his body of fiction has seemed so far.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in a review of "The Anatomy Lesson," in The New York Times, October 19, 1983, p. C26.
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Philip Roth, recalling a visit to Prague in 1971, said he was struck by the contrasting situation of writers in a country that is not free and in the United States. Here, it seemed to him, "everything goes and nothing matters"; there, "nothing goes and everything matters." It is this concern that seems to underline the trilogy that Roth began with "The Ghost Writer," continued with "Zuckerman Unbound" and now concludes with "The Anatomy Lesson."
Certainly, Roth's fictitious novelist, Nathan Zuckerman, faces neither censorship nor imprisonment in his rapid journey up the freeway of American literary notoriety. What Zuckerman does face is an ambitious and egocentric self, strong on nerve and stomach, weak in empathy—an impoverished self that is at once his only resource and his major stumbling block. In "The Ghost Writer," Zuckerman is a young beginner who tastes critical approval without the popularity that is the dream of artists no less than of politicians and other performers. A few years later, in "Zuckerman Unbound," Zuckerman attains fame with the publication of "Carnovsky," a novel not unlike Roth's own "Portnoy's Complaint." But Zuckerman gains his renown at the expense of his family, who feel betrayed by his apparent caricatures of them in "Carnovsky," and despite the critics, who consider the novel sensational and shallow.
If it is difficult to feel sorry for Zuckerman, his family or his critics, it may be because they all indeed inhabit a country in which "everything goes and nothing matters." But the country inhabited by Zuckerman is not so much a political or geographical entity as it is a state of mind. Self-indulgence and moral vacuity do not characterize the fiction of all American writers by any means….
It is not clear that Zuckerman has it in him to create serious fiction, though he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can disturb, or to use Roth's words, he can be a "pain in the neck" to himself and to all who come near him. The trouble with "The Anatomy Lesson" is that it illustrates the pain and the pointlessness of Zuckerman's plight all too well. Like its central figure, the novel is a collection of symptoms, a host of problems.
Through long dramatic monologues, Roth explores the mind of an author who is the personification of chronic irritation as artistic stance. In "The Anatomy Lesson," Zuckerman is depicted as middle-aged, out of ideas, emotionally exhausted and living in a state of perpetual physical pain….
This contemporary Job does not fall into his suffering from a previously lofty position of righteousness, and he cannot be described as patriarchal, except in the pejorative sense in which the word is used today by feminists. Nonetheless, he has comforters—four women who perform various clerical, domestic and sexual services….
Zuckerman's comforters provide temporary diversion, but they cannot cure him. Like massage, acupuncture, hypnosis, special collars, pillows, braces and particularly drugs and alcohol, the women become indistinguishable from the ailment. Zuckerman dissolves and absorbs them until they become symptomatic variants. (p. 1)
[As] the novel ends, Zuckerman is … wandering around the hospital "as though he still believed that he could unchain himself from a future as a man apart and escape the corpus that was his."
The play on the word "corpus" as body and collected writings, in combination with the irony of that last sentence, suggests that there is supposed to be a lesson in "The Anatomy Lesson." In contrast with more conventional didactic fiction, however, it is the writer (and only incidentally the reader) for whom the moral seems to be intended. Roth has written, not a contemporary defense of fiction or poetry, but of the writer as bankrupt. Bereft of ideas, subject matter and self-confidence, the writer is nonetheless bound to his profession as he is to his own body….
Where this leaves the reader is an interesting question, and one that Roth does not ignore. Like much contemporary fiction. "The Anatomy Lesson" contains its own varieties of reader response. There is the reader-as-adoring-mother, for whom Zuckerman can do no wrong. There are readers-as-the-four-women-comforters who bring their own problems to the book and think that rubbing them together with those of the author will bring on mild temporary relief all around. Then there is Milton Appel, the reader-as-arch-critic, self-righteous, learned, accusatory, looking for "War and Peace" in every new novel and never finding it.
Finally, there is the reader-as-female-limousine-driver in Chicago, trying to get on with her work while Zuckerman rants and raves from the back seat…. For her, the talkative passenger is a nuisance, a "pain in the neck." With her, the reader of this book can too easily identify:
"This is my car and I do what I like. I work for myself…. I don't want to be under contract to you."
"Because you are a … feminist."
"No, because that partition between you and me in this car is there for me as well. Because the truth is I'm not interested at all in your life."
Given the insight with which he anticipates the reaction of readers, there is no doubt that Roth sees the problem with fiction that has no subject other than its lack of a subject…. If Roth's writer must endure what Samuel Beckett calls "the long anguish of vagrancy and freedom," its source seems to lie deep within himself. The author-narrator-character does not merely occupy stage center; he insists on being stage, cast, director and audience all in one. Few could survive such exposure. The humor, abuse and verbal fireworks are not brilliant enough to make the vacuum bearable. (p. 23)
Robert Kiely, "Roth's Writer and His Stumbling Block," in The New York Times Book Review, October 30, 1983, pp. 1, 22-3.
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When Zuckerman Unbound appeared two years ago, it was widely assumed to be Nathan's farewell to his past and Philip Roth's farewell to his alter ego Nathan. But Roth had a trilogy in mind.
As The Anatomy Lesson demonstrates, Nathan's problems were just beginning. During the next four years, his self-esteem withered under one assault after another until he no longer knew if his talent was still intact. The death of his mother left him mourning over unfinished business; his brother blamed him for both parents' deaths and stopped speaking to him; a hugely respected critic—once a supporter—published a savage attack, legitimizing middlebrow accusations that had been leveled against him earlier….
Add to this a confluence of psychosomatic ailments which has altered Nathan's calling to that of a full-time patient…. After four … years of inactivity, however, Nathan takes action. He decides, at 40, to go for the road not taken, and flies to his alma mater, the University of Chicago, with the intention of entering medical school….
[A broad] outline tells very little about the substance and richness—the satiric bravura—of The Anatomy Lesson, but it brings up a couple of preliminary matters that have become almost inescapable in discussing the gripes of Roth: can the book stand alone without reference to, first, Roth's other work, and, second, Roth himself? The answer in the first instance is a resounding no, in the second an apologetic yes. Anyone who resents Roth for demanding of his readers as much devotion as, say, John Jakes demands of his will derive little pleasure from the latest installment. Indeed, early readers of The Anatomy Lesson have already echoed those reviewers of Zuckerman Unbound who were piqued by Roth's presumption of familiarity with his previous work. This type of reader is impatient for Roth to get to his big novel (his great American novel?), and will continue to miss the impressive scope—perhaps even the inspired japery—of the Zuckerman trilogy until it appears between one set of hard covers.
The Anatomy Lesson isn't necessarily dependent on the earlier novels for plot elements; it can be read—if not fully savored—on its own. Yet the trilogy gains irony and gravity from the manifold ways in which the three volumes interlock. In Zuckerman Unbound, Roth succumbed to Walter Brennan Syndrome and gave the best and funniest part to a supporting character, the former TV quiz kid, Alvin Pepler; Nathan's plight paled by comparison. The Anatomy Lesson redeems its predecessor, putting the middle volume and Nathan in perspective, and highlighting themes only sketched the first and second times around. It clarifies Roth's ambivalence about Nathan.
Roth is a deeply moral writer for all the exuberance of his wise-guy wit, and the Zuckerman trilogy approaches the decorous imperatives of an exemplary novel. Nathan was made, transformed, undone, and revived by literature, and our interest in him is as much sustained by the lessons he seems to learn (but, in fact, incompletely grasps) as by Roth's comic brilliance. (p. 43)
Make what you will of Zuckerman's various manifestations, and suffice it to say that familiarity with, at the very least, Portnoy's Complaint, My Life As a Man, and the trilogy is necessary to relish Roth's gamesmanship about what literature is and does to American readers and writers. It might be argued that too much depends on the reader's memories of Alex Portnoy and the furor over his complaint. The trilogy doesn't tell us what kind of writer Zuckerman is; we know nothing about the content of Carnovsky other than a few clues that make it indistinguishable from Portnoy's Complaint—this in a work which insists, page after page, that a writer is not his characters, that an imaginative process transforms life into something else. If you don't know Portnoy, you can barely imagine Carnovsky, and if you don't recall the impact Portnoy/Carnovsky had in 1969 (there's been nothing like it since), you might feel impatient with the entire conceit.
Roth gets away with it partly because Portnoy is so well remembered. (pp. 43-4)
[The] Portnoy experience prepared [Roth] for a new subject, an expansion of his corpus. Roth's stunning, if belatedly recognized, return to form with My Life As a Man (he's been on a roll ever since) established, among other signs of a dazzling increase in powers, his willingness to aim at a particular kind of reader—one who shares with Roth a nearly collegiate enthusiasm for literature's gods and ghosts. He strikes a special chord with the peculiarly American—even peculiarly Jewish American—version of first-generation intellectuals, who, like Roth, discovered literature in school, used it to rebel against their bourgeois backgrounds, and were left to ponder its political and medicinal uses….
The critic Milton Appel [Roth's fictional version of Irving Howe; see Howe's essay in CLC, Vol. 2] is the source of some of the most riotous passages Roth has written…. Appel is always offstage—his only dialogue is heard over the phone, during which conversation he sounds "wearyingly intelligent," as Wilfred Sheed once said of Howe. Otherwise, we know him by what he writes—or by what Zuckerman chooses to tell us about what he writes; he is the critic as ogre, a comfort to the philistines and a probable source of Zuckerman's mysterious pain….
As fictional invention, Appel is an inspired foil. Nathan rails at him with dialectic, occasionally fatuous, branding him as an aesthete suddenly sympathetic to "the ghetto world of their traditional fathers now that the traditional fathers are filed for safekeeping in Beth Moses Memorial Park."…
Appel and Zuckerman represent two generations of apostasy from the Jewish bourgeoisie (which, needless to say, doesn't differ much from any other bourgeoisie)—both feel less pride in their own bookishness than shame at their parents' lack of it. Nathan is outraged at Appel's hypocrisy as an intellectual mandarin who suddenly pretends solidarity with the Catskills culture that is the butt of Zuckerman's satire. But he's also plain wounded by the devastating attack from a writer he once admired…. (p. 44)
Clearly, Zuckerman is learning something about the consequences of literature. Diminished to a blathering Beckettian mouth while prostrate on his mat before a harem of willing mother-substitutes, he finds himself turning into his fictional stand-in Carnovsky, "smothered with mothers and shouting at Jews." He blames his "whammied" muscles on Appel's "Jewish evil eye," and when he finally confronts Appel on the phone, Nathan sounds disconcertingly like a Jewish father defending himself against the superiority of his over-educated son…. [When] his impotent rage is exacerbated by a plea from Appel on behalf of Israel, he's tempted to repeat what Carnovsky/Portnoy shouted at 14—that the world can take its concern for the good of the Jews and shove it. Roth, anticipating his readers as usual, restrains Nathan, who is thereby "demonstrating to himself if to no one else the difference between character and author….
Zuckerman's revenge—his intricate, "burning" improvisation on the idea of Appel as porn tycoon—is a splendidly deranged metaphor for the practical uses of art. Roth's revenge, on the other hand, raises questions of propriety. He has waited 10 years to respond to Howe, and for all the textual validity of his conceit, there is blood on the page. Previous literary feuds on the order of the Lewis-De Voto and Wilson-Nabokov exchanges were relative models of decorum. Because Roth has scrupulously adhered to verifiable facts regarding Appel's attacks and positions (they are unmistakably Howe's), the reader must wonder how much of the less easily verified information also relates to Howe. (pp. 44-5)
Even in the age of the true-life novel, Roth would appear to be treading on precarious ground. But, of course, Kafka-disciple that he is, he practically begs for the critical abuse he earns. It's the wise guy in him, laughing all the way through the gauntlet, comforted by the knowledge that he is offending all the wrong people for all the right reasons—fulfilling the admonishment of his favorite "sit-down comic" Kafka to do more harm to your contemporaries than they do you. Still, in many respects he is quite fair to Appel. Howe's essay doesn't stand up against Portnoy's Complaint because it fails to comprehend its intentions or appreciate its comic extravagance…. But Howe does real damage to Goodbye Columbus when he argues that "even a philistine character has certain rights, if not as a philistine then at least as a character in whose 'reality' we are being asked to believe."…
Roth, after all, has long since become too good a novelist to cheat a character—philistine or critic—of his integrity, and when Appel is finally heard from (on the phone), he is sufficiently convincing and sensible to enfeeble Zuckerman's rage and turn it back on him. Nathan is riddled with doubt: "What if twenty years of writing has just been so much helplessness before a compulsion—submission to a lowly, inconsequential compulsion that I've dignified with all my principles, a compulsion probably not all that different from what made my mother clean the house for five hours every day." Who would have thought that the shifty and prolific Philip Roth would become the poet of literary terrors, the bard of block?
For most of The Anatomy Lesson, Roth's narrative hand is wonderfully sure, his comic timing worthy of the Ritz brothers, with whom Zuckerman compares himself, his voice unencumbered by the typographical screaming of Portnoy's Complaint. Not since Henry Miller has anyone learned to be as funny and compassionate and brutal and plaintive in the space of a paragraph. Juggling elegiac passages with broad lampoon, Roth frequently keeps the reader off balance.
Roth is frequently accused of having turned his back on Judaic culture, and, to be sure, there is nothing in his writing to suggest much interest in the covenant with Moses…. But Judaic culture is also the secular world in which American Jews find themselves living, and far from turning his back on it, Roth has given a texture and shape to that experience unmatched in the work of his contemporaries. Far from ignoring his birthright, he celebrates its cultural resonance in his diction and themes. In refusing to demand special dispensation for Jews, he's been able to engender a howl that is quintessentially American, though infused with a Jewish accent and energy. Roth is one of those rare writers whose books are keenly awaited for the sense they might make of insensible times. Because he writes with a firm and gentle hand on the tillers—literary and personal—of the past, and delineates the spleen of urban isolation with a steadier mixture of exuberance and intelligence than anyone else around, he's in the enviable position, at 50, of still being promising. (p. 45)
Gary Giddins, "Zuckerman Fights Back: Philip Roth with a Vengeance," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 44, November 1, 1983, pp. 43-5.
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There is, as the folks in the head trades might say, a lot of rage in Philip Roth. What, one wonders, is he so angry about? As a writer, he seems to have had a pretty good roll of the dice. His first book, the collection of stories entitled Goodbye, Columbus, published when he was twenty-six, was a very great critical success; in brilliance, his literary debut was second in modern America perhaps only to that of Delmore Schwartz…. After two further novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), he wrote Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a succès fou, a tremendous hit both critically … and commercially (it was a bestseller of a kind that removes a writer permanently from the financial wars). One recalls the protagonist of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, regularly muttering, "I want! I want! I want!" Philip Roth, who at an early age had critical attention, wealth, and celebrity, continues to mutter, "It isn't enough. It isn't enough. It isn't enough."
What does Philip Roth want? For one thing, he wishes to be recognized as a great writer, the natural successor to Gogol and Chekhov and Kafka. He wishes also to have the right to strike out against the bourgeoisie—particularly the Jewish bourgeoisie—and to be adored for his acute perceptions of it. And he wishes to have appreciated what he takes to be the universal application of his own experience as it has been transformed by the imagination in his several novels. Recognition, adoration, appreciation—all this would be his if people would only understand what his work is really about. Or so he believes, and so he would have us believe. But thus far all too few people do understand. In fact, they don't seem to understand at all.
Not that Philip Roth, in his many interviews about his work, has neglected to enlighten them. The Roth modus operandi is to publish an interview around the time each of his new books appears, or shortly thereafter, and in these interviews meticulously explain what the book is about, what the influences behind it have been, and what its place is in the Roth canon…. One thing is clear: Philip Roth is far and away the most generous critic we have of the writings of Philip Roth.
It may be useful to keep this in mind because when reading the novels of Philip Roth one discovers that he is not all that generous to anyone else. Make no mistake, he is an immensely talented writer. He is always very readable. He has a fine eye for the detail and texture of social scenery. He has a splendid ear and an accompanying gift of mimicry, which allows him to do the Jews in a thousand voices. He is famously funny, dangerously funny, as Mel Brooks once characterized the kind of humor that can cause strokes from laughter. He has a most solid literary education. Philip Roth has in fact everything but one thing: a generous spirit. Reading through his work, however, one begins to wonder if, in the case of a novelist, this one thing may not perhaps be the main thing.
Randall Jarrell once wittily defined a novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it," and there has certainly been no shortage of critics ready to declare various things wrong with Philip Roth's novels. Many a rabbi took to his pulpit to denounce the treatment of Jews in Goodbye, Columbus. Letting Go was in more than one quarter found sententious….
Philip Roth, then, has taken his critical lumps. But the deepest and unkindest cut of all came from Irving Howe, who, in an essay in COMMENTARY entitled "Philip Roth Reconsidered" … [see CLC, Vol. 2], quite consummately eviscerated all Roth's work. (p. 62)
This essay, as we shall see, has left Philip Roth in the spiritual equivalent of intensive care for the more than a decade since it was written.
I have said that Philip Roth is always very readable, but I have recently learned that (as Howe pointed out) he is not very rereadable. Trial by rereading is a tough test for a novelist, and I am not sure exactly what it proves, except of course that it is obviously better to write books that can be reread with pleasure than not…. Roth, on a second reading, begins to seem smaller; one starts to notice glancing and low blows. In Goodbye, Columbus, for example, a cheap point is scored off Mrs. Patimkin, the mother of the family of rich and vulgar Jews who it is fair to say are the target of the novella, because she has never heard of Martin Buber. "Is he reformed?" she asks. The assumption here is that people who do not know the name of Martin Buber are swine, like people who listen to the recordings of Kostelanetz and Mantovani. The term for the thinking behind this assumption is intellectual snobbery, and of a fairly low order….
Or, again, in rereading When She Was Good I discovered myself feeling an unexpected rush of sympathy for that novel's main character, the moralizing and man-destroying Lucy Nelson. For all that Lucy Nelson is mean-spirited and endlessly judgmental, throughout the novel there is someone meaner and even more judgmental on her tail—her creator, the author. The novel is relentless, ending with Lucy Nelson's death in the cold, a chilling performance in every sense. Mighty is the wrath of the Lord; but the wrath of Roth, for those of his characters on whom he spews it—from the Patimkins to Lucy Nelson, to Jack and Sophie Portnoy, to assorted lady friends in various of the novels, to the critic Milton Appel in the recent The Anatomy Lesson—is not so easily borne either.
A highly self-conscious writer, the early Philip Roth no doubt felt the weight of his own crushing moralizing. True, in his first book he was moralizing against moralizing—yet it was still moralizing…. What may have caused Roth to modify his sense of moral earnestness was the unrelieved gloom in which it issued in such novels as Letting Go and When She Was Good. Roth's early fiction was about what he construed to be the coercive forces in life—family, religion, culture. At some point he decided that among those coercive forces he had to add another: his own literary moral seriousness.
Near the end of the 1960's, that time of many liberations, Philip Roth achieved his own with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint…. It was meant to cause the squeamish to squirm, the righteous to rave—and by and large succeeded in doing so. If Berkeley was what happened to the university during the 60's, Andy Warhol what happened to contemporary art, Portnoy's Complaint was what happened to American Jewish fiction.
For Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint was evidently, in one of the cant phrases of the day, a breakthrough. Suddenly, the sexual subject, with all its taboos shattered, was now fully his to command; suddenly, in his use of material and language, he was little boy blue. He had also developed a new tone, a detached intimacy such as a practiced analysand might adopt with his therapist. Psychoanalysts—variously called Spielvogel, Klinger, and other German names—will henceforth appear in Roth's novels, while Roth himself will come to view the psychoanalytic as an important mode of apprehending reality. (p. 63)
The later Roth has, I believe, shed his true-believer views of psychoanalysis; in his most recent novel, The Anatomy Lesson, he seems to have shucked them off nearly altogether. But he has retained certain of the habits of the analysand—classically conceived, as they say down at the Institute—not the least of which is an unshakable belief in the importance of sex and an implacable confidence in the significance of one's own splendid self.
Although I have not taken an exact count, it strikes me that, along with John Updike and Norman Mailer, Philip Roth is a hot entry in the sweepstakes for the most fornication described within the pages of a single body of serious work…. By now a practiced hand, Roth can describe sex as easily as Dickens could describe London, though the views Dickens offers are more interesting. Roth has mastered his technique to the point where he can advance his plots through dialogue while keeping his characters in flagrante….
Yet it isn't the sheer volume of sex in Roth's novels that is troubling; one feels, rather, that sex is one of the few subjects left to him, and that it has now begun to qualify as an uninteresting obsession….
Philip Roth has lived for some while pretty close to the autobiographical bone. The relationship between fictional representation and autobiographical sources is endlessly complicated, and can usually only be properly understood by a literary biographer willing to spend decades with his subject….
This is a touchy point for Philip Roth, who again and again has accused his critics and readers of confusing his life and his work….
Time and again, in interviews and essays and now even in his fiction, Roth has gone on insisting that he is not, in his novels, writing about Philip Roth, except through the transmutations of art. "That writing is an act of imagination," says Nathan Zuckerman in The Anatomy Lesson, "seems to perplex and infuriate everyone." Roth has spoken of readers getting a "voyeuristic kick" from reading his autobiography into his books. I think "voyeuristic kick" is exactly the correct phrase, and my first response to it is that, if a writer doesn't wish to supply such kicks, perhaps he would do better not to undress before windows opening onto thoroughfares.
Yet one wonders if voyeuristic kicks are not precisely at the heart of Roth's recent novels (as well as those of other contemporary novelists). (p. 64)
In short, it is the novelists who make this gossip, these voyeuristic kicks, possible in the first place. If they don't wish so to be read, the way out is through invention, imagination, fresh creation, greater subtlety. Another prospect, however, is simply to give way, to write about oneself almost straight-out, to cultivate the idiosyncratic vision, to plow away at one's own obsessions, becoming a bit of a crank, something of a crackpot, and risk being a minor writer indeed. Alas, I think this is the path that Philip Roth has set himself upon….
Roth's fictional works, like runny cooked vegetables on a plate, begin to bleed into one another. Three Roth protagonists come on the scene: Nathan Zuckerman, Peter Tarnopol, and, not yet breastified, David Kepesh. A Chinese-box effect sets in…. By now, Philip Roth has written three books about this Nathan Zuckerman character. All that remains to complete the circle is for Peter Tarnopol to write a novel in which David Kepesh is teaching a year-long honors seminar on the novels of Philip Roth.
These characters have a number of qualities in common: they are bookish (two are writers, one a teacher of writing), Jewish, single, past or current analysands and hence mightily self-regarding, great prizers of their personal freedom (two have had disastrous first marriages, one, Nathan Zuckerman, has had three marriages about two of which not much is said), fearful of a great deal but above all of personal entrapment. Their characteristic condition is to feel put upon; their characteristic response is to whine and complain. Much of their time on the page is spent in the effort of self-analysis through which they hope to arrive at self-justification. Oh, yes, one other thing: for the above-mentioned reasons, none is in any way easy to sympathize with.
Reading these novels, one begins to sense with what pleasure a psychoanalyst must look forward to knocking off at the end of the day. It's a small world, that of the patient—it has, really, only one person of importance in it. So, too, with Roth's novels which feel so terribly underpopulated, confined, claustral. One admires their sentences, picks up on their jokes, notes the craft that went into their making, and finishes reading them with a slight headache and a sour taste in the mouth. (p. 65)
More and more of Roth's subject is falling away from him, like the hair on Nathan Zuckerman's head in The Anatomy Lesson. In My Life as a Man this same Zuckerman is said to have written a novel, filled with "moral indignation," entitled A Jewish Father. Roth himself, in such portraits as those of Mrs. Patimkin, Aunt Gladys, Sophie Portnoy, and others has been putting together a bitter volume that might be entitled World of Our Mothers. Now, however, that generation, in whose rage for order Roth read repression and perhaps unintended but nonetheless real malevolence, is old and dying and hardly any longer worth railing against. Even Roth appears to have recognized this, and some of the few touching moments in his later fiction—the scenes with David Kepesh's widowed father in My Life as a Man, memories of Nathan Zuckerman's mother in Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson—are tributes to the generation of his own parents.
When a writer has used up all other subjects within the realm of his experience, one subject remains—that of writing itself. Philip Roth's last three novels—the Zuckerman trilogy—are about precisely this subject. The first, The Ghost Writer, much of which takes place at the home of the ascetic writer E. I. Lonoff, is about the toll in loneliness and self-abnegation that the writing life exacts. Being a Roth novel, The Ghost Writer is not without its comic touches, or without its attempts to épater les juifs. (p. 66)
Zuckerman Unbound, the second Zuckerman novel, is about the wages paid for large-scale success in America…. Here again one begins to feel many autobiographical teases. Did Roth's parents react to Portnoy as Zuckerman's did to Carnovsky? Does Roth feel the same petulance about publicity as Zuckerman? "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale," pronounced D. H. Lawrence. Yet the more it becomes apparent that there is little to choose between tale and teller, the more one ends up trusting neither. Part of the burden of The Anatomy Lesson, it seems to me, is that Roth may no longer trust either himself.
A long while ago Philip Roth removed the fig leaf; now, in The Anatomy Lesson, off—or nearly off—comes the mask. In this novel Nathan Zuckerman is suffering a great unexplained pain in his back and neck. So great is the pain that he cannot write. He can, though, while settled on his back upon a rubber mat on his living-room floor, carry on love affairs with four different women. But these affairs do not absorb him nearly so deeply as does an attack written on his work by a Jewish intellectual critic he once admired by the name of Milton Appel that appeared in the magazine Inquiry. Not many people will need to know this, but Milton Appel is another name for Irving Howe and Inquiry is intended to be COMMENTARY…. I am sure a number of characters are invented, touches and twists are added, nothing is quite as it was in life, but at its center this is a roman à clef—one that is being used, through gross caricature and straight insult, to repay an old wound.
It is also a roman of clay. The only points of interest have to do with the sense it conveys that Philip Roth himself may feel he can go no further in this vein. He has written himself into a corner and up a wall. "There's nothing more wearying," Zuckerman tells a friend, "than having to go around pretending to be the author of one's own books—except pretending not to be." Elsewhere he remarks: "If you get out of yourself you can't be a writer because the personal ingredient is what gets you going, and if you hang on to the personal ingredient any longer you'll disappear right up your [orifice deleted]." And later he adds: "Chained to my dwarf drama till I die. Stories now about Milton Appel? Fiction about losing my hair? I can't face it." Neither, for much longer, I suspect, can we.
When, with Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth's career took its turn toward investigating the inner life, Roth must have thought he was on his way to becoming the Jewish Gogol, the American Kafka. But it has not worked out. Roth's fictional figures lack the requisite weight; they aren't clown-heroes out of Kafka or Gogol who have somehow been tricked by life, the butt of some towering cosmic joke. A character who is having love affairs with four women and wishes to get his own back at a literary critic—this is not, as Philip Roth the teacher of literature himself must know, exactly a figure of universal significance. No, it has not worked out. Portnoy's Complaint ended on the couch, with the psychiatrist remarking to Alex Portnoy, "Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?" The Anatomy Lesson ends with Nathan Zuckerman, determined to give up writing for a career in medicine, helping the interns in the hospital in which he himself is a patient. I should have preferred to see it, too, end in a psychoanalyst's office, with the analyst announcing to Portnoy-Tarnopol-Kepesh-Zuckerman-Roth: "Now, vee are concluded. Vee haf gone as far as vee can go. Yes?" (pp. 66-7)
Joseph Epstein, "What Does Philip Roth Want?" in Commentary, Vol. 77, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 62-7.
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It's remarkable that Bellow, Styron, Malamud and Roth have all written novels in which the central character is a writer, more or less closely identifiable with the author whose name appears on the title-page. It's also rather interesting, to my mind, that all these writers are men; while they write about their problems as writers, women writers write about their problems as women. The American public, undeniably, receives these confessions with fascinated appetite, but it isn't axiomatic that a writer's life is of richer significance than the lives of the whaling captains or tobacco farmers chronicled in earlier American novels. In [The Anatomy Lesson], Zuckerman remarks: 'Other people. Somebody should have told me about them a long time ago.' It's slipped in as a casual, wry wisecrack, but it brings home with unintended sharpness the first serious limitation of this kind of novel.
There are other limitations, no less grave. Whereas a writer can observe a tobacco farmer with detachment, the primary condition of truth, he can't bring the same detachment to writing about himself—nor, it must be added sadly, to writing about rival novelists, editors or critics, who are described here with a malicious vengefulness that reduces long passages to the level of the snide gossip column. While Roth appears to be portraying Zuckerman with devastating frankness, the thoughtful reader is far from convinced that Zuckerman-Roth really is like this. He may be a better man or a worse, but the writer himself isn't the one to know. (pp. 27-8)
In fact, the crippling vice of the self-absorbed novel is its tone of unjustified self-importance. Roth's big commercial success was Portnoy's Complaint, an amusing novel which has dated considerably since it achieved a succès de scandale in 1968. Thousands of words in Zuckerman Unbound, and more thousands of words in The Anatomy Lesson, are taken up with the question of whether this book could be considered anti-Semitic. One might imagine that we are talking about The Merchant of Venice.
But, because of Roth's indifference to 'other people', what stands out isn't his (debatable) inaccuracy about Jews so much as his assumption that Jews of his class and generation are the only people with whom he need concern himself. He goes on and on in these books about the way in which the Newark in which he grew up has been ruined since it became a predominantly black town. It doesn't occur to him that the blacks might have their own community structure, their own values and pleasures, which at least contribute to the diversity of American urban life. Nor does it occur to him that the people of older American stock who predominated in Newark earlier in this century may have thought that it was ruined, or changed in a way that nostalgia inclined them to regret, by the Jews. I don't say this because I have any particular views on the matter…. I say it because respect for the outlook of those who are different from oneself, and indeed simple curiosity, are qualities of which no writer should divest himself.
Like Roth's other novels, The Anatomy Lesson is an easily readable book. Here and there, it is very funny. Although there are no real characters except Zuckerman himself (the women are presented only as satisfying or unsatisfying from his angle), there are several sharp and witty vignettes. The writing is practised and skilful. The last 30 pages—worth persisting for—are a successful exercise in Grand Guignol horror. Yet the enjoyments that it provides are radically different from the satisfaction to be derived from the work of a writer like Kundera, who aims not at effect but at exploration. The lack of such a purpose means that self-absorption, instead of rising to self-analysis, merely descends to self-pity, which is as tedious in literature as in life. This, ultimately, is what makes The Anatomy Lesson a boring book despite the periodic infusions of vitality. I was glad to get to the end. (p. 28)
Mervyn Jones, "Roth on Roth," in The Listener, Vol. 111, No. 2846, February 23, 1984, pp. 27-8.
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Zuckerman in The Anatomy Lesson is a pugnacious rebel and one can well imagine his railing at God and waving a banner saying 'Unfair to Zuckerman!'. Indeed, the polemics in Philip Roth's third Zuckerman book are among its most effective passages….
Roth is at his best complaining, as he has shown in Portnoy's Complaint and, indeed, in most of his fiction. He—and one cannot help thinking of the 'he' as a composite character, Philip Nathan Roth Zuckerman—rants and raves against all his enemies, especially 'those sentimental, chauvinist, philistine Jews' who regard his satires as treachery. The most hated of them is a critic, Milton Appel, who had referred to Zuckerman's 'mean, joyless, patronizing little novels'. Zuckerman has it in for others, too. There are those who pay only lip-service to the idea of freedom. There are moralists who profess to consider pain 'significant'. There are feminists who read a hatred of all women into his books. Whenever Roth gets steamed up, whenever Zuckerman gets hot under his surgical collar, the result is riveting. (p. 106)
Everything Roth wants to say comes through loud and clear. Some will think him too shrill and too verbose. However, like all Roth's fiction The Anatomy Lesson offers savage satire, shrewd self-analysis, albeit tainted with self-pity, and vivid pictures of slices of American life. It is also very funny, as well as perceptive, about the nature of a novelist. (p. 107)
John Mellors, "Unfair to Life!" in London Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 12, March, 1984, pp. 105-08.∗
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[The Anatomy Lesson] is the finest, boldest and funniest piece of fiction which Philip Roth has yet produced—and that is quite something to say about the author of Portnoy's Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go. Perhaps because of the 'personal' nature of most of his work—and also perhaps simply because he is one of the half-dozen writers alive who make you laugh aloud—readers and some critics in this country have tended to underestimate the scale and nature of Roth's gifts. He has been treated as a Jewish-American farceur who took advantage of a good education to hoist his emotional confusions on a public eager to read about sex—so long as it was wrapped in the severe packing of ideas, and literary ideas, at that. My own guess is that his extraordinary combination of careful observation, unfettered fantasy and elegant discussion of a multitude of themes, make him unclassifiable as a writer, and this makes people nervous of overpraising him.
Though how much and for how long he has been compared to other writers, living and dead! Salinger and Mann, Kafka and Bellow, Chekov and Malamud have all been brought into service at one time or another in the attempt to pin him and cut him down. Because Roth has the skill to incorporate literary criticism within the body of his narratives, he is accused of intellectualising. The variety of his eloquence has told against him. It is a sad fact that well articulated imagination should elicit the kind of abuse which is usually reserved for objects of fear.
It was precisely this theme which was central to Zuckerman Unbound. Nathan has produced Carnovsky (a novel which it is impossible not to equate with Portnoy's Complaint) and with its enormous success come gross threats and accusations. Zuckerman is charged with a multiple betrayal: he has sacrificed his race, his family and even himself on the altar of his sexual anxiety. Zuckerman fights off his paranoia by indulgence on the one hand, and on the other, by a heady discussion, mostly interior, of what he was trying to do and say in Carnovsky. In The Anatomy Lesson, Zuckerman is bound again, this time with an intolerable pain which stretches from his neck through his shoulders down to his arms. The reader meets Zuckerman when he is beginning to recognise that the pain has no attributable physical cause. He is the centre of a complex revenge plot instigated, it seems, by himself….
He has no less than four active girl friends, each wonderfully realised by Mr Roth, to tend to his almost every need…. One of them, Jaga, drinks large quantities of red wine to drown her expatriate sorrows. She also asks to borrow a book each time she visits Nathan, and each time she leaves the volume on the corner of his desk. When Nathan confides in her that he wants to be a doctor (precisely, an obstetrician), as he sees this as the only practical way to stop wanting to write, to do something useful and to come to terms with his suffering, Jaga is not impressed. 'You want to have fine feelings like the middle class. You want to be a doctor the way some people admit to uncommitted crimes. Hello Dostoyevsky. Don't be so banal,' she admonishes him.
But he does not heed her, nor anyone else. He leaves New York for Chicago. The realism of the first part of the book is gradually, subtly abandoned. For all the high fantasy of thought and feeling which fills the first sections of the book, it is rooted in everyday experience as expressed in a slightly heightened vernacular. Once on the plane to Windy City, overdosed on Percodan and vodka and his own mad researches into obstetrics, he is released into a language and a style which might be called the rhetoric of pain, the solemn crazy oratory of an obsessive….
What had been largely reverie and speculation becomes externalised. Zuckerman talks aloud to everyone around him—to his old college buddy, to his female driver. Milton Appel, it should be explained, is the name of a highly respected Jewish writer and critic who has taken Zuckerman to task for his irresponsibility as a Jew. It is this attack, and a contemptuous second-hand letter saying that Zuckerman could at least write something about Israel—the date is 1973—which gives Zuckerman the final push off his trolley.
The last scenes of the novel take place in the hospital where he had hoped to take up his new profession in medicine, but he is admitted as a patient after a climactic scene in a cemetery. The hyperbole of his invention and anguish is silenced; his tongue is so grotesquely swollen that he cannot speak.
The triumph of The Anatomy Lesson is that it transcends the symbolic, the fabulous and the metaphorical. Even at its most wild, Roth convinces the reader of the urgent reality of what is happening. Every incident and personality is seen with such clarity, and Zuckerman's reaction recorded with such honesty and comic acuteness, that the frontiers of fiction have been extended. And this masterpiece is created without once descending into the murky world of stylistic experiment.
Julian Webb, "Nathan Agonistes," in The Spectator, Vol. 252, No. 8121, March 3, 1984, p. 23.
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The Ghost Writer must be initially examined from the context of the Bildungsroman because Roth has so deliberately placed it in this context. After focusing on the novel as a work of fiction within a clearly defined tradition, then the critic can look to the narrative for parallels to the author's life and insights into his growth and development. In comparing the novel with its predecessors we can not only evaluate its departures from that tradition but also assess Roth's implications about the viability of this form in late twentieth-century fiction…. Roth's late twentieth-century Bildungsroman protagonist typically searches for a father and simultaneously flees both a father and all the suitable father substitutes, a fashion that bears the mark of the late twentieth-century fragmentation which has eroded family ties and given rise to homelessness. Thus in a pattern that is repeated throughout The Ghost Writer, the tradition of the Bildungsroman is both utilized and corrupted, adopted and rejected. (pp. 88-9)
[The] neglect of Nathan's childhood in The Ghost Writer may initially appear inconsistent in a Bildungsroman, for, aside from short reminiscences of family Sundays, the place where he copped his first feel, the sting of a mother's slap, and the memory of a father relegated to "Doc" in the neighborhood because he was a podiatrist and not a physician, Nathan spends little time reflecting on his childhood. Yet the other central concerns of the Bildungsroman are very much the stuff of which The Ghost Writer is made—provinciality, alienation, the larger society, ordeal by love, and the search for a vocation and a working philosophy. Even, however, when Roth's themes are traditional, his treatment can be personal and idiosyncratic, and herein lie the vitality and viability of the form which lends itself to adaptation and hence to different cultural contexts.
The typical Bildungsroman usually begins with its child hero somewhere in the country … and follows him to the city and maturity. The myth of growth recognizes that the postulant must undergo a trial, and the foreign environment of the city is the most likely place for this important step. Roth accepts the movement, the clash of lifestyles, and the trial, but it is clearly not possible to take a boy brought up in Newark and educated in Chicago and send him off to the city. So for Nathan the situation needs to be reversed. Vir urbi must go off to the country, and Roth insures that Lonoff's world is as different from Nathan's as it can be. In fact, Lonoff's pastoral retreat is all that Nathan ever thought he wanted. There a writer, surrounded by natural beauty, can indulge himself throughout the day in all of the cerebral pleasures he ever dreamed of. The house has books, magazines, records, typewriters, and quiet. At night there is conjugal bliss and there are admirers—both male and female—to stroke the delicate artistic ego. Lonoff has all of this—all that Nathan aspires to—and he is miserable.
Even though the movement of The Ghost Writer contradicts the traditional town-country formula, the novel nevertheless retains the provincial environment that the incipient artist must escape. Newark's Jewish society is clannish, narrow, and suspicious of outside ideas. The best Jewish Newark has to offer is Judge Leopold Wapter, a man idolized by Doc Zuckerman and his generation. Wapter represents the Jew who has gained position and esteem in the Gentile world…. The stifling environment that Nathan must repudiate is well represented in Judge Wapter's reaction to one of Nathan's short stories. The judge responds to the manuscript of the story with a letter to its author which is a rhetorical masterpiece of manipulation…. Clearly this environment is hostile to art, to creativity, and to imagination; the only ideas it will tolerate are those which do not threaten complacency or conformity. The artist must leave his provincial home or repudiate his art, for significant fiction cannot flourish in the sterile soil of Newark.
If Roth manipulates the urban-rural conflict to suit the demands of his age and his own purposes as well, he treats the artistic questions of The Ghost Writer as seriously and traditionally as Joyce did in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. More than any other work, it is this novel which Roth invites us to have in mind as we read The Ghost Writer, and more than any other literary predecessor, it is Stephen who provides inspiration for Nathan. In fact the important second chapter is called "Nathan Dedalus" in case the reader misses Roth's implied comparison of the two. Like Stephen, Nathan aspires to become a serious writer. Like Stephen, he comes from an environment that neither understands nor encourages artistic achievement. Both young artists are sensitive souls who are frequently insensitive to those around them, and both are alienated from their backgrounds. Significantly, both protagonists eventually say "no."… Ultimately, then, just as Portrait is about art and its relationship to the artist as well as to society, so too is The Ghost Writer. A part of the achievement of this book comes from the amount of material on this subject Roth can work into a short novel without sounding preachy or polemical. Both books agree that the artist is inevitably a misunderstood man, condemned to insoluble conflicts, confusion, and solitude. (pp. 89-92)
The Ghost Writer presents a variety of attitudes about art for Nathan and the reader to consider. Nathan, himself, appears initially as the unashamed lover of art…. Lonoff is a realist. He knows that art is not glamorous. His art consists in pushing sentences across a page and turning them around. Lonoff is wholly dedicated to his work, yet it is a merciless master that holds him in thrall. (pp. 92-3)
Roth presents the two main women of the novel as also holding views of art which contrast dramatically with those of the idealistic Nathan. Like her husband, Hope, too, has no illusions after thirty-five years of ascetic existence. The husband who refuses dinner invitations and tyrannizes the members of his household rejects life. "Not living is what he makes … fiction out of," she screams, and in a colossal effort of will, she rejects his living death…. Amy, on the other hand, is a pragmatist; art for her is a means. At age sixteen she presented herself to Lonoff as a "highly intelligent, creative, and charming" refugee who wanted a new start in life. She became his student, his editor, his accomplice, and yearned to become his mistress and muse. (p. 93)
Roth uses Felix Abravanel to represent the most calculated approach to art in The Ghost Writer…. Abravanel in his five-hundred-dollar shantung suit accompanied by his young, "juicy" mistress, Andrea, soon proved to be the artist very much in the world and of the world…. [The] full irony of Nathan's rejection of Abravanel and embracing of Lonoff appears only in [Zuckerman Unbound], the sequel to The Ghost Writer, where we find Zuckerman the successful and worldly novelist, pursuing a career much more like that of the celebrated Abravanel than that of the reclusive Lonoff.
The alienation of son from father is a familiar theme in the Bildungsroman, from the hatred felt by Henry in Stendhal's La Vie de Henri Brulard to the haughty disdainfulness of Stephen smirking when his father calls him a bitch. No alienation is so important or so potentially permanent as the repudiation of the faith of one's fathers…. Nathan's father is more involved in his son's life and writing than the elder Dedalus, and he senses Nathan's apostasy even before his visit to upstate New York. The cause for his alarm is Nathan's story "Higher Education," based directly on recent family history…. Doc Zuckerman's pride for the son written up in Saturday Review is dampened by the shame he feels for a family incident best forgotten. How can his naive son know how such a story will be perceived in the world? "It's not your fault that you don't know what Gentiles think when they read something like this. But I can tell you. They don't think about how it's a great work of art—they read about people. And they judge them as such. And how do you think they will judge the people in your story, what conclusions do you think they will reach?"… Nathan's inexperience leaves him ill-prepared for the world outside Newark…. Nathan flees from his father, from Newark, from his heritage, and from his past to the writers' retreat at Quahsay, and he is thus prepared for the visit to Lonoff which will conclude his conversion.
In the evening spent at the Lonoffs, Nathan exchanges Judaism for art, his new religion, a process which may have begun at the University of Chicago. Every minute in the presence of the man he histrionically calls the "chief rabbi, the archdeacon, the magisterial high priest of perpetual sorrows" confirms him in his decision…. Nathan's narrative is informed throughout by the language of religion. (pp. 93-5)
What is this new religion for which Nathan sacrifices the Judaism of his fathers? It is a faith with some hope but with even greater elements of frustration, misunderstanding, and disappointment. (p. 95)
[Nathan] shares another important characteristic with the earlier Bildungsroman artist: both he and Stephen are often not very likeable…. But when Nathan's self-absorption irritates the reader who shares the despair of the spurned Hope and the grieving parents who helplessly watch their son rejecting family and religion, he is redeemed much as the headstrong Emma and stubborn Stephen by the sustained internal view the narrative provides. (p. 96)
Likewise, both Stephen and Nathan are redeemed by the paucity of choice offered the reader. If we must choose between the narrow xenophobic world of Newark's elderly Jewish community and Nathan's art, our sympathies will surely rest with the hope of youth as certainly as the tradition of Latin comedy ensures that the audience will sympathize with young lovers and scoff at aged fathers who only obstruct. Stephen's family does not understand him any more than Nathan's parents understand their son, but rather than view the family schism as tragic, both novels treat this subject in the broad perspective of comedy. (p. 97)
Nathan's spontaneity, artlessness, and honesty humanize him in a way that guarantees the reader's sympathy.
Nathan's honesty has its limits, however. He can evaluate his own shortcomings, he can deprecate his literary endeavors and even acknowledge his immaturity to the reader. In remembering his relationship with Betsy he frankly recounts his infidelities…. In a cloud of penitential gloom he abandoned Betsy and their relationship, and in The Ghost Writer the youthful heart is ready to be re-engaged. Thus it is that Nathan allows himself to be totally beguiled by the mysterious Amy. For Nathan she becomes Anne Frank so completely that it is only with difficulty that he can call her by her own name. Amy-Anne represents for Nathan a chance to live a life of romance and adventure rather than imagining it. The illusion he conjures offers Nathan an opportunity to gain the respect of his family and to humiliate the self-righteous Wapters who have accused him of disloyalty. What an impression he could make in Newark with the reincarnated modern Jewish saint as his bride!
Nathan's love ordeal is as real and as painful as that of Pip's in Great Expectations. Unlike Pip, Nathan has not been manipulated by others to hope for and expect a relationship that the reader knows to be impossible; like Pip, however, Nathan participates fully in his own deception…. [The] ordeal Nathan puts himself through because of the beautiful immigrant in the Lonoffs' home reveals to Nathan and the reader his uncertainties and insecurities. What the reader suspects all along becomes quite clear: Nathan does care about his heritage, and he yearns to accommodate both his family and his own artistic aspirations. With Anne Frank as his wife, Nathan would not have to defend his commitment to his Jewish heritage to anyone, and he would be free to write even about family members who strike the young author as amusing. The reality he slowly and painfully has to accept is that Amy is not Anne Frank, and that no one can magically legitimize Nathan's fiction to a suspicious Jewish society. If the Nathan of the final page of The Ghost Writer is more mature and more experienced, he is also sadder and wiser. He came to Lonoff's house to learn the secrets of the great writer. Instead he found that his idol had feet of mud, not porcelain, and the main secrets he learns are discoveries about himself.
The Ghost Writer has been read as if it is several different books; in fact, the variety of comment it provoked upon publication may qualify the novel as Roth's most misunderstood work. Reviewers saw it as a roman à clef and dutifully identified the characters and places for readers unfamiliar with the landscape of contemporary American fiction. The book was described as being in the manner of authors as different as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and James; it was termed "an anecdote with interruptions" and "fiction once removed." It was critiqued as if it were really the story of Amy, not Nathan, and it was accused of the basest kind of irreverence for exhuming "that little pile of bones on Belsen heath" for use in a Holocaust romance. What The Ghost Writer has not been read for is Roth's contemporary treatment of the Bildungsroman, yet in many respects this novel is his most traditional work. In adapting the Bildungsroman to the mid-twentieth century, Roth simultaneously shows the viability of the form and the archaic aspects of the form as well. Ultimately, the importance of the Bildungsroman as a genre of fiction may be primarily historical, and the type may have had its greatest significance in the context of the development of modernism from the mid-nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century. But The Ghost Writer, by following many of the conventions of the Bildungsroman, demonstrates conclusively that the form is not moribund in the right hands; it may, perhaps, be now in the process of change. We are unlikely to see late twentieth-century Bildungsromanen following a young man from the innocent provinces to the worldly city where he encounters challenges and disappointments which mold him into manhood. But the search for self during the agonizing period of growth, accompanied by the strong personal commitment of the novelist to his subject, are likely to be legitimate concerns of serious fiction-to-come, just as they were in novels in the past. The Ghost Writer fulfills enough of the criteria of the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman to qualify as a part of that tradition; more importantly, however, by shifting some of the emphases of the genre, it may serve as a useful bridge to refinement and further development of the form in the future. (pp. 98-100)
W. Clark Hendley, "An Old Form Revitalized: Philip Roth's 'Ghost Writer' and the 'Bildungsroman'," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 87-100.