Philip Roth Roth, Philip (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roth, Philip 1933–

Roth, an American novelist and short story writer, exhibits in his fiction a brilliant satirical wit. His work explores problems of contemporary Jewish life: assimilation, the urban versus the suburban Jew, the eastern upper-class Jew versus the midwestern middle-class Jew. Roth has a flair for reproducing the speech patterns of American dialect, whether it is the idiomatic Yiddish quality of Jewish conversation or the cliché-ridden speech of a midwestern WASP. Roth has had the good fortune to achieve both critical acclaim and the fame of a best-selling novelist. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Irving Malin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting, or, Looking at Kafka"] is a masterful example of comedy. Roth uses cliché and fantasy, movies and spiritual longing, documentary and imagination, to construct a work which refuses to sit still. It is a dream-like marriage of opposing tendencies, texts, and "worlds," and in its striking way, it brings us closer to Roth's own life and style.

But the piece tells us much about the comic process. I believe that Roth implies a union in comedy. We laugh at a man slipping on a banana peel—or Kafka slipping into "normalcy"—because we connect events before and after the fall. There must, in fact, be a fall, an unbalancing which "dislocates" usual positions, roles, visions, but it cannot dominate the action; if it were to be "all," we would be merely horrified. We laugh, however, when we think of (con) sequences, contexts—for example, Kafka as Hebrew-school teacher—and we bring things together.

Therefore, comedy is wise. Surely, when we perceive that "accidents" can happen, we appreciate even more the usual "machinery" of life—we affirm normality, hoping that it can last. Comedy offers faith, finally, in routines of behavior, daily rituals, comforting returns.

"Looking at Kafka" is thus a comic work about comedy. It is "reflective," mirroring its themes in its actions (styles). It helps us to know Roth, Kafka, and ourselves as "normal" readers, implying as it does that the lines usually drawn to separate subjects are indeed narrow. It fuses criticism, life (history), and fiction, and it demands our close attention. (p. 275)

Irving Malin, "Looking at Roth's Kafka; or Some Hints about Comedy," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1977 by Newberry College), Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 273-75.

Martin Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roth seems to me the most gifted novelist now writing, at least if one puts a stress on tradition in using the word novelist. He translates his intelligence and his feelings into the terms specific to serious fiction, with more firmness than Bellow, more richness than Mailer, more patience and steadiness and taste and tact than anyone else….

[Roth's] stories are full of beautiful insights into books and authors, into the business of teaching and criticizing, and into living with works of literature over time.

I know no other novelist, for instance, who makes the discussion of books such a valuable part of his story's action—with critical comments quite substantial in themselves and yet not an obstacle to the flow of dramatized life. These comments are appreciation rather than analysis—much less exegesis—but they are none the less critical in the best sense. And if this is possible because so much of his novels' action takes place between different parts of the protagonist's mind, nevertheless it is dramatized life—and there are more external exchanges. (p. 156)

[In] The Professor of Desire, David Kepesh goes to Prague largely because he is devoted to Kafka, visits the latter's home, discusses him with a Czech professor (himself devoted to Melville) and finally dreams about him. In the discussion he has talked about his own sexual impotence, and interpreted The Trial, as a story of similar sexual oppression. (The Czech professor, who suffers the political oppression of State communism, interprets Moby Dick in terms relevant to that suffering.)…

It is, typically, a presence and a contrast that are evoked each time. (p. 157)

[It] comes as no surprise that Roth is unusually susceptible to literary influence, which means, to some degree, literary fashion, and leads, in some cases, to disaster. Thus The Great American Novel (1973) is an attempt to write like John Barth…. Barth's mode was not indeed right for Roth, but his susceptibility to influence does not always lead him to disaster. Sometimes it leads to success, as we have seen and most often it stamps individual works with their special character. (p. 158)

Perhaps Roth's cultivation of his susceptibility to influence, and the weaknesses it brings, are more obvious than the strengths. But it seems to me that Roth consummates and combines the tendencies of … other writers, and produces a classical concentration of the literary imagination of our time. As I read him I find Salinger combined with Mailer, and Nabokov combined with Malamud, and I feel I am getting the best of each of them—when Roth is at his best. And it strikes me as a significant coincidence that a gifted novelist should cultivate this particular gift just when a school of criticism was arising which focused its attention on "the anxiety of influence."

It is perhaps notable that it was certain contemporaries, rather than Flaubert, Mann, James, or other of Roth's oracles, whom I was reminded of, who are for me the relevant surround to his work. Those grander and as it were more official sponsors I feel as living presences only in reading When She Was Good, 1967, (the least successful of his serious novels, though an interesting intention). There one can feel Flaubert and James, standing to the left and right of the author's chair, and bending over his shoulder to read each paragraph he...

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Jonathan Penner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lonoff, brilliant writer and austere recluse, is the object of a literary pilgrimage by Nathan Zuckerman, the central character of [The Ghost Writer]. Zuckerman is a writer too: 23 years old, four stories in print, and on the make in both senses of that phrase. (p. 1)

As an original for Zuckerman, we are likely indeed to think of Roth himself near the start of his career. The central issue of this novel has as its seed an unpublished story of Zuckerman's that upsets his parents extremely: a treatment of a Zuckerman family scandal, in which Zuckermans—therefore Jews—are revealed as adulterous, violent and greedy…. The distress of Zuckerman's elders recalls that which greeted "Epstein," Roth's own early story about an adulterous Jew.

But the issue goes far beyond whether or not Zuckerman's story should be published. As he comes to realize in the course of the novel, he faces difficult problems of loyalty and personal identification. The pull is between his art and his origins. (pp. 1-2)

This novel is not merely short … but specifically short-story-like. The characters are few, the subject is circumscribed. Although there are flashbacks, the main action takes place within 24 hours, and within the confines of a single house. One must be grateful to the author for not padding a delicate story in order to satisfy the prevalent taste for big books.

Still, one might have been...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I had only to read [the] two opening sentences of "The Ghost Writer" to realize—with a long sigh of anticipated pleasure—that I was once again in the hands of a superbly endowed storyteller. That echo of the beginnings of a dozen great Russian tales … reassured me that Philip Roth is still exhibiting the good form that he recovered after "The Breast" and a couple of other aberrations. Whatever one may feel about the limitations of his vision and humanity as a novelist, the voice that Roth developed for his first-person narrations—notably "Portnoy's Complaint," "My Life as a Man" and, recently, "The Professor of Desire"—is surely one of the most distinctive and supple in contemporary American fiction. It is a voice of remarkable range, accommodating sentences of almost Jamesian convolution and allusiveness with sudden ejaculations of street language, comic hyperbole with ironic understatement, tones of melancholy self-deprecation with bursts of satiric glee. It is a voice that inspires in me, at least, confidence that what follows will be entertaining, sharply observed, possibly a bit nasty, almost certainly provocative. If I am sometimes discontented, exasperated or frustrated at the end, the fault is not that of the voice. (p. 1)

"The Ghost Writer" is one of Philip Roth's best short fictions, but, like so much that he has written, the rich promise of its style and inventiveness is in part betrayed by miscalculations of tone and structure, by a cleverness that sometimes bites its own tail. One could look upon "The Ghost Writer" as a long short story stretched further by the insertion of chunks of material that do not absolutely belong; alternatively, one can see it as a truncated novel in which certain elements of great potential importance remain undeveloped and unassimilated. Enjoying (and admiring) Roth as I do, I wish the book had been half again as long. (p. 13)

Robert Towers, "The Lesson of the Master," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 2, 1979, pp. 1, 13.

Mark Shechner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whatever else a story may do, its one indispensable element is the imagination's first premise: what if?… What if a petty clerk in Prague should awaken one morning to find that he has become an enormous insect, or what if Franz Kafka himself should survive his bout with tuberculosis in 1924, live long enough to have to flee the Nazis, and emigrate to Newark, N.J., just in time to become Philip Roth's Hebrew schoolteacher? Such is the premise of what is surely Roth's finest piece of short fiction, "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka."…

Here is an example of the writer pushing his premises as far as he can until some other consideration, some reality principle,...

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Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since Mr. Roth's previous novels have contained a number of characters as solidly convincing as a fire engine, it is a surprise and something of a disappointment to find [The Ghost Writer] populated by bloodless intellectual conceptions. It is as though he had written an essay (and it would have been a very clever, penetrating essay) on "Possible Attitudes of the American-Jewish Author" and had then turned his argument into fiction by constructing a character to fit each attitude. It is still a sound argument, but it makes fiction once removed.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'The Ghost Writer'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 244, No. 4, October, 1979, p. 108.

Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the evidence of his latest novel, The Ghost Writer,… Philip Roth continues to be a promising writer.

Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, comprised a collection of stories and a novella. They were written in a voice that was mordantly funny, yet inflected with a quality of seriousness. It was uniquely suited to the lightly-borne anguish of Roth's fictional situations and capable of sustaining interest in the fairly specialized conflicts of which it spoke.

He was writing about American Jews—both the assimilated ones, who take the land of plenty in their well-heeled stride, and the bewildered ones, who look backwards to the insular, clearly-defined world of the...

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Sheppard J. Ranbom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Ghost Writer transcends the label "ghost story" in its balanced artistry and its dead certainty of language. While Lonoff and Nathan Zuckerman discuss a mutual writer-acquaintance, Abravanel …, one sees Lonoff to be a simple man who shuns any form of success or social life. There is everywhere the balance between Lonoff's genius and his pathetic domesticity….

There is also the primal balance of young and old (Nathan and Lonoff, his literary father; Nathan and Doc Zuckerman, his real father, a pitiable figure who tries to keep Nathan from publishing a story about the Zuckerman family; young Amy and the middle-aged Hope Lonoff, rivals the whole way through). But best of all there are the...

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Candace Hagan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the range of literary criticism, Philip Roth has been targeted by Jews and Gentiles, literary authorities and laymen, as an exploitative, narrow-minded reinforcer of Jewish stereotypes; a writer who is dedicated to portraying, as one Rabbi editorialized several years ago in the New York Times, "a melancholy parade of caricatures." Some have even attacked his works as dangerous, dishonest, and irresponsible. Roth has rebuked these accusations from the time he was made famous in 1959 by Goodbye, Columbus, a novella and group of short stories about which Roth explained his use of Jewish characters and lifestyles as simply vehicles to portray universal themes. Many claimed Roth had depicted in this book...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What if there had been a Jewish version of Henry James? In this marvellously controlled ironic novella [The Ghost Writer], Philip Roth has invented a bristlingly vivid Jewish James called E. I. Lonoff, a selfless patriarch of 'sympathy and pitilessness'. Then he unleashes a disciple on Lonoff, a young Jewish and rather Rothian writer who is comically eager to learn the lesson of the master. After a day of observing the 'terminal restraint' that passes for life in the Lonoff dacha in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, young Nathan Zuckerman has learned a different lesson from the one he set out to get: one man's 'madness of art' is another man's poison.

In Henry James, the 'madness of...

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Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the age of forty-six, Philip Roth has relented. He has written a short and touching novel, The Ghost Writer, which is remarkably free of the zeal for settling scores that soured so much of his work. In place of the animosity he lavished on nouveau-riche vulgarians in Goodbye, Columbus, on repressive Jewish mothers in Portnoy's Complaint, and destructive Gentile wives in My Life As a Man, Roth has drawn the characters in The Ghost Writer with delicacy, compassion, and a tender respect for their honorable intentions….

Roth has endowed [Nathan Zuckerman, the troubled young Jewish writer,] with cultural sophistication and a fervent sense of literary vocation…....

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Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Roth's talent feeds off shame. Shame at bad faith, others' suffering, sexual failure (still worse, success); the shame of literature, and the distance between language and feeling; and shame at his own shell-less narcissism. The Ghost Writer is mainly about this last kind, but since literary ambition for Roth subsumes the question of his relation to the Jewish past, and his doomed craving for a warm, live muse, it takes in the others as well.

And it does so with bland economy, both of structure and style….

It's a lucid, elegant fiction, teetering on the edge of fable…. The writing is never less than pleasurable, and is often strikingly, locally persuasive. However,...

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