Introduction

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Roth, Philip 1933–

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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

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["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

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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...

(The entire section contains 7581 words.)

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