WSJ, May 25, 2018
“It may be that the Nobel was never worthy of this iconoclastic satirist, wily cultural historian, sublime fictive ranter, comic tragedian, outraged citizen, contradictory wit, epic insulter and monumental imaginer.”
Philip Roth dead? Expelled, this genie of biting comedy? Inconceivable. He was always on the scene, and with each irrepressible new work seemed virtually to be making a scene. Uncontainable and unquenchable, he was a steady presence that could not be imagined as void.
Yet Stockholm shunned him. Of all the significant awards that could be conferred on Roth during his multilauded decades, only the Swedish dynamite inventor’s eluded him. Well, then: In the transformative perspective of Roth’s demise, let us reconsider. It may be that the Nobel was never worthy of this iconoclastic satirist, wily cultural historian, sublime fictive ranter, comic tragedian, outraged citizen, contradictory wit, epic insulter and monumental imaginer. How should those obtuse northland jurors, denizens of a frost-bitten society highly ranked for alcoholism and suicide, warm to the emotional temperature of the postwar Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, N.J., out of which the grandson of immigrants might emerge to become one of the most renowned American literary masters of his century?
So come, and let us praise the Nobel committee for its honorific omission, this majestic absence that joins Philip Roth to Mark Twain, James Joyce and Tolstoy: He has something in common with each. With Joyce, the unflinching recklessness of the familiar yet unspoken, going where even daredevils once feared to tread. With Mark Twain, cosmic laughter and a revelatory overturning of moral expectation. With Tolstoy, a biblical descent into baseness, to show how human beings, entangled in sex, death and treachery, really are. And all in a freewheeling American vein: clear, brisk, unpretentious colloquial sentences that, bundled into a crafty paragraph, take on the irresistible blow of a force majeure—while meanwhile, boiling in fiction’s chthonic bowel, a ferocious literary intellect waits and watches.
In spite of these powers, or perhaps to bring them low, Roth has been charged with a pair of unpleasant traits: misogyny and narcissism. In a 1983 review of “The Anatomy Lesson,” Jonathan Yardley complains, “Do we really need more novels, no matter how funny and perceptive, about what it is to be a writer . . . ? No, we don’t. . . . What the novel says is: Me, me, ME! Enough is enough.” Flaubert long ago gave this species of gripe its definitive answer: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” and why not? Why ought a reader to care whether the novel’s writer-protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, is part Roth, or inquire into what is “real life” and what is make-believe? A novel is an independent fabrication, even if the models, always partial, are identifiable—and how many times has Roth been compelled to clarify this point, wasting eloquence on obstinacy?
As for the accusation of misogyny, tot up the cumulative rage of the #MeToo movement against Roth’s reliable lampooning of male lust and lechery: Which is the more hurtful, which the more gratifyingly punishing—fury or derision? Trust Roth to trust derision: A magnificently sardonic 1969 letter to Diana Trilling, never sent, appears in Roth’s nonfiction “Reading Myself and Others.” Trilling had published a scolding review of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” characterizing the then 36-year-old Roth as “grimly deterministic,” and the novel itself as lacking “virtues of courage, kindliness, responsibility.” He wound up his response with an acerbic lesson on how fiction can be “embedded in parody, burlesque, slapstick, ridicule, insult, invective, lampoon, wisecrack, in nonsense, in levity, in play—in, that is, the methods and devices of Comedy.” And in, he might have added, the ridiculing of lascivious men when it is mistaken for denigration of women.
Roth’s skills as narrator are everywhere as taut as a bowstring with its arrow poised to fly. He will build argument on argument, drumbeat on drumbeat. He succumbs neither to lyricism nor impressionism. Instead, he constructs reality with a precision not seen in fiction since Hardy’s description of cows at milking time. “American Pastoral” follows glove manufacture from design to final stitch.
“Everyman” explains how a grave is dug, with the bottom “flat enough to lay a bed out on it.” In his more than 30 novels, no human desolation or social conundrum or bodily misery (polio, cardiac surgery, the deteriorations of aging) is overlooked. Political anxiety is rampant: in “American Pastoral,” domestic terrorism; in “The Plot Against America,” incipient fascism; in “The Human Stain,” racism.
But the crowning marvels of the novels are the cadences and fugues of the rants, the howls, the vituperations, even the appeals—Judge Wapter in “The Ghost Writer,” the critic Milton Appel in “The Anatomy Lesson.” From novel to novel, many of these disputes erupt out of the Jewish fear of anti-Semitism, and it is Zuckerman the writer who is charged, through his stories of flawed Jews, with fomenting vast political hatred. The antagonists, if they are not equal as polemicists, are matched in passion; Roth shores up the opposing contentions with equal persuasive energy. Readers may be tempted to side at one moment with the defenders of Jewish caution and Jewish sentiment, however their instincts are travestied, and soon afterward with Zuckerman’s principled view of the autonomy of art.
We know where Roth himself stands. In a letter to a writer dated July 1975, Roth remarks: “It seems to me that everybody is getting more otherworldly lately. Have you read Saul Bellow’s new book? I prefer the stuff of this world that’s in it, but it is full of spiritualism, and I find that I can live without it. I could be wrong.” The book was “Humboldt’s Gift,” and we must leave it to the critics to determine whether this novel is or isn’t full of spiritualism. What is of interest is Roth’s use of this protean term; he handles it warily and with distaste. Still, it seems to me (and like Roth, I could be wrong) that he attributes to the oily Judge Wapter, and to all the other Jewish alarmists and worriers in his fiction, this same mistaken characteristic, drawn from what he believes to be the vestigial habits of ancestral piety. Judge Wapter and certainly the purely secular Milton Appel, unappealing as they are, think not through vapor and Geist but through precept, and it is via Roth’s own brilliant representation of these minds that we can know this.
Roth’s shallow Jews, including his rabbis, are always and only creatures of sociology. And sociology, because it is collective, is caricature; and caricature is comedy; and comedy is zest. (When John Updike, catching up to the contemporary Jewish novel of that era, gave us Bech, a literary Jewish protagonist, it was a Jew wholly out of Roth—but without the zest.) In life beyond fiction, Roth knew Jews of darker and denser dimension: the Israeli Aharon Appelfeld, who died earlier this year, and the Romanian, now American, Norman Manea, extraordinary writers and thinkers who as small boys of 8 and 5 were deported to Transnistria, a German killing center in Romania. Appelfeld and Mr. Manea met only as adult survivors, and it was through his singular championship of the suppressed and censored writers of Eastern Europe that Roth drew close to their fates. If Roth brought Kafka to Newark in one of his stories, it was because consciousness of Europe was already there.
In the loss of Philip Roth, we can hear a small sliding hisslike noise: the sound of a generation turning on its hinge. Gone are Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Malamud, Gaddis, Gass, Sontag, Wolfe, the household names, the headline names. Whoever comes next, there will be no one equipped with the dizzying laughter of Roth.
—Ms. Ozick is the author, most recently, of “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays.”
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