Letting Go Of Philip Roth
Letting Go Of Philip Roth
Special to the Jewish Times
He is the last of the triumvirate standing. Bernard Malamud departed first back in 1986. Then, Saul Bellow passed in 2005. Along with Philip Roth, they were, as Bellow mockingly referred to all three of them, “The Hart, Shaffner & Marx of literature,” as if because they were all Jewish, they’d been clumped together in a haberdashery.
Since the birth of the new millennia, while Mr. Roth has vigorously written at a textual tear and his most prolific, penning a series of short, powerfully compact books, the stories stored in them have all been obsessed with death.
This month, and with his 31st book “Nemesis,” about a terrifying polio outbreak that threatens wartime Newark, N.J., Mr. Roth takes that grave subject beyond anything he’s done up until this point.
In 2001, he had David Kepesh (once the man who became a breast), a 70-year-old professor and critic, panicked about death and growing old.
By mid-decade in 2006, his short novel “Everyman” begins at the funeral of its protagonist, an old advertising executive. In “Exit Ghost” (2007), Mr. Roth writes his last book about his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (“The Ghost Writer”) — in a sense finishing him off. Soon after, in “Indignation” (2008) he travels back in time to 1951, where we find out the narrator is dead and relaying his story from the beyond. Then, in 2009, he writes “The Humbling” about a leading stage actor who kills himself with a shotgun.
Now, at the age of 77, is Mr. Roth trying to tell us something?
It cannot be ignored that Mr. Roth, who has always been an author obsessed with identity, is a post-modern writer and one whose fiction mirrors and explores the relationship between the work and the writer.
While his Zuckerman books are about the travails of an author, he internalizes even further in others, such as “Operation Shylock” (1993), where he has, as a doppelganger, the novelist Philip Roth travel to Israel to attend the trial of accused Nazi war criminal, John Demjanjuk, while an impersonator, going by the name Philip Roth, hijacks his identity.
Commenting on his narrative style in “Deception” (1990), he observes, “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction. … Let them decide what it is or isn’t.” Critics who’ve observed this Rothian hall of mirrors have called his technique metafiction.
If we are to follow his post-modern pathway of prose, where Mr. Roth’s message is typed within the pages of his medium, then we need to also ask … Will the eventual passing of Mr. Roth (that he seems to be foreshadowing, if not bellowing) signify a broader marker separating a generation? Are we at a seam in generations, where old media is dying along with old writers and new forms of media are the way by which contemporary writers will write?
Commenting in 2009, during an interview with Tina Brown of The Daily Beast, Mr. Roth considered the future of literature by stating his belief that within 25 years, the reading of novels will be regarded as a “cultic” activity:
“I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them, but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range. ...”
Likewise, his take on digital books as replacing printed copy, Mr. Roth opines:
“The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen. … Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn’t measure up.”
If we follow his Jeremiad, by sounding the death knell of both the medium of books and the messenger himself, Mr. Roth’s latest and perhaps most devastating piece of work since 1997’s “American Pastoral” not only gives us a metaphor about the death of his protagonist — he pens us a plague.
Not since the heroic rise and fall of Seymour “Swede” Levov, whom Mr. Roth built up into one of his most beloved characters, a star athlete and gallant All-American in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” (1997), do our hearts get torn asunder by Mr. Roth’s tender account.
“Nemesis” revolves around a young playground director named Bucky Cantor during the war year of 1944 on the streets of the Jewish Weequahic section in Newark during a polio outbreak. Mr. Roth endears us to young Bucky by portraying his caring manner with children and the amazing sway he has over them, only to steal it all away with a ravaging scourge.
After Mr. Roth’s recent decade of self-destructive story lines presaging his own eventual demise, he has now gone beyond self-annihilation to a broader, wider obliteration of a whole population with “Nemesis.” Death doesn’t just seek out the elderly individual, but an entire landscape of the future — children.
Beyond his individual characters’ struggles and travails, Mr. Roth is known to confront the zeitgeist. As the last of the triumvirate standing, he is like Lear, railing against more than just old age. Is this same terrain also the literary landscape that’s becoming ever more incomprehensible due to an explosion of media options, with an unfathomable number of garbled, incoherent messages thundering their tweets and text but in the end do not signify literature?
What is the future of Jewish literature, after Mr. Roth?
Derek Rubin, whose book “Who We Are On Being (And Not Being) a Jewish American Writer,” has examined, through a number of famous authors’ essays, the future of their genre. He believes, “Having achieved ‘everything,’ Roth perhaps now finds himself longing for something else.”
Mr. Rubin will come out with a new book in October by Brandeis University Press that will contain new, unpublished short stories by a number of Jewish writers. It is titled “Promised Lands — New Jewish American Fiction On Longing And Belonging.”
For Mr. Rubin, the idea of longing “has often shaped Jewish understanding of the ideal of the Promised Land.” He writes, “There have been periods in history when the Jews of the Diaspora have found themselves in such hopeless circumstances that they have felt that they would never be able to reach the Promised Land, whether real or metaphorical.”
This is what Mr. Roth has done with “Nemesis” and has been doing with much of his historical fiction; he goes back to a seemingly idyllic time, and uncovers a deeper, wrenching underbelly within it.
Mr. Rubin writes, “Roth inhabits this critical no-man’s land from which he has a clear view of the Jewish post-immigrant world of his parents and of contemporary American society. Owing to the strange overlapping of generational experience, he was there to witness up close all the dilemmas, the insecurities, the confusion, indeed the hypocrisy, but also the comedy attendant on the post-immigrant experience without actually being a part of it.”
As an example of this, he recounts Mr. Roth’s essay “My Life As A Boy,” in which he talks about growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. It wasn’t Judaism but baseball that was his “religion.” As it turns out, the boys in “Nemesis” and on Bucky’s playground in 1944 play baseball.
Examining this duality between the historically real and the imagined, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, in a review of “American Pastoral,” recalls …
“Back in 1960, Philip Roth gave a speech in which he argued that American life was becoming so surreal, so stupefying, so maddening, that it had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists. He argued that real life, the life out of newspaper headlines, was outdoing the imagination of novelists, and that fiction writers were in fact abandoning the effort to grapple with ‘the grander social and political phenomena of our times’ and were turning instead ‘to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self.’ ”
Fifty years later, just as he had here, Mr. Roth’s declaration to Tina Brown is as germane as ever, though magnified with the lens of time, as newspaper headlines have grown into an exponential number of media outlets blaring the death of the newspaper.
As Mr. Roth has concerned himself with death and dying and we await a Jewish writer of his stature to appear on the scene, there’s also been an amazing surge on the Internet of Jewish websites focused on Jewish literature and culture, many with hip names like Jewcy, Zeek, Heeb and Nextbook’s Tablet. They each have a strong literary sensibility, but with an edgy take on contemporary Judaism.
The editorial director of Nextbook/Shocken is Jonathan Rosen, who created the Jewish Encounter series and is the author of “The Talmud and the Internet.” As it turns out, he also has the distinction of writing the very last story in Mr. Rubin’s “Promised Lands” called “The True World,” which has an unnamed protagonist travel by boat to the beyond in order to interview a deceased Saul Bellow.
Contemplating the world beyond and the viability of getting there, by an author who has written about the Internet and its relationship to Talmud, I asked Mr. Rosen what he was aiming for in that story. He replied in talmudic fashion not with answers, but with questions, “What is the promised land in that story? The afterlife? Is it literature itself? The promised land of America … all these ideas coalesced in my head.”
Indeed, this vast unknown, uncharted world that we are able to tap into, that is the Internet, opens up whole new worlds to us. Is Mr. Rosen suggesting there’s a way to do that today? “I don’t think the Internet leads you into a metaphysical world, but in the Talmud, the living talk to the dead and all these texts are mingled together and what is an actual story is hard to separate.”
As it relates to fiction, Mr. Rosen, who is also a published novelist (“Eve’s Apple,” “Joy Comes in the Morning”), says, “The dialogic nature of the novel, the multiplicity of voices you can employ, allows one a more honest open relationship to all the fragments.” For Mr. Roth, according to Mr. Rosen, “is in some sense a posthumous writer already, and has drawn inspiration from that intuition. He has a novel narrated by a dead man, and ‘The Ghost Writer’ plays with the question of how in order to write about life you must absent yourself from it. All writers, in that sense, are posthumous. In ‘Zuckerman Unbound,’ the hero has written a scandalously carnal novel [‘Carnovsky’] like ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ but is himself a lost soul and, increasingly, a lost body.”
When Philip Roth burst on the scene in the late ’50s, websites like Tablet and Zeek certainly weren’t around, but there were literary critics that sang his praises and as Mr. Rosen points out, “There was a generation of writers as concerned as critics, with the writers, with themes and subjects that these novelists were concerned with. Saul Bellow was born in 1915 and so was Alfred Kazin. Irving Howe reviewed Roth’s collection of stories at the time and on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.”
There was also a generation of writers, artists and musicians who were creating a renaissance in American letters and popular culture. From Allen Ginsberg, who had completed his poem “Kaddish” in 1959 (the same year “Goodbye Columbus” was published), and Nabokov’s controversial “Lolita,” to jazz musician Miles Davis who had recorded “Kind of Blue,” one of the best-selling jazz records of all time. Mr. Roth arrived on the doorstep of the 1960s, an era of artistic exuberance.
By the end of that decade and with “Portnoy’s Complaint” in 1969, Mr. Roth outraged many of those same critics, who called his book vulgar and Mr. Roth a self-hating Jew.
Unfortunately, for some, that label still sticks, though if you ask them what of Mr. Roth’s they’ve read lately, they may reply, “Goodbye Columbus.”
By turning a critical eye on his tribe and blending fact and fiction, “Portnoy’s Complaint” did not endear him to critics or to Jews.
In a 1972 essay in Commentary titled “Philip Roth Reconsidered,” Howe famously tore into Roth, “What the book speaks for is a yearning to undo the fate of birth; there is no wish to do the Jews any harm. … Portnoy is simply crying out to be left alone, to be released from the claims of distinctiveness and the burdens of the past, so that, out of his own nothingness, he may create himself as a ‘human being.’ ”
Roth did re-create himself with that book and even told The Paris Review in 1984, “Portnoy wasn’t a character for me, he was an explosion.” Ironically, the self, which Howe talked about, was to be the focus of Roth’s next several novels, after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and spanning two decades.
For Howe, Mr. Roth closed an era of Jewish literature based on what he called the “post-immigrant Jewish experience” and a world he wrote about with sensitivity in “World Of Our Fathers.” His pessimism toward any new, revitalized Jewish literary re-awakening is even referred to as the Howe Doctrine. “Will there remain a thick enough sediment of felt life to enable a new outburst of writing about American Jews?” Howe asked. Howe, who died in 1993, wasn’t able to see and experience the amazing output from Jewish writers of many varieties and how young people today are experiencing them.
For professor Evelyn Avery, who teaches courses in Jewish literature at Towson University, the question of where Jewish literature is headed and who is leading the way is met with optimism.
“I am very affirmative and very pleased with the direction it’s going,” she says. “I see a movement toward Judaism and in particular religious writing and themes and particularly women writers such as Allegra Goodman and Dara Horn who have been affected by their heritage and weave it into their art.
“There’s a vibrancy and a lot of variations of Jewish writers.” For example, Pearl Abraham, who in her first book turns her back on her traditional Chasidic life. But by the end of her second, it ends with the protagonist going to Israel. Then in her third book, ‘The Seventh Beggar,’ there was a respect for that Chasidic world and she was much more positive about being a religious Jew.”
Dr. Avery also includes in her course the works she considers classics and that hold up — novels by Malamud and Bellow and the short stories in Mr. Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus,” which she says the students respond to very well.
According to Dr. Avery, while the direction literature is taking pleases her, in our constantly plugged in and always on world, “many students can misuse technology as a tool to learn about these writers.” She says, “There’s a consensus among the faculty that the advances in technology can impose problems when students are scrolling, texting and on their cell phones.”
Ironically, Dr. Avery’s observations are not lost on one of today’s most celebrated and clever Jewish writers, who has recently come out with a dystopian satire “Super Sad True Love Story,” where books are extinct and people use their apparats (an iPhone on steroids) to point at anyone and obtain their credit score or perform an instant background check and perceive their desirability for sex.
While Gary Shteyngart places his story in a future setting, he smartly embeds so many believable aspects into it, one can’t help but recognize their ubiquity in our constantly turned on world.
Another celebrated Jewish writer, who is also known to rankle the establishment and is an advocate for returning fiction to a focus on story by way of genre fiction, is Michael Chabon.
Mr. Chabon, who grew up in Columbia, won the Pulitzer Prize at the beginning of the millennia for “The Amazing Adventures Of Cavalier & Clay.” His wish is to return entertainment back into novels, and he takes issue with those who seek to belittle it.
“The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it [entertainment] is not to disparage or repudiate,” he said, “but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences. …”
Like Michael Chabon, Laura Lippman spent part of her youth growing up in the planned city of Columbia. Along with Mr. Chabon, she, too, is a champion of genre fiction and her mysteries featuring Tess Monaghan have won the Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Nero, Gumshoe and Shamus awards.
A few years ago, when Ms. Lippman spoke at Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore along with her husband, David Simon, I asked her who her hero was, and she replied (unaided) Philip Roth.
Ms. Lippman said of Mr. Roth: “I learned a lot from Roth about POV, not so much in the technical sense, but in watching him place his imagination behind people quite unlike himself.”
As for Mr. Chabon’s efforts to bring fiction back in the direction of entertainment, she says, “Fiction needs to go where readers want to follow. I’m not saying it has to be excessively popular, or cater to the lowest common denominator. But fiction centers on stories.”
Mr. Chabon’s arrival and his desire for content to possess the attributes of entertainment also comes during a decade when the means by which we read have aligned with how we read. After all, Nooks, Kindles and especially iPads are clearly entertainment devices that merge reading and multi-media; learning and fun; work and play.
In July, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, announced that his customers now buy more digital books made for the Kindle than they do hardcovers. Equally, Barnes and Noble is up for sale as bricks and mortar bookstores are being outdone by e-books.
Even college students like Dr. Avery’s will soon be accessing those once expensive, clunky textbooks through Inkling, which claims to be “the world’s first end-to-end platform for mobile learning content.” It will make textbooks available on Apple’s iPad for $2.99 per chapter and it will also make full use of iPad’s color, video and touch screen.
However, like youth, iPads are not to be wasted on the young. Bloomberg’s Businessweek reported that the iPad’s intuitive interface makes it appealing to senior citizens as their source for news and entertainment.
Consequently as the medium of technology shows no signs of pausing, even for an older demographic, one of the most august message providers of Jewish news, The Forward, which began publishing in 1897, is also adapting.
In a Sept. 2 letter from the publisher, it became a “membership organization”: “… just as the immigrant community sustained the Yiddish Forward since after its founding, in 1897, we’re inviting our friends and readers to support us today. … Today, the cutting edge has moved away from websites to the broader universe of digital media: mobile apps, iTunes, podcasts, YouTube channels, Tweets and whatever will follow. … but the most important transition is not technological. It’s generational.”
Speaking about the shifting media landscape with Dan Friedman, arts and culture editor at The Forward and a founding member at Zeek, he says, “While different publishers are at different places in the curve, all publishing enterprises have to keep abreast of the latest. They’ll have to have an iPhone app, iPad app, and you want to make sure there’s multimedia on your website.”
As for the changes taking place, Mr. Friedman says it’s a reflection of the demographics. “The Jewish community doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago — a predominantly suburban, Conservative, JTS-led movement of Jews doesn’t exist anymore. The children of those suburbs are not interested in being those types of Jews.”
According to Mr. Friedman, unlike the era that Bellow and early Roth were writing in, “There’s a form of pluralism that did not exist in the few decades post-war. The Conservative movement has broken down, as has the suburbs, as the location has broken down. You see it in the culture. There are a lot of people that are engaged culturally with the project of Judaism in all sorts of different parts of our history in ways that are much more forward looking.”
The era when Bellow, Malamud and Mr. Roth were clumped together was reflective of a closer-knit Jewish culture.
Literature today, like the medium of the Internet with its vast diversity that allows us the ability to go divide into our own cultural and political cocoons, is a balkanized Diaspora — but, nevertheless, a very productive one.
Asked to give his take on the future of Jewish writers, Mr. Friedman, as an editor who gets a large quantity of books across his desk to be reviewed, says, “Our rate of cultural production is not slowing.”
While The Forward is morphing, and has created alliances with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz and with Zeek Media, the irreverent Jewish periodical Heeb magazine announced, just a few days prior, that it was suspending the print edition and going online only.
According to Arye Dworken, creative director at Heeb, “It’s not a surrender. It’s more like a pause.”
He also laments, “Our media industry is a self-perpetuating death. We keep talking about the death of media and eventually it’s going to happen because we keep on talking about it.”
It is a strangely McLuhan-esque paradigm that we’ve converged upon. Mr. Roth, a post-modern writer, who has used as his subject matter an author like himself, and has killed him several times over the past decade and right when technology seems to be closing the book on physical books, now creates one that encompasses not just a single death, but a deadly pestilence.
One could say he’s been writing this same book all his life, for even in his short story “Epstein,” contained in his first book “Goodbye Columbus,” Herbie, a young son, died of polio at age 11.
In “The Ghost Writer,” at one point Amy Bellette says to Nathan Zuckerman that Lonoff (whom she imagines talking to from beyond the grave) told her, “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of a literary era.”
Mr. Roth’s books may take on a different form in the future. One day they may become ephemeral bytes, transmitted from a cloud beyond. It will always be his stories that will breathe life onto the page.
They’ll keel us over with laughter and tear us apart with grief and, somehow, he and writers like him will be immortalized by living in all of us … forever.