Roth and the Biographers


David Herman

  If Philip Roth had fallen under a bus in 1993 on his 60th birthday how would he be remembered today? Would he be regarded as America’s greatest post-war writer, better even than Saul Bellow? Or would he be remembered as a very good but not great writer, obsessed with sex, Jews and Newark, who played around with autobiography and fiction in a way that delighted academics and annoyed general readers? It is easy to forget that many of Roth’s novels in the 1970s and 80s didn’t sell or receive critical acclaim. Though famous as the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus, “prior to the 1980s,” writes Benjamin Taylor, “he’d just been one of the interesting writers.”
  But then Roth produced an extraordinary sequence of novels, five in nine years, which took on the great American stories: antisemitism in the 1930s, McCarthyism in the 40s and 50s, Vietnam and the 60s, race and identity, the Clinton years and, above all, “the indigenous American berserk.” By the time Roth died in 2018 he was often hailed as the greatest American writer of his generation.
  Three years later we have a memoir by his close friend, Benjamin Taylor, two huge biographies, with another by Steve Zipperstein still to come. Part of what is fascinating about the first three books is what’s missing. Both Blake Bailey and Ira Nadel are good on Roth’s early years. Roth was born in Newark on 19 March 1933, just after FDR was inaugurated. Five days later, Congress began to enact the New Deal. “The Jews have drei veltn,” said the Tammany Hall politician Jonah Goldstein, “die velt, yena velt, und Roosevelt.” (three worlds: this world, the other world, and Roosevelt). “My entire clan,” Roth said, “were New Deal Democrats.”
  Roth grew up in Weequahic, a Jewish neighbourhood in Newark. There were only three gentile families on their block. “At its height in 1948,” writes Nadel, “the Jewish population of Newark topped 56,800, the seventh largest Jewish population in the U.S., roughly 12 percent of the city’s residents.” At one time, Newark had fifty-three synagogues (seventeen in Weequahic). By 1998 there were just two.
  In 2014 the BBC made a documentary about Roth. He was appalled, writes Bailey, by the klezmer music on the soundtrack. “You give the wrong idea with that diddle-diddle music,” he wrote to the producer. Roth didn’t hear a klezmer band until he was almost sixty. In a profile in The Guardian, Roth’s long-time friend Al Alvarez quotes Roth: “‘I was brought up in a Jewish neighbourhood,” he remarked, “and never saw a skullcap, a beard, sidelocks – ever, ever, ever – because the mission was to live here, not there. There was no there. If you asked your grandmother where she came from, she’d say, 'Don’t worry about it. I forgot already.’”
  Roth was formed by the New Deal and by the idealism of the Second World War. This, writes Claudia Roth Pierpont in her book on Roth, is what gave him, “the absolutely unambiguous sense he gained, during that war and because of that victory, of belonging to the greatest nation on earth.” What happened in his search for a subject was that he found the dark side of modern America. Roth came of age in Eisenhower’s America. He told Benjamin Taylor that his father used to say, “You’re a plum!” meaning “Do not fuck up this incomparable American opportunity life has handed you.” In his brilliant review of Bailey’s biography in Harper’s, Joshua Cohen writes that one important explanation of Roth’s success, “one that Bailey neglects,” is that he “was the major Jewish writer of the first generation of Jews who could legitimately claim to be one hundred percent American.” Roth, like Cohen’s narrator Ruben Blum in his new novel The Netanyahus, “had the benefit of American abundance.”
  This explains part of the success of his breakthrough book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). Ted Solotaroff, a friend from graduate school at Chicago, called Roth’s first book, “the first, really telling report from the third generation.” In his review in Commentary, Saul Bellow wrote, “the hero of Jewish fiction two decades ago knew nothing of Jewish suburbs, country clubs, organized cancer fund drives, large sums of money, cars, mink, or jewelry.” Alfred Kazin wrote, “I went around for days exhilarated by the change of the literary weather.”
  Bellow and Kazin were both born in 1915, almost twenty years before Roth. Malamud in 1914, Irving Howe in 1920. They were from a different world. In his biography of Bellow, James Atlas wrote,

He considers himself a man who loves women, and he counts many women among his close and lifelong friends. … His books contain an immense variety of female characters, of every moral and emotional persuasion. And they are no more “good” or “bad” than his male characters. … His work was being misread by some contemporary feminists as it had once been misread by Jews—and for reasons not so very different, involving the depiction of flawed or comically conceived characters.

Both Bailey and Nadel write far too much about Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and surprisingly little about some of the great, later novels. Of course, these were Roth’s two breakthrough works and Portnoy not only made Roth famous, it made him rich. As Bailey writes, it sold more than 200,000 copies in hardback in the first ten weeks, “while the Bantam [paperback] edition went on to sell 3.5 million copies in the first five years.” Roth predicted his total income for 1968 would come to more than $800,000 (“About $6,115,000 in 2020 dollars,” Bailey adds in a footnote). They also write too much about Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), two of Roth’s worst novels, simply because they say a lot about his disastrous first marriage.
  Nor is either biographer sufficiently interested in what younger literary critics had to say about Roth. Bailey, in particular, has trawled the reviews (he quotes fifteen by Michiko Kakutani alone), and there’s some attention to the older generation, especially Fiedler, Howe and Kazin, but almost nothing about critics like Mark Schechner and Morris Dickstein, Adam Kirsch and Steve Zipperstein.
  It’s interesting to read about Roth’s friendships with writers like Cynthia Ozick and younger writers like Zadie Smith and Nicole Krauss but there’s very little about what they thought of Roth’s writing. In 1987, Ozick wrote a famous letter to Bellow taking him to task for taking so long to write about the Holocaust. What did she think of how Roth wrote about the Jews? Smith and Krauss became close friends of Roth’s towards the end. What did they think of all the allegations of misogyny? Above all, what did they learn from him as writers? There is just one fascinating glimpse when Bailey quotes Zadie Smith’s Philip Roth Lecture: “He is part of the reason, when I write, that I do not try to create positive black role models for my black readers, and more generally have no interest in conjuring ideal humans for my readers to emulate.”
  Both women belonged to a very different generation, born forty years after Roth. These age gaps mattered to Roth. Bellow and Malamud were twenty years his senior. He saw himself as the new kid on the block. “I still treat him [Bellow] like the maitre he is,” Roth wrote to Updike, “acting in the process a little like the boy I is [sic].” He saw himself as Bellow’s literary son, as Updike’s rival, but never as a father figure to younger writers. He was childless as a writer and as a man.
  Perhaps that’s why the best young British writers didn’t warm to him. There are fascinating reviews of Roth’s lean period in the 1970s and 80s by Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. Amis, in search of his own voice, was constantly looking at the great American writers, but Roth left him dissatisfied. “There is not enough laughter or lyricism, there is not enough weather, there is not enough happening on the page,” Amis wrote in his review of The Anatomy Lesson in 1984. “The Zuckerman novels look like life looks before art has properly finished with it.” Barnes was just as critical of The Counterlife. “A character in a book within a book deciding to take no further part in the narrative?” he wrote. “Not far from here lies preciosity, and perhaps there is a thinning of our interest as overt fictionality stomps on imagined life.”
  Salman Rushdie was more interested. In his Philip Roth Lecture at Newark Public Library he said,

The radio was playing “Easter Parade” and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ – the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity – and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ – down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet! He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely! Nicely! So nicely the goyim don’t even know what hit ‘em. They love it. Everybody loves it. The Jews especially. Jews loathe Jesus. People always tell me Jesus is Jewish. I never believe them. It’s like when people used to tell me Cary Grant was Jewish. Bullshit. Jews don’t want to hear about Jesus. And can you blame them? So – Bing Crosby replaces Jesus as the beloved Son of God, and the Jews, the Jews, go around whistling about Easter! And is that so disgraceful a means of defusing the enmity of centuries? Is anyone really dishonored by this? If schlockified Christianity is Christianity cleansed of Jew hatred, then three cheers for schlock. If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Who else would play with the idea of a Jewish immigrant like Berlin writing the greatest songs ever written about Christmas (“White Christmas”) and Easter (“Easter Parade”)?
  Jews, of course, are one of Roth’s two great subjects. They are everywhere. From his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), “Green lawns, white Jews,” as one of Roth’s characters says some thirty years later, in Operation Shylock, to the antisemitism in Indignation (2008), fifty years later.
  But it’s not just that Roth’s fiction is full of Jews – angry, crazy, masturbating, funny. It’s what he does with his Jews. He was writing about the Holocaust ten years before Bellow. His story, Eli, The Fanatic is not only one of the great American short stories, it’s also one of the great pieces of Holocaust fiction. Some of his Jewish families are safe and secure, enjoying that extraordinary moment of post-war American prosperity. “The Jewish success story in its heyday, all new and thrilling and funny and fun.” But in The Plot Against America they are fleeing for their lives, victims of the American Right. Reviewing the novel in The New York Review of Books, JM Coetzee pinpoints the key questions at its heart: “Does a Jew belong in America? Can America be his or her true home?”
  How Jewish was Roth? Very. But not because he wrote about Jews as a subject, or about the Holocaust, Israel and Judaism. As the critic Mark Schechner wrote, “He grew up knowing neither Beethoven nor Sholem Aleichem, neither Scarlatti nor Isaac Babel… neither Rashi nor Trotsky… neither Zionism nor Yiddishism, Talmud nor Torah.”
  What Jews gave Roth was a voice. Roth was once asked what is distinctive about Jewish writing. It’s not the subject matter, he said. It is about a particular kind of sensibility: “the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchinesss, the play-acting – above all the talking.” “It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish—it’s that the book won’t shut up.”
  Like Roth himself. Bailey quotes a wonderful exchange between Roth and Claire Bloom:

“I didn’t come here to be insulted,” she [Claire Bloom] murmured at one point, and Roth burst out laughing. “But of course you did,” he said. “We all did. That’s what I want carved on my gravestone. 'Philip Roth. He came here to be insulted.’”

But there is another dark side about the way Roth writes about Jews. Nadel writes, “In the Roth Papers at the Library of Congress, among the notes for his 1973 essay story I always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting, or Looking at Kafka, is a note page headed ‘Jewish Ghosts.’ Listed are six aspects of Kafka’s life Roth dealt with in the story, and beneath a dividing line are two words: ‘Anne Frank.’ She, along with Kafka, would become two Jewish ghosts that would haunt him the most. Bruno Schulz would be a third. Roth would address Kafka in his 1973 story and Frank in The Ghost Writer of 1979. Schulz would emerge in The Prague Orgy of 1985.”
  This is the nearest either of these biographers gets to Roth’s “Jewish ghosts.” But here, as elsewhere, whenever they get close to something really important in Roth’s writing or reading, they scuttle away again. Of course, as biographers, they want to talk about his life. But there are so many questions about the writing that go unasked. Why was the subject of America unravelling, “America amok,” so important for him? What did he get about post-war America that no other writer really understood, and that speaks to us more powerfully after four years of Trump than it ever did during Roth’s lifetime?
  It is possible, as a result of the two big biographies, with all their stories of affairs with young women, that Roth will be “cancelled” on American college campuses. The Bailey biography, after all, was withdrawn by its publisher, W.W. Norton, when allegations about the misogyny of its author seemed to warrant that a leading American publisher cancel its relations not only with Bailey but with a major book praised as such by writers as well known as Cynthia Ozick. Roth knew, of course, that cancellation is always a great danger to the life of a culture, and that “the persecuting spirit” is very much with us at this moment. This is why The Human Stain is perhaps Roth’s greatest novel. It sees America as a battle between those who want purity and those who believe, in Benjamin Taylor’s words, that “The soul of the nation is miscegenated.”
  Benjamin Taylor was perhaps Roth’s closest male friend for the last twenty years of Roth’s life. His short memoir brings Roth to life. The humour, the loyalty and generosity. He’s perhaps best, though, on Roth and America. “Our conversation was about everything,” he writes. “But our keynote was American history, for which Philip was ravenous, consuming one big scholarly book after another. He became a great writer in the course of the eighties and especially the nineties when his novels became history-haunted.”
  This is the difference between Taylor, who has also edited Bellow’s letters and nonfiction, and the two biographers. He makes an interesting point and then instead of moving on, he digs deeper. The heroes of these “history-haunted” novels, he writes, “are solid men taken to pieces when the blind-siding force of history comes to call. Such was Philip’s mature theme: unpredictable brutalities at large in the world and the illusoriness of ever being safe from them.”
  This brings us to a fascinating question about Roth, his interest in goodness. “You might say that right down through Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral to Indignation and Nemesis the implications and ambiguities and contradictions inherent to goodness – and badness – have been the master obsession,” Roth said towards the end of his life. Bailey picks up on this later, “That the rain falls on the just and unjust alike would become a crucial theme in Roth’s work – that life merely happens to people, regardless of their moral character one way or the other. He toyed, for instance, with titling his American Trilogy ‘Blindsided,’ given that tragedy befalls his heroes – Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, and Coleman Silk – regardless of their efforts to lead, by their own lights, more or less admirable lives.”
  Taylor does more with this. He recalls a conversation with Roth about American Pastoral. “‘On Arcady Hill Road,’ he tells me, ‘in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, the American pastoral gets interrupted by the American berserk. The strong arm of the unforeseeable, the unexpectable, the last thing you’d think, comes crashing down on Swede Levov’s fair head… What happens is that his virtue does nothing to save him. In fact, the virtuous man turns out to be far more assailable than the wicked one, far less versed in what life can do, in how assailable we are.’” Taylor doesn’t say so, but this was what Roth really learned from those Eastern European writers he admired and promoted.
  When they spoke about I Married a Communist, Roth told Taylor that it wasn’t really about Communism or the Cold War. It was about people who believe they have a monopoly on truth. “Both extremes believe they’ve cornered the market on righteousness, a better thing by far than complex, adulterated, messy, unidealized, unredeeming, unstained truth. If the book emits a warning, it’s ‘Beware of self-approval.’” What does Roth mean by this? “Beware of purity, beware of what Hawthorne called ‘the persecuting spirit,’ the puritanical principle that put up the stocks and burned the witches. Beware of sanctimony. It survives and flourishes in matters of sex, religion, politics and race.”
  “We leave a stain,” Roth told him, “we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen – there’s no other way to be here… The fantasy of purity is appalling.”
  No wonder the call has gone out to “cancel” Roth, to ban his books in colleges. Taylor tries to end on a positive note, of affirmation. “At our leave-taking I said, ‘You have been the joy of my life.’ ‘And you of mine,’ he replied.” But the lesson of Taylor’s powerful book is that the last word might lie with the puritans and the censors. “‘I’ll take my stand forever with the Merry Mounters and their maypole,’ Philip says. ‘But of course it’s the Endicotts, the purifiers, the grand inquisitors, who persist. They go to ground, they adopt new shibboleths, they reemerge. Puritanism never dies.’”