March 31, 2013
Q&A: Philip Roth and the Jews
Hana Wirth-Nesher holds the Samuel L. and Perry Haber Chair on the Study of the Jewish Experience in the United States at Tel Aviv University, where she is also professor of English and American studies, and director of the Goldreich Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture. She is the author of 'City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel' (Cambridge) and of 'Call It English: the Languages of Jewish American Literature' (Princeton). She is also the co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature.
With a long standing interest in the novels of Philip Roth, Prof. Wirth-Nesher has been reading, teaching and writing about Roth's work for many years.
At 80 years of age, it seems that Roth has an 'air of respectability' to him which stands in stark contrast to how he was perceived in his earlier wilder years. While much of this could be attributed to societal shifts and a far more relaxed public attitude towards sexuality, is the evolution of Roth's work itself also 'responsible' for this change? Has it become more 'serious' –in subject matter and in style- over the years?
The question of public perceptions-of respectabilities and how justified they are- is a tricky one of course, but changes have definitely taken place throughout Roth’s career.
There’s early Roth and late Roth the way there is early James and late James. The early Roth is a social satirist aiming to be provocative, the later Roth continues in that vein but with greater sophistication, a darker streak, a preoccupation with the aging body and death, and a more developed historical sense. In American Pastoral Roth becomes a truly profound writer along with his abiding features of sharp humor and provocative prose.
Ironically, this “air of respectability” came about as a response to Roth’s sense of having been wounded by his readership. He turned his reception into one of the major themes of his work, so that his outraged readership actually became a source of angry inspiration for much of the complex work that he produced later.
While Roth is probably the most well known Jewish writer of our times, he has had a famously bumpy relationship with the American Jewish community, one which he often mocked and parodied in many of his books. Were the early accusations of stereotypical stock Jewish characters completely farfetched though? Does Roth not utilize- especially in the early Zuckerman novels and in Portnoy's Complaint- a great deal of two-dimensional characters (not only Jewish ones)? What does that say about him as an artist?
Well, Roth’s work has definitely featured its fair share of Jewish stereotypes: it’s difficult to ignore the overbearing Jewish mother, the henpecked and emasculated Jewish husband, and the 'shikse obsessed' young Jewish men…All that this says, though, is that he is a brilliant satirist, that he always had an ironic distance on these types, that he never subscribed to them as social truths or as “authentic” attributes of Jewish American life. Exaggerated types are the essence of satirical writing, and his readers, often in their outrage and paranoia, forget that he is writing satire.
An interesting Jewish literary prototype which Roth may have actually created himself is that of the hard working stoic 'Jewish Father', one who slaves away selling insurance only to get 'screwed over by the goyim', domineered by his sturdy wife and looked down at by his better educated children (Zuckerman, Portnoy, Kepesh, Roth). This seems to be a recurring theme in many of his novels. Is this simply autobiographical or does it signify something?
It is both autobiographical and significant. The only sacred subject in Roth’s world, I think, is decent hardworking responsible men, who are comfortable in their male bodies, who maintain dignity in a world of snobbery and pretension. The best illustration of this occurs in Patrimony, when Roth’s aging father leaves his tefillin in the locker room of the Jewish community center, because he knew that sweating Jewish males would see to it that the tefillin would be safeguarded.
Furthermore, Roth shows us that there is nothing more American than first and second generation Jewish American immigrants trying to improve their and their children’s lots by hard work.
Roth has done a lot of experimenting with literary forms over the years, playing with autobiographical alternate histories, therapeutic monologues and (a great many of) alter-egos. Is there any literary tradition you would comfortably place him in? What was his most creative contribution to the art of the novel?
I think Roth’s main contribution is not so much in the invention of this or that literary form or device, so much as in giving us an exceptional number of deep, original and beautifully creative explorations of some important subjects at the center of the Jewish, American and human experience:
American Pastoral is a brilliant take on how the Emersonian ideal of American individualism is not compatible with the Jewish experience of being in history and not aspiring to transcend it. Operation Shylock is a dazzling exploration of post-modern identity, of multiple selves, of the self always being generated in opposition to its other as it defines that other (for American Jews, it can be Europe’s Jews, Israelis, American gentiles, etc.). The Plot Against America is a highly original dystopia, a counter history which asks some important questions about the basic assumptions we have about American democracy. Portnoy’s Complaint is a fierce satire of the Freudian moment, of therapeutic culture and stand-up as two sides of the same coin.
How has Roth influenced younger generations of Jewish writers? What role has Roth played in the story of Jewish American literature?
He has influenced them in the paradoxical way that great writers influence those who come after them---by forcing these writers to come up with entirely new and different styles. Roth, like Hemingway or James, can be easily mimicked and parodied, a sure sign of originality. Any younger writer trying to sound like Roth will come across as a weak copy. So Chabon, Foer, Krauss, Englander, Stollman, Stern (among my favorites)—none of them sound like Roth and they are also dealing with different issues in keeping with their own generation.