A writer walks into a room full of rabbis. This sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s not. In the words of Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose,” “It’s the emes.”
Jewish author Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize for the body of work in his more than 50-year-long career. The biennial award to be presented in June in London to Roth, 78, was announced Wednesday. The author of the widely read and controversial "Potnoy's Complaint" has also won two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.
I decided to watch every film adapted from Philip Roth's work. My mission started simply enough: a search on imdb.com turned up eight works on film and TV, stretching back to the 1950s. Some had never been released on video, some are only in VHS, some were available at the local video store, some had to be tracked down in specialty shops or in university or museum archives. My quest led me across Los Angeles and afforded me the pleasure of visiting some of the city's most beautiful libraries and research facilities, as well as some of its best-stocked video stores.
One should read Israeli writers, of course -- Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew's relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.
Eluding death is the central issue of life for Philip Roth's nameless leading character in his newest novel, "Everyman" (Houghton Mifflin). A thrice-married and divorced retired advertising executive, Roth's lonely everyman wants to keep on with the messy business of his life -- "he didn't want the end to come a minute earlier than it had to" -- even as friends get sick and die around him, and his own body's failings persist. "Old age," Roth writes, "isn't a battle, it's a massacre."
At 72, Roth recently became the youngest living author to be honored by the Library of America, which issues hardcover collections of the country's most accomplished writers. The first two volumes, covering Roth's work through the early 1970s, are out this fall.
One of the more surprising moments in recent music history comes midway through the celebrated 1998 indie rock album, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," by the band Neutral Milk Hotel. Hiding in an otherwise understated tune are some startling lyrics:
I know they buried her body with others.
Her sister and mother and five hundred families.
And will she remember me fifty years later?
I wish I could save her with some sort of time machine....
It is, as many a hipster could tell you, an album about Anne Frank. Its singer and lyricist was a shaggy-headed 27-year-old named Jeff Magnum. As far removed as his native Louisiana was from Amsterdam, his songs give the unmistakable impression that he is a man in love with a 15-year-old girl who had been murdered more than five decades earlier.
When veteran producer Tom Rosenberg read Philip Roth's 2000 novel, "The Human Stain," he immediately vowed to turn it into a movie. Roth, considered one of America's greatest living writers, was his literary hero; the novelist "not only chronicles what it is to be Jewish in America, he chronicles America," Rosenberg, 56, said.
In Dean Fortunato's stage adaptation of Philip Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews," a kid named Ozzie has a vexing question for his rabbi: "If God created the world in six days, why can't He whip up an Immaculate Conception?" The rabbi retorts: "You'll never get bar mitzvahed if I can help it!"
Jewish demons have always pursued Philip Roth. Starting with the 1959 publication of "Goodbye, Columbus," his iconoclastic and now classic portrait of materialistic Jewish suburbanites, Roth has dramatized his characters' struggle to reconcile their eternally warring urges to simultaneously lay claim to and distance themselves from (even sometimes flat-out reject) their Jewish heritage.
In Philip Roth's new novel, "The Human Stain," a classics professor at a small New England college creates a fictional identity for himself.