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Roth Agonistes

Why write? Philip Roth answered the question in a 1981 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur. He wrote, he said, in order “to be freed from my own suffocatingly boring and narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my own.”

Philip Roth
Philip Roth; drawing by David Levine

A more intriguing question: Why not write? For this is what Roth, since 2009, has chosen to do: not write. When asked to explain his decision, he has tended to summon a Bartlebyesque detachment: “I have no desire any longer to write fiction,” he told one disappointed interviewer in 2014. “I did what I did and it’s done.” He elaborated slightly a month later, in a conversation with Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet, crediting his self-imposed silence to

a strong suspicion that I’d done my best work and anything more would be inferior. I was by this time no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the verbal energy or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration on a complex structure as demanding as the novel.

“Attack” is the word that rises, three-dimensionally, from the text. It recurs often throughout Roth’s nonfiction, invoked to describe the various aggressions he has absorbed, his resentment toward his critics, and his assault on the blank page that faced him each morning. During his early writing years in Chicago, Roth began each morning by shouting at the young face peering out from the mirror at him: “Attack! Attack!”

The force of Roth’s attack, sustained for more than a half-century, is what made his retirement so startling. It is also the quality that, more than anything, sustains this volume, which serves as an addendum to the Complete Novels, published in nine parts by the Library of America. Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013—a title that is itself a minor fiction, since three of the essays date from 2014—divides into three sections: a partial selection from Reading Myself and Others of 1975 (omitting his essays about baseball, politics, and literary eroticism), paired with four querulous interviews from the 1980s; an anthology of encounters with other novelists during the 1980s and 1990s; and a series of late essays, interviews, and award speeches. Occasionally there emerge vivid biographical fragments, like a description of the cafeteria near Lake Michigan where once a week he treated himself to a thick slice of roast beef lathered in its bloody juice, or his chance encounter, on a morning walk in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution, with a crowd of people laughing at giant television screens showing footage of a Communist Party meeting held several months earlier. “I thought that this must be the highest purpose of laughter,” Roth writes, “to bury wickedness in ridicule.” His novels carry the same lesson.

In a speech that recalls his childhood, he notes that fiction’s “ruthless intimacy” derives from the “scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life.” But in these pages he rarely approaches the intimacy of his two short books of memoir—The Facts (1988), about his development as a writer, and Patrimony (1991), about his father’s death—books that possess all the wrenching emotional nuance of his fiction. Instead he is generally at great pains to depict his adult life as a dreary parade of professional monotony. (If we take him at his word this is dim news for Blake Bailey, who is six years into an anticipated decade-long process of writing an authorized Life.) As Roth put it in a 1974 interview with Joyce Carol Oates, in a sentiment he would often repeat, “Writing in a room by myself is practically my whole life.”

It’s true that most writers, especially those as productive as Roth—thirty-one books in fifty-one years—have little time to do anything else but sit in a room and write. But few novelists have been as dogged by personal interrogations as Roth, or as publicly distressed by them. Anthony Burgess did not spend much time worrying that viewers of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange assumed him to be a violent psychopath, after all, and Vladimir Nabokov did not care when literal-minded readers mistook him for a child rapist. But Roth doesn’t find it very funny to be mistaken for Alexander Portnoy. He is nearly as peeved to be confused for David Kepesh, Peter Tarnopol, and Nathan Zuckerman. His objection to the underlying assumption—that his characters, many of whom share his physical traits, circumstances, and sometimes even his name, are thinly veiled autobiographical portraits—is this volume’s dominant refrain.

“What nonfiction I have written has arisen mainly from a provocation.” The original provocation came from Jewish readers offended by the publication of his story “Defender of the Faith” in The New Yorker in 1959. A prominent New York rabbi claimed that Roth had “earned the gratitude” of anti-Semites and demanded that the Anti-Defamation League “silence” him the way they did in medieval Europe. During the next few years Roth defended himself at synagogues, Yeshiva University, Jewish ladies’ groups, Jewish community centers, and symposia sponsored by B’nai B’rith, fielding accusations screamed from the audience.

He embarked on this public-speaking campaign for reasons he later called “stupid”: to defend himself and to explain himself to the paranoid assimilationists of his father’s generation who berated him for “informing” the goyim that some Jews might not be paragons of virtue and might even possess human qualities. “Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold,” he told his detractors, but his introductory lecture in literary theory failed to mollify them. The publication of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) sparked another flare, and after the Semitically blameless Letting Go (1962) and the Jewless When She Was Good (1967), Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) was received like a firebomb thrown into a Hillel House. Writing in Haaretz, Gershom Scholem, perhaps unwittingly, echoed nearly verbatim the rabbi’s slander of a decade earlier, calling Portnoy “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.”

For many years Roth denied the charge that he wrote the novel out of an impulse to stick it to the Anti-Defamation Leaguers; he dedicated an entire essay, “In Response to Those Who Have Asked Me: How Did You Come to Write That Book, Anyway?,” to an involved account of the novel’s prehistory as a series of failed drafts and abandoned dramatic devices, and cited Kafka as a literary model. But in a 1984 interview with the London Sunday Times, he acknowledged the influence of certain extraliterary impulses. “My Jewish detractors,” he said, “wouldn’t let up, no matter what I wrote. So I thought finally, ‘Well, you want it, I’ll give it to you.’ And out came Portnoy, apertures spurting.”

By then Roth, having largely won his personal culture battle against the scandalized rabbis and their congregants, turned to defend himself from charges of sexual deviance (“my overnight notoriety as a sexual freak”), misogyny, and, most insulting of all, failure of the imagination. Questioned by a French interviewer about similarities between his life and those of his characters, he replies:

You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can yield. I have nothing to confess and no one I want to confess to. As for my autobiography, I can’t begin to tell you how dull it would be. My autobiography would consist almost entirely of chapters about me sitting alone in a room looking at a typewriter.

Later: “Am I Lonoff? Am I Zuckerman? Am I Portnoy?… As of now I am nothing like so sharply delineated as a character in a book. I am still amorphous Roth.” To the London Sunday Times: “You’re confusing me with all those astute book reviewers who are sure that I am the only novelist in the history of literature who has never made anything up.” When Hermione Lee, in a 1984 interview with Roth in The Paris Review, notes the link between the dead parents in his books and the death of his mother, Roth suggests icily that she ask his father, then still alive, about the climactic death of Nathan Zuckerman’s father: “I’ll give you his phone number.”

Despite these denials, or perhaps because of their vehemence, the salacious confusion between his work and his life at times benefited his sales. In 2004, ahead of the publication of The Plot Against America, he wrote an essay for The New York Times denying that the novel was “a roman à clef to the present moment in America”—a protestation that guaranteed it would be treated exactly that way. It became his first best seller in seventeen years. His preoccupation with the autobiographical question outlasted his career. At the conclusion of his 2014 interview with Svenska Dagbladet, the final one in the volume, he brings it up himself when the interviewer fails to ask it: “If you won’t mind, may I use the occasion of your final question to say what is probably already clear to [your] readers?” For four paragraphs he expands on the difference between a writer’s own thoughts and the thoughts of his characters.

Roth knows he shouldn’t bother. He endorses Edmund Wilson’s observation that most of what is written about fiction is a “collection of opinions by persons of various degrees of intelligence who have happened to have some contact with [the writer’s] book.” Why dignify unlettered, ad hominem attacks by granting them the standing of “criticism”? But he can’t help himself. In his crusade of defiance no line of criticism is beneath him, and no critic.

In 2012 he published in The New Yorker an open letter to Wikipedia, objecting that the entry for The Human Stain alleged that the novel was “inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” The premise of the essay is that he must publish his correction in The New Yorker because a Wikipedia “Administrator” insists upon confirmation from a verified secondary source. It is not clear whether Roth understands that anyone in the world can be an editor of Wikipedia and that changes can be made at any time, so phrases like “Wikipedia contends…” or “Wikipedia writes…” have little meaning. But the humor lies in the image of the literary lion, in his retirement, furrow-browed over his keypad, writing several thousand words in defense of his genius—“I had invented him as a full-blown character from scratch”—against the confusions of anonymous, semiliterate critics on a newfangled crowd-sourced website.

As it turns out, there were several extensive additional chapters that The New Yorker did not publish, in which Roth disputes Wikipedia’s treatment of Nathan Zuckerman, Operation Shylock, and American Pastoral. Most of his complaints address further allegations of biographical similarity. He concludes with a quotation of Flaubert’s: “Everything one invents is true, you may be perfectly sure of that…. My poor Bovary, without a doubt, is suffering and weeping in twenty villages in France at this very moment.”

At the heart of Roth’s defense of himself lies a defense of fiction itself. Though the biographical fallacy is his main personal tormentor, he also takes on the intentional fallacy—the notion that readers should take a writer’s own ideas about a work into account. Roth happily shares his own views when prompted, needless to say (“the last line of My Life as a Man is meant to…”), but he doesn’t endorse the practice. “The intelligence of even the most intelligent novelist is often debased, or at the least distorted, when it’s isolated from the novel that embodies it,” he writes. “Detached from the fiction, a novelist’s wisdom can even be just so much talk.”

Shop Talk, originally published in 2001, is the name he gave to a series of encounters with other novelists, most of them taking the form of transcribed interviews that are expanded and edited by both participants, in the style of The Paris Review’s interview series. They are works of criticism in the guise of portraits: within his questions Roth nests mini-essays, sometimes running several paragraphs, analyzing his subjects’ fiction. Roth’s critical voice is higher-pitched than the voice of his novelistic narrators, occasionally pedantic, but he is a sympathetic reader, deeply perceptive, and shrewd in isolating the sensibility that unites an entire body of work. “It’s all one book you write anyway,” he says in his own interview with The Paris Review, and this conceit guides his own reading.

He suggests to Primo Levi, whom he visits months before his death, that Levi’s “entire literary labor [is] dedicated to restoring to work its humane meaning, reclaiming the word Arbeit from the derisive cynicism with which your Auschwitz employers had disfigured it.” He compares Aharon Appelfeld to Kafka in the way that their characters’ hardships arrive “inexplicably, out of nowhere, in a society seemingly without history or politics.” Levi and Appelfeld accept Roth’s readings, but not all of his encounters go smoothly. The chapter on Mary McCarthy is a single exchange of letters, in which McCarthy, at Roth’s invitation, offers a polite critique of The Counterlife, and Roth responds with a bristling point-by-point defense. (“Truly, I don’t see what there is to be offended by there, and maybe it wasn’t this that offended and irritated you.”) No response by McCarthy is recorded. On a final visit with Bernard Malamud, the declining writer reads to Roth the opening chapters of a novel in progress. It’s not very good. In the hope of trying to understand better what Malamud is attempting, Roth asks him what happens next. “What’s next isn’t the point,” replies Malamud, “in a soft voice suffused with fury.” A painful silence elapses between them. Malamud dies before they can meet again.

The volume’s most exciting piece is a hybrid, with a hybridized title: “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka.” In the first section, a haunting account of Kafka’s strained relationship with women and the ponderous influence of his father gives way to a clever study of the theme of entrapment in his fiction. The second section is an imagined alternative history, in the style of The Ghost Writer and The Plot Against America, in which Kafka survives the war, travels to America, becomes Roth’s Hebrew school teacher, and is fixed up by Roth’s father with Roth’s spinster aunt. For a while, things go well in Newark for Kafka. He becomes a regular presence at family dinners. “Just look at him when he sits in that club chair,” exclaims Roth’s father, after one meal. “This is Franz Kafka’s dream come true.”

Roth describes his nonfiction as revealing himself “out from behind the disguises and inventions and artifices of the novel,” but he is never more himself than when he appears in disguise. The same is true of all great novelists.

Dominique Nabokov
Milan Kundera and Philip Roth, New York City, 1981

Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?

Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of… media stupidity and cynical commercialism—American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.

The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed…by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps….” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type—the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist—that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”

Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture—an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.

The attacks that accompanied the publication of his first stories alerted Roth to a second, even more insidious threat. The allegations of anti-Semitism seem to have pained him, in part, because they came from the kind of people he had known his whole life. Even as he was enraged by their misplaced piousness, he was sensitive to their fears and their paranoia. He understood that “going wild in public is the last thing in the world that a good Jew is expected to do—by himself, his family, his fellow Jews…. Or so history and ingrained fear argue.” One does not spend five decades defending oneself against such charges unless they leave a wound.

But the wound was not only personal. The attacks of anti-Semitism were attacks on the integrity of fiction. In “New Jewish Stereotypes,” a speech given in 1961, Roth holds up for derision Leon Uris and Harry Golden, Jewish authors who wrote popular fiction about Jews of unambiguous heroism or charm. Their stories filled their Jewish readers with pride, the authors’ pockets with dough, and their gentile readers with relief, “for if the victim is not a victim, then the victimizer is probably no victimizer either.”

This kind of pandering, Roth argues, is not merely a form of soft bigotry but bad fiction: clichéd, clumsy, cartoonish. Its aims are anti-literary. It grinds the complexity of a human life, with its moral contradictions and immoderate seethings, into a harmless pablum. It is a form, in other words, of propaganda. Certainly Jews could use some effective propaganda. But novelists shouldn’t feel forced to write it. As Roth puts it: “The novelist asks himself, ‘What do people think?’; the PR man asks, ‘What will people think?’”

The generation of Jews offended by Philip Roth is long gone, and its concerns may seem pitiful in retrospect, but Roth’s point holds. At a time of renewed sensitivity to questions of cultural identity, the biographical fallacy has returned in full force. Readers and critics, distraught at the nihilism of the current political nightmare, have sought comfort in fiction that affirms their principles and beliefs, fiction in which victimized peoples rise triumphant. They desire a new Exodus, new Leon Urises. And they will get them. But we should hope for something more. We should hope for new Philip Roths.

“A writer needs his poisons,” Roth said in his Paris Review interview. “The antidote to his poisons is often a book.” He published more than two dozen such books. Why Write? is not one of them. It more closely resembles an account of the poisons Roth was made to swallow and the symptoms they caused—the headaches, the convulsions, the bouts of delirium. Roth may still resent his exposure to these toxins, but there’s no denying that they did their job.