In the 1970s, Philip Roth, already established as one of the country’s important writers, began a series of novels that suggested the Central European surrealism for which he felt affinities and perhaps a distant filial regard. Hitherto, in such novels as When She Was Good, he had been the master of an intense but mainly traditional realism. With the political satire Our Gang, then with The Breast and The Great American Novel, he began to experiment with breaking down conventions. Introducing a writer al-ter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, in The Ghost Writer, he conducted Zuckerman through a number of novels employing self-conscious narrative techniques and episodes of story within story designed to shake the reader’s balance and manipulate his relationship with the work in hand.
The reader’s equilibrium has been fair game since the beginning of fiction, and Philip Roth’s voice has always exercised great authority. As an aphorist, and entertainer, as an illusionist possessed of powers over the mind’s eye, Roth had few rivals even twenty years ago. He was one of those writers able to color and control, without apparent effort, that no-man’s-land between life and language where the satisfactions of fiction reside. Several times, during the Seventies and Eighties, he appeared to be calling down an artillery barrage, preparatory to a foray across the wire. One day, it seemed, his fierce glance would appear around the bindings of the book, he’d be on the loose, and in our laps. In 1990, for example, when Philip Roth, the writer, generally known to be married to a woman named Claire, published a novel in dialogue about characters named Philip and Claire, it was hard not to believe someone was pushing the envelope.
Preoccupation with different modes of fiction, like the sudden impulse toward innovation, is often a bad sign in writers. It can indicate a flagging of energy, a dangerous ennui, a weariness with the writerly self that has to be chained to its oars every day. The assumption by a novelist that his life, his fortunes and hassles with his ladylove are ipso facto the stuff of literature does not always augur well either.
But, as anyone who followed his work knew, something else was going on with Roth. His energy, that intimidating mixture of powerful, almost compulsive narrative drive and manic but modulated virtuosity, was hardly in eclipse; on the contrary, it was increasing in intensity. And the calculated liberties he was taking with the conventions of narrative and authorial presence had, for the most part, none of the feyness that have become associated with Writer’s Liberation, the we’re-all-too-smart-for-storybooks number that has become so tiresome. Roth can probably be accused of many sins, but pretentiousness is not one of them.
The power of Roth’s prose stands up to any amount of play with technique. His indulgence in “personifictions” and “false confessions,” or with the fictionalization of his own authorial identity in Operation Shylock, has served to increase the immediacy of his work rather than to intellectualize or…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.