After his latest novel, Nemesis, had been discussed by four eminent scholars for roughly an hour, Philip Roth took the stage at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan last night to do a brief reading from it. “I’m going to read you just a few pages,” he said. “Coming where they do, they’re the pages I like best in Nemesis. They constitute the last pages of the last work of fiction I’ve published, the end of the line after 31 books.” I nearly gasped. Was Roth—78 last March, and having earlier that day won the Man Booker International Prize—announcing his retirement? (In which case, could we then expect a boxer- or rapper-style retirement, in which he claims he is done only to come out with a nice 250-pager a couple years later?)
Apparently not. After the talk, at a reception on the second floor, as Roth sat at a table sipping white wine with ice, I asked him if he is working on anything new. He responded affirmatively, adding that the work is only—he paused to choose his word carefully—“inchoate.” Though he still does not look his age, he looks it more than he used to, with an ever-expanding bald spot and eyes that seem ever deeper set into his head. He is The Guy now—the generally acknowledged Great American Novelist (living category)—and so, perhaps uniquely, has no need to talk to press like me, although he was always polite. How did he feel about winning the Booker Prize? “Good.” He’s won every prize—which is his favorite? “All prizes are fine.” Any comment on the controversy stemming from the award yesterday? “No.” Okay then, any comment on one of the scholars’ assertions last night that, in Roth’s canon, there is a break that occurs with American Pastoral when Roth’s characters are no longer faced with choices but rather have their fates imposed upon them? “I dunno.” “You just write ‘em?” I suggested. “Yeah.”
The crowd skewed very old—it was hardly surprising to see Elie Wiesel slip in a few minutes late. YIVO executive director Jonathan Brent introduced the evening, which consisted of four scholars—all men—giving their takes on Nemesis prior to the reading. (There was a brief Q-and-A period, made briefer by Brent’s observation, “If you don’t ask us any questions, then the sooner Philip will be doing his reading.”) Roth sat in the front row, neck craned upwards immobilely, thumbs at times twiddling, something of a king or at least minor member of the royal family watching men of court endeavor to please him.
Not that the four scholars—Brent; Bernard Avishai; Igor Webb; and Steven J. Zipperstein—didn’t take some idiosyncratic views of Roth’s work. But all arrived with the premise, as Brent put it in his introduction, that Roth “stands alone, not just here in America but abroad, as the greatest literary mind and talent of our time” and that Nemesis is “one of his truly finest works.” The discussion had an almost academic-conference feel in the erudition that was asked of—or not even asked of, but just flat-out required—of its listeners, as well as for its frank and close dissections of Roth’s novel. This was not a place to come if you hadn’t read the novel and wanted no spoilers.
First came Avishai, a Hebrew University professor with a compulsion for pronouncing foreign-language names with the utmost correctness—“J.M. Coetzee;” “Albert Camus” and for that matter “Dr. Rieux” of Camus’s The Plague; even “Zuckerman,” the surname of Roth’s famed alter ego Nathan, was pronounced with the German (or perhaps Yiddish) long, dainty, faintly “r”-inflected “u.” Avishai focused on the sense of duty protagonist Bucky Cantor feels as his friends are off in Europe fighting the Nazis and he is stuck in Newark in the summer of 1944 as a polio epidemic rages. “Bucky is not projecting being a victim of chance,” Avishai argued, “nor is he punishing himself in order to valorize some ‘mysterious design.’ Rather, he rejects living as a victim, period. For this move you cannot simply acknowledge fate, Nemesis, the gods, God, all of which implies some kind of order behind events.” Avishai’s reading of Nemesis is a bleak one.
Next was Brent himself, and, being as he is YIVO’s executive director, he focused much of his talk on the Jewish aspects of the novel and the rest of Roth’s work (“Although he treats Jews as if they weren’t Jews most of the time—that is, as human beings—his novels are nevertheless about Jews”). Ultimately, though, he too found himself drawn to Cantor’s steely resolve in the face of the epidemic—the plague—and, comparing him with the novel’s narrator, who feels none of this requirement for self-sacrifice, insisted, “The moral choice in Nemesis is not between Arnie’s compromising normality and happiness and Mr. Cantor’s hidden rage and withered self. The novel does not present the reader with a choice at all. Rather, the novel is an awakening in the reader that the one reality is inextricably bound up with the other as Ahab was with the White Whale, as Dr. Jekyll was with Mr. Hyde.”
Igor Weiss—who came up with the American Pastoral-centric taxonomy I later presented to Roth—also found a bleak book. Indeed, a bleak series of books: For with the publication of Nemesis Roth retroactively labeled four short novels he has published in the past several years with the “Nemesis” heading, “classifying,” as Weiss put it, “his recent works under the name of the most vengeful Greek goddess, a merciless and implacable enemy.” I wished there were covers to hide under.
Zipperstein came last but not least—in fact, he was the best. (It’s worth noting, incidentally, that he said that “the very best interpretive book on [Roth’s] work” is the one by my former professor, Ross Posnock.) Zipperstein spoke in the muscular, robust tones of Roth’s prose, as though he had spent the last couple of weeks reading a very great deal of it. “In Roth’s musings time and again on community, the inability to live with it or without it,” he began, “it is here that his Jewish preoccupations are most acute and fertile.” Zipperstein came prepared for the setting: The Jewish crowd come to see the Jewish author at the Jewish institution in the Jewish city. He quoted Roth in a Paris Review interview: “It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish—it’s that the book won’t shut up. The book won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up.” This got a big laugh.
Zipperstein continued: “If one is to look for Roth’s Jewish preoccupations—and one need not look very far—there is nowhere better to see them than in a sense of Jewry’s overheated embraces and exclusions, both born of much the same impulses, which have provided him a splendid prism through which to probe community.” Then, Zipperstein went for the kill: “Is there another people that praises its achievers, that polices its boundaries, that punishes its miscreants with the fervor, the torrent of righteous indignation meted out at one or another time to Philip Roth or Hannah Arendt or for that matter Richard Goldstone?” Boom, as we say.
More: “Is it mere happenstance that Judaism’s entry into modernity is punctuated by the afterglow of Spinoza’s own excommunication from the community? The appearance of that solitary person, shorn of obligatory fellowship, cooly isolated, and whose identity is so indelibly marked by its being now and always communally adrift?”
I don’t mind quoting Zipperstein at length because it reads kind of like Roth (lesser Roth, to be sure, but still Roth), and as though sensing this, Zipperstein proceeded to quote from some of the best Roth there is, in Portnoy’s Complaint:
They might as well have had plates in their lips and rings through their noses and painted themselves blue for all the human sense they made! Oh, and the milchiks and flaishiks besides, all those meshuggeneh rules and regulations on top of their own private craziness! It’s a family joke that when I was a child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snowstorm and hopefully asked, “Momma, do we believe in winter?” Do you get what I’m saying? I was raised by Hottentots and Zulus!
The crowd was laughing. But the joke was on them! Whom did they think poor Alexander Portnoy is referring to?
Of course Portnoy’s Complaint is a youthful and barbaric yawp if ever there was one. But the thread does run through Roth’s work, and if a break can be discerned pre- and post-American Pastoral, perhaps it is that before that mid-‘90s work, the community was stifling the Jewish individual, whereas after it the Jewish individual—the non-Jewish professor of The Human Stain, locked into the Jewish identity he has foisted upon himself; Bucky Cantor and indeed American Pastoral’s Swede Levov, with their ludicrous, self-imposed stoicism—has voluntarily accepted the community’s stifling.
But that’s just my theory. We will certainly never get a straight answer from Roth, who apparently prefers instead just to write ‘em and, I can report, keep writing ‘em.