The most striking trait in Philip Roth, what immediately gained both your support and affection, was his mix of high sophistication and complete spontaneity. He had the most demanding artistic discipline and a complete lack of intellectual snobbishness. The “paleface” disciple of Henry James and the “redskin” reader of Whitman and Ginsberg, as he once phrased it—the music-lover admirer of Mahler and the Jimi Hendrix fan, the tragic lover and the Dionysian devil, the concerned citizen and writer and the anarchist—this duality that he succeeded in maintaining harmoniously in each of his best books also existed in life, and I think that it was the base, not just of the writing, but, more importantly perhaps, of what made this writing possible and nourished it: that is to say his freedom.
The Henry James side clearly took over each time he was starting a new novel—or at least each time I was given the chance to witness it. It usually depressed him. He was unmistakably “sent back to his amateurishness” as he said, meaning that he stumbled in almost every sentence on clichés, commonplaces, taboos, and other dead ends that prevented him from letting the fiction grow. Then, as he dug through these clichés to reach the tragic—and often depressing—root of his characters, he would rise, as it were, in parallel, toward the heights of irony and comedy and in such tension, in such conflict, he would meet the kind of intelligence only fiction writers sometimes find, and only while they write. He would meet—the word is to be taken literally—his genius: his daemon, as the ancient Greeks used to say.
To me, as a Frenchman and as a Jew, it is the energy of this creative conflict that I found most American and most Jewish.
When I discovered his novels—long before Roth and I met—they appeared to me as a series of realist, playful dreams—dreams of what one is and of what one could be for better or for worse, individually and collectively, dreams about where one comes from—the famous “identity” everybody is so fond of today—and dreams of the potential blessed treason of the tribe with which one destroyed and recreated oneself. And the glee of those dreams, and their cruelty—and the freedom both elegant and raw that ensued: What could have been more American than that?
And there was Roth’s capacity to explore seriously all the facets of any given people without ever dwelling on one, so his or her mystery and richness would be preserved as an unending source of surprises that was the stuff both of his novels and of his conversations. And all this, I think, saved me from going insane, when we began to see each other on a regular basis in the early 2000s, a period where my own country, France, was beginning to plunge into the identity politics madness that has virtually swept across the entire planet today, just as anti-Semitism began to rise.
I saw him as I saw New York then: as an escape.
And this is what he remains for me despite the recent changes in American Life.
“Historically Jewish,” as he used to say, Roth was nonetheless the antidote to identity politics—faithful, in this, I believe, to the American dream of a cosmopolitan narrative that made the tearing apart of one’s belonging the key for one’s imaginary re-invention. This America today under siege from the right and the left has lived, I believe, at least in the imagination and in the work of a generation of artists who gave it its shame—among which many were of Jewish background.
But if his books present, perhaps more than any others’, a counterworld to today’s zeitgeist, that is in part because they are artistically demanding, even if fun to read. The saying according to which there is an implicit ethics in every serious work of art—there is no entertainment and the judgments are severe, as Leonard Cohen used to sing—is true at least in Roth’s case: in his total commitment for more than a half century in works of which any given page makes most of what’s published today seem transparent and weak. In the intensity of this commitment reside the ethics and, I would say, the empathy, along with the fight against time and precariousness. It was a form of Resistance.
Chekhov wrote somewhere that, by Tolstoy’s very existence and work, the author of War and Peace had straightened up all the writers of his time—he had made them stand up and work. None of us is Chekhov, but Roth, by his scope as by his moral and literary authority, had indeed something of a Tolstoy—despite his Flaubertian and Jewish irony. Now that Roth is dead, and now that the world seems more than ever to drift toward chaos, we are left with the lesson of his books and of the way he wrote them.
As he wrote in American Pastoral: Let’s remember the energy.
Philip Roth died last night at age 85.