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In Defense of Philip Roth

Reconsidering the American Jewish icon as a modern master, not a stereotype

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi
December 12, 2016
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Liel Leibovitz’s essay and other writing on Philip Roth is problematic not only because of its tone, but for what it takes for granted. Is it really accepted wisdom, as he assumes, that Roth is a narcissist, which explains why his later “creations” never get the “light and the air they need to let their characters bloom”? It would seem superfluous to argue at this point for greater admiration (or, at least, generosity) toward the writer who has become an American (and a Jewish) icon, decades after he was pilloried in nearly every public Jewish forum. It is precisely because Tablet has become so necessary to American Jewish conversations that I hate to think that, after a lifetime of reading his work, what remains for us is a stereotype. —Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi


Philip Roth: Writing the American Jewish Century

The fictions of Philip Roth debuted in the middle of what has variously been called the “American Century” or the “Jewish Century.” In profound ways they represent the amalgamation of the two—or what I prefer to call the “Jewish-inflected American self.” I am defining “Jew-ish” in Roth’s work as originating historically in the second and third postwar decades and generically in satire. He satirized the speech-intoxicated, God-saturated idiom of urban and suburban humans who happened to be Jews meeting the speech-intoxicated, God-saturated idiom of urban and suburban humans who happened not to be Jews.

The virtues of a long creative life include directional changes. Roth, who was born in 1933 and raised in Newark, New Jersey, came of age in a moment defined by a subtle shift in the American premises of modernity and by extraordinary ethnic and religious porousness. The satire that Roth perfected in the decade from 1959 to 1969 was enabled by the evolution of inventiveness and self-inventiveness as a postwar version of the ever-new enterprise that is America. At the same time, and almost obscured by the comic mode in which they were performed, his early fictions capture a unique “theological” moment in which religious sensibilities converged to unite Christians and Jews in an urban congregation. By the end of the century, however, these impulses had given way to something far more sinister and insular in Jewish culture and in American culture, a process that was, in turn, reflected in generic shifts in the late work of this writer who has been both a barometer and a beacon of his time and place.

I will not attempt to recapitulate here the myriad attempts, friendly and hostile, to define Philip Roth’s Jewish project. The moment is long past, and well documented, when this young writer, following on the heels of—and enabled by—Henry Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Daniel Fuchs, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud, loudly announced the advent of the first generation of native-born American Jews, even as he himself balked at the label “Jewish writer.” Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had had his own English debut in 1953 through Saul Bellow’s masterful translations, was the poster child for what Roth was not doing. In an interview for The Paris Review in 1968, Singer both dismissed and reinforced the conundrum: “To me there are only Yiddish writers, Hebrew writers, English writers, Spanish writers. The whole idea of a Jewish writer, or a Catholic writer, is kind of far-fetched to me. But if you forced me to admit that there is such a thing as a Jewish writer, I would say that he would have to be a man [sic! ] really immersed in Jewishness, who knows Hebrew, Yiddish, the Talmud, the Midrash, the Hasidic literature, the Cabbala, and so forth. … If in addition he writes about Jews and Jewish life, perhaps then we can call him a Jewish writer, whatever language he writes in. Of course, we can also call him just a writer.”

The whole idea of a Jewish writer … is kind of far-fetched to me. Roth’s readers, who came of age (and aged) along with the author and his characters, can hear him riff on that statement, wondering if “far-fetched” is a Yiddish word. The point is that hearing it that way makes it Jewish and, more important, makes it quintessentially American; the ears have it in America’s chorus of accented voices. What Roth’s generation lacked in Jewish literacy, they made up for in Jewish orality—and American freedoms.

What Singer does not acknowledge, although he was the beneficiary of its larger implications, is that “the American Adam” can make a virtue of not knowing “Hebrew, Yiddish, the Talmud, Midrash, the Hasidic literature, the Cabbala and so forth”; that his birthright is not bartered at the price exacted from his Eastern or Central European counterparts; and that his freewheeling pen may add a significant American shelf to the Jewish library. The reasons for this may be manifold, but they boil down to one: “only in America” is the question of identity up for grabs. And, one might add, only in America can that transaction be carried out in the comic mode.

The Newness of This New World

America has always been, at least for people of the white persuasion, the country most hospitable to the fictions of self-invention—the place where invention and self-invention are foundational principles. It is also the country that most reveres the material world: facts on the ground; the surface itself, not the treasures and traces buried in its depths. Facticity rhymes with self-invention when human acts of manufacture produce things or objects that have the same ontological weight as the facts of nature. The celebration of the natural and of the manufactured world in Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson spilled into the twentieth century and into the critical realism of Theodore Dreiser, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates. Young Jewish writers (e.g., Bellow & Co.) were seasoning their fiction with ironic distance and wit, but it was Philip Roth who, nearly single-handedly, would nudge the fictions of “real life” into a fully realized, Jewish-inflected comic mode.

Looking back on his own career at the celebration of his eightieth birthday in Newark, New Jersey on March 19, 2013, Roth chose to recount a number of details from his life that peppered some six decades of his fiction. He told his audience:

In my defense … I should insert here that remembering objects as mundane as a bicycle basket was a not insignificant part of my vocation. The deal worked out for me as a novelist was that I should continuously rummage around in memory for thousands and thousands of just such things. Unlikely as it may seem, a passion for local specificity—the expansive engagement, something close to fascination, with a seemingly familiar, even innocuous, object like a lady’s kid glove or a butcher shop chicken or a gold-star flag or a Hamilton wristwatch … [-a passion] for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing. Without strong representation of the thing—animate or inanimate—without the crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing. … It is from a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life, it is from the force of its uncompromising particularity, from its physicalness, that the realistic novel, the insatiable realistic novel with its multitude of realities, derives its ruthless intimacy.

In the first decades and again in the late middle decades of the twentieth century, Jewish-accented prose converged with the “scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life” and with the comedy of American self-invention to affirm what is also profoundly modern (in the sense of being perpetually in-the-moment): America as by definition the embodiment of “the new.” In the preface to his republished classic, The Puritan Origins of the American Self, Sacvan Bercovitch wrote: “The newness of this New World defied, indeed reversed, the common-sense meaning of new. … [In other colonial histories, one finds] that New France, New Spain, and New Amsterdam were new in the sense of replica, imitation, or offspring. Even when they condemned the effects of conquest, they promoted the social structures and belief systems of the ‘parent country.’ [Cotton] Mather, on the contrary, describes a venture destined to supersede a corrupt Old World. … His New England opens a new stage in world history.”

Here Comes Everybody Jewish

It is not that the Jews in the literature we are considering do not live in an echo chamber with voices from the “parent country.” But it is the people themselves, and not an inherited culture or cult, that nourish their narratives. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Roth addressed a class of Columbia University students who were reading Operation Shylock, which had been published in 1993. Responding to the inevitable interrogations about the autobiographical basis of his fiction, Roth positioned himself implicitly as a writer who is both rooted and cosmopolitan, though (unlike Singer) it is primarily his characters’ ethnic identity—loosely defined—that roots him in the same way that, for example, Joyce’s characters are rooted: “Every Jewish exigency, pain, and antagonism flows through ‘Roth,’ ” he told the students, referring to the narrator/character who is often mistaken for the author himself. “In Finnegan’s Wake, there is the character Humphrey C. Earwicker, who sleeps with absolutely everything flowing through his mind, and Joyce uses the initials H.C.E. as ‘Here Comes Everybody.’ Well, in Operation Shylock you have ‘Here Comes Everybody Jewish.’ Leon Klinghoffer. Jonathan Pollard. Menachem Begin. Meir Kahane. All these names were passing through the collective Jewish brain at the time, and I wanted to get inside the Jewish mind.”

One might note that a major difference between Joyce and Roth is the fluidity of identity in America as compared to Ireland, about which more below. What is common to the fictions of these two writers is the exuberant flaunting of communal norms and the price exacted for such transgressions in the public forum. David Remnick, who accompanied Roth to the Columbia classroom in preparation for a profile of the author, comments that from the beginning of his career, Roth’s “project” was “much the same” as it would be in mid-career, when he wrote Operation Shylock: “writing about Jews.” When his stories began to appear in 1958–1959—first in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Commentary; then as a collection in Goodbye, Columbus; and, ten years later, as a strident psychoanalytic monologue in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)—the ethnic minority that had been granted pride of place in the postwar and post-1948 years as the culturally hungry, sharply ironic, but always morally sincere remnants of a martyred people or as valiant young nationalists fighting for their collective existence found themselves exposed as humans with bodies, erotic fantasies, lots of appetite, and the dirty laundry that is the physical evidence of appetite. Just when that cohort of Jewish writers had succeeded in creating what was coming to be regarded as a compelling “regional” literature, defining the cultural landscape alongside the fictions of the American South and the cities of America’s Midwest and Eastern Seaboard, just when Jewish intellectuals like Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, the Trillings, and the Bells were engaged in earnest conversation about the nature and permeability of the boundaries of Western Civilization, their fine intelligence going so far as to embrace the naughty shenanigans of the young author of Goodbye Columbus, Roth would put the whole project at risk by publishing his most transgressive novel—about which more later.

But the view from the end of the last century affords Remnick a longer perspective upon a career that outlived all that, shifted gears several times, and was, in retrospect, licensed by many ambient voices—Faulkner’s as well as Bellow’s, the cognoscenti at the University of Chicago as well as the housewives and Hebrew school tyrants in Newark, New Jersey. But most importantly, Roth exploited the permission granted his own generation, defined by Remnick as “steeped in America, in its freedom and talk, its energies and superabundance.”

The Talking and the Shouting

There is a certain place where … every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest. —Grace Paley, “The Loudest Voice,” 1959

The license was in the first place verbal (and here again the parallels with Irish orality and transgressive speech are inviting) and in the second, comic—what Remnick calls “verbal robustness, people talking, being terrifically funny.” In an earlier interview, with Hermione Lee (1984), Roth referred to Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator /character who appears in many of Roth’s fictions and has often been identified as the author’s alter ego. “Zuckerman’s struggle with Jewishness and Jewish criticism is seen in the context of his comical career as an American writer, ousted by his family, alienated from his fans, and finally at odds with his own nerve endings,” Roth said. “The Jewish quality of books like mine doesn’t really reside in their subject matter. … It’s a kind of sensibility that makes, say, The Anatomy Lesson Jewish, if anything does: the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the playacting—above all the talking. The talking and the shouting. … The book won’t shut up … won’t leave you alone. I knew what I was doing when I broke Zuckerman’s jaw. For a Jew a broken jaw is a terrible tragedy. It was to avoid this that so many of us went into teaching rather than prizefighting.”

Roth was not alone in this jawspace, but neither was there much of a crowd—in fact, there was only one other fiction writer. Perhaps because she was a woman breaking into the men’s club, Grace Paley’s voice was louder and more worried and her ears sharper and more easily distracted. Born in 1922 and raised in the Bronx, Paley claims her “other ear” was recruited “to remember the street language and the home language with its Russian and Yiddish accents, a language my early characters knew well, the only language I spoke. Two ears, one for literature, one for home, are useful for writers.”

Paley’s medium was domestic comedy that would be translated by the alchemy of kitchen and conscience into political action—while raising the children and divorcing or recombining with their fathers. Roth’s comedy was evolving into something else: social satire with speech itself as its medium, a hyperbolized transcription of ambient speech that collided or coincided with voices from the radio and from the library. Many of Roth’s fictions are narrated by “talking heads” whose own stories are more or less central to the development of the narrative. There hardly exists a narrative authority in Roth’s work outside of the heads—and speech patterns—of his characters. Speech is the primary trace of identities that were otherwise fully negotiable.

Acts of Impersonation

“I am an American, Newark born,” is the way a Philip Roth character might have paraphrased Augie March’s inaugural leap onto the literary stage in the eponymous novel by Saul Bellow. But these authors, like most of their characters, are also Americans, Jewish-born. What multiple particularities enabled and what Roth realized to the fullest was not a clash of identities but an amalgamation of cultural possibilities. American identity emerged in the second and third postwar decades as a meeting ground of cultures that were themselves in flux—although the process began, of course, well before World War II. “America, I love you. If I didn’t hear an accent every day, I’d think I was in a foreign country,” says Molly Goldberg in her own Yiddish-and-Bronx-accented speech, which was amplified from 1929 to 1946 through hundreds of thousands of Philcos in homes like that of Herman and Bess Roth. When Augie appeared in 1953, paving the way for Eli (the fanatic), Neil (the romantic), Sgt. Nathan (defender of the faith), Ozzie (the theologian), Epstein (the philanderer), and finally Alex (the neurotic), American identity was already being performed in fiction as a series of hyphenated but nonessentialized possibilities: Jewish-American, Italian-American, Chinese-American, and Spanish-American. (African-American has taken longer, and indelible traces of the ongoing struggle are exposed in Roth’s late novel, The Human Stain, which preceded Barack Obama’s election by only eight years.) But this process depended on two other forces that had converged in the years of Roth’s apprenticeship: the reaffirmation of an American landscape that had been deeply affected, but not physically devastated, by World War II, and the reclamation of an heirloomed Jewish comedy.

If the first generation of postwar Jewish writers had produced a torrent of morally earnest cultural gestures, tinged by European melancholy or pathos as well as redemptive American empathy (Edward Lewis Wallant, The Pawnbroker; Malamud, The Assistant) and neurotic Jewish energy ( Bellow, The Victim), the task for the next generation of ambitious, self-ironizing Jewish writers was not only to make their parents laugh again—at the world and at themselves—but to recover inherited comic impulses from under the ruins of the European Jewish catastrophe. They didn’t have far to dig to find the sources that had fed Jewish comedy in America in the first half of the century: before Charlie Chaplin had been inducted into the honorary Jewish Hall of Fame by Hannah Arendt, even before the Marx Brothers and the Borscht Belt comedians, Sholem Aleichem had arrived in New York in 1914 and transformed an Ashkenazi Jewish tic into an American muscle. Taking the practice that he had perfected in his European fictions of affirming a God-superintended universe—teleology as comedy—by turning history on its head, Sholem Aleichem authorized a particularly American brand of Yiddish humor that celebrates the surface world. In the novel Motl Pesi dem Khazns (Motl the Cantor’s son), published serially between 1907 and the author’s death in 1916, American technology—the subway, the elevated—and economic promise—from pushcart to department store—replace the luft gesheftn of the shtetl. Jewish comedy thus moves from an act of faith and wishful thinking to a celebration of the created and the manufactured universe. And, anticipating and enabling his successors, Sholem Aleichem performed this celebration mainly through speech acts.

Starting over for these Jews meant that a lack of familiarity with the abandoned culture was not, then, a liability, despite the nostalgia that would come later. Unlike the immigrant generation, who had actively to jettison their cultural baggage to embrace this new identity, their children were raised in this amnesiac condition defined as an invitation to a costume ball. Invention and inventiveness stretch in the comic mode to radical acts of mimicry and impersonation. America is the place where, as Motl, the eternal nine-year-old, says, “every day is Purim.”

No one took advantage of the comic opportunities of self-invention, of unencumbered encounters with the ambient cultures, more than Philip Roth. Even when Nathan Zuckerman is the anchor, his longevity embraces many twentieth-century Jewish incarnations, among them the young writer serving his apprenticeship at the feet of a Great Arbiter of the Great Books and falling in love with the woman he presumes to be the Greatest Martyr of all ( Jewish) time, Anne Frank ( The Ghost Writer); the brash young writer nearly crushed by the titans of literary criticism ( The Anatomy Lesson); and the “secret sharer” and recorder of another man’s drama ( The Human Stain). Finally, in Exit, Ghost, Nathan, himself aged and physically compromised, is reunited, briefly, with his “Anne Frank” (Amy Bellette) who is even more heir than he to the depredations of the flesh. There are other characters who tip over from impersonators into impostors—in the comic mode (“Philip Roth” in Operation Shylock) and in the tragic mode (Coleman Silk in The Human Stain). “My hero,” the Real Philip Roth explains to Hermione Lee, “has to be in a state of vivid transformation or radical displacement. ‘I am not what I am—I am, if anything, what I am not.’ … Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift. … Concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise.”

The Urban Congregation

As it turned out, something even bigger was at stake than the pleasure of disguise: in 1959, Philip Roth’s and Grace Paley’s inaugural stories transformed the American theater of impersonation into an urban congregation. In “The Conversion of the Jews” and “The Loudest Voice,” respectively, they brought the conciliatory tools of comedy into sacramental space. Both narratives convert elementary schools into cathedrals where new inclusive sacraments are forged of old and mutually exclusive materials. And both focus on the studied naiveté of the child whose faith surpasseth dogma.

In Paley’s story, the venue is a red brick public school, the official religion Protestant, and the dominant “demographic” Jewish. Shirley Abramowitch, who has the Loudest Voice, recites Jesus’s lines in the school Christmas pageant in which the Savior, Marty Groff, “wearing his father’s prayer shawl,” is strung up to die but wrenches free, supplanting the sacrificial-redemptive narrative of Crucifixion and Resurrection with a comic narrative of Christian-Jewish reconciliation.

In Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” it is Hebrew school that serves as the unlikely venue for the sacramental act. Rabbi Binder tries to inculcate Jewish skepticism of Christian dogma in the minds of pre–Bar Mitzvah boys who would rather be outside playing baseball. One little boy, however, is listening, and when the Rabbi emphasizes the absurdity of Immaculate Conception, Ozzie Freedman objects: “If God could create the heaven and the earth in six days, and He could pick the six days He wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse?” Rabbi Binder accuses Ozzie of impertinence and summons his mother to a meeting. At the next class, Ozzie tries to coax Rabbi Binder’s theology into a more capacious place: “ ‘Then, Itz,’ ” he tells his friend, “ ‘then he starts talking in that voice like a statue, real slow and deep, and he says that I better think over what I said about the Lord …’ Ozzie leaned his body towards Itzie. ‘Itz, I thought it over for a solid hour, and now I’m convinced God could do it.’ ” Finally, when all his scholastic strategies have been exhausted, Ozzie shouts at Rabbi Binder: “You don’t know anything about God!” for which he gets a smack on the face—and runs up to the roof of the school. At the denouement, when all the congregation—his fellow Hebrew school pupils, Rabbi Binder, Yakov Blotnik, the janitor with the mark of Auschwitz on his arm, his mother and the municipal fire department—are assembled in the courtyard below to see if he will jump; when his mother shouts up to him, “Ozzie, come down. Don’t be a martyr, my baby” and the pupils chant in chorus, “be a Martin, be a Martin!” Ozzie forces everyone to their knees. He has them proclaim the following doxology: “Tell me you believe God can do Anything.” Then: “Tell me you believe God can make a child without intercourse.” And finally, the catechism: “You should never hit anybody about God.”

The “Conversion of the Jews,” with its rich resonances from Jewish lore, Christian dogma, English poetry and, most significantly, the accommodative legacy of Conversos who were among the first Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam, becomes, like “The Loudest Voice,” a tale less of conversion than of convergence of Jews and Christians, transforming the supersessionist narrative into one of comic amalgamation. When she gets ready for bed, after successfully declaiming her lines in the school pageant, Shirley Abramowitch gets down on her knees. “I made a little church of my hands, and said, ‘Hear O Israel …’ Then I called out in Yiddish, ‘Please, goodnight, good night. Ssh.’ My father said, ‘Ssh yourself,’ and slammed the kitchen door. I was happy. I fell asleep at once. I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passersby, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard. My voice was certainly the loudest.”

The urban congregation that Roth and Paley forged out of the good materials of midcentury America will be realized in the streets a few years later when Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King join hands and march on Selma in the name of human freedom and dignity.

A Moment of Infinite Possibility

Sacramental moments matter, but they do not last. What happened next in the American Jewish Century as written by Philip Roth was that the comedy of impersonation and acts of spiritual convergence tipped over into full-fledged satire. In order for satire to work, characters have to be sufficiently grounded in their identities to be distillable as familiar stereotypes. This begins in the novella Goodbye, Columbus, where Neil Klugman and the Patimkin family, whose daughter Neil is courting, like their tennis courts and their well-stocked refrigerator (sans herring in cream sauce!), are caricatured versions of icons well-planted on the landscape of nouveau riche America. As are the lawn rocks that suburban Jews paint pink in “Eli the Fanatic,” or the kvetchy communitarians who expect tribal favors in “Defender of the Faith.” But these are nothing compared to the satiric bite of Portnoy’s Complaint—which ostensibly parodies the Jewish family and Jewish angst but whose real work, as Bernard Avishai argues, is the parody of the psychoanalytic conversation itself—and whose real object of satire is the analysand Alexander Portnoy himself. “As a result of his fearlessness and bravado,” Remnick writes, “of his aversion to a pious literature of virtue and victimhood, [ Roth’s] public reputation began with scandal, distortion, and a wound. It was a modest scandal at first, and then became the sort of full-scale storm that may well be looked back upon as a curious relic.”

Most of the studies of Roth’s fiction over the years have indeed focused on the scandal, distortion, and wound that the author inflicted on his readers and that they in turn inflicted on him through their gatekeepers: rabbis, of course, mothers and women generally, but also some of his most respected colleagues and former supporters, chief among them Irving Howe.

Satire, which was not widely performed in twentieth-century America, is the very thing that Howe, in his devastating “reconsideration” of Roth’s work in Commentary in 1972, insisted Roth was not doing. “The nature of good satire,” Howe wrote, is “not at all to free oneself from the obligation to social accuracy. … If it can be shown that the targets of the satirist are imprecisely located or that he is shooting wild, the consequence may be more damaging than if the same were shown for a conventional realist” (emphasis mine). ( It is highly unlikely that Howe, who holds Jonathan Swift up as the satirist who defines the genre, can have forgotten “A Modest Proposal,” which shot more wildly and was more imprecisely located than the most acerbic of Roth’s stories.) Howe then goes on to argue that Roth falls short even within the purview of Jewish satire, “a substantial tradition extending in Yiddish from Mendele to Isaac Bashevis Singer and in English from Abraham Cahan to Malamud and Bellow.” This is a rather unfortunate list of largely lugubrious writers who occasionally venture into the comic mode; the only one who really qualifies as a satirist is Mendele Mokher Seforim ( S. Y. Abramovitch), whose biting satires compete with Roth’s not only for their sting but also for the fury they evoked in their readers.

The likelihood that Aristophanes was taken to court, despite his wealthy patrons, and the documented evidence that Swift was roundly attacked on many occasions add some perspective to the symbolic gallows on which Roth was strung up in numerous journals and synagogues in America. The most famous opprobrium of Portnoy’s Complaint came from Jerusalem, where Gershom Scholem compared the novel to the Nazi propaganda machine that would be eventually used (again!) as “testimony” in a worldwide trial of the Jews. The second was Howe’s: “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice,” he writes in “Roth Reconsidered”; “the controlling tone of the book is a shriek of excess, the jokester’s manic wail.” But perhaps the most telling sentence in Howe’s screed was this: “Some literary people … could almost be heard breathing a sigh of relief, for it signaled an end to philo-Semitism in American culture, one no longer had to listen to all that talk about Jewish morality, Jewish endurance, Jewish wisdom, Jewish families. Here was Philip Roth himself, who even seemed to know Yiddish, confirming what had always been suspected about those immigrant Jews but had recently not been tactful to say.” Howe here ignores all the young Jewish readers and “literary people” who, finally given the license to laugh again—at the world and at themselves—were breathing the deepest sigh of relief.

As if to nail home the point that those who miss the satire may end up in the bull’s-eye, Roth’s response came in the form of a thinly disguised roman à clef in which Nathan Zuckerman is a young writer who has just published the novel Carnovsky and Milton Appel is the famous critic who, in the journal Inquiry (!), writes the “unkindest review of all.” Zuckerman, by turns devastated and furious, retorts: “He doesn’t find me funny … well, I never set myself up as Elie Wiesel.” Impulsively calling his nemesis on the phone, Zuckerman says to him: “I’m a ‘case,’ I have a ‘career,’ you of course have a calling. Oh, I’ll tell you your calling—President of the Rabbinical Society for the Suppression of Laughter in the Interest of Loftier Values! Minister of the Official Style for Jewish Books Other than the Manual for Circumcision.”

Roth’s satiric writing continued well into the next decades. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, through The Counterlife (1986) and Operation Shylock (1993), Roth became America’s—and American Jews’—most trenchant satirist. He also, willy-nilly, led the postmodern conundrum over fact and fiction by providing mischievously contrived counterlives and counterhistories. Yet something changed profoundly as the writer matured. Clifton Spargo goes so far as to claim that Roth actually internalized Howe’s criticism and reinvented himself as a writer of realistic fiction and, in his late narratives, as “perhaps the most accomplished American novelist of his generation.” And he has won all the prizes—including the National Book Award (1960, 1995), the Pulitzer Prize (1997), and the Man Booker Prize (2011)—that reward such prominence. I would go even further to argue that after Roth’s satire had done its work, liberating something deep in the American Jewish psyche that desperately needed to be liberated, he was indeed free to move into other realms and modes of American fiction. Although satiric elements persist in all his late novels, the vision has veered toward the tragic and even beyond. But it was the country itself that was moving, along with its Jews, away from that magical moment of infinite possibility.

Tragedy and Beyond

By the end of the century, the comedy had run its course. The acts of impersonation that each of Roth’s early characters had engaged in were indeed masquerades after which, presumably, they would return to (a more complex version of ) who they were: Eli trying on the clothes of the Orthodox Holocaust survivor in Woodenton is not about to join a yeshiva in Boro Park (“Eli the Fanatic”); Ozzie chanting the doxology of the Virgin Birth is not about to take communion; even Alex will, we must believe, walk out of his analyst’s office and reclaim his battered but responsible adult identity as Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York ( Portnoy’s Complaint). The only character who is stuck with his assumed identity is Coleman Silk, a light-skinned African American passing as a Jew—which, in this case, means passing as a white man. Finally, Coleman Silk and the Jewish satire of impersonation tip into tragedy and Silk pays the ultimate price.

Indeed, if we look more closely at Roth’s late novels—what have been called his “American Trilogy” (American Pastoral [ 1997 ], I Married a Communist [ 1998 ], and The Human Stain [ 2000 ])—we can see that they actually constitute a generic shift from satire to tragedy. It seems that Roth had found parallels to the turbulence of the end of our millennium in the tragic dramas of fifth-century B.C.E. Athens and in the tragic fictions of nineteenth-century America.

By turning to tragedy, Roth also seemed to round out the twentieth-century history of the American novel, updating the project that Theodore Dreiser had undertaken a hundred years before. In 1892, as a young journalist, Dreiser had observed “a certain type of crime in the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially.” Although, unlike Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy ( 1925), Coleman Silk doesn’t murder anyone in order to achieve his social position, The Human Stain is, in nearly all its elements, a latter-day appropriation of classical tragedy in which the “major act” of the protagonist’s life becomes what Silk himself calls “something enormous,” triggering the eventual “intersection” with “fate.” The Human Stain announces itself explicitly as tragedy: opening with an epigraph from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the novel is set on the campus of a college called Athena, and the main character, Coleman Brutus Silk, is a professor of Latin and Greek. And that is only the beginning.

And yet something does not quite fit. There is a point late in this novel that invites the question: How should this novel end? Of course the careful reader knows how it must end, because exigencies of form and convention, and all the Sophoclean breadcrumbs that the narrator has strewn along the path, dictate that the two main characters, Coleman Silk (now a seventy-one-year-old disgraced dean) and Faunia Farley (a thirty-four-year-old illiterate cleaning woman), who had found an unlikely joy in each other’s presence, will meet a sudden and violent death. “The tragic hypothesis,” writes Thomas Pavel, “presents the image of a universe in which the possible chains of actions are drastically limited: compactness and closure meet the tragic heroes.”

So, if the struggle between fate and freedom, between closure and porousness, is between Athens and New York, has Athens finally won? Or is Coleman playing Oedipus just another grand act of impersonation as egregious as a black man passing for white? Maybe this American tragedy is itself a parody of the cathartic grandeur and cohesion of Greek drama, signifying something else? Maybe in “retiring” his comic muse, Roth was signaling, on the cusp of the millennium and the eve of the collapse of the Twin Towers, a profound resignation to the inexorability rather than the open-endedness of history, to what Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator, calls the “stranglehold of history that is one’s own time … the terrifyingly provisional nature of everything”? And maybe in so doing, Roth—and Nathan—were making a horrible pronouncement on the civilization that they had been chronicling (and celebrating) for half a century. This connects us again to the role of Jews in Roth’s fiction.

Roth’s stories and novels had always inhabited that comic realm where life was a series of endlessly possible inventions. The tragic genres “affirm the authority of existence and proceed in a mimetic mode that elevates what is,” writes Terrence des Pres, whereas “the comic spirit “proceeds in an antimimetic mode that mocks what is. … [The tragic] quiets us with awe. Laughter revolts.” From his earliest naughty appearances on the scene, Roth was read as the revolting writer who had exploded Jewish pieties and exposed and shaped the Jewish comedy of the American twentieth century. But that may have been the means and not the end of his literary project. Given the protean character of the Jews themselves as they made their way from pushcarts on Delancey Street to terminals on Wall Street, they had provided the perfect canvas on which endless flights of fancy could take place, the perfect site for fiction. But there was another place on the Jewish map that defied fiction.

Operation Shylock and the crazy “diasporist” manifesto at its center—the plan of the impostor “Philip Roth” to resettle all the (Ashkenazi) Jews of Israel in Europe to spare them the murderous wrath of the Arabs—were as much about real versus imagined space as they were about territorial options for solving the Jewish problem. But this was also the premise in the other fictions that had Israel as one of their geographic-existential poles: Portnoy’s Complaint, The Counterlife. Life in the diaspora is life in fiction; life in Israel is life in “fact.” Americans, as we have seen, revere facticity in its plasticity. In the diaspora you could create an infinity of counterlives, whereas Israel—like the Hebrew language—is REAL. In the early stories in Goodbye Columbus and in Portnoy’s Complaint, history as comedy is endless promise, endless beginnings; Portnoy’s Complaint ends, after all, with the psychoanalyst Dr. Spielvogel speaking his only line: “Now vee may perhaps to begin, yes?” In Operation Shylock, the diaspora-based writer or narrator can still “slip silently out of the plot,” Houdini-like. In The Human Stain, however, as in Israel, the inexorability of the tragically real renders this impossible.

As the century waned, it became clear that Roth was painting on something larger than a Jewish canvas, that tribal loyalties and even the Israel/diaspora divide had become background or local color for something more consequential. If Coleman Silk wants to become a Jew, it is because the Jew has become a mainstream American—though with enough of an edge to make him interesting.

Toward the end of The Human Stain, as fate closes in on them, Faunia dances for Coleman, her elderly lover. “Keep dancing,” Coleman tells Faunia. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” asked W. B. Yeats in “Among School Children” (1928). There is, in fact, a lot of Yeats in late Roth, who is in this moment, like his Irish predecessor, a “sixty-year-old smiling public man.” Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzan-tium” ends with: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is; and gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.”

When Faunia finishes dancing, the “artifice of eternity” ends and the clock of tragedy starts up again. However, it is not the catharsis of hubris but expiatory acts of sacrifice and purging that come into play here. In the novel’s epigraph and the last chapter, the “purifying ritual” invites blind Nemesis to work its way through to a hideous end.

Actually, even at this point there are several possible endings that this story tries on, like a Haydn symphony—including a comic version. But the reason the story can’t go on is that Roth himself seems to have lost faith in what comes next, in what Nathan calls “America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving”—faith in the plot itself. Capitulation to the “rite of purification,” primitive precursor of tragedy, amounts to relinquishing the most precious American resource, the future tense—a loss of faith in America, whose very self-definition is embedded in time as a meliorative process, an open-ended plot.

The novella Nemesis, which appeared in 2010, reinforces this move by explicitly naming this unknowable agent of human fate (here in the form of the polio bacillus). Unlike the moral freedom of former acts of impersonation, Nemesis has fateful consequences for the unwitting protagonist and all who come in contact with him.

Is it the times or a writer’s particular time that bring such dire pronouncements? Indeed, like America, Roth in his comic mode was the perpetual child or, at most, the precocious or whining adolescent. “America was created for children,” said Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, in that moment early in the last century when everything seemed possible. That is no country for old men.

The ultimate emblem of this relinquishing of the future while gesturing to the artifice of eternity is the frozen pond covering the river’s flow at the end of The Human Stain. Coleman’s sister Ernestine begs her brother Walt not to excommunicate Coleman, but to see him “historically … as part of something larger.” Instead, Walt “froze everything in time. And that is never a good idea,” she tells Nathan.

Nathan is on his way to the Silk family home when he sees the vehicle of Vietnam veteran Les Farley, who is ice fishing after—Nathan is certain—having killed his ex-wife Faunia and her “Jew.” At the edge of the frozen field, Nathan admits that he is “unable to just keep on going,” and so he ends with a static pastoral scene that effectively effaces the plot.

Les on the hilltop is, then, the “artifice of eternity” as the foreclosure of history. The inexorable work of Nemesis supplants the open-endedness of comedy, the utopian vision that drives dystopian satire and even the cathartic vision of tragedy. This millennial move mimics a sinister development in the contemporary Hebrew political imagination that has moved from the comic-utopian faith in an eternally deferred messianic future to apocalyptic anxiety that would hasten the Messiah and reinstate sacrificial, cultic worship (“purifying rituals”) and exclusive claims to territory and truth.

All we are left with is the ecstasy of the present moment frozen in time, this one dance, one picture of a solitary fisherman atop an Arcadian mountain in America. It is a lot. It is the ultimate consolation of every art form, though the story must always exist in time and unfold with some of life’s desperate promise and sorry logic. But, even if his last fictions are cameos of a “dying animal,” Philip Roth has done his work, which is now seared in our flesh.


Excerpted from Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders, and the World They Made edited by Jacques Picard, Jacques Revel, Michael P. Steinberg, and Idith Zertal. © 2016 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Sidre DeKoven Ezrahi is Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has been visiting professor at Duke, Princeton, Yale, Michigan, and Dartmouth.

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