There’s something Shakespearian about the grasp of Philip Roth’s fiction.
By Harvey Blume
My first exposure to Philip Roth came through Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read, not long after it appeared in 1969, with my mother. We both thought it hysterically funny. We were not getting along terribly well at the time and in a sense cracking up at Roth established a sort of truce, at least a sense of shared madness. The Vietnam War was raging, the draft threatening, Nixon was president. Whatever sex acts Alexander Portnoy perpetrated upon a liver seemed if not quite adorable than innocent by comparison.
But I shouldn’t over-politicize the pleasure we got from the novel. At this distance, my mother’s cackling as she read the book reminds me of my grandmother’s cackling at the works of Sholem Aleichem, which she reread often in Yiddish. This is not to claim that Roth was influenced by Sholem Aleichem, only to suggest that he had the ability to activate a vein of humor in my family at least that could survive immigration and war.
I paid attention to Roth only sporadically after Portnoy, going back for his brilliant collection of stories Goodbye Columbus but then put off by the literary maze he built around himself — Zuckerman, Roth, Roth, Zuckerman — in which it seemed he wanted both to attract attention and to deflect it. How very much of the zeitgeist that seemed, and how all too clever. Of course, given the furor created by Portnoy — including death threats for what seemed to some Jews to be quasi-Nazi calumny — it was not hard to imagine why Roth might want to duck into disguise. He had every right, as I did not to follow him there.
It was only when reading and reviewing his The Plot Against America that I could see what had been happening behind the strobe lighting, how all along Philip Roth had been maturing into an astonishing writer. My impression of The Plot Against America was confirmed by reading its immediate precursors — American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000).
There was nothing particular funny about these novels, in which he shed humor as if it had all along been another disguise. In the trilogy and The Plot Against America he established himself at a depth no other American novelist attained and sustained — certainly not Bellow, Mailer (who needed to switch from fiction to get anywhere close), and let me add, Robert Stone, who is too often dropped from the list of the best writers of that generation.
In these works Roth rose beyond his contemporaries to merit comparison with the best of world literature, not excluding Shakespeare and Tolstoy.
Which makes it all the more humorous that the Nobel Committee managed to avoid giving Roth his due —that same group of generally dumbfounded worthies who managed to put off saluting Doris Lessing until she was almost gone, not that she was waiting for their recognition. And now, of course, the Nobel Committee is being consumed by its own sexual scandal. There will be no award for literature this year — physics yes, fiction no — possibly two in 2019, or, maybe, as per latest announcements, none until “public squabbling” ceases and the Swedish Academy emerges from the fever of its scandal.
I am sure I’m not the only one thinking it is the curse of a neglected Philip Roth that is posthumously exacting a fine cackle of revenge on the bedeviled academy.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.