Roth, Philip 1933–
Roth, Philip 1933–
(Philip Milton Roth)
Born March 19, 1933, in Newark, NJ; son of Herman (an insurance manager) and Bess Roth; married Margaret Martinson, February 22, 1959 (died, 1968); married Claire Bloom, April 29, 1990 (divorced, June, 1994). Education: Attended Rutgers University, Newark, 1950-51; Bucknell University, A.B., 1954; University of Chicago, M.A., 1955, additional study, 1956-57.
Home—CT. Agent—Jeffrey Posternak, The Wylie Agency, 250 W. 57th St., Ste. 2114, New York, NY 10107.
Writer. University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, instructor, 1956-58; visiting lecturer, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1960-62, and State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1967-68; Hunter College, City University of New York, distinguished professor, 1989-92. Writer-in-residence, Princeton University, 1962-64, and University of Pennsylvania, 1965-80. Military service: U.S. Army, 1955-56.
American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phi Beta Kappa.
Aga Khan Award, Paris Review, 1958; Houghton Mifflin literary fellowship, 1959; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1959; National Book Award for fiction, 1960, and Daroff Award, Jewish Book Council of America, both 1960, both for Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories; Guggenheim fellowship, 1960; O. Henry second prize award, 1960; Ford Foundation grant in playwriting, 1965; American Book Award nomination, 1980, for The Ghost Writer; National Book Critics Circle nomination, 1983, and American Book Award nomination, 1984, both for The Anatomy Lesson; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1987, and National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, Jewish Book Council, 1988, both for The Counterlife; National Arts Club Medal of Honor, 1991; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1992, for Patrimony; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 1993, for Operation Shylock; Karl Capek Prize (Czech Republic), 1994; National Book Award for fiction, 1995, for Sabbath's Theater; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1998, for American Pastoral; Ambassador Book Award, English-Speaking Union, 1998, for I Married a Communist; W.H. Smith Literary Award, 2000, National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, Jewish Book Council, 2000, and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, PEN/Faulkner Foundation, 2001, all for The Human Stain; Gold Medal for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2001; Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, National Book Foundation, 2002; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination and Society of American Historians prize, both 2004, both for The Plot against America; PEN/Nabokov Award for lifetime achievement, 2006; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, PEN/Faulkner Foundation, 2007, for Everyman; PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, 2007.
Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1959, published as Goodbye, Columbus, 1989, reprinted under original title, New Modern Library (New York, NY), 1995.
Letting Go (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1962.
When She Was Good (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1967.
Portnoy's Complaint (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1969, reprinted, 2002.
Our Gang (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1971, published with a new preface and revised notes by the author, Bantam (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted as Our Gang: Starring Tricky and His Friends, Vintage (New York, NY), 2002.
The Breast (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1972, revised edition, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982.
The Great American Novel, Holt (New York, NY), 1973.
My Life as a Man (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1974.
Reading Myself and Others (nonfiction), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY), 2001.
The Professor of Desire (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1977.
The Ghost Writer (novel; also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979.
A Philip Roth Reader, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1980.
Zuckerman Unbound (novel; also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1981.
The Anatomy Lesson (novel; also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1983.
(Adaptor, with Tristram Powell) The Ghost Writer (television play; based on Roth's novel), Public Broadcasting System, 1984.
Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue (includes The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson with epilogue "The Prague Orgy"), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1985, republished, Library of America (New York, NY), 2007, published as The Prague Orgy, J. Cape (London, England), 1985.
The Counterlife (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1986.
The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.
Deception (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990.
Patrimony: A True Story, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1991.
Operation Shylock: A Confession, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.
Sabbath's Theater (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
American Pastoral (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
I Married a Communist (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
The Human Stain (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.
The Dying Animal (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
The Plot against America, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.
Novels & Stories, 1959-1962 (contains Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories and Letting Go), Library of America (New York, NY), 2005.
Novels, 1967-1972 (contains When She Was Good, Portnoy's Complaint, Our Gang, and The Breast), Library of America (New York, NY), 2005.
Novels, 1973-1977 (contains The Great American Novel, My Life As a Man and The Professor of Desire), Library of America (New York, NY), 2006.
Everyman, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
Exit Ghost, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2007.
Founding editor of Penguin book series "Writers from the Other Europe." Contributor of short stories to anthologies and articles to periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, New Yorker, Commentary, and Paris Review.
Goodbye, Columbus was adapted for film by Arnold Schulman, directed by Larry Peerce, Paramount, 1969; Portnoy's Complaint was adapted for film by director Ernest Lehman, Warner Bros., 1972; The Human Stain was adapted for film, directed by Robert Benton, Mirimax, 2003. Three of Roth's short stories were adapted for the theater by Larry Arrick and produced as Unlikely Heroes. Several of Roth's works have been adapted as audiobooks.
Philip Roth established himself among leading twentieth-century American authors through his careful scrutiny and biting satire directed at post-World War II America. As Washington Post Book World contributor David Lehman noted: "At the top of his game, Philip Roth is our Kafka: a Jewish comic genius able to spin a metaphysical joke to a far point of ingenuity—the point at which artistic paradox becomes moral or religious parable." In these parables—from Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, through Portnoy'sComplaint and the Nathan Zuckerman novels, to Sabbath's Theater and Operation Shylock: A Confession—Roth has continued to explore Jewish family life in the city and the conflicted characters that it creates. Neil Klugman, Alexander Portnoy, Zuckerman, Mickey Sabbath, and even Philip Roth are among the memorable characters Roth has created to pursue his themes.
In addition to the acclaim he has received for his writing, Roth has gained a measure of notoriety for his blurring of fact and fiction. The author draws much of his literary material from his personal experiences, but then alters the facts to fit the story he wants to tell. Because of their close ties with their author's life, Roth's books have invited much speculation about what is truth and what is invention. As Lehman stated: "A master illusionist, Roth is adept at fooling the public into thinking that the outlandish fantasies in his fiction must reflect autobiographical fact." But, Tobias Wolff explained in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, this is just what Roth wants: "Roth's purpose in all this is not merely playful or cantankerous; what he means to do, and does, is make the strongest possible case for fiction's autonomy by suggesting and then repudiating its connection with ‘the facts.’ It's a nervy, sometimes hilarious, now and then exasperating performance; his road of excess doesn't always lead to the palace of wisdom. But it often does."
The importance of Roth's childhood memories growing in Depression-era Newark, New Jersey, and in a first-generation Jewish community become evident in Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. The title piece, a novella, gained the most acclaim for the then-twenty-six-year-old author. The story examines the relationship between Neil Klugman, a lower-middle-class Newark native, and Brenda Patimkin, a product of the burgeoning postwar Jewish nouveau riche. The depiction of the Patimkin family as boorish creatures of leisure infuriated some critics and impressed others with its candor. Goodbye, Columbus was in fact the first of many Roth books to be castigated from synagogue pulpits. "To be sure, Roth was hardly the first American-Jewish writer to cross verbal swords with the ‘official’ Jewish community," pointed out Sanford Pinsker in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "But Roth's book brought the antagonisms to a rapid boil. Granted, no social critic has an easy task. The ‘glad tidings’ he or she brings us about ourselves are never welcome, and, quite understandably, offended readers go to great lengths to prove that such writers are morbidly misanthropic, clearly immoral, merely insane—or, as in Roth's case, all of the above." The flood of criticism aimed at Goodbye, Columbus did not stem the book's popularity, though. Several critics praised the new voice in American fiction, and the collection went on to win the National Book Award in 1960.
The two novels that followed Goodbye, Columbus—Letting Go and When She Was Good—did not receive the same attention afforded Roth's debut. Yet any doubts about Roth's ability to both attract and shock his audience were quelled with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint. Variously described as "the work of a virtuoso" by Robert Fulford in Saturday Night and as "a desperately dirty novel" by Saul Maloff in Commonweal, the novel thoroughly divided readers and remains the work most closely associated with its author. Conflict and repression punctuate the book's story about a young Jewish man's infatuation with Gentile girls and his constant state of war with his overbearing mother. "Portnoy's Complaint was a literary hand grenade perfectly suited to the explosive decade that produced it," observed Bob Thompson in the Washington Post Book World. "A comic, hyperbolic howl of protest against oppressive authority … the novel limned its protagonist's sexual obsession with a profane fluency that obscured an undercurrent of pain."
The theme and plot of Portnoy's Complaint are sometimes seen as taking a back seat to the book's sharply drawn characters, particularly the iconographic Jewish mother Sophie Portnoy—who, with a long bread knife in her hands, seems a castrating vision—and Sophie's son, Alex. In another Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, Jeffrey Helterman compared protagonist Alex Portnoy with the hero of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man: "Like Stephen Dedalus, Alexander Portnoy yearns for freedom from the repressive laws of his youth—and like Dedalus, Portnoy feels love as well as revulsion for that youth. In Portnoy's case, the laws are those of Jewish domesticity imposed by a mother whose domineering exterior hides a mass of guilt and fear. Her rules—… beware of polio, don't fool around with shiksas [Yiddish for Gentile women], don't feel innocent when you can feel guilty—are the manifestation of a classic superego."
Portnoy's frustration with his situation is manifested in his constant masturbation, described in graphic detail by Roth. The depiction of what some critics dubbed "onanism" became a major point of contention and helped earn the novel charges of pornography. Furthermore, the author's continuing satiric examination of Jewish-American life sparked further debate within that ethnic and religious community. As Pinsker described it: "The anti-Roth crusade that the rabbis began with Goodbye, Columbus turned into a full-scale suburban war" with Portnoy's Complaint.
Some of the criticism aimed at Portnoy's Complaint centers on the book's tone. As Fulford wrote: "In one crucial way [the work] is a disappointment. On first reading I was caught up in Roth's brilliance and audacity. [But on further readings,] I discovered that the jokes were funny only once, that the situations quickly lost their freshness." "Though the satire in Portnoy's Complaint is generally first-rate, the book hardly ever rises to irony," noted Anatole Broyard in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920-1970. "Irony requires dimension, the possibility of grandeur, and what we have here is a series of caricatures. Father, mother, sister, mistresses—even Portnoy himself—each has one act, one shtik."
To Pinsker, Portnoy's Complaint "is simultaneously a confessional act and an attempt to exorcize lingering guilts. His is a complaint in the legalistic sense of an indictment handed down against those cultural forces that have wounded him; it is a complaint in the old-fashioned sense [of] an illness … and, finally it is a complaint in the more ordinary, existential sense of the word." As such a confession, Barry Wallenstein, writing in the Catholic World, noted that the novel "strikes deeper, pleases on more levels and … seems truer than all of Roth's previous books." Irving H. Buchen, writing in Studies in the Twentieth Century, called Portnoy's Complaint "a great book, not because of its passing off a strain of Judaism as all of Judaism, and certainly not because of its unsympathetic and unfair attack on parents; but rather because it is a passionate, honest and comprehensive portrait of a man and generation in anguish." Patricia Meyer Spacks in the Yale Review also found that Portnoy's complaint is not confined to the Jewish-American experience. "Portnoy sees his own problems as products of his Jewishness, but readers are not obliged to share his view." Instead, she noted that readers "are invited to understand the suffering and the comedy of modern man, who seeks and finds explanations for his plight but is unable to resolve it, whose understanding is as limited as his sense of possibility, who is forced to the analyst to make sense of his experience."
The next few years brought a trio of Roth novels that ranged from the acerbic to the slapstick to the experimental. Our Gang, a biting indictment of the Nixon administration, features a president called Trick E. Dixon and a cabinet that is remarkable for its ability to use language to confound the citizens it is supposed to be serving. Next came The Breast, a novel influenced by Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the story of a man who turns into a cockroach. In Roth's experimental version, however, a professor is turned into a six-foot female breast. More satire followed with The Great American Novel about a long-ago baseball league, the Patriot, and its assembly of motley teams.
In The Dying Animal Roth continues with the story of David Kepesh, the protagonist in both The Breast and The Professor of Desire. Now age seventy, Kepesh is a lecturer at New York College who long ago abandoned his wife and child and is notorious for sleeping with his students. In The Dying Animal Kepesh recounts his affair eight years earlier with a former Cuban student named Consuela. Kepesh also takes time to reminisce about his earlier life and family and to comment on American culture, the sexual revolution, and the relationship among love, pleasure, and freedom. Although Kepesh supposedly "loves" women, Lisa Allardice, writing in the New Statesman, pointed out that "there is little room for love in Roth's nihilistic vision. It is only when Consuela, cruelly punished for the youth and beauty that so tormented the ageing Kepesh, has been brutally desexualised by breast cancer that he can finally see her as a human being, not just a great pair of tits."
Knight Ridder/Tribune contributor Christopher Kelly noted that, at times, The Dying Animal seems like "a dirty book with pretensions," but went on to add that "in the last thirty pages of this slim volume, Roth offers up a brilliantly written examination of coming to terms with one's own mortality." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman commented that "Kepesh may be selfish and manipulative, but Roth has imbued him with profound integrity and blazing intelligence—his riffs on sexual politics and the inanity of mass culture are not to be missed." Noting that the novel is not among Roth's best, Nation contributor Keith Gessen nonetheless praised The Dying Animal as "remarkable for its fealty to the ground Roth has always worked. It cedes nothing, apologizes for nothing; it deepens, thereby, the seriousness of all his previous books."
Besides Portnoy's Complaint, Roth is most often noted for his series of novels featuring protagonist Nathan Zuckerman. While the novelist has denied that the Zuck- erman stories are autobiographical, "it may be fairly added that though The Ghost Writer is not in any literal sense a roman à clef, certain personal traits are unmistakably caught—not in full portrait, of course, but in broad strokes, a gesture here, a tone of voice there, a turn of mind everywhere," noted Maloff. Certainly some details about Zuckerman parallel Roth's life. Zuckerman is in his mid-twenties when the book opens in the 1950s, as Roth was; he is a struggling writer from Newark, as Roth was. The Ghost Writer finds Zuckerman seeking an audience with the venerable, reclusive novelist E.I. Lonoff (who "strongly suggests Bernard Malamud," says Maloff). He has strong personal reasons for wanting to see Lonoff, as Helterman explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: "Zuckerman seeks a surrogate father because his own father, a well-meaning, loving podiatrist, has refused to see the aesthetic virtues in Zuckerman's story ‘Higher Education,’ which uses an old family quarrel to show grasping, greedy Jews." Given the rare privilege of an invitation to Lonoff's Berkshire farmhouse, Zuckerman also meets Lonoff's neglected wife and another house guest, the mysterious Amy Bellette, with whom Zuckerman falls in love. Parts of the novel involve Zuckerman's fantasies about visiting his estranged father and presenting Amy as his bride.
In a Village Voice article, Eliot Fremont-Smith praised The Ghost Writer as Roth's "most controlled and elegant work. It is serious, intelligent, dramatic, acutely vivid, slyly and wickedly funny, almost formal in its respect for theme, almost daredevil in ambition, and almost wrenching so close it hurts." Writing in Commentary critic Pearl K. Bell found the book unsatisfying and noted that by the end of the story, the book "seems rather thin, … because it promises an intellectual and moral range which it does not wholly attain. Roth seems reluctant to engage himself fully with the demanding question he asks in many different ways throughout the novel: must life be sacrificed to art, in the uncompromising manner of a Lonoff?" Still other reviewers found the novel to be a work rich in meaning and value. The novel, said Washington Post Book World contributor Jonathan Penner, "provides further evidence that [the author] can do practically anything with fiction. His narrative power—the ability to delight the reader simultaneously with the telling and the tale, employing economy that looks like abundance, ornament that turns out to be structure—is superb. He is so good in this book that even when he's bad, he's good."
A "comedy about fame and its discontents," as James Wolcott described it in Esquire, Zuckerman Unbound finds Roth continuing the Zuckerman saga several years later. At this point Zuckerman has become famous—and infamous—for his "dirty" opus Carnovsky, a book that bears a resemblance to Roth's own Portnoy's Complaint. "Not that the novel is at all straightforward autobiography," noted Nation reviewer Richard Gilman. "Roth is too much the artist for that. But there is something disingenuous about his attempt wholly to dissociate himself from his protagonist." Zuckerman Unbound "is in part an account of Nathan's struggle to accept the consequences of his eclat, to feel justified in having become so flashingly eminent," Gilman continues. "He's totally misunderstood, feels himself unreal. Strangers address him as Carnovsky, his book's protagonist."
Zuckerman faces more dilemmas in this sequel: Alvin Pepler, a fellow Newark native, has latched himself onto Zuckerman and makes his life miserable by constantly lamenting the loss of his brief fame on a game show because he did not fit the all-American image. Zuckerman sees a parallel between Pepler's bitterness and his own. As Isa Kapp pointed out in the New Republic: "While their speech is different, victim [Zuckerman] and victimizer [Pepler] are psychological birds of a feather, preening their egos and brooding over their good name." Zuckerman Unbound offers many other turns for Zuckerman. His marriage is in a shambles and his resentful father dies. The father's last word to his rebellious son is a mystery: "Vaster? Better? Faster? Could it have been bastard?," recounted Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Elaine Kendall.
"Zuckerman is almost a latter-day Emma Bovary, his life disrupted not by reading about desire, but by desiring to write," explained Edward Rothstein in the New York Review of Books. "He is a victim, bound by fictive yearnings. He could ask, ‘Did fiction do this to me?’ just as David Kepesh did after he turned into a giant breast in Roth's Kafkaesque fable. Does Zuckerman, only slightly less constricted by his desires, know how bound he is? How is Zuckerman unbound?" Chicago Tribune Book World reviewer Bernard Rodgers noted that Zuckerman Unbound "offers its readers the all too infrequent joy of watching a master storyteller at the height of his powers practice his craft."
"When Zuckerman Unbound appeared, … it was widely assumed to be Nathan's farewell to his past and [Roth's] farewell to his alter ego Nathan. But Roth had [more] in mind," reported Gary Giddins in the VillageVoice. The third installment of the Zuckerman saga soon appeared, titled The Anatomy Lesson. Now in the early 1970s, the forty-year-old Zuckerman suffers from untreatable back pains and decides to give up the literary life to become a doctor. He enrolls in the University of Chicago medical school, but "the decision restores his creative urges in an unfortunate way," according to Time contributor R.Z. Sheppard. "He buttonholes strangers with wildly obscene monologues describing himself as Milton Appel, a no-holds-barred pornographer. Appel is the name of Zuckerman's nemesis, a leading literary critic who once branded Carnovsky and its author vulgar and demeaning." (Those readers following the roman à clef elements in the "Zuckerman" books will note that Irving Howe wrote a 1972 Commentary essay sharply critical of Roth's writings.)
Again the consequences of art on the artist's life is a theme of Roth's novel The Anatomy Lesson. The novel "isn't necessarily dependent on the earlier novels for plot elements; it can be read—if not fully savored—on its own," Giddins wrote. "Yet the trilogy gains irony and gravity from the manifold ways in which the three volumes interlock. In Zuckerman Unbound Roth succumbed to Walter Brennan Syndrome and gave the best and funniest part to a supporting character, … Alvin Pepler; Nathan's plight paled by comparison. The Anatomy Lesson redeems its predecessor, putting the middle volume and Nathan in perspective, and highlighting themes only sketched the first and second times around. It clarifies Roth's ambivalence about Nathan."
In The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson, Roth has created his "most complex and structurally satisfying work," concluded Sheppard. The novel trilogy "is a disciplined string ensemble compared with Portnoy's Complaint, which had the primal power of a high school band. Yet Zuckerman and Portnoy have close ties. Both star in comedies of the unconscious, burlesques of psychoanalytic processes whose irreverence and shocking explicitness challenge the pieties that protect hidden feelings." In 1984 the novels were published together as Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue. Here, Roth adds an epilogue, "The Prague Orgy," in which Zuckerman is bound for Czechoslovakia. This episode finds the novelist in the birthplace of Franz Kafka, where he tries to obtain a rare Yiddish manuscript. What he finds is such a degree of artistic and personal repression that he begins to reevaluate his own priorities in life.
Roth's next Zuckerman book, The Counterlife, follows the critical self-examination of his hero, this time contrasted to those of his brother, Henry Zuckerman (also known as Sherman Zuckerman in a previous incarnation). Henry, a solidly middle-class dentist, husband, and father, who has never forgiven Nathan for the sins of Carnovsky, faces the choice of heart-disease-related impotence or a life-threatening operation to cure the defect. In the first section of the novel, "Basel," Henry undergoes the operation, but does not survive it. However, in the second part of The Counterlife, "Judea," Henry has survived, left his family, and joined up with a fanatical Zionist. Writing in the New Yorker, John Updike commented: "In the fourth chapter, it is Nathan who has the heart problem, the impotence, and the mistress called Maria. In pursuing these variations, the virtuoso imaginer rarely falters; satisfying details of place and costume, beautifully heard and knitted dialogues, astonishing diatribes unfold in chapters impeccably shaped, packed, and smoothed. No other writer combines such a surface of colloquial relaxation and even dishevelment with such a dense load of intelligence."
A bit more skeptical about The Counterlife was Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who, in his New York Times review, noted that in the knockabout nature of the work and the shifting characters among the Zuckerman clan, "it's as if the novelist were saying, since I can make you believe in anything, the ultimate challenge is to make you believe in nothing. So we learn to count on nothing. Yet the novel pays a price for sabotaging its own reality. We become so aware of the narrative's duplicity that all that is left to us is the burden of the author's self-consciousness as an artist and a Jew." But to Richard Stern in the Chicago Tribune Books, the plot twists in The Counterlife constitute an enjoyable look at a fiction writer at work: "an equivalent of action painting. Then there is the delight of liberation. … The claustrophobia which oppresses so many self-reflexive novels—novels about themselves—isn't here because Roth's worldly intelligence, satiric power, gift for portraiture, milieu, scene and action, are too strong to be mesmerized by technical discovery. If the writer has a measure of Tolstoyan worldliness in him, he will not have to pay the price of being caged by the techniques of exhibition." The critic concluded that the author "has made another remarkable advance in his illustrious career."
As with The Counterlife, Roth's best-selling novel Deception is also somewhat experimental. This time, the author explores the relationship between fiction and reality by writing an ambiguous tale about a struggling Jewish writer's diary. The journal recounts the protagonist's conversations with his lover, but when his wife discovers the diary and confronts him with it he tells her it is only a writing exercise. The problem of the novel then becomes a question of what is truth and what is falsehood, a subject that allows Roth to address the more general issue of the relationship between all authors and their work. Esquire contributor Lee Eisenberg praised Deception as still another successful effort by a talented author: "A good case, I think, can be made that Philip Roth will be one of those whose books will live well into the next century…. Some of [Deception] is funny, some of it is angry, some of it is wise. As always with Roth, the writing has perfect pitch."
In Sabbath's Theater Roth returns to the issues he confronted in Portnoy's Complaint, only this time the protagonist is not a young man but an old man whose failures set him on a quest toward suicide. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Richard Eder described Mickey Sabbath as a literary descendent of Portnoy. "Here, full-fledged, repellent, fascinating, and fearfully long-winded, is the offspring: Mickey Sabbath, a former puppeteer, an obsessive white-bearded seducer and a reverse alchemist who consistently turns the gold of human possibility into the lead of a mono-maniacal ego." Sabbath has lost his first and second wives, his lover, and his jobs, but in the end he does not choose suicide. Eder concluded: "Roth, who cannot make his protagonist immortal and probably does not intend to, has made him interminable."
Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, noted that a "plodding pursuit of defiance lends Sabbath's Theater a static and claustrophobic air, resulting in a novel that's sour instead of manic, nasty instead of funny, lugubrious instead of liberating." Kakutani also faulted the book for not going beyond the egocentrism of its main character: "The novel fails to open out into a larger comment on society or our shared experience of mortality: Sabbath remains such a willfully selfish character that his adventures become a kind of black hole, absorbing rather than emitting light." Doron Weber of the Boston Review conceded that the novel's theme of old age and growing impotency is not new. "But," added Weber, "this theme is handled with more lyrical energy, greater sexual frankness, and, simultaneously, sharper comedy and deeper seriousness than usual." William H. Pritchard observed in the New York Times Book Review that "Roth's genius for juxtaposing impressions, feelings and names that usually don't belong together continually enlivens the narrative. His extraordinarily active style revels in the play of words." Weber's final evaluation of Sabbath's Theater was that it is "a striking and original work which shows a major American novelist renewing himself with a darkly complex, comic masterpiece."
Roth garnered the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral, the story of a Newark Jew, Swede Levov, who realizes considerable success and contentment only to see his life undone by his imbalanced daughter. According to New York Times Book Review contributor A.O. Scott: "Swede's trajectory is tragic. Fate has raised him high in order to see how far he might fall. He contains traces of Job—his fidelity to America tested by brutal and arbitrary misfortune—and also of Lear, snakebit by one of the most floridly and obscenely ungrateful children in all of literature." American Pastoral, observed Commentary essayist Norman Podhoretz, serves as evidence that Roth's "entire outlook on the world had been inverted." For Podhoretz, that inversion involves Roth's attitude towards both middle-class Jews, who had often served Roth as a ready target for ridicule, and those fellow members of the Jewish intelligentsia who mocked the Jewish middle classes. But in American Pastoral, Podhoretz asserted, "it was the ordinary Jews … who were celebrated—for their decency, their sense of responsibility, their seriousness about their work, their patriotism—and here, for once, those who rejected and despised such virtues were shown to be either pathologically nihilistic or smug, self-righteous, and unimaginative."
I Married a Communist may have been prompted by the critical depiction of Roth in Leaving a Doll's House, a memoir by his ex-wife, renowned actress Claire Bloom. The story concerns a radio actor whose life is undone by his own ex-wife's caustic memoir. The hero of I Married a Communist is Ira Ringold, whose decline is recalled by his brother, Murray, and related to Roth regular Nathan Zuckerman. Murray tells how Ira clashed with his wife's daughter and how he suffered from blacklisting after his vengeful former spouse exposed him as a dutiful communist. Murray adds that Ira plotted his own violent revenge until his weapons were taken from him. The novel ends with what New Leader reviewer Marck Schechner called a "starry coda" that finds Zuckerman gazing into the heavens and contemplating a world free of betrayals and deceptions.
Schechner deemed the novel "striking" and affirmed that it "contains some gems of character analysis and a high-amp prose that pulls us in no matter what indecen- cies Roth happens to commit." Paul Gray, meanwhile, wrote in Time that Roth's handling of his material "is constantly mesmerizing." Somewhat less impressed was John Derbyshire, who wrote in the National Review that I Married a Communist is "not a bad novel, as novels go nowadays," then decried the novel's nostalgia for 1950s leftism. "The book's problem is one of attitude: the assumption that we all share the sentiments of the Old Left," Derbyshire contended. "Not a fondness for Communism … but a gnawing, unsleeping, undiminished, everlasting hatred of anti-Communism." Nation reviewer John Leonard characterized the novel as "a rant," while New Republic critic James Wood regarded the book as "only an essay about politics, and a rather conventional one."
A more generous assessment of the novel came from New Statesman reviewer Stuart Barrows, who called I Married a Communist an "uneven work" but conceded that the novel's concluding pages are "as moving as anything [Roth] has written." Podhoretz, who deemed the novel "one of Roth's less successful books," concluded his Commentary essay by speculating that "perhaps the best is yet to come from Philip Roth." Podhoretz contended that Roth "will only be able to mine the full lode of riches … within him if he can finally summon the courage to ‘let go’ altogether of the youthful habits of mind and spirit … [that] keep him from digging into the depths that are … so full of potential reward for him and for the literature of this country."
The Human Stain is the third novel of the trilogy composed of American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. The novel relates the story of Coleman Silk, a married professor living in a New England college town. Forced from his job by accusations that he made racist comments, Silk falls into an affair with the college's janitor. As attention falls on Silk's deeds, none know that he holds an even greater secret. A contributor for Publishers Weekly described the ending as "exquisitely imagined" and Roth as "at the peak of his imaginative skills." "Roth is a serious writer who has never been somber in print; his narrative voice is unique, and so is the way he consistently wrings slapstick comedy out of the tics and obsessions of his characters," observed Gray. "No one else writing today has been more amusing or more enlightening."
In The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography and Patrimony: A True Story, Roth makes a startling change in course from the semiautobiographical to the autobiographical. In a New York Times interview with Mervyn Rothstein, Roth explained how his depression following surgery led to his writing The Facts: "I began to write these memoirs as a way of facing something other than my difficulties…. And I wrote myself out of a serious depression." But many reviewers of The Facts, which covers Roth's life from childhood to the late 1960s, question the verity of its contents because of Roth's use of a complicating literary device. He begins the book with a letter to Nathan Zuckerman asking for advice about the manuscript, and at the end of The Facts Zuckerman replies in a letter that, in essence, tells Roth to stick to fiction. "I think the epilogue-rebuttal in The Facts is the truest and most revealing autobiography he's ever written," Roth's friend, Ross Miller, remarked to Thompson.
Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times asserted that, given "the author's acute awareness of confessional narrative's manipulativeness and unreliability, Roth has no purpose other than irony in calling this highly ambiguous portrait of his youth The Facts." But Roth contradicts this notion when he tells Rothstein that he used the Zuckerman letter only to pose the question of whether life's problems are more poignantly addressed through fiction or nonfiction: "My impulse is to problematize material. I don't like when it sits flat on the page. I like when it's opposed by something else, by another point of view." Some critics, like Joseph Coates of the Chicago Tribune Books, recognized that what "Roth says here is undoubtedly true, but the nonaggressive thrust of his argument [with Zuckerman] rings false." Washington Post Book World contributor D.M. Thomas believed that the author's portrayals of the people in his life "lack dramatic vitality in their presentation."
In contrast, many critics consider Patrimony to be, as Wolff asserted, "one of Roth's very best" books. A recounting of the final months of Roth's father's life, Patrimony does not so much as mention any of his alter-ego characters, "neither is there any slight of hand blurring the line between literature and life," stated a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Robert Pinsky also commented in the New York Times Book Review that "the self-portrait in this book is more rounded and less self-conscious than in" The Facts. Chronicling his father Herman's physical decline caused by a brain tumor, the book counterpoints this illness "at almost every turn by startled self-realization on the part of his son," wrote Sven Birkerts in the Chicago Tribune Books. The gap that had been created between Roth and his father when Roth came of age is bridged during these last months of Herman Roth's life, and the book becomes, according to Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley, not "a dirge for the departed but … a celebration of living."
Critics widely praised Patrimony for its frank and unsentimental portrayal of a parent's gradual death. Yardley asserted that the author "deserves both praise and gratitude for meeting death head-on." "Roth," Birkerts similarly wrote, "has looked past all comfort and condolence to find the truth—about himself and his father; about death and the fear of it; and about the absolute vulnerability to which love condemns us all." Roth's tribute to Herman Roth, related Kakutani in the New York Times, is "a way of preventing his father ‘from becoming ethereally attenuated as the years went by,’ a way of turning yet another chapter in his life into a book."
In his two autobiographical books and the novel Deception, Roth oscillates between his real and imagined worlds. However, in Operation Shylock, he offers up his most convoluted examination of the blurred line between fact and fiction, creator and created. He represents Operation Shylock as a true story, just as its subtitle suggests. Instead of denying that the book is thinly veiled autobiography, he embraced its origins as such in interviews and book signings. The book tells the story of writer Philip Roth who, after recovering from the side-effects of some medication, discovers that a man in Israel is posing as Philip Roth, the writer. Roth—the real Roth—goes to Israel where he encounters the impostor, various figures involved in the Arab- Israeli conflict, and the trial of John Demjanjuk, the retired Cleveland auto worker who was charged with having been "Ivan the Terrible," a notorious S.S. guard at the Treblinka concentration camp during World War II. Roth is enlisted by Israeli intelligence to complete a spy operation known as "Shylock." Along this twisting and turning journey, Roth touches upon many current issues. The book "blends the idea of the double (from ego psychology and gothic literature) with the idea of codependency (from contemporary psychobabble)," observed Lehman. As Harold Bloom explained in the New York Review of Books: "The hypocracies and brutalities of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians emerge with frightening vividness in Operation Shylock, which nevertheless balances the hypocrisies and brutalities with a sense of the Israelis' desperation for survival. What emerges from Roth's novel is the terrible paradox that Israel is no escape from the burdens of the Diaspora."
Despite Roth's assurances and the book's connection to the events of the day, critics argued that Operation Shylock is not a confession, and is not autobiographical. Roth himself gives weight to this when he concludes the book with the liar's paradox, writing: "This confession is false." As a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed: "The plot is like a house of mirrors; the narrator and his fraudulent twin impersonate each other with dizzying speed, which allows Roth to present the reverse side of every argument his characters make. He deliberately courts shock value: the events he depicts are both comical and horrible, often simultaneously." Roth's story outside his story, most critics concluded, was yet another look at imagination and reality. Bloom maintained: "What fascinates about Operation Shylock is the degree of the author's experimentation in shifting the boundaries between his life and his work." Jenny Turner commented in the London Review of Books: "Much of the material Roth has gathered into the Shylock bundle … is nothing short of stunning: fiction fulfilling one of its most honourable roles as a series of thought-experiments, giving voice to tangled, emotionally overdetermined ideas and theories that somebody somewhere is bound to be thinking anyway, and which are safer tried out in a novel than unleashed in their inchoate form on the world outside." Bloom commented: "A superb prose stylist, particularly skilled in dialogue, he now has developed the ability to absorb recalcitrant public materials into what earlier seemed personal obsessions."
In Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work, Roth presents readers with conversations he has had with some of the greats of European literature, including Primo Levi, Milan Kundera, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The book also includes a piece about Roth's friend the painter Philip Guston and homages to Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. Although Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor David W. Madden found the title somewhat misleading because the book does not focus on the craft of writing, he noted that "Roth discusses Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Judaism, as well as politics and the media, as banes and inspirations for creativity." Paul Evans, writing in Book, commented: "Throughout this slim but provocative volume, Roth himself is consistently engaging, whether he's meditating on the work of two interesting Czech writers, Aaron Appelfeld and Ivan Klima, or reminiscing about his mentors, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow."
During his career Roth has expanded his fact-fiction mix beyond the parameters of his own life to the political consciousness of his generation in I Married a Com-munist. He expanded it still further in The Plot against America, an historical fiction that takes place in the World War II era. In Roth's novel, famed pilot Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Instead of urging America's participation in the war, President Lindbergh pacifies German chancellor Adolph Hitler and, as a result, has American Jews fearing for their lives. As pointed out by Book contributor Andrew Hearst, Roth continues to be "as prodigious as ever." The critic added: "Roth still has a lot of nerve and courage."
In his compact novel Everyman, Roth examines loss, loneliness, and mortality. Roth's unnamed narrator—whose funeral opens the work and whose death on the operating table ends it—recounts the events of his seemingly conventional life: his career as an advertising man, his three failed marriages, his stormy relationships with his children, and his numerous medical "interventions." According to New Yorker critic Claudia Roth Pierpont, "the hungry backward glance is what this book is all about," adding: "Roth's Everyman is not imperceptive or naive but helplessly under the spell of mortality: no radical insights, no celestial harmonies, only an unrelenting awareness of unalterable mistakes, an amalgam of bad conscience, gratitude, memory, and longing." Though Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, stated that Everyman "often reads like a laundry list of complaints about the human condition," Publishers Weekly critic Sara Nelson observed that the novel "is an artful yet surprisingly readable treatise on … well, on being human and struggling and aging at the beginning of the new century." "Triumph, in Roth's view, involves not rising from the grave or avoiding the grave, but giving everything its due before the end comes: physicality, sensuality; the decency of work, affection, grief, remorse; the dirt our buried bodies displace and the near-transcendent power of memory," noted Christian Century reviewer Todd Shy. "Roth is a savage elegist, and Everyman is a moving, even wrenching book to read."
Roth returns to the character of Nathan Zuckerman in Exit Ghost, which harkens back to his award-winning novel The Ghost Writer. Now seventy-one and living in self-imposed exile due to a prostate condition, Zuckerman heads to New York to consult a doctor about a new surgical procedure. Once there, he encounters Amy Bellette, the companion and muse of his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, as well as a vivacious young woman who rekindles his sexual desires and a brash young writer who wants to pen Lonoff's biography. "As usual, Roth's voice is wise and full of rueful wit," observed a critic in Publishers Weekly. Brad Hooper, writing in Booklist, stated: "This novel of renewal inevitably becomes a tale of acceptance of one's irreversible descent into oblivion."
"In my life I have had, in total, a couple of months of these completely wonderful days as a writer, and that is enough," Roth told Guardian interviewer Martin Krasnik, adding: "You know, it's a choice to be occupied with literature, like everything else is a choice. But you quickly identify with the profession. And that's the first nail in the coffin. Then you struggle across the decades to make your work better, to make it a bit different, to do it again and to prove to yourself that you can do it."
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