How Philip Roth Weaponized The Idea Of Art Imitating Life

How Philip Roth Weaponized The Idea Of Art Imitating Life

With Philip Roth's death, American letters lost an icon who had as much to say about grand universal themes as he did his personal and Jewish identity.
Hannah Niemeier
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“I could live three hours or I could live thirty years, I don’t know. Time doesn’t prey upon my mind. It should, but it doesn’t,” Philip Roth told The New Yorker nearly 20 years ago, at the height of a successful career as the Jewish community’s most incendiary novelist.

When Roth, 85, died of heart problems May 22 in a Manhattan hospital, he left a small group of friends and family, a shelf stuffed with literary awards, and a reputation as one of the most magnetic authors of the twentieth century.

For more than 50 years, from the Jewish neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey, Roth wrote the biography of a century in a quintessentially Jewish way: by writing the elegy of the very lives and lifestyles he struggled to keep alive through his work. Throughout his career, Roth made art from his tortured fidelity to his home and his people. But he insisted in The New Yorker that his semi‐autobiographies “seem like fiction.” Although often misunderstood, it’s a brilliant tactical move: Roth installed his life in his arsenal.

“I don’t know yet what this will all add up to,” the ever-skeptical Roth said to The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick. “Just get it right, and the rest is the human comedy: the evaluations, the lists, the crappy articles, the insults, the praise.”

Fathers and Sons

The rest is also, despite what he tells us, an almost comical armful of rewards for a life given over to art. Roth’s literary laurels included everything except the Nobel: one Pulitzer (for American Pastoral), two National Book Awards (for Goodbye, Columbus and 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater), three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Franz Kafka prize, and so on. There have been film adaptations, there have been literary emulations (Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2016 “Here I Am” comes to mind), and there has been hero worship of the kind that afflicts his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, in Roth’s best novels.

This straining for freedom from expectations is the central (and often destructive) desire of many of his characters. The sons of the industrious Jewish tradesmen of Newark toil under the moral yokes of the fathers, seeking release and often finding themselves instead, in renunciation.

Throughout his career, Roth played more the loudmouth than the mouthpiece for modern Judaism. Many of Roth’s novels portray explicit sexual themes and perversions of protagonists struggling to become men, the American way. The angry and masturbation-addicted Alexander Portnoy in his breakout novel Portnoy’s Complaint rails, “Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass — I happen also to be a human being!”

Of course, Roth fiercely opposed all religious practice (he was not buried with Jewish rites), and the story doesn’t end well. But then again, earning his manhood wasn’t easy for Roth, either. “I had to squeeze the good Jewish boy out of me drop by drop,” he said.

The Alter Ego

In 1979, Roth introduced his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, whose career is a satire of Roth’s own, in response to his grappling with literary fame after Portnoy. Of all Roth’s stories of adolescence, ambition, loss, and renunciation, it is these two trilogies—his Zuckerman novels and the American trilogy—that trumpet most clearly the rise and fall of Roth the soldier and the storyteller, and proclaim that these stories that need not die with him.

Zuckerman, the son of a Newark insurance salesman and his devoted wife, enrolls years early at the University of Chicago, enters rapturously into the intellectual life, publishes a story in a prominent magazine, and shoots into literary stardom naive, vengeful, and unprepared. These details are not fiction, but the facts of Roth’s early life.

Zuckerman remains with Roth throughout six of his best novels, which mark two distinct stages of his career: the patricide and the jaded veteran. (The libido abides.) Although Nathan’s life follows Roth’s in the first trilogy—The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson—the ego is definitely altered, into a Kafka-esque distortion of his own career. Nathan grapples with fame and loses. He begins in hero worship, proceeds in paranoia as a psycho fan stalks him, abides in infidelity, and ends the first trilogy in drugged self-delusion.

In terms of style and narration, The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound are gems. Roth writes from inside the skin of his protagonist, perhaps because he has run from Zuckerman’s demons: the hero worship, the eventual disillusion, the ambition, the vanity, the desperation, and the despair that pursue the young writer relentlessly. Some passages about Zuckerman’s affairs rival Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov for the often destructive drives of human nature. Roth’s theme is the trial of human virtue (though he would cringe at the word) posed by human freedom.

In contrast to Zuckerman’s defeat, Roth weaponized the way art imitates life. In a mid‐career crisis, he faced sudden fame, a disastrous marriage, and the loss of his health only to return to his work with an almost Herculean focus. By the end of his career, he lived alone in rural Connecticut and wrote seven days a week in a glorified garage, standing at his desk to fend off back pain, until he retired in 2012.

Roth’s motivations mirror Nathan’s in the near‐maniacal, hubristic desire to rebel against the norms of midcentury Jewishness. “Enough science, enough art, enough fathers and sons,” Zuckerman fumes at his father’s deathbed in Zuckerman Unbound, where he hears in the father’s last words a response to the son’s transgressive writing career: “Bastard.” The death of parents is always central, and the mother often martyrs herself for her sons in her attempts to bridge gaps between generations.

Jewish Tragedy

In this way, Roth’s tragedies are fundamentally Grecian. “Pride comes before the fall” could be the man’s mantra. In his sense of the comic within the tragic lives of every one of his heroes and antiheroes, Roth’s themes are comparable to Sophocles — or perhaps Pericles, with his modern funeral oration for a Jewish livelihood rapidly disappearing.

But the novels cannot escape their Jewishness. The fall is inevitable, inimitable, replayed against characters’ wills through the generations of Jewish fathers and sons. Hubris is just another side of strength, and probably of love.

In the American trilogy, comprised of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, Roth’s writing shifts modes, from the battle cry to the elegy. An aged and impotent Zuckerman shuffles behind the writer’s desk with Roth, where he tells the stories of successful Jews who fall from their hard-earned status in society.

In The Human Stain, the tragedy of the professor Coleman Silk’s downfall after he utters a perceived racial slur, Nathan is his reluctant biographer. The story is classic Roth. Silk spends his life in thrall to the ideal of freedom, but isolates himself from the world. And the aged Zuckerman remains Zuckerman. He is a narrator who seems to know too much, who fills in gaps with his own preconceptions and uses his authority to manipulate the story.

Unlike Zuckerman, Roth is aware that his depiction of Jewishness is partial, privileged, and largely confined to the past. Zuckerman is berated by a stalker in Zuckerman Unbound that he doesn’t know Newark at all. Newark is no working-class haven. It’s a slum. You don’t nostalgize about tossing around a baseball with your dad in Newark. You carry a gun.

Roth may claim not to feel time, then, but it bankrupts his places and characters just the same. In Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan tells himself that since the old Jewish families moved to the suburbs, “You don’t come from anywhere anymore.” In The Anatomy Lesson, this matures into the discovery that he has “lost his subject.”

A Full Life of Fanatical Work

Beneath the narrative mastery, the Zuckerman novels are worth reading for this understanding of changing American demographics that can cause generational and ethnic conflict. Why read Roth, if even for him these stories are of a bygone era? Because history has never been so close or so brutally coherent. Because if he’s right, we’re doomed to repeat his mistakes, and we can learn to live well within our own elegies. Because despite the loss of Newark and (he believes) his twenty-first-century reading audience, he kept writing.

Roth challenged his heritage manfully enough to earn his place, paradoxically, as its literary herald. A non-observant Jew, an opponent of religion, an ascetic who writes of “appetites” of acquisition and rebellion that were, in his time, more American than distinctly Jewish, Roth was both throwback and radical, the “good Jewish boy” and his downfall.

Typical of Roth, he was the first to know when his writing life was complete. He let slip in 2012 that he had not written in two years, and did not plan to return to his desk. After more than 50 years of full life and fanatical work, he had done what he had set out to do. He became the only living novelist to have his work anthologized by the Library of America. He gave in—reluctantly—to appointing a biographer, Blake Bailey (the projected release date is 2021, according to an interview in the Times of Israel.)

This is where Roth’s art meets its match—in the life of the author himself.

Hannah Niemeier graduated in May 2018 with a degree in English and journalism. She is the Hilton Kramer Fellow in Criticism at The New Criterion in New York. Find her on Twitter @Hannah_Cristine.

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