Why Write?, the tenth volume of the Library of America’s conspectus of Philip Roth’s oeuvre, is subtitled Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013, and if there is anything regrettable about it, it is that it could not extend to 2017. Roth has declared that, after thirty-one books, he is through with writing fiction, but can’t he give us more of his valuable nonfiction?
At this point, lest it be overestimated, let me state what connection I have to him. I first met him at dinner chez Robert Brustein, the theater critic, at which he was enormously entertaining, making fun of two hapless female writers for The New York Times. Years later, we collided at the counter of Tower Records, paying for our respective purchases. I was short a nickel, which Philip paid for me. When I wondered about how I would be able to reimburse him, and with how much interest, he had a wonderfully comic rejoinder that I regret forgetting.
Still much later, he phoned me. He was supervising a series of Eastern European writers for Penguin Books, and wondered whether I, as a born Yugoslav, might not have some others to recommend. Sadly, I could come up with only a very obvious one, to which he responded in a tone of flagrant condescension.
Roth evokes his early years without either sentimentality or bitterness.
The new book is divided into three sections, entitled: “Reading Myself and Others,” “Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work,” and “Explanations.” In a preface, Roth states that twenty-seven of his books were works of fiction, many of which often elicited accusations of anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred, even from a noted rabbi, asking how to silence this man. His nonfiction mainly served as a response to these accusations.
The first essay is a lengthy, eloquent, and influential tribute to a lifelong idol, Franz Kafka, which Roth wrote after his brief career as a college professor teaching Kafka’s work. Five of the pieces are interviews for Swedish, French, British, Italian, and American publications, including a major one in The Paris Review, left undated for mysterious reasons.
The first section is largely concerned with a Rothian leitmotif: the difference between what his characters say and do and what the author lives and believes.
The section describes growing up Jewish American in a lower-middle-class family in Newark, New Jersey, a district peopled by the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from Russia or Poland. Roth evokes his early years without either sentimentality or bitterness.
There is already the differentiation between schlockmeisters like Leon Uris and Harry Golden and the true artists toward whom Roth gradually gravitates, such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. I particularly enjoy comments like this one on Salinger: “The only advice we get from Salinger is to be charming on the way to the loony bin.” Also, “If you look at a potato long enough, it stops being a potato in the usual sense; unfortunately, however, it is the usual potato that we have to deal with from day to day.” The pieces are presented in a chronological order, allowing us to follow Roth’s development as a writer and human being.
Without constituting much of a drawback, a certain amount of repetition is unavoidable among these pieces. The sentences tend to be long, but not overlong, with two characteristic bits of punctuation: parentheses and dashes, the latter often at the end of sentences, the parentheses anywhere. The idea behind the former is a certain circumspection, as when a statue is viewed from both front and rear; the dashes suggest an actor’s ironic asides.
All sections of the book contain interviews, with Roth equally effective as interviewer and interviewee. We learn a good deal about the likes of Aharon Appelfeld, as an eight-year-old surviving in the hostile peasant–filled forests of Bukovina; or about Ivan Klima and other Czech writers under severe Communist censorship (e.g., Josef Škvorecký is quoted: “To be a bad writer in Eastern Europe, you really have to be bad”); or about the swinging Irish-Catholic Edna O’Brien’s declaring, “By taking on the mantle of religion, sex assumed proportions that are rather far-fetched. It became the central thing . . . the goal”; or, from Mary McCarthy, “Philip Rahv saying that all Gentiles were anti-Semitic”; or in London, with the aged Malamud, “how imposing a challenge [for him] merely pursuing a friendly conversation had become.”
Especially amusing in the last section are the vivaciously vituperative, but basically justified, letters to Wikipedia, correcting their misunderstandings in summaries of just about every Roth work of fiction. Good, too, is “Patrimony,” largely a dry-eyed but heartfelt tribute to his salesman father and other Jewish immigrants, and a rare autobiographical piece, recalling among other things his first schoolboy story, entitled Storm Off Hatteras, which he signed Eric Duncan. “That was the name I chose as befitting the seafaring author of Storm Off Hatteras, a tale of wild weather, a tyrannical captain and mutinous intrigue. . . . There’s little that can bestow more confidence and lend more authority than a name with two hard Cs in it.” Put that in your pipe, Neil Simon, claiming that the K is a comic letter.
To those who question his role as a Jewish writer, Roth answers: “I have never conceived of myself for the length of a single sentence as an American Jewish or Jewish American writer, any more than I imagine Dreiser or Hemingway or Cheever thought themselves [that really should be a singular after those ors] as American Christian or Christian American writers.” And to those who think Portnoy’s Complaint a confession in the guise of a novel, “That it is a novel in the guise of a confession. . . . But a writer is not supposed to make a spectacle of himself, either by shooting off his mouth or by shooting off his semen, and certainly not by shooting off his mouth about shooting off his semen.”
To those who want more autobiography, he replies, “I have nothing to confess and no one to confess it to. As for my autobiography, I can’t begin to tell you how dull it would be . . . it would consist almost entirely of chapters about me sitting alone in a room and looking at a typewriter. [It] would make Beckett’s The Unnamable read like Dickens.”
Nevertheless, we get backward glances, such as this about growing up in Newark’s Jewish neighborhood during World War II: “I was probably a ‘good’ adolescent partly because . . . there was nothing much else to be unless I wanted to steal cars or flunk courses, both of which were beyond me. . . . [I] enjoyed the latitude and privileges accorded to inmates who make no trouble for the guards.”
Then there are his thoughts about his craft: “Sometimes it seems that only the novelists and the nuts carry on this way about living what is, after all, only a life—making the transparent opaque, the opaque transparent, the obvious obscure, the obscure obvious,” etc. “A writer has to be driven crazy to help him to see.” This is a time when “the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture spawned by, of all things, freedom. [Yet] it’s sometimes inebriating that writers really don’t mean a thing to nine-tenths of the population.” Still, “in a society inundated by mass media with falsification of human affairs, serious literature is no less a life preserver, even if society is all but oblivious of it.”
Finally, for Roth, “the terror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.” So then how does he spend his time, now that he has abjured further fiction writing? “Currently I’m studying nineteenth-century American history,” under which rubric he lists historic events high and low, which he enumerates in a lengthy paragraph, concluding with “My mind is full of then.”
Well, might not that yield some memorable speculations? I would hope so. Meanwhile there is Why Write?, a book not for everyone, but surely for readers interested in matters concerning Judaism, literature (such as, for instance, a most useful summary and evaluation of Saul Bellow’s writings, or a discussion with Isaac Bashevis Singer of the tragic, insufficiently known Bruno Schulz), refutations of misinterpretations of Roth’s works and replacement with correct ones. Also some American and European politics, penetrating interviews with various writers, and an abundance of welcome wit.
I trust that the above is sufficient repayment for that lent nickel and whatever interest may have accrued.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 72
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