World Literature

Philip Roth: The American writer who shouldn’t need the Nobel to be read the world over

With another American having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Roth may have a long wait.

Back in graduate school, I had a neurotic Jewish friend. Everybody deserves a neurotic Jewish friend – it’s a most superbly wonderful thing to have. My deal was sweetened by the fact that my friend, Dan T Seiler, also had that other magical Jewish appendage, a sense of humour, and sweetest of all, for me anyway, he was a writer. He wrote fiction just like I did. So there was much write-sharing, and not a little perverted outpouring of testosterone on ink, gross man-boyish laughter over our Freudian Id-life under the woman-dominated English graduate programme where we were, truth be told, conscientious feminists.

Dan was from Poughkeepsie, New York. A few of us visited his house once. Scenic American suburban town next to a wide Hudson river. Dan’s mother and stepfather lived in a cottage-like house where Dan’s perpetual angst about lagging behind in life – never reclaiming his heyday at Yale – seemed to acquire a kind of naturally artificial respite.

Yale reminds me that I haven’t said the best part yet. We were in graduate school at Rutgers (clearly a step down from Yale), so the habitat of our friendship was central New Jersey. Dan lived on campus in New Brunswick, and I had my studio apartment in Highland Park. The first thing you must know about Highland Park is that it has an Eruv, or a symbolic wall drawn around it by an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi so that within the town, residents can carry objects during the Sabbath.

You heard Hebrew on the road, and perhaps the occasional Yiddish as well. It was the proverbial East Coast Jewish suburban town with all the toppings, including, most memorably, the divinest bagel place I’ve ever experienced in my life. Their “Everything bagel” with their own shopcrafted cream cheese was to die for.

The grapes of Roth

A couple of years before that, as a fresh, bewildered Calcutta transplant to suburban Ohio, I had discovered delightful refuge in the best kind of paranoid Jewish humor – that quintessential New Yorker, Jerry Seinfeld. In the rabbinical town of Highland Park, NJ, Dan gave me a copy of Goodbye, Columbus, an engrossing constellation of narratives about that classic Jewish-American ailment – urban male angst and sexual insecurity, which Seinfeld and Kramer trivialised with disturbing delight on television.

And so I came to meet Philip Roth in what always seemed to me his natural habitat. Born in Newark, a few stations upstate on the New Jersey Transit rail-corridor, Roth illustrates that uniquely American phenomenon, urban, East Coast Jewish culture. There was always the Chicago connection, where, as a graduate student in his twenties, Roth wrote many of the stories in Goodbye, Columbus.

There was also Roth’s friendship with the great Jewish novelist from Chicago, Saul Bellow, as memorable for me for his novels as for his cultural racism – “Show me the Zulu Proust” – which ably set the backdrop of the UChicago academic Allan Bloom’s raging polemic against the anarchic multiculturalism of the American pedagogic and cultural canons. Which in turn, places the American Jewry in a richly awkward position – from their status as a diasporised minority to the oligarchic power lobby in Washington caught today in the throes of the Boycott Israel movement.

How many books, really?

Philip Roth would understand. The writer who longed to be the great American writer but came to represent, for many, the great Jewish-American writer. The novelist for whom the assimilating Jewish individual was to be an eternal double-bind. The difference in assimilation that marked out the Newark-based Neil Klugman from the women he desired, the upper-class Radcliffe student Brenda Patimkin, whose brother’s cheer for the Ohio State Buckeyes gave Goodbye, Columbus its name.

More subtly and inescapably, Roth trapped his most famous protagonists in life situations that the twentieth century has come to understand as irrevocably Jewish, such as the mother-fixated, masturbating Alexander Portnoy and his narrative of confession to his psychoanalyst that makes up the novel Portnoy’s Complaint.

So happens that another friend of mine, a Jewish guy from Manhattan’s Upper West Side (who also, like Dan, went to Yale), once described psychoanalysis to me as “a very Jewish profession”; nonetheless, it does take Portnoy’s relentless mother-fixation in Roth’s career-making novel to evoke the patron saint of Jewish psychoanalysis, the good doctor from Vienna. Which is kind of the story of Roth as a novelist. Jewish by implication far more so than by nomenclature. But well, what heavy implication!

The implication grows heavier and dirtier as Nathan Zuckerman, a disturbingly Roth-like character, gives way to the scandalous Mickey Sabbath even as we’re unable to disentangle ourselves from the irrevocably Judaic nature of his last name. Is Sabbath a dirty old man or a dirty Jewish old man? Roth’s novel would have us believe that the difference is moot.

Angst, introspection, masturbation real and intellectual – can academia lag far behind? That role in Roth’s work is fulfilled by the shady, emotionally brittle professor of literature David Kepesh, featured in the seductively titled The Breast and The Professor of Desire, returning veteran and moribund in his twenty-first century incarnation in The Dying Animal.

Did Roth really write the same book over and over again through the 30 novels he wrote? Perhaps, his most ardent lover – say, a neurotic, blisteringly intelligent, sexually anxious, creative Jewish man – such as some I’ve been lucky to have as my closest friends, might say. Perhaps, his angriest, most impatient critics, most likely a woman, might say. Philip Roth is the burning illustration of the fact that writing the same story endlessly can get you love and hate in equal measure.

In that, Roth is more than a little bit like America. Blustering, anxiously masculine, paranoid exibitionistic. Self-obsessed. And making the most entertaining, riveting kind of mess with it all. Perhaps that is how Roth transcends “Jewish-American” to simply “American” as he so deeply longed. His Jewishness, at once irrevocable and pervasive, is like America’s own dream and nightmare of multiculturalism. Where assimilation is an eternal double bind.

Saikat Majumdar’s most recent book is the novel The Firebird.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.