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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