It may be time for me to shut the hell up about Philip Roth. On Sunday afternoon, at the local Jewish Community Center’s “Day of Jewish Learning,” I offered a session called “Roth Roth Roth Roth Roth Roth Roth”—a private joke, a twist on Daniel Hoffman’s 1973 book Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Hoffman took his title from a line in Poe’s story “Berenice,” in which the narrator longs to “dream away whole days” by (among other methods) repeating, “monotonously, some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatsoever to the mind. . . .” Mimicking the narrator, Hoffman found himself repeating Poe’s name to himself until it became “not a name at all but now a note, a tone struck upon some inward anvil of my being, one syllable in a chord I strained to hear, an ineffable harmony plucked from some sphere beyond the meshes of our common feelings” (Hoffman was also a poet).
That’s a pretty good description, at all events, of the sense Roth’s name has come to have for me. I talk about Roth so often—I have become identified with Roth so closely, by those who know me and those who don’t—that my unwearied Roth-flogging has become a cliché, if not a joke. On Saturday night my wife and I went out with friends to see A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth installment in the Die Hard series. (Give me John McClane, shaved head, two-day stubble, old tee-shirt, over James Bond’s oversexed elegance any day.) My friend Benjy asked whether I would be teaching at the Day of Jewish Learning the next day. When I admitted I was, he said, “On Roth, right?”
When it came time for the class, exactly five students showed up. Including one man, a little younger than I, who demanded, as he was sitting down, “Just who is Roth?” Damned good question. In The Ghost Writer, an older Nathan Zuckerman explains why, at twenty-three, he had made a literary pilgrimmage to E. I. Lonoff, what Lonoff meant to him:
A large part of Roth’s genius is to have taken his critics seriously, even the most pious and disdainful among them. “Opposition determines your direction,” Maria tells Zuckerman in The Counterlife. “You would probably never have written those books about Jews if Jews hadn’t insisted on telling you not to.” Roth’s novels are (to use another phrase from The Counterlife) “conversational duels” between the spokesmen for different Jewish ways of life. Roth did not set out to take revenge on his critics; he admitted them into his fiction, where he could debate them (but only if he allowed them their say). And as the great Ruth Wisse says of much Jewish fiction, the drama is in the debate.
Of all Jewish writers, then, Roth is the one whom Jews, especially secularized American Jews, have a moral obligation to read. At least that’s what I claimed at the “Day of Jewish Learning.” (Fat lot of good it did Roth. Even if I convinced my listeners, I won him only an additional five readers.) If you aren’t going to go to shul and pray three times a day, if you aren’t going to emigrate to Israel and raise children to speak in Hebrew, then you can be a Jew, you can establish and explore your Jewish identity, by reading the fiction of Philip Roth.
None of the five “learners” laughed. Who deserves the credit for that? Maybe they were unsure whether to make me seriously. I meant every word, though. Postwar Jewish fiction, especially Roth’s fiction (but not only his), could be a source of pride to the Jews almost as gratifying as their chest-swelling Zionism. And why? Because it is very nearly as great a triumph as the establishment of the state of Israel. Heretical, I know—but only, perhaps, because the critics have been too nervous and indecisive to say so. (Hello, outrage!) And even if not quite as remarkable an achievement as the creation of a Jewish state, postwar Jewish fiction was nevetheless an indispensable means and an important symbol of the Jews’ advancement into the social and cultural mainstream. Consider the record. Saul Bellow, Vasili Grossman, Bernard Malamud, Amos Oz, Yehuda Amichai, Chaim Grade, Albert Cohen, Henryk Grynberg, Cynthia Ozick, Shulamith Hareven, Mordecai Richler, Aharon Appelfeld, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, Francine Prose, Leon de Winter, Howard Jacobson, Steve Stern, Michael Chabon—and those are just the biggest names! No matter how you slice it, postwar Jewish fiction is a monument to Jewish imagination and persistence. And Roth might just be the best writer of it.
He was certainly the one who made an issue of it. The Jews’ obsession with Jewish status, and the effect of that obsession on the Jewish writer who tried to write about it, was his overriding subject. After four decades of writing my own things about Roth, however—I wrote my first essay on him, “Philip Roth and the Toilet Bowl of American Fiction,” for my high-school literary magazine, although the faculty adviser spiked it—I am finding my own arguments less and less compelling. Perhaps because the Jews’ obsession with Jewish status belonged to a specific historical moment, which has now passed. The debates over Jewish identity in Roth’s fiction have begun to read like historical transcripts, and reading them has begun to seem like reading about the debates that determined and swirled around the Oxford Movement—fascinating but also foreign, fusty, and even a little amusing. It’s sometimes hard to believe that anyone got so worked up about such issues as the status of the Irish church and William Palmer’s “Branch Theory.” Or about the deracination of Jews in the suburbs. Or about fears of American antisemitism.
“What, another book on Poe!” Hoffman begins his own book. “Who needs it?” I suspect that’s what editors have said to themselves when I have pitched to them my plan for a comprehensive study of Roth, an intellectual biography from “The first time I saw Brenda” to “he seemed to us invincible.” No one seems to want any such book. Farewell, then, O friend of my youth and middle age! Farewell—until I can find a more compelling argument for your indispensability, a wider context for your peculiar genius.