Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Philip Roth

May 7, 2011 Chevra – “The Conversion of the Jews”

 “Between first discovering the Newark Bears and the Brooklyn Dodgers at seven or eight and first looking into Conrad’s Lord Jim at age eighteen, I had done some growing up. I am only saying that my discovery of literature, and fiction particularly, and the ‘love affair’ – to some degree hopeless, but still earnest – that has ensued, derives in part from this childhood infatuation with baseball. Or, more accurately perhaps, baseball – with its lore and legends, its cultural power, its seasonal associations, its native authenticity, its simple rules and transparent strategies, its longueurs and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its heroics, its nuances, its lingo, its ‘characters’, its peculiarly hypnotic tedium, its mythic transformation of the immediate – was the literature of my boyhood.” (Roth in ‘My Baseball Years’, from Reading Myself and Others, 1975).

American novelist and short story writer first achieved fame with GOODBYE, COLUMBUS (1959). It consisted of a novella and five short stories (of which Eli the Fanatic one) and describe the life of a of Jewish middle-class family. Ten years later appeared PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT.  In this “masturbation story” the narrator searches for freedom by using sex as his way of escape. The book gained a great international success.

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey (which became the scene for his early novels) on March 11, 1933 . His father was an insurance salesman of Austro-Hungarian stock. Later in PATRIMONY (1991) Roth portrayed his eighty-six-year-old father, who suffered from a brain tumor, but who still in his early eighties “had no difficulty convincing the wealthy widows… that he had only just reached seventy.”.Roth attended Rutgers University for a year before transferring to Bucknell University. He studied at the University of Chicago, receiving his M.A. in English. In 1955 Roth joined the army, but was discharged after an injury during his basic training period. Roth continued his studies in Chicago, and worked from 1955 to 1957 as an English teacher. He dropped out of the PhD. program in 1959 and started to write film reviews for the New Republic. In the same year appeared Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award, and was later filmed. Portnoy’s Complaint became in 1969 the number one best-seller. Roth married the distinguished Shakespearean actress Claire Bloom – in 1990 – their relationship had already started in the 1970s. After they separated Bloom published her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996).

Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s third novel, marked a turning point in the author’s career. The inspiration behind Portnoy has been variously attributed to Lenny Bruce’s nightclub act. Roth records the intimate confessions of Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist. “What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds – as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America – maybe that’s more like it. Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthorp, General Washington – now Portnoy.” Portnoy goes through his adolescent obsession with masturbation and his relationship with his over-possessive mother, Sophie. “Then came adolescence – half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine-chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out.” Portnoy’s approach to hedonistic Western culture is ironic. Although he is successful, he knows that his achievements are only temporal. Many readers found the book offensive and pornographic because of its sex scenes. Roth’s presentation of the Jewish mother was also criticized.

Jewishness has been Roth’s major territory in his examination of the American culture. From Malamud and Bellow, his older colleagues, Roth has differed in a more ironic – sometimes characterized as “less loving” – view of the lives of the Jews. Often the readers have identified the writer himself with the obsessions of his fictional characters, and accused him of sharing their thoughts. “Publishing a book is like taking a suitcase and putting it out in a public place and walking away and leaving it there,” Roth has said in an interview. “There is no way a writer can control what happens to his book when it is out in the world.” (Mein Leben als Philip Roth, dir. by Christa Maerker, 1998, e-Motion-Picture/SWR).  In his later works, Roth has increasingly wrestled with the problem of identity.  From 1960s Roth has worked at the State University of Iowa, Princeton, the State University of New York, theUniversity of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Since 1988 he has been Distinguished Professor at Hunter College.                                                                          )

Roth’s several awards include the Guggenheim fellowship (1959), the National Book Award (1960, 1995), the Rockefeller fellowship (1966), the National Book Critics Circle award (1988, 1992), and the PEN/Faulkner Award (1993, 2000). In 1998 Roth received the National Medal of Arts at the White House, and in 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in fiction.

In THE BREAST (1972) Roth made a humorous allusion to Kafka’s famous short story ‘Metamorphosis’ – Roth’s hero, David Kepesh, finds himself transformed into a massive female breast. Kepesh appears also in  THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE (1977), which chronicled his life to the age of 34, and THE DYING ANIMAL (2001), in which he has an affair with his student. “This novel – which takes its title from Yeats’s lines, “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal” – wants to address the big subjects of mortality and the emotional fallout of the 1960s, but after the large social canvas of Mr. Roth’s post-war trilogy (“American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain”), it feels curiously flimsy and synthetic.” (Michico Kakutani in The New York Times, May 8, 2001)

Another veteran character, Nathan Zuckerman, is involved in several love affairs in MY LIFE AS A MAN (1975). He has appeared as the author’s mouthpiece in subsequent novels, including I MARRIED A COMMUNIST (1998), set in the1950s. The novels deals with divorce, the cold war, and the McCarthy-era witch hunts. Through Zuckerman Roth has explored the relationship between a fictional character and its creator, or the process of aging, as in the melancholic novel EXIT GHOST (2007).

Sometimes Roth views his own life as a part of his fiction. In THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA (2004), an alternate history, in which the famous pilot Charles Lindbergh is the 33rd President of the fascist U.S., Philip Roth is one of the characters, suffering from his Jewish background. In OPERATION SHYLOCK (1993) Roth meets a doppelganger, the other Philip Roth, a man, who claims to be the author. A true incident inspired Roth: the novelist Richard Elman had recalled in his book his seduction of a beautiful actress and his upset the next morning when he learns that she thought he was Philip Roth. Elman allowed her to leave unenlightened. Another subject in the book was John Demjanjuk’s trial – the man alleged to be Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. Demjanjuk claimed that he had had a doppelganger, who had committed all the crimes he was accused of and murdered Jews in concentration camps.

Roth’s memoir of his family, PATRIMONY won the National Critics Circle Award in 1992. A Time reviewer called SABBATH THEATER (1995), about a retired puppeteer, one of the best-written works of 1995. It won the National Book Award. THE HUMAN STAIN (2000) was set in the 1990s at the height of the Clinton sex-scandal. The narrator is Zuckerman who tells about Coleman Silk, the dean of a small college. He is forced to resign after alarming the guardians of politically correct usage. “Does anyone know these people?” he asks about two students who never showed up for class. “Do they exist or are they spooks?” They do, and turn out to be African Americans. And off-campus, with the help of Viagra, Silk starts an affair with an illiterate janitor, Faunia. “Most novelists wouldn’t or couldn’t handle the variety of elements that Roth does here. Few have his radical imagination and technical mastery. Fewer still have his daring.” (R.Z. Sheppard in Time, May 22, 2000). Robert Benton’s film version of the book from 2003, starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, was adapted for the screen by Nicholas Meyer.). In his most recent work, Roth continues to work in the novella form.  INDIGNATION 2008) once again concerns the topic of death, but this time from the perspective of young college student during the early days of the Korean War. Like much of Roth’s later narratives, Indignation is an exploration of how individuals are held hostage by history and how even the most mundane actions can lead to tragic consequences.  THE HUMBLING (2009) is the story of Simon Axler, aging actor who, according to the book’s first sentence, has “lost his magic” and undergoes a professional (as well as a sexual) crisis.  His most recent work, NEMESIS (2010), is the story of Bucky Cantor who, in 1944, must suffer the polio epidemic’s effects on his Newark community.  It wraps up a tetralogy of novellas that is now categorized as “Nemeses: Short Fiction.”

Philip Roth is among 13 authors shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize.  Other nominees include Anne Tyler, John le Carré, and Marilynne Robinson.  The winner will be announced at the Sydney Writers’ festival on May18 .

 

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