The Essential Philip Roth – The New York Times

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Probably you cannot accurately measure a writer — or any person — until the moment after his death. A life can stretch out in front of you, but until it’s over, you don’t know how the beginning truly informed the end; you won’t quite understand the poetry of the person’s story until its themes match up and you know exactly where and what the entire murky middle was. This is what biography is for.

But likewise, just when a writer’s biography comes out, it’s a good time to remember the writer’s actual books. I’ve read every single piece of ink ejaculated over the publication of Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography”; I am Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The Obsessed. I wound a tourniquet around my arm and injected each piece in and floated around in my high. My favorites so far are this terrific Magazine story by Mark Oppenheimer and Cynthia Ozick’s passionate review. I think as time goes on, the question of which piece of “Philip Roth: The Biography” coverage was your personal jam will become a Rorschach test of the kind of reader you are. Were you a New Republic takedown type? Were you into that Harper’s hallucination where Philip Roth’s ghost (allegedly) reviewed his own biography? Perhaps you were in thrall to the angry Tablet story that asked, nay demanded, to know: “Where’s the Semen?” Or maybe you’re a disgusting bore and instead worried your chin with the anguished Sydney Morning Herald troll who was concerned that Philip Roth didn’t deserve to be read due to crimes against polite society, or whatever. (I couldn’t get through that one; I do not dismiss or make light of allegations of wrongdoing, but someone whose entire premise consists of wondering if we should even read a biography or any work by an important and influential writer because of a person’s bad but probably not criminal behavior does, truly, seem like a troll.) Friends, what does my Rorschach read when I tell you that I was all of those people (except that last one)? Where is the semen, indeed.

The Roth biography contains everything you’d ever want or need to know about Philip Roth, but it doesn’t contain his most crucial aspect: his writing. You could read about all of him — his relationships, his misogyny, his misandry, Newark, boobs, his alleged anti-Semitism, his not-alleged self-hatred and hatred of others, his failed friendships, his failed marriages, how consumed he was with not wanting to get women pregnant but yes, wanting to have unprotected sex with them — but you’ll never really understand him until you read his books. Worse, you’ll never understand why he was worth all the trouble until you do.

Now, it’s a task to narrow his 31 books down into an essential list. All of them are readable; most of them are good; and more of them masterpieces than a fellow novelist who is frankly faltering on her own second novel can bear to acknowledge. Philip Roth was born in 1933. He died in 2018. I was born in 1975. I read my first Roth, which was “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in 1987. My mother wouldn’t let me read young adult literature. She thought the girls on the cover of the Sweet Valley High books looked “suggestive” and “fast,” and she was forever in the business of trying to anticipate and forestall my and my three sisters’ unplanned teenage pregnancies (and who could guarantee that those would not come from a Sweet Valley High book?). My studious older sister brought home “Portnoy” one day; nobody suspected her of wrongdoing, and the severe, text-only cover swam in stealth mode under my mother’s nose. Eventually, it made its way to me. So like my sister, I read about a young man masturbating with a section of raw liver; I read it right there at the dining room table in front of my mother. My sister and I have one true skill and it’s that we can keep a straight face through anything. My mother served her baked ziti, and at night she slept soundly knowing that her girls were not reading about slutty twins in convertibles getting to first base before curfew.

All this to say that when I first read Roth, he was an old-seeming, dirty kind of guy. His text — the emotion, the vocabulary, the 90-word sentences — struck my heart so hard that there in my brain was paved a superhighway so deep and specific and so fully of sex and anger and vicious storytelling that nothing else that I read after, nothing I heard after, is ever quite good enough. As I grew older, and as I read forward, I realized that Roth wasn’t just an old guy with a few good books — he was still going and going, none of the precious decade-long wait for the next book that so many of our greatest authors force us to endure. By the time I was 21, I caught up to him and bought my first Philip Roth book off the New Releases table. It was “American Pastoral,” and after the fog of days that followed while I read it, I emerged to realize he was only getting better.

My God, you are so lucky if you get to read these for the first time.

Philip Roth was born in 1933 in Newark. He published 31 books, beginning in 1959 with “Goodbye, Columbus.” He died in Manhattan in 2018, at the age of 85.

Show me someone writing like his parents are dead.

Roth liked to say that a person should have shame in the world, but not shame when he writes. Maybe the best way to illustrate that is Alexander Portnoy’s utterly obscene confession to his analyst of the state of his life and the state of his obsession with his own mother and also his own penis. “Portnoy’s Complaint” is written in a great big hemorrhage of anger, shocking and hilarious, and, sadly, perhaps the last time Philip Roth wrote like he was free.

Since the publication of “Defender of the Faith,” a short story in The New Yorker, Roth was subject to hurled insults in the streets by Jews who believe he betrayed them all by speaking so openly about their lives and relationships and what exactly went on at our kitchen tables. People asked his parents what kind of child they’d raised. They called Roth an anti-Semite. The Anti-Defamation League got involved. Irving Howe wrote his own screed about it in Commentary. In his autobiography, “The Facts,” Roth said that he learned through this terrible moment that the Jews’ essential and insurmountable problem was that they are equally consumed by their security and their insecurity.

What he didn’t say, what is only evident in the work that followed “Portnoy,” was that Roth was traumatized over what happened to him. Now it followed him everywhere, and he processed it on subsequent pages. He wrote “The Ghost Writer,” in which his narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, had written a “Portnoy”-like book called “Carnovsky” and was receiving the same treatment Roth had. He wrote defensively in further work — not mildly, and with a grudge — and took every opportunity to make himself understood. His writing still grew ever greater, but it was now focused through the prism of a persecution complex.

Read our review.

Published 1969.

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I want to understand what you mean by ‘persecution complex.’

Well. A great thing about publishing prominently is that a writer gets a platform. The less great thing is that after you’ve published widely, you’re prone to being misinterpreted. You’re prone to rumor. If you are extremely lucky, you can take some solace in the fact that your platform was vast and that correcting the record is largely unimportant and probably impossible. Roth hated having people examine his work — which was filled with biographical figures, real-life inspirations and narrators that looked like and tracked Roth — for clues about himself. It is said that’s why he wrote this 1988 autobiography and that’s why he titled it thusly — to dispel the facts from the theories.

Well, he didn’t do himself any favors. He comes off silly and petty about minute differences, and somehow makes a worse case for himself about his politics and matters of the heart than if he’d left matters alone. Read the part in which he rejoices over the successful girlfriend’s miscarriage, triggered by a drug that incited via massive bleeding because abortion wasn’t yet legal. But amid all of that is the story of a tender childhood, loving parents, a writer’s search for identity when there was no one like him to idolize, and the true and unfettered story of how much a brain that observes so well can suffer.

All this said, the reason he wrote “The Facts” might not have been to correct the record about himself. It could be that we should take him at his word, as offered in the introduction: that after being given Halcion for pain after an operation, he had a nervous breakdown. “The Facts” was a way of reminding himself, when reality felt tenuous, what his reality held so that he knew which of his own fictions he could believe.

Read our review.

Published 1988.

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Hold on, am I getting into bed with a misogynist?

The news isn’t great here. My friend Laura Lippman put it best when she said to me that Roth’s issues with women didn’t bother her when she was growing up because she didn’t really notice or understand them, but that if she were to read them now for the first time, they would, and what do you do with that? You’re already in love. That’s how I felt. I was indoctrinated way too young to understand misogyny, which is what makes it so insidious and dangerous — who knows how much of it I absorbed and still carry around? Who knows how much of it I have to overcome still? It’s exhausting being a woman already and this is why. I had simply believed Roth hated everyone, and that women vexed him more because he relied on them so much for sex and love. It was, it seemed to me, that women were the vexation behind his inability to find a woman who could keep him and his narrators interested without also annoying him or, you know, existing as real people who had needs and desires of their own. We tell ourselves a lot of stories to make the things we love bearable.

But I was young, and my stories weren’t quite true. Meaning, it was worse than that. I’m talking hometown girlfriend writhing on the phone for his hot, passionate you-know-what that rocked her world. I’m talking that hometown girlfriend whose name was Sharon Shatzky, without a c (and please: spare me protestations of Jewish verisimilitude, we all know what we’re doing when we go out of our way to name someone Shatzky or Lipshitz or Slutsky). I’m talking a lying, manipulative wife character who was demonstrably based on Roth’s own first wife, though that lying and manipulation is, of course, an allegation. (Nota bene: Be on the lookout for how Jewish girls and women are narrated in the audiobook version of “My Life As a Man,” or any audiobook that asks a person to convey a Jewish girl or woman, if you want to see a real hate crime; now you can’t unsee it.) Elsewhere, in “Operation Shylock,” is a female character whose name is, I’m not kidding, Jinx Possesski.

So yes, the work is not to wonder if Roth had issues with women; the work is to understand that those issues are a thing you’re going to have to wade through in order to find his golden exceptionalism. I say it’s worth it — not just because the books are great, but because it’s important to see what kind of literature this country was built on. But also because they’re great. And, like I said, it’s too late for him to change. (See also: “When She Was Good.” See also: several other titles.)

Read our review.

Published 1974.

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I want to get swept away by the greatest of great American novels.

I’m so glad you asked because it was getting dark there for a while. Also if you want to be enraptured by 45-word sentences that somehow don’t even feel long enough; also if you want to understand why Jewish Americans struggle to feel like they’re accepted as Americans; also if you want a story and plot that are unrivaled in depth, energy, impassioned witness and crescendo.

The book, which is the first of Roth’s so-called American Trilogy, is about an assimilated Jewish heir to a glove factory in Newark. The man, called the Swede, is blessed to those who know him with preternaturally-golden good looks, which are a passport into a part of the American experience that previously kept Jews ghettoized. He moves to an upper-class, pastoral section of New Jersey far from Jewish Newark with his wife, and their only daughter disappears when she’s a teenager, having gotten caught up in a politically radical movement and having bombed the family’s local post office/general store. I read “American Pastoral” on a trip to the South of France. I bought it for the airplane and didn’t look up until it was done, and now I cannot tell you one single thing about the South of France. I do know, 20 years later, that I will never read a paragraph as great as this, which is part of the Swede’s inner monologue after he takes a young woman whose demeanor and cheer remind him of a version of his daughter before she became a terrorist:

“This is called a polishing machine and that is called a stretcher and you are called honey and I am called Daddy and this is called living and the other is called dying and this is called madness and this is called mourning and this is called hell, pure hell, and you have to have strong ties to be able to stick it out, this is called trying-to-go-on-as-though-nothing-has-happened and this is called paying-the-full-price-but-in-God’s-name-for-what, this is called wanting-to-be-dead-and-wanting-to-find-her-and-to-kill-her-and-to-save-her-from-whatever-she-is-going-through-wherever-on-earth-she-may-be-at-this-moment, this unbridled outpouring is called blotting-out-everything and it does not work, I am half insane, the shattering force of that bomb is too great.”

(Read this in print, but if you want to audioread, Ron Silver’s narration is how it’s supposed to be heard.)

Read our review.

Published 1997.

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I want to understand the foreboding that comes with being a Jew in America.

Despite how he bristled at being called a Jewish writer — he wanted only to be considered an American — Roth didn’t try to write about people who weren’t like him, or ones he didn’t recognize. In fact, while others were saying his Judaism made him not un-American, but worse, Not American, he brought to life the imagined panic attack that the noted anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh, whose name briefly appeared in favorability polls, could be elected president of the United States. Here is every aspect of American Jewry: the apologists, the Zionists, the Holocaust survivors, the traumatized, the assimilated, the inter-marriers. Here they all enact a nightmare scenario that answers the question, “Could that ever happen in our country?” (The “that” is always the Holocaust.) Roth showed, resoundingly and chillingly, that the answer was yes. In “The Plot Against America,” he put to rest the question of whether or not Jews are Americans. Once our Jewish concerns were also American ones, you could say that there was no longer a question about whether or not Jews belonged in this country or whether we could truly claim it as our own. In declaring the questions unaskable, he answered it, and willed us into an American people.

Read our review.

Published 2004.

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I want to panic that I may not mellow with age.

Philip Roth knew how to tell a story, plus the meta story, plus the meta to the meta story. Before he died, he announced that he was done writing and had, in 2010, published his final book, “Nemesis.” A few years before that, he retired the narrator he deployed that most matched up to him biographically, Nathan Zuckerman, via the 2007 novel, “Exit Ghost.” It was written with the self-awareness of a man who knew he’d gotten too old — that he no longer recognized the world. A scene that I think about all the time is the one in which Zuckerman leaves the Berkshires, where he’d been hiding out, and returns to Manhattan, where cell phones have proliferated.

“I had to wonder what that had previously held them up and collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect. What will the consequence be?”

By the time I read that, I already had my first smartphone. Roth’s gift was to take what had become the plain and accepted and shake it in your face and show it to you anew; to upend the given that separation is bad and reexamine it until you no longer knew what the right answers were. Reading that passage again, I want nothing more than to hurl my phone across the room and shatter it into a million pieces — to reunite with the separation I’ve eradicated, under some other person’s advice that it was connection that was the good thing, and not the other. All these questions, all up in the air, never answered. When we finally left Zuckerman — and I don’t know, maybe as Roth left us — he had not yet found peace, and, we are left to think, never would.

Read our review.

Published 2007.

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