Why Write? Collected Nonfiction, 1960-2013

By Philip Roth

The Library of America, 2017

An essay by Michael Moreau

Philip Roth

Essential Essays and Dialogues with an American Master

My American Jewish Writers class in the small liberal arts college I attended on the West Coast was filled with goyim like myself, but Professor Martin Blaze had a full black beard and wore a black suit with no tie (unusual for those days) and could have easily passed for a friendly new rabbi before his worshippers.

A new professor on campus, this Milton scholar by training would shepherd us through a remarkable survey of a particularly rich vein of Twentieth Century literature.

The syllabus for the class led from Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky to Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money chronologically up to the recently published The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer and Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth.

Mailer was at the height of his powers. It was before, like his hero Hemingway, his public persona smothered his reputation as a writer. And it was before Roth had written his Zuckerman saga and The Plot Against America, which imagined a fascist takeover of America. Marty, which he preferred over Doctor or Professor Blaze, who was now teaching children of the Sixties across the continent from his native Bronx, would laugh until his face turned red, and his whole body shook over passages from Portnoy, while we marveled over a professor who so freely exposed his feelings to twenty-five callow undergraduates.

If he were teaching that class now—he has long since retired—he might include Michael Chabon, Nathan Englander, Nora Ephron and Cynthia Ozick, perhaps Susan Sontag, although they reflect their Jewishness in a way distinctly different from the children and grandchildren of exiles from the pogroms of Eastern Europe, who were at the forefront of creative writing and critical thinking for three-quarters of the Twentieth Century. Saul Bellow near the end of his career said in a letter to Philip Roth they had had a pretty good run of about seventy years, but that it was ultimately over.

When Philip Roth retired from writing seven years ago, it was officially over. We are not likely to see their kind again, although immigrants from other continents are emerging to tell tales of adjusting to diasporas.

While Roth is rightly considered one of the best fiction writers to be overlooked by the Nobel gods, he also has a body of nonfiction writing that bears consideration, a selection of which is contained in the newly published Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013. The pieces are selected by Roth, so presumably they are the essays, public addresses, and interviews that he most wants to be remembered for.

I missed some of the satirical pieces he wrote in the Nixon and Reagan era and his sparing in Harper’s Magazine with the lesser novelist Tom Wolfe over the future the American novel. But maybe that is just as well. The pieces he does include will probably better serve his legacy.

In an address at the Newark Museum in 2013 titled, “The Ruthless Intimacy of Fiction” he talks about mining his memory for the thousands of things that surrounded him growing up in Newark, the specificity of detail that is the lifeblood of the best writers of fiction. And what he doesn’t remember from experience he discovers through observation and research. He asserts that for the writer there must be:

a passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all
but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined
since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover
the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing. …
without crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing.

Roth is a master of specificity. When the Swede gives the master’s thesis student from Wharton a tour of his glove factory the reader comes out of the chapter in American Pastoral nearly loaded with enough information to go into the glove business.

Handed a pair of gloves made for the student, he tells her:

See the seams? The width of the sewing at the edge of the leather—that’s where the quality workmanship is. This margin is probably about thirty-second of an inch between the stitching and the edge. And that requires a high skill level, far higher than normal. If a glove is not well sewn, this edge might come to an eighth of an inch. It will also not be straight. Look at how straight these seams are.

What the poet Ezra Pound called the “direct treatment of the ‘thing’ “ is a quality that drives all of Roth’s work.

When the four-year-old Portnoy watches his mother dressing to take him downtown he says—

I am absolutely punchy with delight, and meanwhile follow in their tight slow, agonizingly delicious journey up her legs the transparent stockings that give her flesh a hue of stirring dimensions. I sidle close enough to smell the bath powder, which the stockings will presently be hooked (undoubtedly with a flourish of trumpets). I smell the oil with which she has polished the four gleaming posts of the mahogany bedstead, where she sleeps with a man who lives with us at night and on Sunday afternoons. My father they say he is.

This rich detail is a set up for the sex-obsessed and continually frustrated adult Portnoy in the book that would become Roth’s bestseller and would infuriate many who found it obscene, but particularly leaders in the Jewish community who faulted its depiction of Jews. He was in fact called anti-Semitic, a charge he struggled against for years, often appealing in public for exculpation of such charges.

Within the covers of the anthology Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s story “Epstein” is about a middle-aged owner of a small business who has lost conjugal interest in his wife and is obsessed by the comings and goings of his daughter and her folksinger boyfriend and the nephew, who during his furlough from the Army, makes it daily with the daughter of the widow across the street. It is no wonder that in this hothouse of sex going on downstairs from him that finds himself entangled in an affair with the widow.

In “Writing About Jews,” from a lecture delivered in 1963 and reproduced in Why Write? Roth attempts to defend his writing against a rabbi who attacks Goodbye, Columbus for focusing on “a Jewish adulterer . . . and a host of other lopsided schizophrenic personalities.”

Roth counters: “Of course, adultery is not a symptom of schizophrenia, but that the rabbi should see it this way indicates to me that we have different notions as to what mental health is. After all, it may be that life produces a melancholy middle-aged businessman like Lou Epstein.”

Roth insists that Epstein’s adultery, which by the way kills him, is not meant to indicate anything about his Jewishness. He just happens to be Jewish.

Rabbi Seligson further said he wondered about gifted writers, “Jewish by birth, who can see so little in the tremendous saga of Jewish history. . .. [That these writers] would know their own people and tradition, we would fervently wish.”

Roth argues that “the issue is not knowledge of one’s ‘people.’ It is not a question of who has more historical data at his fingertips, or is more familiar with Jewish tradition, or which of us observes more customs or rituals. The story of Lou Epstein stands or falls not on how much I know about tradition but on how much I know about Lou Epstein.”

But Seligson also insists that Jewish writers should portray Jewish men and women in a positive light, make them more rounded or balanced or at least balance less admirable characters with characters with high moral standards. Roth has no interest in the idea of balance.

That stricture would lead to an absurdity if the writer crafts into an anecdote of students writing to Fyodor Dostoevsky to complain that “students in our school feel that you have been unfair to us. Do you call Raskolnikov a balanced portrayal of students as we know them? Of Russian students? Of poor students? What about those who have never murdered anyone?”

But, of course, Rabbi Seligson and other critics of Roth’s work were making a special case of the Jews, who less than twenty years before Roth was first published were being systematically annihilated in Europe. There was the fear that some of Roth’s characterizations of Jews would play into the hands of anti-Semites. But, in hindsight the very idea of anti-Semites reading Roth’s work seems almost absurd. What is remarkable from the vantage point of a culture where the bookstores have been shuttered and fewer and fewer people read serious writing, is that it wasn’t too long ago that literature made a difference, and that the writings of Roth and others were widely debated in intellectual circles.

Roth claimed then that he didn’t think about writing about Jewish characters and thought of himself first as an American writer and secondarily as an American Jewish writer. But that like any writer of fiction he plumbed his own memories, and places and people he had known, to create stories that often pitted characters against their better selves.

In Portnoy, who happened to be Jewish, it was a repressed and seething sexual desire. This would be a recurring theme.

Portnoy was published just twelve years after Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were indicted for obscenity after a public reading of Howl in San Francisco. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was still banned from schools and many public libraries for the single word that Holden wanted to erase from the wall of the schoolyard to protect his sister Phoebe from seeing it.

Those of us in Marty’s class were in the vortex of the sea of change of the 1960s. And Roth and others were breaking taboos about what could be written about and language that could be used.

There is a sadness in reading this. The Newark Library talk is Roth’s farewell to writing. He recalls waking up one morning in 2010 with the revelation that “I had at long last eluded my lifelong master: the stringent exigencies of literature.”

A journalist turned novelist once visited a college class of mine, and I’ll never forget one thing that he said about what makes fiction so hard to write well. He said there is a higher standard of truth to measure up to in fiction than in nonfiction. I took from that while nonfiction, or reporting, is primarily an accumulation of facts arranged in a compelling way; fiction, at is best—as in the work of Roth—aims at higher truths which are harder to grasps than mere facts.

In this compelling lecture before the museum crowd, he talks about growing up in the years of World War II—December of 1941 to August 1945—within the constant knowledge of the global catastrophe. One of the things he recollected were the gold-star flags that could be seen in the windows of homes that had lost a son in the war.

He says:

I wondered back then what it could possibly be like for a child having to tiptoe into one of those houses as a member of the grieving family, sobbing with everyone over dinner, falling stricken into one’s bed at night, awakening horrified every morning, mute with grief in the home that lay behind the drawn blackout shades and that gold-star flag, in rooms still harrowingly rich with the mementos and memories of the dear one only recently robbed of the rest of his life.

Roth’s writing is above all an affirmation of life; and flawed as many of his protagonists are, all are striving to be whole people in an imperfect world. In “Looking at Kafka” in this collection he imagines Kafka—whose three sisters died in concentration camp—cured of the tuberculosis that killed him in 1924, leaving Europe in time to escape the Nazi horrors and becoming a Hebrew teacher in Newark, his great works never published.

In the essay Roth offers up discussion of Kafka’s “Letter to My Father,” then turns to the narrator of the tale of Kafka, the Hebrew teacher. He is now a student in faraway college who has stayed alone his dorm for the holidays rather than returning home and facing his overbearing father (his feeling toward is father is not unlike the young Kafka’s feeling toward his father.) But, the mother tells him over the phone, “he loves you.” The narrator says: “But that is, of all things, seems to me precisely what is blocking my way. Others are crushed by paternal criticism—I find myself oppressed by his high opinion of me! Can it be possible (and can I possibly admit it) that I am coming to hate him for loving me so? Praising me so? Everything he says drives me nuts. But that makes no sense—the ingratitude! The stupidity! The perversity! Being loved is so obviously blessing, the blessing, praise such a rare bequest.”

Roth’s retirement was a great loss to American letters, but this new collection is a welcome addition to the canon—thoughtful and timeless ruminations reflecting on the possibility of writing lighting the road toward truth.

Michael Moreau is a frequent contributor to The Neworld Review.

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