Since the first slices of Portnoy’s Complaint appeared in the 1967 issue of “New American Review” – I was then an Orthodox teenager searching for escape – but later, too, even in my most penurious years as a history graduate student, I’d rush to buy hardcover copies of Philip Roth’s novels on the first day of their appearance.
No one else has managed to capture with comparable obsessive, realistic, concreteness so many of life’s challenges. Tensions of mind and body, conscience and will, community and freedom, the demands of decency and sexuality’s anarchic disorder. More psychologist than philosopher or poet, Roth so often measured the bleak obstacles and enticements of adulthood against childhood’s purest pleasures. In Sabbath’s Theater, Mickey Sabbath’s 67-year-old recollection of his brother, killed in the Second World War: “One summer when he was about twelve he got a job selling bananas door-to-door….and Morty hired me, age seven. The job was to go along the streets hollering, ‘Bananas, twenty-five cents a bunch!’ I still sometimes dream about that job. You got paid to shout ‘Bananas.’”
A persistent theme in Roth’s fiction is the impossibility of living with or, for that matter without, community. At the core of the Portnoy’s Complaint, The Ghost Writer, The Human Stain, Sabbath’s Theater, and Nemesis, is an exploration of the interplay between the warmth, the nourishment of community – Jewish community, in particular, of course – and its suffocating, vengeful breath. “It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish,” he states in the best of his interviews, with Hermione Lee in the Fall 1984 Paris Review, “it’s that the book won’t shut up. The book won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up. Gets too close.”
In Portnoy’s Complaint even the bathroom doesn’t allow for privacy – because family can stand right outside, with their endless embraces and intrusions. This echoes – I once asked Philip about this and he didn’t disagree – the pivotal moment in the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel’s short story “The Awakening” where the child flees his family’s wrath to find refuge in the toilet of their Odessa apartment. Gathering just outside the door they harangue him, offering endless advice and complaints. At the story’s end the boy is scooped up by an aunt who holds his hand tight as she leads him into the nighttime streets “so that I wouldn’t run away.” He then adds, “She was right. I was thinking of running away.”
Roth speaks at length about Babel in The Ghost Writer and returns, time and again, to the allure of escape. He circles around such moments with the obsessive brilliance that is at the core of what distinguishes neurosis from art.
The topic of our first conversation more than twenty years ago – astonishingly enough – was about whether he had anything useful to say in his writing about Jews. He had already agreed to spend a few days at Stanford, but when I said we’d want him to speak to students and faculty in Jewish Studies he appeared sincerely puzzled.
I recall telling him that he should just select a passage from one of his novels to read and discuss. He responded that he couldn’t think of what passage to choose. I remember saying, “Take a pin, Philip, stick it into one your books, any of your books, and then read a few paragraphs from that section.”
Until our last conversation a week or so before his death we talked often about much the same theme; the simple reality that he was as Jewish as Joyce was Irish or Chekhov was southern Russian was a matter that would continue to fascinate and bedevil him.
It’s an issue that has bedeviled some of the best writing about him, too. Take, for example, Ross Posnock’s otherwise superb Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity, published in 2006. It builds much of its argument around the contention that his literary parentage is a “cosmopolitan” one (Posnock’s term) fathered by the likes of Henry James, or Bruno Schulz (here a Polish, hence a world writer) not sired by those tribal boys, those provincials hailing from Chicago or Brooklyn or, for that matter, Odessa. (There is no reference to Babel in the book’s index.) Somehow, in a study full of insights about Roth’s most salient influences, the prospect that among them were Jewish ones is viewed as reducing him in size and scope and world-importance. As if the hunger for cosmopolitanism wasn’t among the most salient of all ingredients of modern Jewish culture, starting with Spinoza, cascading through Marx and Freud and Luxemburg and Deutscher and I. F. Stone.
Such confusion would inundate even Roth’s funeral. It was reported widely in the US press that he wasn’t to have a “Jewish” funeral – and some of those contacted to explain why spoke of his secularism, his disdain for metaphysics, his honesty and sobriety. Yet as I made my way into Bard College President Leon Botstein’s home, where those invited to the funeral were to gather before going to the graveside, he asked if I’d recite Kaddish along with him. I then spotted the Romanian novelist and Holocaust survivor Norman Manea, among Roth’s dearest friends, whom Roth chose to be buried next to – so that, as he explained, he’d have someone to talk to. In the same graveyard, was Hannah Arendt, whose husband had taught at Bard and had provided her, as she later acknowledged, with that explosive phrase “the banality of evil.” It would be tough to find a more Jewish spot anywhere nearby.
Philip’s imagination emerged out of a profoundly Jewish cauldron. He understood so well his community’s warm bosom– and its awful underbelly. Is there another people that praises its achievers, that polices its boundaries, that punishes its miscreants with the fervor, the torrent of righteous indignation meted out, at one or another time, to Roth, or Arendt or, indeed, Richard Goldstone? The very entry of Jews into modernity is itself punctuated by the afterglow of Spinoza’s own excommunication from the community, the appearance of that solitary person shorn of obligatory fellowship, coolly isolated, and whose identity would be so indelibly marked by his being, now and always, communally adrift.
No one in the last century explored all of this with greater acuity. That this urbane, hilarious, hermit-like, convivial, self-protective, brilliant man emerged as both the greatest chronicler of his time and among the most palpably Jewish voices of modernity is without doubt. Had I dared to say anything quite like this in his presence, I can readily conjure up his smile, the crinkle just beneath the eyes, the sense of ever-so-slight disbelief that a boy from the sidewalks of Newark had risen to the literary heights not only of Henry James but also no less than Sholem Aleichem.