I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of The New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas. Relax, I wanted to say. I don’t make a habit of correcting people in conversation or in print — unless it’s for publication and they ask for it, or I’m getting paid. We copy editors sometimes get a reputation for wanting to redirect the flow, change the course of the missile, have our way with a piece of prose. The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.
But good writers have a reason for doing things the way they do them, and if you tinker with their work, taking it upon yourself to neutralize a slightly eccentric usage or zap a comma or sharpen the emphasis of something that the writer was deliberately keeping obscure, you are not helping. In my experience, the really great writers enjoy the editorial process. They weigh queries, and they accept or reject them for good reasons. They are not defensive. The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up — unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.
When the opening chapters of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist ran in The New Yorker, I got to OK it. It was immaculate, partly because we were working from the galleys of the book: copy editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had already been over it, and, once a piece is in that form, authors, agents, and editors are reluctant to change a ligature. I went over it, giving it all I had: sometimes copy departments at publishing houses miss something, just as we sometimes miss something. As it happens, I noticed a small inconsistency in a passage that was quoted from a children’s history book. It was a long quotation, set off in small type, and it was repeated at the end, with some slight variation. I marked it and gave my proof to the fiction editor, Bill Buford. Later, Bill’s assistant came bounding up the stairs and delivered to me a color Xerox of the first page of my proof, on which Buford had written in blue, “Of Mary Norris, Roth said: ‘Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?’”
Up to that point, I’d read only Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. Helen Stark, who was in charge of The New Yorker’s editorial library, had been all atwitter when The Ghost Writer ran in the magazine — she saved it for herself to index. Now I bought the audiobook of I Married a Communist and listened to it on a drive back from Ohio. It was read by the actor Ron Silver, and I almost went off the road during an ecstatic passage where the stars were furnaces: furnace of Ira, furnace of Eve. It seemed so warm and passionate. The book was funny, too: the hero is forced to schlep his girlfriend’s daughter’s harp all over town, and I had a harpist in the family, so I knew what a pain the harp was — there is nothing heavenly about a working harp. I subsequently had a year of Roth: Patrimony, The Facts (“Reader, I married her”), all the Zuckerman books. When Exit Ghost came out, I went back and read The Ghost Writer. I was on a trip to Amsterdam and saw Anne Frank’s house and reread her diary while staying in a hotel on the spot of one that burned down during the war. I was so sorry when I ran out of Roth to read.
I did speak with Roth on the phone once, closing a piece about Saul Bellow, and saw him at a New Yorker Christmas party. I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.
Excerpted from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Copyright © 2015 by Mary Norris. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
James Boswell begins his famous life of Samuel Johnson by quoting his subject’s opinion “that every man’s life may be best written by himself.” Saul Bellow would demur. In Mark Harris’s biography manqué, Drumlin Woodchuck, Bellow goes on record that were he to write his own life, “There would be nothing much to say except that I have been unbearably busy ever since I was circumcised.” For such cases, the literary biographer is indispensable. If nothing else, he can add significant nuance to some reticent authors’ productive post-circumcision careers.
Novelists tend to be repulsed by and attracted to the literary biographer, who is both kindred spirit and antagonist, reviver and executioner, exalted Boswell, and the “lice of literature” (to quote Philip Roth from Exit Ghost). The literary biographer is a novelistic double whose diligent quest to flesh out a life mirrors the novelist’s “savage snooping calling itself literature” (again, Exit Ghost); he is also a monstrous interloper whose obsessive search for real-life parallels threaten the sanctity of the work of art, which in a world legislated by poets would be free from the insights — facile or penetrating, doggedly literal of irresponsibly speculative — of biographical criticism.
In her recent study of Philip Roth, Claudia Roth Pierpont notes the antagonistic stance of the famous writer in Exit Ghost as he “confronts a subject that had attached to his later years as inevitably and about as pleasantly as death: biography.” In that novel, Nathan Zuckerman is accosted by a young man, Richard Kliman, seeking to write a biography that will reveal a sensational secret about Zuckerman’s under-appreciated literary hero, E.I. Lonoff. Suspicious of what he calls this “rehabilitation by disgrace,” Zuckerman vows to combat Kliman and become “[t]he biographer’s enemy. The biographer’s obstacle.”
Roth portrays the “rampaging would-be biographer” in conspicuously virile terms; the hulking Kliman has the “tactless severity of vital male youth,” a youth and potency felt all the more by Zuckerman, who has been rendered impotent and incontinent by a prostate operation. But more often, fictional literary biographers are feckless ciphers pestering their elders for details long since forgotten. As noted by Penelope Lively in According to Mark, the “obsessive shadowing of another man’s life was one of the more bizarre ways to spend one’s own,” and such obsessive shadowing leaves little room for the cultivation of a forceful personality. A case in point is the self-effacing narrating biographer of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible.”
As the biographer becomes inextricably linked with his subject and surrenders his personality to what Roth calls the “insane rapaciousness of the biographical drive,” Nabokovian elements flourish: doublings, masks, farce, and meddlesome shades. This is an essay about how that drive manifests itself in fiction.
The “biographical drive”: to Eros and Thanatos is added a third (Boswellos? Biografietrieb?) that combines elements of love and death. The ideal literary biography is a creative, exploratory, and near-amorous engagement with an author’s life and work, a dance of “rhythmical interlacements” (Sebastian Knight). But the biography is also an elegiac, foreclosing, and (metaphorically) fatal document: “‘It’s a second death. It puts another stop to a life by casting it in concrete for all time,’” complains Lonoff’s widow.
In Kingsley Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, a young literary man on the make identifies a novelist “due for revival,” a term that speaks to the contrary impulses of the “biographical drive.” This “revival” breathes new life into a subject even as it provides him or her with an epitaph; a new life that also seeks to be definitive, that is, conclusive. Sebastian Knight’s narrator considers it his task to “animate” his deceased half-brother; by contrast, Bellow expresses his fear that “‘biography is for the man who is finished…I’m not finished, not done, not fini. I’m still groping.”
At its most basic level, the literary biographer novel plots the compulsion to ward off future intrusions of a “gossipy form,” as A.S. Byatt calls it in The Biographer’s Tale. Novelists expel their anxiety by satirizing those in thrall to the biographical drive, even deriving a small measure of sadistic satisfaction at turning the merciless biographer’s gaze back on himself. And thus in a series of satires, Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Lively’s According to Mark, Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, and to a lesser extent Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (though that novel’s dominant tone is elegiac rather than satiric), the biographer himself is dissected, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes stingingly. (Hollingurst’s biographer is of the latter variety, a “fantasist” and conniver who is subjected to a series of small humiliations and rebuffs all the while convincing himself that his presence is welcome.)
Apart from its defensive aspect, the literary biographer plot seizes on the messiness of the endeavor: the struggle between a biographer’s passive surrender to another writer and the intrusive combativeness of a biographical reading; the necessary critical distance from and equally necessary absorption in the subject; the literal-mindedness of a researcher looking for parallels between real and fictional worlds; and that researcher’s fanciful or creative reconstructions.
The airiest work in this tradition is Mitford’s Christmas Pudding. A humorless young man of rather “weak” character, Paul Fotheringay pens a deeply felt sentimental novel, only to have the public view it as an uproariously funny satire. Branded as a comic author, he turns to the high seriousness of biography. Now to find a subject:
It would be hard, in fact, to find exactly what he wanted, which was a woman of breeding, culture and some talent, living towards the last half of the nineteenth century, who was not already the subject of a “life.”
Comic logic being what it is, Paul soon finds a poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, who precisely matches this description and also happens to be his “affinity” and “ideal heroine.” Hatching a plan to gain access to her diaries by disguising himself as a school tutor, Paul embarks on the biography, which he deems an “ideal medium for self-expression.”
Mitford means this as a joke, but like most jokes there is an element of truth in it: Lady Maria Bobbin is as insipid and as unintentionally hilarious as Paul is. Her diaries mix mawkish tributes to her infirm dog (“As I write poor Ivanhoe lies at my feet. Dear faithful beast…how dreary, how different this house will seem without the feeble, friendly wag of his old weatherbeaten tail…”) with reminders to chide the cooking staff for disappointing her gourmand husband, who eventually dies from chronic over-eating. Lady Bobbin is a subject as convenient for the picky biographer as she is revealing about him. Both she and Paul strive for pathos and so remain mired in comedy.
The comedy in The Biographer’s Moustache is darker. A young, mustachioed literary man, Gordon Scott-Thompson, determines that Jimmie Fane, an older, snobbish novelist with a slew of ex-wives, is due for a biographical treatment. (This despite being a “frightful old arse-creeper of the nobility,” a “toffy-nosed old twit,” and a “massive and multifarious shit.”) The aged roué sees the “irreducible gap in [their] respective social groupings” as a means to experiment on his middle-class biographer — possibly even goading him into an affair with his wife, which gives new meaning to the phrase “unprecedented access.”
The ensuing war between biographer and subject, sometimes passive aggressive, sometimes outright aggressive, involves a skirmish over whether or not to shave the titular moustache, an overdetermined symbol that brushes up against class, sex, and the biographer’s urge towards self-concealment.
An equally adversarial relationship is found in Penelope Lively’s According to Mark, in which the biographer comes to believe that his subject is “meddling in and manipulating the lives of others from beyond the grave.” Adhering to Bellow’s definition of biography as “a specter viewed by a specter,” Lively playfully gestures towards the ghost story, as does Nabokov in his similarly haunted tale, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. “Blundering biographer” though he is, Nabokov’s narrator, V., is buoyed by the “secret knowledge” that his half-brother’s shade is trying to be “helpful,” guiding him along a “private labyrinth” which V. is half following and half constructing himself.
Sebastian Knight, Russian émigré and playful English novelist, is a particularly friendly ghost, “laughing alive in five volumes” and looking down on his half-brother’s investigations into his curtailed life with amusement. Though he has up till then written “one or two chance English translations required by a motor-firm,” V. nonetheless resolves to write Sebastian’s biography in his brother’s adopted English language, the first in a series of attempts to mimic his subject.
Predictably, Nabokov smuggles the most into the literary biographer plot. Sebastian Knight is a Künstlerroman; family drama; treatise on exile and national identity; parody of detective fiction; benign ghost story; aesthetic tract; “biographie romancée;” critical exegesis; and a very funny account of professional rivalry and the narrator’s “clumsy efforts to track down a ghost.” As these strands converge, the distinction between biographer and subject ultimately disappears: “I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face.”
Stuffed as it is with games, the novel is not without feeling. Like Sebastian, Nabokov “use[s] parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.” V.’s quest is motivated in part by nagging guilt: “Why had I kept away from him so stubbornly, when he was the man I admired most of all men?” Part of the answer is revealed in a disarmingly candid revelation near novel’s end. Opting to take a train rather than buy a plane ticket to attend his brother’s death-bed — an economy which makes him miss Sebastian’s passing — the narrator explains: “I took the cheapest opportunity, as I usually do in life.” Nabokov’s biographer-clown must make this damning and affecting confession of emotional, artistic, and spiritual stinginess before fully losing himself in his new persona.
Alan Hollinghurst is hardly Nabokovian in style, but The Stranger’s Child is as shade-haunted as Sebastian Knight. Hollinghurst’s novel illuminates the erotic aspect of the biographer-subject relationship, the sensual thrill of coming into contact with any trace — marmoreal, photographic, or graphical — of one’s subject. Paul Bryan, the biographer, is actually “turned on” when he first sees a statue of his subject, Cecil Vance, a “first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters,” and comes to recognize Cecil’s handwriting as if it were that of a lover.
The Stranger’s Child begins with the erotic immediacy Hollinghust does so well — depicting a burst of sexual and creative energy as the satyr-like Vance, seducing men and women alike, descends upon a family before the First World War. In the late 1970’s, Paul embarks on a life of the poet at a time when “outing gay writers was all the rage.” Hollinghurst reverses the standard investigative process of literary detective stories. He presents us first with the full splendor of the novelist’s feast — Vance’s “mad sodomitical past” as depicted in detail during the opening section — then shows how biographers labor mightily to gather up the meager scraps.
Nonfiction accounts of the biographical drive are arguably more dramatically charged than fictional ones. Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow is the more sensational narrative of embitterment, but Mark Harris’s earlier Drumlin Woodchuck is a quiet marvel that is at once a sneakily incisive critical study of Bellow and a ruefully comic portrait of the artist as would-be biographer. In Drumlin Woodchuck, the novelist Harris recounts sacrificing his friendship with Saul Bellow to pursue his biographical ambitions. The memoir is a paean to Bellow even as it mercilessly chronicles his endless “woodchuck” tricks, that is, his skill for evasion, beginning with Bellow’s refusal to acknowledge a letter in which Harris announces his plans to write his friend’s life. (The title refers to a Robert Frost poem, the wily creature of which is never without an unobstructed path to safety: “I can sit forth exposed to attack / As one who shrewdly pretends / That he and the world are friends.”)
By his own admission, Harris comes off worse than his resistant subject. Arriving in Chicago (a “very big meadow”) and unable to find Bellow (“an experienced woodchuck”), Harris tracks his quarry to a steakhouse, where he has him paged; he impersonates him on the phone to his three-year-old son; insinuates himself with Bellow’s wife, from whom he has just separated; and fantasizes about having his subject cornered in jail, where he will be forced to answer his questions definitively.
Many scenes take place in cars — Bellow chauffeuring Harris, Harris chauffeuring Bellow, Harris speeding toward Bellow, Bellow speeding away from Harris — which is to say that Harris’s memoir literalizes pleasures and perils of the biographical drive. Of one night out in Chicago: “Well, this was more like it. This was it — riding along with my biographee. Things were at last going right. Off to a party together, talking, rambling around from topic to topic, joking, gossiping, interrupting one another with opinions, expressing prejudices.” Bellow soon ditches him.
“Biographers,” a friend tells Harris, “cannot be choosers.” The remark refers to the biographer’s duty to avoid becoming disillusioned with his subject at the first discovery of a moral blemish, but the epigram also captures the sense of irresistible compulsion in the visceral attraction that spurs a fellow writer to examine another’s life so assiduously. These subjects alter their biographers, influence them, toy with them, or absorb them. It is a game of possession, to echo the title of A.S. Byatt’s famous novel of literary detection. But if literary biographers are possessed by their subjects, they also possess their subjects in turn. As Nabokov beautifully puts it, “any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations.”
I went to college in the late nineties, when any mention of Philip Roth was prefaced with the label “misogynist.” As a result, I did not read him until I was out of school and attempting to catch up on contemporary fiction. I read Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus back-to-back, expecting to be at least mildly shocked by the subject of these two controversial-in-their-time books. Instead I was more startled by the difference in tone; Portnoy’s barreling comic monologue seemed to have nothing in common with the traditional realism of Goodbye, Columbus. How could this even be the same writer? I decided I had to read more Roth, misogynist or not, and I’ve been reading him ever since. I tend to go on Roth binges, reading three or four of his books in a row. Eventually I get worn out (his books, at least for me, require a lot of concentration) and I take a couple years off until say, the New York Times publishes a list of the best American works of fiction of the past 25 years and six of Roth’s novels receive mention. Or maybe a librarian friend tells me I have to read The Counterlife, that it’s secretly the best Roth, the writer’s Roth.
Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound, a new critical study of Roth’s books, brought me back to Roth again, this time to Sabbath’s Theater, a novel that has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for several years. Pierpont has also persuaded me to take a look at a couple of Roth’s short late books, Exit Ghost and Nemesis. She’s an unabashed Roth enthusiast, so if you’re looking for a provocative critique that delves into the less flattering aspects of his career and persona, then this is not the book for you. But if you’re someone like me, someone who has read Roth on and off for years in a haphazard way, then this book may help to fill in the gaps in your understanding, both in the way it puts Roth’s work in a larger context (social, political, historical) and through its gentle (but astute) assessment of his books.
Pierpont’s approach is straightforward: she reports on each of his books in chronological order, providing reviews of the books, summaries of their critical reception, and, when relevant to the book’s subject matter or creation, details from Roth’s own life. Roth and his books are her primary sources, and in her introduction, Pierpont explains that Roth Unbound began as an essay but turned into a book for two reasons: first, because Roth had written so many books, and second, because he was willing to talk to her about them for hours at a time.
Pierpont’s access comes out of a long friendship with Roth, which began in 2002, after Pierpont, a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote an article about the anthropologist Franz Boas, someone Roth had researched while writing his (then) most recent novel The Plot Against America. Roth often writes letters to writers he admires, and in the case of Pierpont, it turned into a genuine exchange, with Pierpont eventually becoming a first reader of drafts of his novels. Pierpont’s previous book of criticism, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World, is a series of portraits of female artists, including Mae West, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Mitchell. It’s easily one of my favorite works of criticism, one that is especially sensitive to the particular obstacles female artists face. I would never have guessed that Roth would be the subject of her next book. But she is a good match for the material. In Passionate Minds, she marries biographical details to artworks in a way that illuminates both the artwork and the life, and she brings the same precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word.
Roth’s last book, Nemesis was published in 2010, capping a fifty-year career, and one thing that makes Roth Unbound interesting is that Pierpont was able to interview Roth in the first years of his retirement. You can feel Roth’s reflective, relaxed state of mind as he looks back on his career, cataloging his regrets and triumphs. His regrets mostly fall in the realm of his personal life, most significantly his first marriage, which he believes held him back, emotionally and artistically, for most of his late twenties and early thirties, years Roth now views as lost. Another low point occurred in the late nineties, when his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, wrote a memoir that included a scathing account of her marriage to Roth. The memoir had, in Pierpont’s words, “a tremendous effect on Roth’s personal reputation — perhaps more than anything since Portnoy’s Complaint.” Published in 1996, Bloom’s memoir interrupted a peak moment in his career, coming shortly after the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995, and just before American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. In retrospect, Roth sees the two books as related, novels whose “essential subject” is the “vulnerability, even of the apparently strong.” He also describes the creation of each book as an “outpouring.”
Roth’s insights into his own work are fascinating, but Pierpont’s are more instructive. She’s particularly good on describing his technique. I have always found Roth’s style difficult to grasp; is his prose playful or brutal? Is he telling a story or is he having a conversation? Sometimes he seems sentimental beneath his bluster, and at other times he seems determined to wipe every last bit of nostalgia off the face of the earth. Pierpont acknowledges these contradictions in her assessment:
His style has always been hard to characterize beyond the energy and concentration, the uncanny capturing of voices…He distrusts extended description — the glinting observations of a surrounding world that give Updike’s work its texture — and seems ever wary of the risks of pretentiousness or of diffusing the pressure of the voice.
The comparison to Updike is useful and one that Pierpont returns to several times in Roth Unbound. In one analogy, Pierpont likens Roth to Picasso, “the energy, the slashing power,” and Updike to Matisse, “the color, the sensuality”:
The essential difference in their perspectives isn’t so much Christian versus Jewish, or believer versus nonbeliever, or small town versus city, although it involves all of these. As writers, their greatest virtues seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear. Updike was a painter in words…Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joke, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work.
It’s this mix of voices that makes Roth such an exciting (and sometimes exhausting) writer. It’s also, I think, what makes him so vulnerable to criticism. Just as his prose isn’t clearly beautiful, (as Updike’s is), his opinions are not clearly delineated. He refuses to write about his convictions, only “the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.” In fact, Pierpont reports, “there is hardly anything he considers more crucial to his work…one of the great strengths (and sources of confusion) in Roth’s novels — as opposed to his political satire — is that he rarely takes an open stand. Countervoices clutter up every discernible argument, even shout it down.”
The phrase “countervoices” is a reference to The Counterlife, Roth’s fifteenth novel, and one Roth considers a breakthrough, the book that taught him “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” Pierpont references it through Roth Unbound, as shorthand for the way Roth uses his fiction to explore the lives he might have lived, the people he might have been or known, and even the alternative histories he might have witnessed. It also alludes to the way Roth has truly lived through his work, devoting hours and days and years to the slippery task of putting his restless mind into books. There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts — his fiction — I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.
Like many people, I was saddened when it was publicized that Philip Roth had quietly announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine. By chance, the news came near the end of a year during which my attitude toward Roth changed from appreciation to obsession. Before 2012, I had read perhaps 10 of Roth’s books in a decade. This year, I read 15 Roth novels in a row, the literary equivalent of binge-watching multiple seasons of a serial television drama. The more I read, the more I appreciated how Roth writes not only with technical virtuosity and aesthetic mastery, but also with profound spiritual intent. In this way, he reminds me of the 85-year-old Japanese master chef portrayed in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At the top of their fields and now in their twilight years, both come across as men who vacillate between narcissism and humility, perfectionists for whom life is work and work is life. As a tribute, I offer the following 10 key ideas I gleaned from Roth’s work and career. I hope these inspire fans to revisit his books, detractors to give him another try, and newcomers to read him for the first time.
1. Work hard. With 31 books in 51 years – from Goodbye Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010), Roth cranked out copy like Danielle Steele, James Patterson, or Stephen King, not like a precious literary genius. He could have rested on his laurels in any of the last six decades, gone off the grid like Salinger, or found a nice sinecure at a writers’ workshop. But he just kept on writing. Roth was probably at the height of his powers in the late 90s and early 2000s, the years of the masterful trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) and The Plot Against America. But his recent books are equally elegant, the kind of short novels that demand to be read in one sitting. If you think you work too hard, think about Roth and think again. If you’re satisfied with your accomplishments, think again. Roth’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice each), the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times), and is the only writer to have his canon published by the Library of America while still alive. The protagonist of Everyman quotes the painter Chuck Close as saying “amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Indeed.
2. People are animals. Roth’s male characters cannot keep it in their pants. Their lives are filled with sex, mostly adulterous sex, mostly sex with younger women. His titles alone suggest carnality (The Professor of Desire), physicality (The Anatomy Lesson), beastliness (The Dying Animal), ejaculation (The Human Stain) and straight-up sex (The Prague Orgy). In his silliest novel, The Breast, a philandering professor David Kepesh wakes up to discover that he has become a giant mammary. For all the misery their lust causes them and their wives and lovers, these guys rarely seem to learn from – or apologize for — their peccadilloes. While these tales both celebrate and caution against lechery, they are not pornography. Roth’s books lack the soft-core aspect of Haruki Murakami or John Updike or Anne Rice sex scenes. Although many of his characters objectify and mistreat women, it’s reductive to call Roth a misogynist. If anything his characters love women too much, albeit in an oft-misguided way. As Roth writes in Deception, “With the lover, everyday life recedes.” Such characters’ urges seem motivated not by hedonism, but by the desire to slake needs, to find companionship, to stave off mortality. Following the classic writing teacher advice to take away your hero’s central desire – Roth makes his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman impotent, which only makes him hungrier for sex and more appreciative of its power. In a country where sex is still taboo, Roth’s embrace of such a core biological and psychological compulsion is not merely titillating or salacious, but refreshing.
3. We are alone and want to be known. Despite their busy bedrooms, Roth’s characters are often hermits, recluses, and lone wolves. His three major recurring alter egos – Zuckerman, Kepesh, and “Philip Roth” — are all lonely, as are many of his secondary characters, whether they are young, middle-aged, or old. Yet for all their solitude and secret lives and double lives, they still strive for the love of friends or mentors or heroes or parents or siblings or lovers. Throughout his work, Roth suggests that the deepest human longing is the desire to be known, not merely biblically, but intellectually, emotionally, and existentially. Yet we are all fundamentally mysteries to each other. As Zuckerman says in The Human Stain: “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Another character in the same novel speaks to the dilemma at the heart of Roth’s characters and perhaps of all humanity: “afraid of being exposed, dying to be seen.”
4. The flesh is weak. This is true for Roth’s characters not only in their lasciviousness, but also in their fascination with their own physical frailty and mortality. Like an episode of Law and Order or The Wire or Midsomer Murders, nearly every Roth novel features at least one death. His work is also filled with illnesses – cancer, strokes, chronic pain — and a multitude of scenes at hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries. All this death – and the possibility of death — raises the dramatic stakes and adds to the existential malaise and weightiness. In The Human Stain, Zuckerman describes a crowd at a concert as “an entity of sensate flesh and warm red blood, separated from oblivion by the thinnest, most fragile layer of life.” And it’s not only old people who confront death. In Nemesis, a polio epidemic strikes kids. In The Plot Against America, the narrator’s adolescent cousin loses a leg in World War II. “The Life and Death of the Male Body” — a phrase from Everyman — seems to sum up Roth’s oeuvre. But it’s not all gloom. For all their physical frailty, Roth’s characters want to live, to love, and often, to write until their last breath.
5. Beware of ideology. In Roth’s world, personal tragedy and political tragedy go hand in hand and ideologies like communism, fascism, terrorism – and their antitheses — have deadly consequences. I Married A Communist is the biography of a radio host who falls victim to McCarthyism. The Plot Against America imagines an alternate reality where America flirts with fascism and Nazi Germany under President Charles Lindbergh. Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral is the story of a homegrown female terrorist. In The Human Stain, an aging professor battles with political correctness and professional persecution at the university as well as neo-Puritanism in the era of Clinton and Lewinsky. In The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman goes to Eastern Europe, where the secret police track his every move. And in many of his novels, Roth speaks of the horrors of a century of American militarism, from World War I and II to Vietnam and Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq. And according to a character in The Human Stain, human history consists of two types: “the ruthless and the defenseless.” Overall, the message seems to be that any mass political movement – on the left or on the right, radical or reactionary, secular or religious – poses grave danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A eulogy in The Human Stain celebrates “the American individualist,” suggesting that people are better off when they think for themselves.
6. Prejudice is alive and well. Along with his distrust of ideology, Roth’s fiction critiques the pervasive Anti-Semitism and racism in America. Roth’s protagonists are mostly secular or atheist or agnostic Jews, but they still identify as Jewish, and perhaps more important, others label them as Jews. Roth was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, a historical fact that lingers in his books. Sometimes it’s a major plot point, as in The Plot Against America, which includes forced resettlement of Jews, or in The Ghostwriter when Zuckerman meets a woman he believes is Anne Frank, or I Married A Communist, which links anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. Not that Roth spares Jews from his critical eye. The Zionist rabbi in The Counterlife and the rabbi in The Plot Against America who colludes with the Lindbergh regime are two of his most villainous and least sympathetic characters. And his narrators often vent their frustration with the strictures of Judaism. Zuckerman is often called a traitor for his fictional depictions of Jews. In Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator’s mother thinks he’s eating non-Kosher food in the bathroom, when in fact he’s masturbating. And there’s one aching moment in The Plot Against America where a young boy sees his mother on the bus through the world’s eyes: “It was then that I realized…that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes – my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn’t known.” In one of his finest books, The Human Stain, Roth adds the issue of racism through Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who “passes” as white and pretends to be Jewish to his family, friends, and colleagues. While overt anti-Semitism and racism may be less common in 2012 than it was in Roth’s youth – and an African-American is our president – Roth implies that we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on our tolerance. Given America’s history of racism and religious persecution and more recent treatment of Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constitutional claim that “all men are created equal” is more of a hope than a reality.
7. New Jersey is beautiful. There’s no deeper prejudice than the native New Yorker’s snobbery about New Jersey, a prejudice I share despite a dad from Hoboken, a girlfriend from East Brunswick, and a lot of time spent in the Garden State over the last two years. But let’s be honest. New Jersey deserves a lot of its bad rap: the traffic and toxic smells on the turnpike, the Guidos and Guidettes down the shore, the violence and poverty in Newark and Camden. Even the musical celebrities – Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi — are mercilessly cheesy. Yet in Roth’s eyes, New Jersey is beautiful, if not aesthetically, then emotionally. And as Roth points out in The Human Stain, New Jersey was originally called New Caesarea, a name surely suggestive of an empire. Not that Roth romanticizes Jersey: the squalor and decay of his once idyllic native Newark is recurrent, but he portrays it as a real place with complexities and contradictions, virtues and flaws. While his Jersey-born characters often escape to the culture of New York or the tranquility of the Berkshires, and Roth himself has lived in Connecticut and New York sine 1972, you can’t take the Jersey out of the kid or the books. When he dies, I hope the state finds an appropriate way to honor him. No disrespect to Woodrow Wilson, Vince Lombardi, and Thomas Edison, but I hope it’s not the Philip M. Roth Rest Stop. Then again, it might be fitting. Like that quintessential Jersey car – the Ford Mustang — that first came out in 1964, back when Roth had only two books to his name — Roth is an American classic whose styles change, but is always recognizable as itself.
8. There’s a fine line between reality, fiction, and fantasy. Many writers blur the boundary between fiction and their own lives. Roth takes this to an extreme. His characters are writers, professors, and artists who might as well be writers, and even a recurring “character” named Philip Roth. (Fortunately, Roth has the good sense to focus more on their personal lives than their literary lives). His favorite settings include his native Newark, Chicago (where he went to graduate school), and the fictional Athena College, which reads like a small town New England fusion of the schools where Roth studied and taught (Bucknell, Chicago, and Princeton). Even his more outlandish premises (The Breast, The Plot Against America) are grounded in reality. While Roth may have some literary gas left in his tank, he’s clearly concerned with events of this world. There’s no danger of him writing Nathan Zuckerman: Vampire Hunter.
9. The Power of Three. Roth’s stories are filled with grace and grandeur, fast-paced plots, and high stakes drama. He writes both linear and non-linear narratives, often with seamlessly overlapping layers of memory and reflection. While he favors first person narration, he also experiments: deception is written entirely in dialogue, essentially a play without stage directions. And beyond his subject, there is the majesty of his prose, lush but never dense, intellectual but never pretentious. His sentences can be one word or contain 23 verbs, like a sentence in The Plot Against America. One paragraph in I Married A Communist uses the word betrayed or “betrayal” 23 times. And like a character in The Human Stain, his best friend seems to be the dictionary. Full analysis of Roth’s prose would take a dissertation, so I’ll look at one signature move. Open any page of Roth at random and you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one triplet. One word repeated three times in a single sentence. The same word in three consecutive sentences. A sentence with three nouns or three adjectives or three verbs. A sentence with three adverbs or three prepositions or three proper names. Three consecutive sentences that begin with the same word or phrase (anaphora). Three consecutive sentences that consist of a single word. Three consecutive sentences of dialogue. Three consecutive questions. And permutations and combinations of all the above. One of Roth’s favored techniques is to describe a character’s outfit in terms of three items of clothing. Even when he quotes other writers – such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Anton Chekhov — he uses passages that feature triplets. Roth mentions this technique in Exit Ghost, which confirmed my suspicion that he writes triplets on purpose. Yet despite its ubiquity the technique never gets stale, because Roth’s command of grammar, syntax, and punctuation – especially em dashes, colons, and semi-colons — gives him a seemingly limitless number of ways to write triplets. After I noticed the technique, I started marking triplets with a 123 in the margins – and then using triplets in my own prose (as you might have noticed). As Joan Didion once said: “Nothing is too heavy to lift.”
10. Know when to quit. Roth’s retirement announcement was not entirely surprising. Now a few months shy of his 80th birthday, he hadn’t published a book since Nemesis in 2010, and in Roth time, two years is an eternity. He also hinted at his literary exit in 2011, when he told The Financial Times: “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.” Then again Roth has read plenty of fiction, including all of his own, which is more than most people, myself included, can say.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]