A sure-fire way to irritate a short story writer is to ask if her stories could be turned into novels. But the stories in Molly Antopol’s debut collection, The UnAmericans, have such a deep sense of place and character, that it’s hard not to see them as novels in miniature. They are exceptionally diverse, set in the U.S., Europe, and Israel, and informed by Antopol’s lifelong interest in history and politics. Antopol estimates that each story took a year to write.
This past fall, Antopol received the National Book Foundation’s 2013 “5 Under 35” award, which annually recognizes promising young writers. (Past winners have included Téa Obreht, Fiona Maazel, and Karen Russell.) Jesmyn Ward, who selected Antopol for the award, said of The UnAmericans: “It’s so rare to read a story collection — let alone a debut — that is this big, ambitious and brilliantly realized.”
Antopol is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow who now teaches at Stanford University. I spoke with her last November, when she was visiting New York to receive her “5 Under 35” award. We met in a coffee shop in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where we shared a croissant and spent an hour discussing her new collection, the joys of research, her complicated admiration of Philip Roth and her simple love of Grace Paley.
(The interview had been condensed and edited.)
The Millions: This book is informed so much by your family history. Can you tell me a little about your background?
Molly Antopol: My family from way back is from a village called Antopol in Belarus. I come from this family of storytellers and they would tell stories about everything in their lives and so the stuff that I mostly heard about growing up, probably because it was the most present, was their involvement in the Communist Party, and what it was like for my grandparents to live under that much surveillance and to be arrested and to be on list after list. And so those were the first stories I was interested in, before I was even aware of what I writing about thematically.
When I was in Israel, I wound up at this party where I met this woman from Antopol, who had known my family way back. I had never known that family and never known those stories from this village. She led me to this enormous book that basically sort of mapped out the village of Antopol, this place that was sort of mythic to me, and I was able to fill in a lot of spaces. And once I knew I was seriously working on these stories I just started applying for every grant I could get to Eastern Europe. Whenever I could I would travel and do research.
TM: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
MA: Probably when I was a kid. My mom has all these stories of me being a really nerdy kid. I was an only child and I would write my way into books, like I would imagine that I was a sibling in the books. But I think I just never thought anyone could be a writer. I knew no writers growing up. It seemed like this total pie in the sky thing. It would be like being an astronaut. I really thought I wanted to be a psychologist or a social worker. So when I was in Israel — actually, before I started living in Israel — I was doing union organizing. That’s very much like the family business. Everyone in my family was doing political stuff so it just felt easy to slip into that. I was working for United Farm Workers and I thought I would do that and just write on the side, but every time I got a little more room to write, whether it was through a fellowship or graduate school or whatever, I just found I wanted all that time, and so it just sort of ballooned out that way.
TM: And so how did you decide to write fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
MA: I write some nonfiction. I’ve done some radio stuff and I really like writing essays. But even as a kid fiction was what I loved to read, and even as a kid it was stories. I think I’ve always had this sort of deep love for short stories and so I’ve never really questioned it. I’ve had so many people say, “Oh, could you turn this story into a novel?” Because everyone wants to ask every story writer that. But to me, stories are this perfect beautiful form.
TM: I loved your stories. I’d like to describe them as miniature novels, but that’s not it exactly. They’re very compressed with a lot of exposition, but it doesn’t feel like exposition, it’s just pure storytelling.
MA: Thank you. That was something I worried about, because I think that, especially since I’d been in these writing programs, oftentimes the models are these 12-page, single-scene stories where everything takes place in a kitchen or a car ride, and I really love those stories and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to write that story, and I just can’t. I had this real fear, for years, that I wasn’t doing it right. That they weren’t novellas or these tight poetically compressed stories, so what were they? Honestly — and this is advice that I give my students but it took years to take it myself — you have to go to your favorite writers and let their work teach you. I started to read Alice Munro, and her stories are long, and there’s so much exposition. Or Deborah Eisenberg or Edith Perlman. There’s this group of people who take their time. And that was really helpful to me.
TM: You’re working on a novel now. How is it different from writing short stories?
MA: So far it’s been really enjoyable — although everything kind of is for me in the beginning. I like getting into the world. But I do feel like it’s coming naturally because I’m allowed to move into every piece of backstory that I want to.
TM: And what’s the novel about?
MA: It’s called The Afterparty and it’s set in Israel right after the fall of communism. It follows a dissident from Eastern Europe who is being groomed to become this political celebrity in Israel, because of what had happened in Europe. It’s about how that level of ambition is affecting his wife and his family.
TM: What inspired it?
MA: I have no idea! I never have any idea what inspires anything. I read a lot about politics and have been interested in it. But at the same time I’ve been very aware of not wanting to become a “political writer” that would be in any way didactic. I love the research. There’s a part of the book where a member of the Israeli secret police is following this guy because he’s coming from Russia and they were very suspicious of that. And so I’ve been interviewing people from the Israeli secret police and that’s just been totally fascinating.
TM: You do a lot of research, all different kind of research, but when you finally sit down to write the story, how do you use it?
MA: The way I do it, and I don’t know if this is right — and I read a ton of author interviews for advice, because I’m always like, someone’s going to have the magic key and then I won’t have to do as much work — but the way that worked for me, even though this takes a long time, is that I have to completely immerse myself in the world. That means watching all the films, reading as many books as I can, everything that I can find. And I read it all, but I don’t write about it or take notes. Once I’m finished, I try to take a break from it and then a couple weeks later the characters will start to percolate in my mind. By then I have the environment in my mind, so I can think about the characters and the situation. I want to know who is in the most complicated place in the situation and then I’ll see how the environment is informing their lives.
TM: It’s kind of like an actor’s process, a little bit.
MA: When a story is working, it feels like method acting. And I can tell when a story isn’t working — and those are the ones that didn’t make it into the book — because I’m still thinking so much more about the situation than the person. If the people aren’t living with me, then it doesn’t work.
TM: How did this collection come together?
MA: It was interesting. I didn’t want to finish the book until I felt like I had written from the point of view of men and women, young and old, American, European, and Israeli. It felt important to me as a writer to feel like I could do that. There are a lot of writers I really love who kind of have the voice that comes back over and over, and I admire that, but for me, that wasn’t the kind of book I was interested in writing. Some of the stories that didn’t make it [into the collection] felt like they were too much in companionship with another story.
I also didn’t have any thematic ideas while I was writing. I just kept trying to write really different stories and to try different things. And I was like, oh my god, my book is all over the place and I don’t know what to make of it! And then Tobias Wolff — he’s been my workshop teacher at Stanford — said, “Oh, these stories are all about politics.” It was so basic to him. But it had never occurred to me. Once I had that in mind I was able to move forward. I realized I was obsessed with the idea of legacies, the idea of devoting your life to something that means everything to you, but what happens when history changes and it has lost relevance? What does that do to everyone around you? And once I figured that out, I noticed it was happening in every story, even the contemporary ones, and that felt exciting, like it was a cohesive book.
TM: Were there any stories that gave you particular difficulty?
MA: All of them! I feel like whenever I talk to older writers, they say, “Every writer gets that gift, you get a story that just comes to you fully formed” and I’m like, that’s bullshit, I’ve never had that! Every one of those stories, probably from start to finish, was at least a year. One that was particularly difficult was the story, “A Difficult Phase” about the Israeli journalist who dates the recently widowed guy. I think what was hard for me was that the character was the closest to me, just in the fact that she was a youngish writer. And so I think I was just sort of sorting through a lot of my own stuff in that story. Which made it harder to write than some of these others where I could have a more omniscient sense of everything.
TM: When did you know the collection was complete? What was your road to publication?
MA: The book took me ten years to write. For a long time, I wrote with blinders on. I didn’t send my stories out and tried not to think about how the collection would come together. I just focused on trying to get each story to work the way I wanted it to.
To back up, I had started these stories when I was in grad school living here. And then after graduate school I was still living in New York and I was massively broke. I think I had four jobs. Every time I’d get on my computer I’d be on Craig’s List looking for the next job, never writing. I was also teaching ESL at night. So everything in my life was just trying to figure out how to live in New York but not really how to be a writer. It was really fun, but it just wasn’t productive for me. Once I realized that, I thought about moving back to Israel because it’s cheaper there and I had enough job contacts. But then I found out I got the Stegner.
So I thought, OK, this is amazing…this is such sacred time. I tried really hard to tune out any noise so I could focus entirely on the book I wanted to write, regardless of whether or not anyone would ever want to publish it. About three and a half years ago I showed an agent, Bill Clegg, some of my stories. I had only about a hundred pages ready to show him. That he wanted to work together was incredibly gratifying. Every six months or so, I’d send him a new story, and he’d give me comments and we’d go back and forth. He read my stories so carefully and thoughtfully, and didn’t seem concerned at all that he’d spent years essentially working for free.
TM: What does it feel like now to be honored as a “5 Under 35” nominee, and with your book coming out? What does it feel like to have the blinders off?
MA: It’s really great. To be honest, I think it’s just that writing is so lonely and this book was just so deeply personal. It was that book that I knew I had to write. And I kept telling myself that as I was working on it, because I wasn’t convinced that anyone would publish a bunch of historical stories about communists. I just kept telling myself, well that’s okay. I had so many talks with my friends where I said that’s okay, I have to do it for myself and not worry. And so the fact that it’s coming out and that people are interested is the most extraordinary feeling.
TM: Let’s talk a bit about influence. I recently read a book about Philip Roth’s work and I was wondering if he is an influence of yours.
MA: I love Philip Roth. I’ve read everything he’s ever written. I completely agree with what a lot of people say about his depiction of women in some of the books. I mean, there have definitely been books where I think, wow, this is such a phenomenal book except for the fact that you clearly have an axe to grind and you’re pushing it through this specific character. That can be disappointing. But I’ve admired him since I first wanted to be a writer. He’s a writer that’s been in my head the whole time. He’s so idea and character-driven, so we have such a sense of politics and history and the society around the characters, but we’re also in the character’s head in the same time, and it’s just happening simultaneously. He’s also able to come up with these alternate realities for our society that I just think are just mind-blowing. I love The Human Stain, that’s my favorite, I love American Pastoral, I love The Counterlife. Those books are going to sit on my shoulders for the rest of my life. Even the ones that I love a little less, I’m still like, wow, who writes sentences like this?
TM: Who are some of your other influences?
MA: Grace Paley is my favorite writer. My love for her is deep. I grew up in this really political home and I remember when I read her for the first time in college, I had never read anyone who wrote about kitchen-table politics, about how it happens in the home and goes out into the neighborhood and the world. And also, I had never known of a writer who writes about the role of women in these supposedly progressive places, and she does it in this gentle and really loving way. James Baldwin is another favorite writer. He was big for me because when I first started writing I was worried, a little bit, about being sappy and sentimental and overly emotional and so I was trying to write these cool stories even though it’s totally not my personality at all. And then when I read him I thought, he’s writing just what he needs to write, it’s just pure emotion, it’s passion. And that alive-ness of his writing was so inspiring to me. Every time I’m stuck, he’s the one I read, and I think, this is what it means to write: to put everything on the table and just write about what you really care about.
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table.
With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities.
But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America?
In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans.
During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor’s note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.]
Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia).
Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places – U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia – they might normally never visit.
But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples.
The New Yorker
During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.”
Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe — is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone.
The Soul Mate
Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations?
Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency.
Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris — like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year.
Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating.
According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces… of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry — a sort of win-win, all things considered.
Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.
Image via christine zenino/Flickr
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]
Esteemed Members of the Swedish Academy:
Can we please stop the nonsense and give Philip Roth a Nobel Prize for Literature before he dies?
For your consideration, I present to you the Library of America edition of The American Trilogy, out just this week. The coincidence, I grant you, is a touch unseemly. One can’t help wondering if the board of the LOA chose this week to publish its handsome $40 omnibus edition of Roth’s three best-known late novels in the hope that you, the esteemed members of the Swedish Academy, would award him the Nobel Prize in Stockholm next week, allowing the LOA to bring in enough cash to float yet another edition of Henry James’s Desk Doodles. But don’t let that sway you. Just consider the work.
The opening of American Pastoral, the first book of the trilogy, with its effortless conjuring of the age of American innocence during the Second World War, is enough by itself to warrant at least a Nobel nomination. The book begins with an extended reverie about “steep-jawed…blue-eyed blond” Seymour Levov, star athlete of Newark’s tight-knit Jewish community, and a Jew who excels at all the things Jews of that era aren’t supposed to be good at: playing ball, being glamorous, loving themselves. By being “a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get,” Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede, offers his neighbors, only “a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto,” a home-grown avatar in the fight against Hitler’s fascists in Europe.
Yet in the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Roth’s alter ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, the Swede is a plaster saint, a bland, blond cipher. The Swede goes on to inherit the family’s Newark glove-making factory; marry a shiksa goddess, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949; and buy an old stone house in an upper-crust Gentile suburb. But in a deliciously funny scene, Zuckerman finds the grownup version of his childhood hero impenetrably dull:
I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he had instead of a being, I thought, is blandness – the guy’s radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him.
But Zuckerman is wrong. The Swede, like Coleman Silk from The Human Stain, the third book in the trilogy, bears a wounding secret. In Silk’s case, his secret is that he is not Jewish, as he pretends to be, but a black man passing for white. The Swede, on the other hand, has remained irreducibly himself, the great American sports god married to the beauty queen, but his daughter, now three generations removed from the ghetto and raised during the Vietnam War, has turned against everything her parents represent and, in a senseless act of antiwar protest, set off a bomb that kills a man at the local post office.
In The American Trilogy, Roth tackles the three great historical issues of his era – protest of the Vietnam War, the Communist blacklist, and racial discrimination – and in each case, he finds something profoundly original to say. In American Pastoral, Merry’s act of violence is not merely a treason against her nation, or even against her father, but an affront to the generations of Levovs who rose from poverty to respectability through hard work and pluck. In I Married a Communist, the second and weakest book in the trilogy, Roth nevertheless puts a face to devout Communist belief in the person of Iron Rinn, the six-foot-six actor who has made a name for himself playing Abraham Lincoln on the radio.
But for all the brilliance of Roth’s historical analysis, the real subject of these books isn’t American history, but the essential unknowableness of the human heart. Each of the three books is narrated by Zuckerman, who like Roth has retreated to a monastic life in rural New England following a failed marriage. In each case, Zuckerman befriends the book’s hero, makes a judgment about who that man is at his core, then learns that his original judgment is wrong. Thus the books are, in essence, love stories, in which Roth’s alter ago, desexed by prostate surgery that has rendered him impotent, is cast in the curiously feminine role of a lover who falls for a man and then has to write an entire book to figure out just who this man really is behind the mask he has built for himself.
In American Pastoral and The Human Stain, the unmasking carries special poignancy because we as readers, like Zuckerman, fall in love with the damaged, vulnerable man behind the mask. In American Pastoral, the Swede is a big, sweet American lunk who lacks the political and intellectual equipment to understand his daughter’s fury at the American war machine. Yet even after Merry’s bomb kills a man and she goes on the run, even after the Swede learns that she has joined the radical underground and built bombs that have killed more people, he still loves her. In a wrenching scene, he finds Merry living in a single rented room in the roughest part of post-riot Newark, literally starving herself as part of a crazed religious practice.
What he saw sitting before him was not a daughter, a woman or a girl; what he saw, in a scarecrow’s clothes, stick-skinny as a scarecrow, was the scantiest farmyard emblem of life, a travestied mock-up of a human being, so meager a likeness to a Levov it could have fooled only a bird.
The scene is made doubly painful by the fact that rich, capable Swede Levov can do nothing to help his daughter. He knows he should call the police, and some part of him knows this would probably save her, but he can’t do it. He is incapacitated by that most human of emotions: love.
In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk is undone by an even more human emotion: love of self. Silk is drummed out of his university job for uttering an unintended racial slur against two black students, and is too caught up in the lie he has been living for most of his adult life to save himself by telling the truth, which is that he was born black. Roth’s handling of Silk’s transition from a light-skinned black teenager to a swarthy Jewish professor of classics is a thing of beauty, but for all the power of those scenes, the book is finally less about race and Silk’s self-destructive mendacity than about the relationship between Zuckerman and his shifting understanding of who Silk is.
Silk actively romances Zuckerman – in one marvelous scene they dance together, these two impotent old men, Zuckerman with his surgical wounds, Silk who takes Viagra – but as Zuckerman begins to understand Silk’s secret, his love for him deepens. He admires Silk’s refusal to be held back by the accident of his skin color, but even more, Zuckerman loves Silk’s sheer human complexity, the fact that there is so much more to him than meets the eye.
This, for Roth, is the true human stain, that we are so much more than what people think they know about us. “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 known,” he writes. “The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” The Human Stain is set in 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal nearly brought down Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Roth rails with great comic gusto at “the ecstasy of sanctimony” the scandal brought into public life that year. But Roth’s real beef with Clinton’s opponents is that they refused to let Clinton be a real man with human needs. “I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner,” he writes, “draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other, and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.”
If I Married a Communist fails to match the other two books, it is because Iron Rinn, the being at whom Zuckerman directs his love, fails to be sufficiently complex to be fully human. I Married a Communist, which turns on a tell-all book by the hero’s actress ex-wife that ruins his life, came out shortly after Roth’s actress ex-wife, Claire Bloom, published her own tell-all book about Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House, and critics read I Married a Communist as Roth’s less-than-subtle response. Given the weaknesses of I Married a Communist, the critics may have a point. The novel is so consumed with its vitriolic attack upon Iron Rinn’s wife, Eve Frame, and her daughter, a professional musician named Sylphid (Bloom’s daughter, it is worth noting, is an opera singer) that it neglects to make Iron Rinn into the kind of multi-layered, vulnerable man worthy of Zuckerman’s love, much less that of his readers.
Which brings us to the biggest knocks against Philip Roth, and perhaps the reason you, the members of the Swedish Academy, have not already awarded Roth the honor he so plainly deserves. The charges are, to put the case bluntly, that Roth’s oeuvre is uneven, and that, moreover, he’s a sexist pig. And you know what? There’s something to both these charges. Roth has written some truly dreadful books, and in much of his lesser work, including the often puerile David Kepesh novels, a primary quest of the central character is to find a hole, any hole, into which to insert his wayward penis. Even in Roth’s greatest work, if there is an act of villainy afoot, you can bet a woman is at the root of it. I revere Philip Roth, but if I were a woman I wouldn’t get within a hundred miles of the man.
But you, my esteemed friends, must see past all that, not because Roth’s personal failings don’t affect the work, since they plainly do, or even because we must take the good with the bad, but because, in Roth’s case, the good is inseparable from the bad. A more reasonable man would have known better than to follow his actress ex-wife’s tell-all book with a bilious, score-settling novel about an actress who ruins her husband’s reputation with a tell-all book. But then a more reasonable writer, one who actually cared what we thought, would never have dared, as a white Jewish man, to write a novel about a black man who passes as a white Jewish man. A more reasonable writer never would have written, in 1969, a novel like Portnoy’s Complaint about a “cunt crazy” young Jewish guy who beats off into raw liver that his mother later serves for dinner.
The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced.
If Philip Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].
In fiction, people are reading a new novel by a former sports writer, Mitch Albom. Perhaps you recall an earlier book of his: Tuesdays with Morrie, it sold millions of copies. This new book, Five People You Meet in Heaven, though fictional, covers much of the same life and death territory that his bestseller did. Also big right now is the latest incisive and sharply funny novel by Diane Johnson, L’Affaire. From what I’ve heard, her books are character driven, modern, droll, and witty. Johnson is a two-time Pulitzer finalist and a three-time National Book Award finalist, so she is the real deal. Also, a new book by newly minted Nobel Laureate, J. M. Coetzee, has been rushed to stores. Originally intended for release in November, Elizabeth Costello, was released early to take advantage of and celebrate Coetzee’s latest honor.And in non-fiction??? Plath-mania continues with the release of what is apparently one of the best books yet written about the deeply troubled poet and her husband Ted Hughes. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook is another in a long line of books that look at Sylvia Plath and Hughes, and from what I hear it’s quite good. Steel yourself for a tremendous resurgence in interest in Sylvia Plath, as the release of a biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow approaches. For those of you intending to keep it real, get a copy of The Bell Jar quick before they put Gwyneth’s face on it. Meanwhile, true crime aficionados and Mafia watchers are rushing to get their copies of The Brass Wall by New York Times journalist David Kocieniewski which is about an NYPD detective who infiltrated the mob, but was later betrayed by a fellow officer. Apparently this one reads as though written directly for the screen.Lots of movie talk today, which is good because it allows me to mention that Phillip Roth’s highly-regarded novel, The Human Stain, while always a strong seller, has kicked it up a notch in anticipation of what is apparently a highly-regarded film version. (As I mentioned a few weeks ago, ditto Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River). The other paperback that people are buying is a bit less serious, but it seems like a pretty terrific gag gift for David Beckham fans as well as anyone who watches Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man.