Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Philip Roth




This post was occasioned by a piece by Oliver Kamm in the Jewish Chronicle and is about my favourite writer of fiction - Philip Roth.It was written on the occasion of Roth's announcement that he wasn't going to write any more books. Well, I just cannot imagine what someone like Philip Roth will do or be without writing books.

For me, no-one lays out the bare bones of writing  quite like Philip Roth. Apart from his many revealing accounts of the writing process, just reading him is like I'm climbing into the sentences and crawling around the words.

Like millions of my generation, I was knocked out by "Portnoy's Complaint" - its outrageousness and audacity - though I don't like it all that much now. Now, my favourites are predictably those self- and Jewish-obsessed Zuckerman novels: "My Life as a Man",  "The Anatomy Lesson" and "The Counterlife". Another book I like very much is "American Pastoral" - a book which I believe will be read five hundred years from now.

Readers of this blog, with its part-focus on World War Two revisionism may well like The Plot Against America". It's no favourite of mine, but it does showcase Roth's genius for imagining and realising a story. You can find out more about it in this clip.

Roth has consistently denied the charge of self-obsession, claiming that he uses autobiography as a starting point only, a firm foundation from which his imagination can leap. I think he's right about that.

He's also been accused of misogyny, so much so that feminist publisher Carmen Callil walked off the recent Man-Booker panel in disgust at his selection. Again, I think the charge is unfounded. Roth writes honestly about what it feels like to him to be a man and, as far as I'm concerned, that meets all his obligations as an artist. When asked about the walkout, he himself said "I simply don't understand it".


Finally, there is that absurd charge of Jewish self-hatred. Roth writes about his Jewish world, both inner and outer. What more can a writer do? And, if in so doing, he reveals some of the ugliness therein - what's not to like?

His later books left me rather cold - too short, too serious and too downright literary for my taste. Where had the mad Jew gone? Well, like all of us, he'd just grown up.
Anyway, here are a couple of clips, by and about, Roth himself. But best of all, is to read the books