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


  1. I've never read any of Philip Roth's books but I heard about "The Plot Against America." That's an interesting name for a book about a man that would have chosen to keep the USA out of WW II and saved the lives of 400,000 Americans that died fighting in the war FDR provoked with Germany. Roth mentions that he wrote about the Lindbergh administration dividing up "spheres of influence" with Hitler. This sounds like he is acquainted with and believes in FDR's 1941 speech in which FDR claims Hitler was planning to take over South America, but as we know from the propaganda of the day Germany's enemies didn't even think Germany's sphere of influence should extend into Poland or Czechoslovakia, Germany's former territory where millions of ethnic Germans were living as a result of the creation of these states.

    I would be very interested where Roth could point to any anti-semitic statements that Lindbergh supposedly made. There are none in the clip of his America-first speech on youtube and although I saw that Nicholson Baker made a similar charge against Lindbergh in his book "Human Smoke" that I saw when I was leafing thru it, I couldn't find the offending statement(s) Baker was talking about either.

    Lindbergh's supposed anti-semitism seems to be based on two things: 1) his desire to keep the USA out of WW II and 2) his statement that American Jews were one of three forces trying to push the USA into WW II (the other two being Great Britain and FDR).

    I would suggest to Roth that he read Patrick Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War" and some David Irving books to get to know what really happened, but I don't think he would like what they wrote. Like I said, I haven't read his books, but based upon this one I don't see how he could be a "self-hating" Jew, I was thinking he might be in love with his Jewishness.

  2. I agree with pretty much all of this.

    I saw Roth interviewed some years back and was struck how someone as sophisticated and perceptive as he could hold, what seemed to me, such banal and conventional views. Also, how someone as subversive as he could be so unable to challenge any of the established narratives.

    Interestingly, Gilad Atzmon read that book and thought that Roth was in fact challenging the established order - that "the plot against America" was, in fact, the plot to take America into the war. I must say, I couldn't see what Gilad saw.