Photo Credit: Nancy Crampton/Wikimedia Commons
There will undoubtedly be eye-rolling in some quarters over Blake Bailey’s 800-page biography of Philip Roth, that self-hating Jew/misogynist/self-absorbed relic of an era of history that America has (perhaps) outgrown.
And yet, Philip Roth: The Biography – not a biography, the biography – is a book as sensibly, sensitively, and insightfully written as the best novels, a portrait of its subject that touches on the whole Roth: his life, works, scandals, controversies, kindnesses, generosity, pettiness and prickeries.
Authorized, it is. Sympathetic, yes. Hagiographic? No way.
It’s inevitable that in the minds of many he is lumped in with the other great post-war writers, the sacred but now apparently dethroned monsters Bellow, Updike, and Mailer. Indeed, the appearance of this biography has reopened the attacks on Roth for the treatment of women in his novels. But focusing only on this means missing the enormous sea change in American Jewish life – Jewish life, not just literature – of which Roth’s work was an expression and trailblazer. All else was secondary.
As Roth puts it in Operation Shylock, here was “the largest problem and most amazing problem of my life and that, despite every honorable attempt to resist its spell, appeared by now to be the irrational power that had run away with my life…. That topic called the Jews.”
Bailey stresses that Roth set out to shatter the lachrymose image of the Jew that had up till then prevailed among American Jewish writers: the suffering shopkeeper of Malamud, Wallant’s pawnbroker, the struggling slum dwellers of Henry Roth and Mike Gold. Even in the works of Saul Bellow, Roth saw that when the main character was angst-ridden, he was a Jew, and when he was living fully and freely, he was a non-Jew.
Roth’s aim was to obliterate this dichotomy by destroying one of its elements. His Jewish males were going to refuse to be good Jewish boys. They would be sinners in excess, masturbating into the family dinner and pissing on a dead lover’s grave. With Portnoy, he claimed he had destroyed the notion of the Jew as the “alienated, hypersensitive Victim.”
And this in fact was his greatest accomplishment from his first book to his last, across more than half a century and thirty-one works of fiction.
Nevertheless – and this was an important, perhaps central part of his genius – his key characters were nevertheless unmistakably, and fiercely, Jewish.
Roth would be attacked by rabbis and secular protectors of the faith like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Howe. Roth could boast of having been denounced by the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem for creating with Portnoy a situation where “with the next turn of history, not long to be delayed, this book will make all of us [Jews] defendants at court.” Though such attacks sometimes enraged Roth, he stood firm. He was the voice of the second and third generations of American Jewry, of Jews who were Americans, freed of the tug of shtetl schmaltz. “[Y]ou are a Jewish prophet and you always have been,” a character informs him in Operation Shylock.
In 1973’s The Great American Novel, the Jew-who-must-be-overcome, the one against whom Roth spent his life rebelling, speaks in the peculiarly American idiom of baseball. In this story about a team that has no home stadium, a baseball version of the Wandering Jew, the immigrant owner’s son, Isaac, realizes that the sacrifice bunt, a sacred bit of baseball strategy, is a bad idea (something that Roth gleaned from his study of statistical analyses he’d undertaken before writing the book and an idea now widely accepted).
Isaac tries to have his father – who is a tailor as well as the team’s owner – stop the team from bunting. His old school father shrugs: “Isaac, please, if de goyim say bunt, let dem bunt.” The rebellious American son is willing to turn his back on the sacred, accepted ways, but the father is still a prisoner of the mentality of the shtetl Jew, fearing his life is at risk if he raises his head even on the matter of what to do with a runner on first and less than two outs.
The Jew Roth refuses to be doesn’t rock the boat. Deference before the non-Jew was the survival strategy of the Old World. On the baseball field, that miniature of the American nation, the strategies that applied in Pinsk no longer obtain.
At the same time, the second and third generation American Jew was free in Roth’s work to express openly his real feelings about the non-Jewish world.
In Portnoy’s Complaint the lead character doesn’t hide the profound ambivalence of the American Jew towards gentiles. Speaking about his high school days, Alex Portnoy tells of the star baton twirler at Weequahic High School, the shiksa Alice, about whose special abilities the Jewish students feel a kind of civic pride. And yet, he explains, “despite all the solemn applause delivered by the Weequahic fans in tribute to the girl’s daring and concentration, despite the grave boom boom boom of our bass drum and the gasps and shrieks that went up when she seemed to set ablaze her two adorable breasts – despite this genuine display of admiration and concern, I think there was still a certain comic detachment experienced on our side of the field, grounded in the belief that this was precisely the kind of talent that only a goy would develop in the first place.”
Alex’s sentiments are not new in Jewish life; his openly stating them in a work of literature is. The Jewish students’ condescension towards Alice is a manifestation of two common Yiddish expressions. Alice’s pointless talent is an example of “goysiche kup,” gentile head, i.e., something only a non-Jew would do. Or, more simply and directly put, something stupid. On the other hand, the young Jews’ looking down on her is a result of their possession of “yiddishe tzechel,” Jewish intelligence, something a non-Jew could never possess.
These notions remained deeply embedded in the second and third generation American Jewish psyche. Their persistence in America was no surprise, but it was Roth’s boldness to let the world know about this. The Jewish id, long stifled beneath a super-ego that had ruled the roost, was now laid bare for all to see.
The hatred Roth experienced after the publication of Portnoy was not only the fruit of his acting out of lubricious fantasies or his mockery of the Jewish family: it is the revelation that the Jew is no more free of racial contempt than anyone else – that the Jew is not by his nature “good.” There was nothing especially moral about the Jew. When told by an Israeli professor that American Jews were no longer motivated by Jewish values Roth said that “I would very much like to hear what values of a moral nature are exclusively Jewish?”
His Judaism, then, was as much an attitude, a milieu, a mindset as anything else. Roth’s experience of religion within his family felt like nothing more than pointless interferences in the life of an American boy. Like so many American Jews, it was for the sake of their immigrant, unassimilated parents that Roth’s parents kept kosher and sent poor Philip to Hebrew school three days a week; not to do so would have been, as he said, “unnatural.” But this interference in daily life was a meaningless exercise: “Abraham, Isaac – what is this stuff? Is it history? Fairy tales?… They lived in tents. I couldn’t figure this out; Jews in the Weequahic section, they didn’t live in tents.”
Roth was not a product of the ghetto. The slums and tenements of the Lower East Side and Brownsville, which so haunted the lives and works of Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin and Norman Podhoretz, had little to do with him. Roth grew up in a house, not a cold-water flat. His father, an insurance salesman, was not wealthy, but he was many steps from poverty. Survival was not what lay on the horizon for Roth and his fellow young Jews in Newark’s Weequahic: it was wealth that beckoned.
This is what makes Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus so enthralling. The main character, Neil Klugman, is a mere librarian, an aspiring intellectual with his lip perpetually curled in a sneer at the Jewish vulgarity around him. His love interest, though, is Brenda Patimkin the daughter of a wealthy but uneducated Jewish father, someone who achieved success by the sweat of his brow selling kitchen and bathroom sinks. Roth here presents us with something new in American literature: the successful, suburban Jew. One who is crass, whose spelling and grammar are shaky (Patimkin’s erratic capitalizations are modeled on those of Roth’s father), but who will do anything for his daughter.
Unlike the ur-pushy Jew, Sammy Glick of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, the Patimkins are the new Jew, the Jew of the suburbs who has shaken off the dust of the Weequahics of the world. These were, a later character says, “Liberated new Jews, normalized Jews, ridiculous and wonderful.”
The suffering Jew would make his return in American Pastoral in the person of Swede Levov. Levov, the sports hero of Weequahic in his youth, runs a successful glove factory and has moved to the suburbs. He is an American success. His daughter however is responsible for a death when she, a young New Leftist, plants a bomb. Levov’s suffering as a result of her crime is not Jewish suffering, it is American suffering. The Jews are fully integrated participants in the “American berserk,” as Roth calls it.
The Weequahic of his youth remained an obsessive subject and setting in his novels over Roth’s final writing years, but now in a nostalgic/elegiac mode. Judaism being matrilineal, it’s not surprising that Weequahic took on the air of a womb to which the author returned over and over again. Tragedy was not foreign to it, in the form of polio in Nemesis or American fascism in The Plot Against America.
But for the aging Roth it was an endless source of stories, characters, settings, and solace. The self-consciously bad Jewish boy refreshed himself in the bath of his childhood, before celebrity, obloquy, and insults became his lot. In the Weequahic of his youth everyone was Jewish but no one wore a yarmulke. Being a Jew was simply what you were, what everyone around you was. It was not a belief system or a religion, nor did the child experience it as an interruption. It was the essence of being.
In his life as well, Roth never left his Weequahic. He tracked down old friends and girlfriends (not always with positive results: the model for Brenda Patimkin wanted nothing to do with him, and her sister told Roth that he had forever damaged their family by his portrayal of them in Goodbye, Columbus). He even attended a Philip Roth bus tour of Newark and contributed his personal library to the Newark public library, requesting no payment.
Roth was personally generous, having no hesitation about sharing his great wealth with those whose path he crossed, tales that recur constantly in Bailey’s volume, and evidence of which can be found in Lisa Halliday’s touching novel of her affair with him, Asymmetry.
According to Bailey, Roth was tricked into one marriage when his lover misled him into believing she was pregnant. His biographer suggests that he erred mightily in marrying the actress Claire Bloom when their relationship was already rocky. Bailey’s two great set pieces in Philip Roth are his lengthy accounts of the Gehenna that were these marriages. Bailey shows how Roth became obsessed that it was Claire Bloom’s published account of their marriage that cost him the Nobel Prize. It certainly added to the stain on his oeuvre.
Philip Roth overstepped boundaries, to be sure, and in the current atmosphere many will find much to dismiss or even hate him for. His treatment of women has long been a source of opposition to him, something he rejected as being a result not of a feminist reading of his work, but of “stupid reading.”
But Bailey’s account makes it clear Roth’s conduct was far from blameless. A friend is reported by Bailey to have said of Roth that he “behaved like an addict in the way he compartmentalized everyday life, the better to get away with transgressive behavior.” In his relations with women, he was incapable of fidelity – as Bailey shows in unsparing detail. Though some have, and will, find these accounts unpersuasive, they contain elements so unflattering, like Roth’s open, rapturous joy at the death of his first wife and his clumsy pass at a friend of Claire Bloom’s daughter, that there is little reason to doubt them.
But if Roth’s narcissism and misogyny seems more monstrous today than they did when he was alive, the fury of the Jewish establishment towards Roth in the 60’s seems almost quaint.
The quivering and largely senseless fear against which Roth fought no longer haunts most American Jews. These days, the American Jewish establishment no longer anathematizes Jewish writers who portray American Jews in an unflattering light: their censoriousness is reserved for those too vocal in their criticism of Israel.
Roth always insisted he was not a Jewish writer, but an American writer. No writer before or since has joined the two in the way that Roth did – a way that transformed Jewish life, as well as American literature.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.