People - 28.05.2018 - 00:00
28 may 2018. Three years after his début novella, "Goodbye, Columbus" (1959), was published in combination with a few short stories, Philip Roth accepted an invitation by New York’s Yeshiva University to speak about his writing. The first question directed at him was reflective of the controversies his work stirred then and would in the future: "Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?" If his earliest stories unsettled his Jewish readership, many definitely wished him silenced after the success of "Portnoy’s Complaint" (1969), an unapologetically funny and exhibitionist monologue exploring the frontiers of lust and angst, pushing masturbatory fantasies into territories considered obscene. It stayed fourteen consecutive weeks at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Misogynist, anti-Semitist, self-loathing Jew, pornographic and over-rated writer: Roth collected as many derogatory labels as he did accolades and awards. At times, he seemed to despair at the fact that few people seemed to be able to distinguish between Roth, the writer, Roth’s literary characters, and Roth, the human being. Yet he enjoyed playing with these criticisms, letting his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman battle the same persecuting and prosecuting spirits of decency. Roth never allowed his writing to be dictated by these conventions, similarly to his namesake in "Deception" (1990): "I can only reply that this self-styled equal-rights democracy has aims and objectives that are not mine as a writer."
His later writings earned him a space among America’s most important literary chroniclers and critics, with the so-called American trilogy exposing a nation’s vulnerabilities and self-deceptions. "American Pastoral" (1997), "I Married a Communist" (1998), and "The Human Stain"(2000) demonstrated how astute an observer Roth was, of both human and national tragedies. In German and Swiss media, he increasingly gained the status of a public intellectual, even though he felt that he was "no Emile Zola." Generally, he refused the notion that fiction could influence the course of the world or affect people’s political thought. "The Plot Against America" (2004) re-imagined history, having America elect aviator and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh to the presidency. Many speculated that Roth thus commented on the Bush Administration. Though no stranger to political satire, having sent Richard Nixon on the campaign trail to replace Satan in "Our Gang" (1971), he denied that "The Plot" was more than historical imagination. (Yet, as in all of his novels, a reader was better not to trust Roth, the writer.)
In his last appearance in "Exit Ghost" (2007), Roth’s key character Nathan Zuckerman seemed a step ahead of his creator: "I’ve served my tour as exasperated liberal and indignant citizen. … I don’t wish to register an opinion, I don’t want to express myself on ‘the issues’—I don’t even want to know what they are. It no longer suits me to know, and what doesn’t suit me, I expunge." Roth would publish another three novels, before he rather matter-of-factly mentioned in a 2012 interview that he quit writing. That his career was never crowned by a Nobel Prize—well, he personally seems less fazed by this than his readers, including this one who was among the many waiting for the announcement year after year.
At the occasion of his eightieth birthday, naturally celebrated in Newark, Roth read a passage from "Sabbath’s Theater" (1995), a novel deemed by just as many as his finest as there are many who loathed it. Roth himself considered it one of his best works: "Our beloved mother Minnie. Our beloved husband and father Sidney. Beloved mother and grandmother Frieda. (…) On and on and on. Nobody beloved gets out alive. (…) And on mine, beloved what? Just that: Beloved What." Philip Roth, one of America’s greatest.
PD Dr. Claudia Franziska Brühwiler is a lecturer in political science and American Studies. Her publications include the monograph Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth (Bloomsbury, 2013) and the edited volume A Political Companion to Philip Roth (with Lee Trepanier; University Press of Kentucky, 2017).
Photo: Philip Roth; Copyright: Keystone/AP/ Douglas Healey
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