A shelf full of Roths, despite the wrath


A shelf full of Roths, despite the wrath

The great American novelist has been dismissed as a misogynist, and if he'd been writing today he might have been cancelled. But for JOAN HAMBIDGE, his voice and imagination remain compelling.



PHILIP Roth was a particularly prolific writer who examined American history, sexuality, family life and psychoanalysis. With more than 30 books to his credit, he was arguably the most provocative writer of his generation. Reference was also made to his “ferocious energy" (David Gooblar),  and photos show a man who brooked no opposition. Resentful. Moody.

Apparently it troubled him that he never won the Nobel Prize, unlike his friend Saul Bellow. He took the train to the publisher year after year, and returned disappointed. He received many other awards, though, including the inaugural Franz Kafka Prize in 2001.

His books have been considered controversial, and during a Man Booker assessment a (female) critic voiced the opinion that he should not be considered because of his misogynistic approach. Obviously, she did not make a distinction between author, narrator and implicit author. Carmen Callil, likewise, opined that he wrote the same book over and over again and that no one would read him in 20 years.

“It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe … I don't rate him as a writer at all …" She published a book by Roth's ex-wife, British actress Claire Bloom, to boot.

Well, this reader still reads him.

Bloom roasted Roth in her memoir, Leaving a Doll's House (Virago Press, 1996), because she felt he had unlawfully hijacked her family in his novels. He was a misogynist, according to Bloom.

I Married a Communist (1998) can be traced to this affiliation. But the novel becomes more than this commitment, as befits a good novel.

In my kitchen there is a shelf of Roth novels — alongside JM Coetzee and Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and Etienne Leroux, Wilma Stockenström's The Expedition to the Baobab Tree and many other classic novels.

In the letters of Bellow (Saul Bellow: Letters, Penguin, 2012), it is the conversations with William Faulkner, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Cynthia Ozick, Martin Amis and especially Roth that strike home. Funny and cruel is Bellow. And straight. In a letter, he castigates Roth over a manuscript that he believes has not yet been rounded off. He knows Roth is going to be angry. There was a lull for several months. And then (the way it is with good friendships): “Thank you. I accept your advice."

Bellow, in his letters, refers to Bloom's humour and how she was able to imitate people exquisitely, much to Bellow's delight. He also offers advice in troubled times.

Harold Bloom considered Roth one of the four greatest writers in the US with Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and DeLillo.


Roth's play with fact and fiction is widely known. He creates Nathan Zuckerman, an alter ego, and often makes scathing comments on values and assumptions.

Had Portnoy's Complaint (1969) appeared today, he would have been cancelled and the irony and humour overlooked. The Human Stain (2000) is an analysis of how innuendo works and how easily words can be turned (unintentionally) against the speaker. Zuckerman tells the story of Coleman Silk, classicist and dean, charged with racism. He referred to absent students at Athena College as “spooks" (not knowing they were black). This fuelled the misery. The novel is full of irony and double-speak.

His elaborate oeuvre produced many highlights for this reader. Especially Everyman (2006), with its black cover, a meditation on death. It won the PEN/Faulkner Prize, a third time for Roth. The Plot Against America (2004) — with Charles Lindbergh becoming president — is a piece of fantasy that takes the breath away. And a vexing analysis of anti-Semitism.

As with Bellow, the reader remains aware of a Jewish narrator throughout his books. Yet the narrative institution is also critical of the Jewish faith and traditions. Like Bellow, Jewishness is present, but at the same time an incisive intellectual is holding forth.

As Roth remarks in a novel: “I imagine. I am forced to imagine. It is my job. It's now all I do."

As with Bellow, there is a certain tension between facts and the novel; including in Bellow's Humboldt's Gift (1975), which uses the life of Delmore Schwartz as a starting point.

Good writing goes against the grain of the correct, the acceptable, avoiding safe zones.


His complete oeuvre, while still alive, was recorded in the Library of America, the second author after Eudora Welty to receive this honour.

♦ VWB ♦ 

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