Stuff I Love – 2: Philip Roth’s later novels

15 Nov

The literary world was… well… if not exactly shocked, then at least saddened by the news, last week, that the novelist Philip Roth is to retire at the tender age of 79.

Roth’s career spans more than 50 years, from the publication of his short story collection Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 to his novella Nemesis in 2011. In that time he’s written 26 books of fiction, 2 nonfiction works on writing and literature, and 2 memoirs. His novels cover a lot of ground, from the broad satire of 1971’s Our Gang (a very thinly-veiled attack on the Nixon administration) and gross surrealism of the following year’s The Breast (in which the main character turns into a 155lb breast) through to the heart-stopping drama of American Pastoral, and his final hit-and-miss quartet of novellas, referred to collectively as Nemeses.

They feature none of the above.

What’s striking about Roth’s career is just how successful so many of these later novels are. Where many authors see their talents dwindle in later life, Roth went from strength to strength. Of course, this is often a matter of perspective, and though American Pastoral won him the Pulitzer, there are many critics who still prefer his earlier, bawdier novels, like the notorious Portnoy’s Complaint, but having read some of his earlier work and a lot of the later novels, and while there are still vast swathes of stuff left for me to read, I’d say I fall squarely into the Later Roth camp.

Not this one.

But what, then, do I mean by “Later Roth”? Where do we draw the line in the sand? Before, or after the first quartet of novels featuring Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman; starting with 1979’s The Ghost Writer and ending with The Prague Orgy in 1985? I’d argue later, and specifically from Sabbath’s Theater (1995) on. I couldn’t tell you exactly why this is; I’m not enough of a Roth scholar to say if that’s a fine place to draw a line, but it feels like the point at which Roth goes from being a very good novelist with a successful body of work behind him, to being arguably America’s Greatest Living Author – a title that’s been almost a given since the deaths of Saul Bellow in 2000 and John Updike in 2009.

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I win.”

So, using that imaginary line in the sand, here are my Top 5 Later Roth Novels:

5) Nemesis (2010)

Roth’s final novel is the story a polio epidemic in mid-1940s Newark – the location to much of Roth’s work – and the trials and tribulations of  23-year-old teacher and playground supervisor Bucky Cantor. Cantor, riddled with guilt at being unable to serve in World War II, due to his poor eyesight, finds himself waging a personal war against the outbreak. A deeply moving novel about blighted opportunities, and – a recurring theme in Roth’s work – the way in which history impacts upon the lives of ordinary people. This was the perfect antidote to 2009’s toe-curlingly dreadful The Humbling.

4) The Plot Against America (2004)

Roth’s one and only dabble with alternate history, The Plot Against America explores a 1930s and early 40s in which Charles Lindbergh, not FDR, is US President while Europe falls, country by country, to the Third Reich. Taking its cue from the 1941 speech Lindbergh made in Des Moines, in which he warned of the “ownership and influence (Jews have) in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government”, Roth imagines a world in which the famed aviator turned politician signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, and the creeping antisemitism that begins to affect Jewish families in the US, including a fictionalised version of Roth’s own parents and brother. While his reading of history is occasionally a little off, and his speculations unlikely, The Plot Against America can be read just as easily as an attack on the Bush administration’s handling of the so-called ‘War On Terror’, or on the threat charismatic bigots and a mob mentality can pose to any apparently civil society.

3) The Human Stain (2000)

Turned into an icky, almost unwatchable film starring a woefully miscast Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, The Human Stain is the penultimate Zuckerman novel, but as with all of the later Zuckermans its main character is in fact someone else; in this case university classics professor Coleman Silk. Silk is accused of racism, when his use of the word “spooks” (he means ghosts) is willfully misinterpreted, first by a student, then by a bitter and jealous colleague. The novel explores his doomed relationship with semi-literate cleaner, Faunia Farley, and his secret past: Having passed himself off as white and Jewish throughout his career, Silk is in fact biracial African American, and disowned his family in order that his career should progress unimpeded by the racism of the 50s and 60s. The Human Stain is a brilliant exploration of race, sexuality, and the political machinations of academia. The character of Faunia’s estranged husband, Lester, is one of Roth’s finest and most disturbing creations.

2) Indignation (2008)

It’s interesting that of the four Nemeses novellas, the two which work best are those – Nemesis and Indignation – which focus mainly on young, college-age protagonists. Here the setting is 1951. As boys his age are dying in the Korean War, Marcus Messner lives under the fretful tyranny of his father, a kosher butcher, in Newark. Terrified that his son will wind up in the army, and get sent off to die, Marcus’s father fusses about him with a paternal concern that’s overwhelming, driving Marcus west, to study at the conservative – and very Christian – Winesburg College, Ohio. There, his fervent atheism and – you’ve guessed it – indignation see him enter a downward spiral of futile conflict and sexual misadventure. Funny and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, this is the finest of the Nemeses novellas.

1) American Pastoral (1997)

There’s an accusation often levelled at Roth’s novels, and particularly the later works, that they all cover much the same ground (Carmen Callil walked off the jury for the International Mann Booker after it awarded Roth the prize for that very reason), and there is some truth in that. Certain things can be taken for granted: The protagonist’s Newark upbringing. A blue collar father, along with detailed descriptions of that father’s working life (in Everyman, watchmaking; in Indignation, kosher butchery etc.) The impact an historic event or events will have on that protagonist’s life. All of this is true of American Pastoral, but this is where those themes and motifs are at their most perfect. In Swede Levov we have the Jewish American man as all-American Hero. Levov is tall, handsome, blonde-haired (I can’t have been the only reader picturing a younger Robert Redford playing the part); a high school sports star who married a beauty queen, before becoming a successful industrialist (he inherits his father’s glove factory). Levov has it all, but then of course the man who has it all and keeps it could never be the protagonist of a novel, and so American Pastoral is really about the failings and transparency of the American Dream, and how that dream can be so very violently ruptured.

American Pastoral is ten times more powerful than an earlier work like Portnoy’s Complaint could ever be, because while that novel sets out to shock us with toilet talk and wank jokes, American Pastoral is shocking in its frankness about our real taboos, the ones we’ll never be comfortable discussing, but does it with great warmth, compassion and honesty. A deserving, resolutely politically incorrect Pulitzer winner, and the pinnacle of Philip Roth’s entire, 53 year career.

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