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Deconstructing Philip Roth

By

Suzanne Wilson

Satirical or sex-obsessed? Self-hating or self-commentary? Of the many ways late author Philip Roth has been described and discussed, the word “complicated” is rarely challenged in debate.  

A paradox of personality, Roth was both revered and reviled in the literary world but nonetheless remained an intriguing figure throughout his decades-long career. 

“I’ve had a lot of colleagues who, quite justifiably, just really dislike Roth,” said Brian Goodman, an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Department of English. “But I have also been amazed to learn just how relevant Roth still feels to many of my students in their own lives.”

Goodman, whose research uncovered secret surveillance on Roth by Czech police during the 1970s, is among the many now sharing contemplative thoughts on the author in the days since his passing on May 22 at the age of 85. Goodman told ASU Now that regardless of what one might have thought of him, Philip Roth will remain an important figure in American literature.

Question: A lot has been said about Philip Roth and his work in recent days. What have you been thinking about in relation to his passing?

Answer: If you read Philip Roth’s later fiction, it’s clear that Roth had been preparing to die for a long time, and yet I was convinced that he was doomed to live to be 118 — a final, cosmic joke. So, I was caught entirely off guard when he passed away last week. Roth won the National Book Award for "Goodbye, Columbus" almost 60 years ago, and he wrote more than 30 books before he retired. If you were a devoted reader — and there were many — then you watched your own life, along with your country, change along with the shifting voices of his fiction. I’m a bit younger, so my own reading experience was much more condensed, more retrospective and probably more intense. 

Brian Goodman

Q: Why was Philip Roth important as a novelist?

A: Initially, as a young writer, Roth helped transform a relatively marginal cultural position into a “universal” predicament for postwar American literature. And even if Roth’s initial vantage point seems somewhat narrow today — and very, very male — Roth has unquestionably served as a model for many other American writers, particularly from immigrant cultures. With "Portnoy’s Complaint" in 1969, he also pushed the boundaries of obscene language and what could be said in a novel. But these very common ways of talking about Roth’s legacy are somewhat limiting. About halfway through his career Roth turned his attention outward, away from the very funny — and sometimes narcissistic — explorations of his own ego. More than any other American novelist I can think of, he was a dedicated and receptive reader of his literary peers, an analyst of his country’s troubled history during the 20th century, and a writer who came to understand the high stakes and incredible ironies of our obsession with storytelling.

Q: What did it mean for Roth to give a voice to so many Central and Eastern European writers in the 1970s?

A: It meant everything. The pivot in Roth’s career happened in Prague. Roth had arrived at a point of personal and creative crisis when he first traveled across the Iron Curtain in search of Franz Kafka’s ghost. But after he met with living writers in Prague who had been banned from publishing because of their support for reform socialism prior to 1968, he developed one of the most important skills of a great novelist: He learned how to listen. He established a paperback series called “Writers From the Other Europe” that introduced many of the most important writers from the region to American readers, including Milan Kundera, Ludvík Vaculík, Tadeusz Borowski, György Konrád, Danilo Kiš, Bruno Schulz and many others. In addition to influencing a rising generation of American writers, the “Other Europe” series also promoted new ways of imagining the 20th century, from the memory of the Holocaust to the rise of a new human rights politics at the end of the Cold War.

Q: What did your research uncover about Philip Roth?

A: Surprisingly, almost none of Roth’s adventures in the Eastern bloc made it into last week’s obituaries. That’s because much of this remarkable story is just now coming to light. A few years ago, I traveled to Prague and retrieved Roth’s secret police file from the menacingly named Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. After translating the file and digging into Roth’s private papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., I was able to reconstruct Roth’s long engagement with writers in the Eastern bloc. In the mid-'70s, Roth traveled to Prague every year until the Czechoslovak government banned him from entering the country. By that point, Roth had established the “Other Europe” series, written an anonymous country report for the writers’ organization PEN, and set up a clandestine financial network that funneled money from prominent American writers to their persecuted counterparts in Czechoslovakia. Roth’s encounter with the “Other Europe” not only changed him as a person and a writer, but it made an immense impact on the lives and careers of his friends across East-Central Europe.

Q: If one were trying to get a sense of who Philip Roth was as a person, which of his books would you recommend reading — and in what order?

A: First of all, I would caution readers against confusing Roth with any of his fictional protagonists, a source of understandable confusion that Roth plays with a lot in his fiction. Instead, I would recommend Roth’s three great counterfactual fantasies, which are each revealing in very different ways. I tell everyone to start with "The Ghost Writer," which I consider to be his masterpiece: a false autobiographical confession wrapped around a risky counterfactual fantasy about Anne Frank. By far Roth’s most autobiographical novel is "The Plot Against America," which imagines a fascist takeover of the United States by devotees to Charles Lindbergh, a leader of the very real America First movement of the 1930s. This terrifying vision is imagined on a very intimate and personal scale. And if you’re pressed for time, Roth’s short and wacky essay “Looking at Kafka” is the best — and funniest — thing ever written about Prague’s greatest and most improbable writer. 

Q: What have been the risks and rewards of teaching Philip Roth?

A: I find the critique leveled against Roth as a “midcentury misogynist” to be largely convincing, particularly in the early phases of his career. My strategy in the classroom has been to be honest about my own ambivalence and introduce the controversies surrounding Roth right up front. So far, it’s actually been a pretty good way to talk about both the possibilities and limits of 20th-century American literature and culture at the end of the semester. For instance, we just read "The Human Stain," which takes place during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s impeachment. Framing our reading of the novel around a discussion of the #MeToo movement opened up entirely new ways of thinking about Roth. In the end, many of my students found "The Human Stain" to be a difficult book to love — this might have even been Roth’s intention — but many of those same students later voted for Roth as the most indispensable writer we read all semester. 

Top photo: A library collection of Philip Roth books. Photo by Suzanne Wilson