Commentary Magazine

How to Read Philip Roth

And what will COMMENTARY make of this confession? I can’t imagine it’s good for the Jews.

Peter Tarnopol, in My Life as a Man
by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s grievance against COMMENTARY, sardonically vented in several of his novels and especially in a lengthy scene in The Anatomy Lesson (1983) involving a literary critic named Milton Appel (based on the late Irving Howe), goes back at least as far as December 1972, when Howe wrote an essay in these pages titled “Philip Roth Reconsidered.” This essay followed the publication of Roth’s novella, The Breast, which Howe called “boring” and “tasteless,” but his main target was the best-selling Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

Howe—who had written a laudatory review of Roth’s first book of stories about Jewish suburbia, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)—tore into Portnoy savagely. It was, he said, “an assemblage of gags,” “a shriek of excess,” “a vulgar book . . . full of contempt for Jewish life” and “afflicted with claustrophobia of voice and vision,” a sell-out of Roth’s talent for the sake of what Flaubert had scathingly referred to as an “audience,” as opposed to dedicated “readers.” Aimed by one of America’s most respected intellectuals at a young writer with a high Flaubertian sense of his vocation, the remarks stung Roth badly.

Rereading Howe’s essay today, one is struck by both its prescience and its unfairness. Blaming a writer for not being some other writer is rarely a relevant response to his work, and Howe was in effect blaming Roth for not being an entire school of other writers—that is, for not working in the grain of social realism that Howe himself regarded as the apogee, and perhaps even the raison d’être, of the modern novel. What was wrong, he wrote, with Portnoy’s Complaint, whose sex- and self-obsessed narrator “never shuts up,” was its lack of a fleshed-out world of social relationships in which its protagonist could be located. Of all its characters, only Alexander Portnoy himself was “allowed the human attribute of a history,” to which everyone else in the book was a mere foil, having no “reality or persuasiveness.” That this might be the fictional point about Portnoy, a compulsively clownish neurotic trapped in an ego that does not allow for the reality of others, did not interest Howe much.

And yet at the same time, Howe’s essay was perceptive in pointing out that, if the real Philip Roth were to stand up, he would be the author not of the realistically textured title story of Goodbye, Columbus, nor of his next two novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967)—both ploddingly social-realistic stories set in the Midwest—but of Portnoy. The essay’s opening section in fact was a reappraisal of Goodbye, Columbus in which, while still granting it “the lucidities of definition,” Howe concluded, “I doubt that Roth is really interested [even there] in a close and scrupulous observance of social life.” On the contrary, he declared:

Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if a work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with the signature of self.

Perhaps Howe was reading his judgments of Portnoy back into Goodbye, Columbus and perhaps he was insightfully right about it; the salient thing was his recognition, at a time when Portnoy was still one of a kind among Roth’s books, that it was what counted. And about this, if nothing else, Roth would have agreed. Both in his fiction and in interviews he often has referred to Portnoy—a novel that few critics today would consider one of his best—as the book that put an end to his literary apprenticeship and marked his true birth as an author.

“Portnoy wasn’t a character for me, he was an explosion,” Roth told the Paris Review in 1984. “This phenomenon is known to students of literary survey courses as the writer changing his style.” Indeed, as Howe saw, the truly portentous feature of Portnoy was not its scandalous subject matter, although this was what had helped make it a best-seller—the masturbation, the oral and anal sex, the wicked caricatures of an aggressively overprotective Jewish mother and a constipatedly passive Jewish father, the narrator’s acting-out of Jewish male fantasies about Gentile women—but rather its less spectacular subject, the authorial self. For it was to be this self, not previously dealt with directly in Roth’s fiction, that soon became his almost sole concern, pushing all else to the margins.



Nor all at once, though. Just as Roth had spent the first half of the 60’s dutifully producing Letting Go and When She Was Good, which even Irving Howe grudgingly admitted were marked by “tokens of struggle with the materials of American life,” so, even after the liberating effect of Portnoy, he sought to maintain for a while longer the pretense that his fictional interests extended beyond the immediate world of a single Newark-born Jewish writer. The result was two disasters, the worst of all his twenty books to date: Our Gang (1971), a collection of lampoons of President Nixon and his administration that Howe rightly called “a reversion to the silliness of the high-school humor column,” and The Great American Novel (1973), a soggily comic yarn about an imaginary baseball league whose players bore the names of Babylonian deities and appeared to have been jointly inspired by “Casey at the Bat” and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Between these two books came a slim divertissement, The Breast (1972), written after most but not all of The Great American Novel had been finished.

While The Breast was a minor and not-much-noticed work, it marked a decisive moment in Roth’s career. Because it is, as its text acknowledges, clearly modeled on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, The Breast is easily regarded as a literary exercise. Yet even so, it is an exercise that departs significantly from the exercise book; for what strikes one most about its narrator, David Kepesh, an English professor mysteriously turned overnight into a huge mammary gland, is that—unlike Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect in Kafka—his fate is less than an unmitigated disaster for him.

At first, awakening in the hospital to find himself a sightless “organism of a spongy consistency with the general shape of a football or a dirigible,” Kepesh is horrified and desperate to regain his former state. Yet as he tomes to explore the erogenous advantages of his new condition, which shows no signs of going away, he grows increasingly reconciled to it, until the story ends with the manic resolution:

And I will be deliriously happy. And I will be deliriously happy. Remember Gulliver among the Brobdingnags? How the king’s maidservants had him walk out on their nipples for the fun of it? He didn’t think it was fun, poor little fellow. But then he was a humane English physician, a child of the Age of Reason, living quite precariously in an outlandish land of giants; but this, my friend, is the Land of Opportunity in the Age of Self-Fulfillment, and I am David Alan Kepesh, the Breast, and I will live by my own lights!

It is hardly necessary to dwell on the opportunities for Freudian interpretation offered by The Breast. Indeed, if one relates it to the frantic onanism of the young Portnoy, the opportunities start well short of Freud, since the belief that masturbation can result in the sprouting of female breasts was a part of the folklore of Roth’s American boyhood. But although a psychoanalytic understanding of the story is certainly feasible, The Breast can also be read as a purely literary manifesto.



Let us recapitulate.

A third-generation American Jew, born in 1933, grows up in New Jersey, goes off to college in the early 50’s, and discovers that he is a writer. Like most young writers, he begins by producing stories about his own experience, and typically, too, this includes the experience of escaping the nets of convention and respectability that his native environment had spread at his feet. These stories are published in his first book, whose genuine literary merits and real or perceived attacks on middle-class Jewish life in America attract enough attention, both admiring and angry, to launch him successfully on his way.

In order to remain true to type, the young writer, having penned his farewell to the parochial world he was raised in, should now put it behind him and plunge fictionally into “real life”—which is to say, in this case, into the vast and alluring continent of Gentile America. And so he does, writing first a university-campus novel in which Jews and non-Jews discover each other socially and sexually, and then a novel set in a small Midwestern town in which Jews do not appear at all. Neither is much of a commercial or an artistic success. Although there is nothing terribly wrong with them, there is nothing terribly right, either. What they most lack is that feeling given us by the best writing that no force on earth could have prevented it from being written.

Our young writer, even more acutely aware of this failing than are his critics, broods over it and realizes its cause: he has left behind unfinished business, both in New Jersey and in his own psyche, that must be gone back to and dealt with before he can move on undistractedly to bigger things—namely, the true inner story of his childhood, adolescence, and revolt against bourgeois values, which so far has never been told. Of course, “true” does not mean factual; rather, in the novel he now composes, he invents an outrageous “autobiography” for himself whose outward scurrilousness is the fictional correlative of the states of soul he wishes to portray. The book, the feverish energy and excitement of which are communicated instantly to its readers, grossly offends some of them, titillates many others, and makes him rich and famous.

All is now ostensibly well and good. Our writer, no longer so young, has exorcised the ghosts of his past and can get on with the temporarily suspended task of addressing Big Subjects. And since he has become something of a literary celebrity and none but the biggest subject is big enough, he proceeds to write a book about the President of the United States and another about the American National Pastime, to which he gives a title, no less audacious for being self-mocking, that tells us of the enormity of his ambition. Both are quite awful. Indeed, the second is so awful that before he can force himself to finish it he has to stop and compose a slender penitential work. It says to us, this coded public confession:

I, David Alan Kepesh, also known to my readers as Philip Roth, hereby acknowledge, after all my unsuccessful attempts to prove otherwise, that nothing interests me enough to write well about it except my own self and whatever directly impinges on me. I represent this self as a giant breast, a metaphor that I have chosen both because the breast is an organ that receives stimuli from a world it can only perceive in the form of its own limited sensations, and because these sensations are often intense and almost always fascinating to the breast itself. I am aware that in thus circumscribing myself as a writer I am inflicting on myself a kind of punishment. Yet not only is this punishment justly deserved for the sin of bad writing I have committed, I believe that only by accepting it can I free my talents to fulfill themselves. Let other writers be eyes and ears, glued to the keyhole of the world; I will be a breast and nothing more.

It is a vow that—embracing the author Irving Howe is soon to accuse him of being—he will keep.




From 1962 until 1967, Mr. Tarnopol was the patient of the psychoanalyst Dr. Otto Spielvogel. . . . Mr. Tarnopol is considered by Dr. Spielvogel to be among the nation’s top young narcissists in the arts.

—from My Life as a Man



Roth’s next work after The Great American Novel was My Life as a Man (1974). His best book up to that point, it is divided into two parts. The first, called “Useful Fictions,” consists of two stories about a character named Nathan Zuckerman, who would subsequently reappear in five more of Roth’s novels. Part II, called “My True Story,” is an “autobiographical narrative” by a writer named Peter Tarnopol, who is also represented as being the creator of Nathan Zuckerman and the author of the stories in Part I, which several of the characters in Part II read and discuss. Still another character in “My True Story” is Tarnopol’s psychoanalyst, Dr. Otto Spielvogel, who had previously appeared in Portnoy’s Complaint.

And so, in introducing into his novels such fictional devices as multiple authorship and metatextual commentary, Philip Roth joined the ranks of the postmodernists, with whom he had not been previously identified. And yet in reading My Life as a Man and the novels that came after it, one has no particular sense of outside influences. Presumably Roth, an extremely well-read writer, was not entirely self-inspired in once again undergoing “the phenomenon known as the writer changing his style,” but the impression given by his later books is that, had post-modernism not existed, he would have been quite capable of inventing aspects of it by himself.

This is so because he seems to have been drawn to its techniques for purely practical reasons. There is in him little of the philosophical curiosity, the fascination with physical and epistemological relativity, that has animated deconstructors of traditional fictional forms like Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino. Sometimes he likes to present us with one of those puzzles about reality and illusion, comparable to sets of facing mirrors in which we are asked to find the original image, that postmodernism is so fond of; but even when he has confused us in regard to which of his characters is imagining or being imagined by which, the world remains for his Nathan Zuckermans and Peter Tarnopols a reasonably solid and taken-for-granted place.

Roth’s reasons for fracturing and restructuring the traditional novel, one might say, are literary-critical and psychological. Two things appear to interest him most: the ways in which a novelist draws on his experience in creating fictional characters, and the ways in which the writing of fiction is analogous to the processes by which we create and sustain our own selves.

Starting with My Life as a Man, every work of fiction produced by Roth has been highly “autobiographical,” to use an unavoidable word that nevertheless must be put in quotation marks, if for no other reason than that an author’s thoughts and fantasies are at least as much a part of his biography as his curriculum vitae. Be that as it may, though, all of Roth’s subsequent novels have had as their main characters men who not only think many of the same thoughts but who share all or most of the following entries on their CV’s: (1) They were born in the 1930’s into a newly middle-class, nonobservant but strongly ethnic Jewish family in New Jersey. (2) They have one brother several years younger than themselves with whom they maintain a relationship of fierce sibling rivalry. (3) They have studied English literature in college and become writers. (4) They are the author of a best-selling novel, a book called, in the Nathan Zuckerman series, Carnovsky. (5) They were married when young to a non-Jewish American, are now married to a non-Jewish Englishwoman, and have no children. (6) Although they have no ties to the Jewish community, their sense of Jewishness is a vexing personal concern.

All of these details, as well as many others associated with Roth’s typical protagonists and their supporting casts, are taken from Roth’s own life, albeit sometimes with significant variations. Roth’s own brother, for example, is not younger but older—as indeed, in My Life as a Man, is Nathan Zuckerman’s brother, Sherman, whom Nathan has worshiped as a young boy but loses respect for when Sherman gives up his ambition of being a jazz pianist in order to become a middle-class dentist. It is only in Roth’s later Zuckerman Bound trilogy (1979-83) that the same brother, now called Henry and still a dentist though one who has relinquished a budding career not in music but in acting, appears as Nathan’s junior. Henry is featured even more prominently in The Counterlife (1986), where it is not entirely clear if he has an independent existence or is Nathan Zuckerman’s fictional creation. Which leads one to ask: is it Nathan who has played Jacob to Henry’s Esau by stealing his brother’s birthright and then further reducing him to a mere creature of his imagination, or is it rather Roth himself, the creator of Nathan, who has in this fashion symbolically become his older brother’s older brother?



These are the kinds of questions that Roth’s fiction deliberately forces on its readers while at the same time warning them, often in an irritatedly superior tone, against the faux pas of reading his work autobiographically. Zuckerman Bound indeed tells the comically nightmarish story of just such a writer, who suddenly finds himself identified by the public with a fictional figure he has created: “They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book.” And yet if Zuckerman has the right to be distinguished from Carnovsky, the case for distinguishing Roth from Zuckerman, or from the other Roth-like characters in his work, is not nearly so clear-cut. After all, Carnovsky is a novel that answers in every respect to a description of Portnoy, and we all know who wrote that.

The truth is that, in his Zuckerman books and other later novels, Roth has played a far subtler and more coquettish game with his readers than his routine disclaimers of autobiographicality suggest. Of course his novels are not factual accounts of a real life—few actual autobiographies are strictly that, either; but throughout them he has scattered so many un- or barely altered details from his life that he might be compared to a fugitive who, after deliberately littering his trail with his wallet, his monogrammed handkerchief, his address book, his bankbook, and his calling card, protests that the posse has apprehended the wrong person. Ultimately it may have, if only in the sense that no human being is the sum of his personal possessions; but whatever his motive, the man in question can hardly expect us to believe that he did not intend to be caught.

What, then, is Roth’s motive? Is it the “narcissism” that Dr. Spielvogel has diagnosed in Peter Tarnopol, a writer immersed in himself even when writing about others? But narcissism, as Dr. Spielvogel knows, is more complicated than that. Psychoanalytically speaking, indeed, it is the least “autobiographical” of personality disorders, one in which the experiences and thwarted emotions of childhood are deeply submerged and replaced by an often dutiful and conforming ego that demands constant recognition and reinforcement to shore up its precarious foundations. Like the novelist, the narcissist is an inveterate inventor of fictional selves; but whereas the characters of the novelist have an autonomous existence, those of the narcissist remain umbilically tied to the “real self” that gave birth to them and of which they are simultaneously a denial and an expression.

If one could therefore imagine for a moment a dedicated “narcissist in the arts,” a talented writer of fiction, say, like Peter Tarnopol, one might conceive of him as caring less than other novelists about bestowing independent destinies on his fictional protagonists and more about maintaining them in a dialectical relationship to their creator. He might even wish to make this relationship the central axis of his fiction—but here he would find himself in a paradoxical position, for since as the creator of this fiction he stands outside it, how can the relationship be within it?

At some point in his career, however, Tarnopol might have a revelation. True, he cannot put himself in his own narratives, not even if he writes one called “My True Story,” but it is not necessary for him to do so; the reader will do it for him. He is the author of the best-selling Carnovsky? Then he need only create a character who is the author of Carnovsky too, and even readers with the elementary sophistication to know that Nathan Zuckerman is not Peter Tarnopol—which is to say, nearly everybody—will be unable to keep from wondering what the connection between the two men is.

Of course, in doing so, readers are likely to get things hopelessly jumbled, since the bare facts known to them about the “real” Peter Tarnopol are grossly insufficient for any accurate judgment. Yet by now this hardly matters. On the contrary, the more confusion, the more fun: the relationship has been brought to where Tarnopol wants it, and gossip and the media can be counted on to keep it there by feeding readers the information about him, true or false, that they will introduce on their own into his next novel. And that information will not be about Gentiles in the Midwest, but about a Newark-born Jewish novelist, who perhaps once wrote about such people long ago but realized they were not for him.




So Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

—Epigraph to Operation Shylock



It is thus with a sense of inherent logic that one reads Philip Roth’s latest novel, Operation Shylock,1 in which an author named Philip Roth travels to Jerusalem and meets an exact lookalike, named Philip Roth too, who, under the pretense of being the author Philip Roth, is organizing a movement to return the Jews of Israel to the Diaspora. At last, the reader may think: no more Portnoys, no more Tarnopols, no more Zuckermans. The masquerade is over.

The guessing game is not, however, even though the three Philip Roths exert different claims on our credulity. Number 1 is the author of the novel, while Number 2, the author in the novel, appears to be a semifictional character with a history that can be only partially corroborated. (The Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, for instance, whom Roth 2 claims to have gone to Jerusalem to interview for the New York Review of Books, has confirmed that such an interview took place with Roth 1 but denies other conversations attributed to him in the novel in which the two men supposedly discussed Roth 2’s impostor.) As for Roth 3, the “Diasporist,” whose existence is attested to solely by Roths 1 and 2, he can be presumed to be wholly fictional.

Indeed, since the element of mystification, though it is great in the opening pages, starts to wear off well before we have finished reading the novel, it might be asked what the point of it is. Suppose that, instead of Philip Roth meeting Philip Roth in Jerusalem, Nathan Zuckerman had met Nathan Zuckerman: would it make a difference?

The answer, one intuitively feels, is: yes. From a literary point of view, though, there is something counterintuitive about such an intuition, since the mere change, if a plausible one, of the name of a character in a novel—calling Proust’s Albertine, let us say, “Jacqueline”—should logically be able to change neither the character nor the novel.

What this suggests is that Operation Shylock, although it has been treated as a novel by the critics, may not be a novel at all, at least not in the sense of the self-referential fictional narrative that the genre is traditionally conceived of being. Many novelists, of course, mix truth with fiction, and many can be better appreciated with the help of outside knowledge—for example, in the case of Proust, an author who mined his life for fictional material far more exhaustively than Roth, by a familiarity with late 19th- and early 20th-century French social history.

And yet precisely insofar as we read such writers as novelists, the border in them between truth and fiction has no significance. It is aesthetically irrelevant that the female Albertine was actually modeled on Proust’s homosexual lover, Alfred Agostinelli, just as—to take a writer temperamentally and stylistically closer to Roth—in the novels of Henry Miller, where the first-person narrator is called “Henry” and has a history much like his author’s, we feel no particular need to establish the boundary between the two. In Operation Shylock, on the other hand, this same boundary strikes one as crucial, and it is the attempt to determine its exact location, rather than the events of the narrative per se, that provides much of the story’s suspense. Where the real Philip Roth ends and his imagination begins is precisely what Operation Shylock seems to be about.



There is perhaps something both unprecedented and oddly heroic about an author’s offering himself up as a fictional text in this way. One is reminded of those 19th-century microbe hunters who, unable to find suitable subjects on whom to conduct their investigations, decided to infect themselves—and indeed, by inoculating his life with his own fiction, Roth has formally signed the waiver of release to it that Zuckerman, the author of Carnovsky, rails at the world for obtusely thinking it possesses.

Let us imagine for a moment a dedicated Flaubertian reader pondering the passage in Operation Shylock in which the author describes suffering a severe mental breakdown caused by the sleeping pill Halcion, and writes of being helped through the crisis by a friend from Boston whose name, like Aharon Appelfeld’s, is that of a real person. Does our reader—wondering whether this episode might be a true one that could explain Philip Roth 2’s encounter with Philip Roth 3 in Jerusalem not as Philip Roth 1’s fictional invention but as an actual, drug-induced delusion—reread it several times with exquisite attention, consider it in the light of the book as a whole, and come to a literary conclusion? No, he goes to the Boston phone book, looks up Philip Roth’s friend, and calls to ask whether Roth had a Halcion reaction and what its symptoms were.

One seems to be dealing here with that thin line between grandiose self-assertion and self-renunciation—two ostensibly opposed postures that share in common a relinquishment of all claims to privacy—that has been known to characterize saints and religious ascetics, categories with which Roth has not been associated. Certainly, however, the element of self-sacrifice in his writing, first unsympathetically noted by Howe twenty years ago, has been as real as the element of self-inflation. A highly gifted character sketchier (he has drawn some wonderfully realized portraits, such as that of E.I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer, 1979), he has curbed his powers austerely; and as his work has unfolded inwardly in all its ego-directedness, it has revealed a deepening sense of resignation which has, as Howe wrote more prophetically than empirically at the time, “programmatically denied itself the vision of major possibilities.”

For although Roth’s more recent novels with their many alter egos tell us that we are indeed the copyrighted authors of ourselves, and that our fictional techniques resemble those called by psychologists identification, incorporation, introjection, denial, repression, sublimation, projection, dissociation, and integration, their bottorn line is that, as self-creators, we are not the Emersonian demiurge that a Portnoy or a David Kepesh aspires to be but rather artistic failures. We work with materials that are given us in advance and over which we have little control, our manipulations of them are clumsy and subject to innumerable constraints, and the final product, if there is one, is rarely whole or convincing. “Being Zuckerman,” says the still-narcissistic but chastened protagonist of The Counterlife at the novel’s end,

is one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself. In fact, those who most seem to be themselves appear to me people impersonating what they think they might like to be, believe they ought to be, or wish to be taken to be by whoever is setting standards. So in earnest are they that they don’t even recognize that being in earnest is the act. For certain self-aware people, however, this is not possible: to imagine themselves, living their own real, authentic, or genuine life, has for them all the aspects of a hallucination.

This last sentence sounds like nothing so much as a proposal for Operation Shylock, in which the author’s doppelgänger is both a sequel to and a reversal of Zuckerman’s brother Henry in The Counterlife. Like Henry, who abandons his family and dental practice and goes off to live as a pioneer on a religious Israeli settlement on the West Bank, Roth’s Jerusalem double is a man who, in middle age and with little warning, is possessed by an urgent sense of Jewish mission; unlike Zuckerman’s brother, however, the cause he embraces is that of a Jewish exodus from Israel to the safety and high culture of Western civilization. “Diasporism,” he tells Roth,

plans to rebuild everything, not in an alien and menacing Middle East, but in those very lands where everything once flourished, while, at the same time, it seeks to avert the catastrophe of a second Holocaust brought about by the exhaustion of Zionism as a political and ideological force.

In the final analysis, though, the difference between the two ideologies, Henry’s militant Zionism and the double’s anti-Zionist Diasporism, is of little importance. Both represent the same thing, namely, the narrator’s caricatured but deep craving to find meaning and sustenance in his Jewishness. This is a theme that has surfaced strongly in other recent books of Roth’s as well, such as Patrimony (1991), a factual account of the illness and death of the author’s father, and Deception (1990), a series of dialogues set in London between an American-Jewish writer named Philip and the charming Englishwoman whom he has taken as his adulterous lover and driven to distraction with his harping on his Jewish identity—and of all the developments not foreseen by Irving Howe, who took Roth harshly to task for his cavalier hostility to Jewish life, it is perhaps the most striking.



What has Jewishness come to mean to Roth, a man who celebrated his sixtieth birthday last year and who, as the young author of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, seemed to be traveling away from the Jewish world at an escape velocity that soon promised to boost him out of it completely?

If one poses the question in terms of a quest for Jewish knowledge, or a serious engagement with Jewish history, the apparent answer is: no more than it ever did. And yet a sheer, almost abstract passion for being Jewish seems to grow stronger in Roth’s work all the time. He has come to conceive of himself, one might say, as a pure, attributeless Jew-an-sich, “a Jew,” as Nathan Zuckerman describes himself at the end of The Counterlife, “without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple.”

Perhaps what being Jewish does mean to Roth is something akin to being true to himself, which is quite different from the project that Zuckerman in The Counterlife despairingly calls “being oneself,” and that the pop-pyschology books nowadays refer to as “writing one’s own life script,” a notion they might have found suggested in Roth’s earlier work. For to think that our lives are coherently scriptable—Roth’s latest fiction seems to be saying—is to nourish the illusion of an authorial autarky that we do not and cannot have and that can only lead to the proliferation of ever-more-false selves rather than the real one that it is our ambition to create. What is real is to acknowledge our authorial debts, which can be paid only in the form of loyalty to those—our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, people—to whom, exasperatedly perhaps but ultimately with a sense of gratitude that at least this much about us is not counterfeit, they are owed.

“Circumcision,” writes Zuckerman in the same passage in which he is trying to convince his estranged Gentile wife to submit the child she is pregnant with to the ancient rite,

gives the lie to the womb-dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory, the appealing idyll of living “naturally,” unencumbered by man-made ritual. To be born is to lose all that. The heavy hand of human values falls on you right at the start, marking your genitals as its own. . . . Circumcision confirms that there is an us, and an us that isn’t solely me and him.

There is a dogged integrity in this body of work that has taken so many books to get from “me” to “us.” And that, certainly, is good for the Jews.


1 Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $23.00.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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