Commentary Magazine

Phillip Roth

To the Editor:

In a telling passage in Philip Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson, a critic quotes in a letter a scatological reference to “Jewish suffering” found in one of the author-protagonist’s novels. The author becomes enraged because the critic “had attributed to the author the rebellious outcry of a claustrophobic fourteen-year-old boy.”

This passage does more than validate the thesis of Joseph Epstein’s perceptive essay, “What Does Philip Roth Want?” [January], which I understand to be that Roth suffers from a marked ungenerosity of spirit and is in danger of exhausting his subject matter (as well as his readers). It also suggests that, even making due allowance for the difference between autobiography and fiction, Roth still possesses the insight to understand what has soured the bright promise of his earlier works. The ridicule of nouveau-riche Jewish life in Goodbye, Columbus was appropriate for a clever boy from Newark who had ascended to the University of Chicago. Sadly, the product of what should be Roth’s mature years continues to resemble “the rebellious outcry of a claustrophic fourteen-year-old boy.” . . .

No intellectually responsible person can claim that the novelist is obligated to propagandize for his own ethnic community. Probing weaknesses, defects, and pretensions is certainly part of the novelist’s calling. What offends many of us who were admirers of Roth’s early works is that his lifelong ridicule of Jewish aspirations is apparently based on massive ignorance of Jewish thought. . . .

I have a faded clipping of Irving Howe’s laudatory review of Goodbye, Columbus in the New Republic of June 15, 1959. Howe was not yet the hated “Milton Appel” of The Anatomy Lesson. Admiring as he was of the book, Howe was presciently troubled by the fact that, unlike other American Jewish writers who dealt harshly with their subjects, Roth “finds . . . no sustenance in the Jewish tradition.” The middle-aged Roth flagellates himself more than he does the rest of us. No one can doubt his right to do so, but one must pity the souring of his muse. Would it have been different if he had heeded Hillel’s injunction—and Howe’s suggestion—that he “go study”?

Joel J. Sprayregen
Chicago, Illinois



To the Editor:

What does Joseph Epstein want? He says that Irving Howe’s “eviscerating” article, “Philip Roth Reconsidered” [COMMENTARY, December 1972], “left Philip Roth in the spiritual equivalent of intensive care for . . . more than a decade.” If so, then Mr. Epstein’s elective surgery is clearly intended to dispatch the patient to the morgue. No longer can he say that Howe’s was the “unkindest cut of all.” Mr. Epstein’s skilled vivisection lays bare all the parts but misses the force that pulses through them.

Mr. Epstein has extracted from Roth’s generous talent an “ungenerous” spirit; from his known privacy, an invitation to voyeurism; from his explorations of compelling subjects, only a limiting obsession with sex and a rummaging among outworn topics—all so as to deliver for sport in the temple of the Philistines a blind and weakened libertine. But to reduce Roth’s considerable subject matter—how to navigate between isolation and independence, between desire and love, between fame and privacy, between parental fears and parental values, between the demands of art and the demands of society, between rewarding expectations and punishing consequences—to reduce these to autobiographic petulance, Mr. Epstein has had to read Roth like a prosecutor on the make. . . .

It is not for Mr. Epstein to ask what Roth wants. He can ask what a character wants (different from book to book) or whether a character’s pain is real (different from whether it’s warranted). He can even say that though it is real he doesn’t want to read about that particular pain any more. That at least would separate Mr. Epstein’s limitations from Roth’s alleged perseverations (one can tire of politics in Trollope or of eligible young ladies in Austen and leave some great fiction unread). But insisting that Roth’s characters have no right to rage in pain when Roth has it so good (that is, earns so much money) is like saying that Macbeth’s ambition was excessive because Shakespeare was raking it in at the Globe.

Granting Roth his readability, Mr. Epstein fails him on reread ability, although he is “not sure exactly what [that] proves.” Since among the elements that make Roth readable in the first place is a marvelous control of the reader’s anticipation, keeping always in the periphery of consciousness the hero’s relation to the main conflict—no longer the need of the rereader—Mr. Epstein finds himself unbound from the experience and free to nitpick and misread. So in Goodbye, Columbus he finds Roth regarding Mrs. Patimkin as a “swine” for not knowing who Martin Buber was, when really it is Neil Klugman who is critical, and only to the extent of thinking her nouveau riche and vulgar (which she is); indeed, Mr. Epstein’s remark that the “rich and vulgar Jews . . . it is fair to say are the target of the novella” misses a point that is clear in a first reading, and that is that Neil is the target of the novella. He is the moralizer whose values are betrayed by his desires—to marry into Patimkin wealth. But Mr. Epstein knows that. A few paragraphs after his accusation he can say of Roth that “in his first book he was moralizing against moralizing.”

Mr. Epstein’s parsings are wondrous. His reread Lucy Nelson of When She Was Good suddenly brings a “rush of sympathy” because, though she “is mean-spirited and endlessly judgmental, throughout the novel there is someone meaner and even more judgmental on her tail—her creator, the author.” Prosecutor Epstein cannot bring himself to say that Lucy is mean-spirited, endlessly judgmental, and sympathetic because that would be acknowledging not just talent but art; yet Lucy has no life except that which Roth has given her. There is no other Lucy. And by narrating from within Lucy’s warped perspective, Roth, not Epstein, arouses sympathy for the bitch in pain.

Similarly of Portnoy. Mr. Epstein says that it “was deliberately in bad taste . . . meant to cause the squeamish to squirm, the righteous to rave.” Does he really believe that this serious writer set out to achieve a public effect? Alex Portnoy certainly spews four-lettered venom, but why he has to do so is very much the issue of the book. A good boy brought up to play by the rules, he has discovered that almost no one successful does so. This is not the place to discuss all the issues in Portnoy, but any book that has become eponymous for its mode of narration and inventive effects can hardly be expected to command fresh wonder for those effects in repeated readings. Nothing wears worse for repetition than a funny story, even the best funny story. To reread this wildly funny book is to read beyond the humor. Beyond the humor is pain. Roth balances them in the unfolding. He is hardly responsible for scratchings beneath the folds that must forfeit that balance. . . .

What Mr. Epstein apparently wants is a return to the novel that takes on social history directly, without the intercession of raw self. And perhaps he would like to see some splicing of the 80’s directly onto the 50’s without all that ranting and raving in between. In Roth and others he sees undiscipline. Perhaps that is why he so overstates the use of sex in Roth, comparing his “bedscapes” to Bellow’s cityscapes. Roth is not erotic, certainly not titillating. There aren’t ten pages in his dozen novels that an onanist would take to the bathroom. But Roth is one of those novelists whose works become, as Lionel Trilling wrote, “. . . repositories of the dialectic of their times [containing] both the yes and no of their culture.”

Ironically, Roth’s characters, who have all come of age in the 50’s, are as ill at ease with the 60’s and 70’s as Mr. Epstein seems to be. Each is in pain for somehow following the epoch’s false leads. And the subject matter doesn’t become passé just because all those mothers are either dead or in nursing homes, or because, as Mr. Epstein says, in “the war between ethical and social yearnings and sexual appetite . . . ethical and social yearnings lost and sexual appetite promptly departed.” The dialectic of Roth’s times contains, locked in painful embrace, the yes and no of many a time to come. For Joseph Epstein to subject that contest to ridicule, here in the arena of Milton Appel, is unfair sport.

Alan Cooper
York College, CUNY
Jamaica, New York



Joseph Epstein writes:

Alan Cooper makes a good case for the work of Philip Roth. It is difficult to imagine a better case being made. Only one thing works to weaken this case, and that is a reading of Roth’s novels, which, taken together, seem so thin, so self-obsessive, finally so small-minded. I would not disagree with Mr. Cooper when he refers to Philip Roth’s “generous talent”; I only disagree about the uses to which that talent has been put. The prosecution—to adopt Mr. Cooper’s unkind trope—rests.



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