‘OK, holy man, try this

Ian Hamilton

  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
    Cape, 361 pp, £16.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 224 06090 2

Philip Roth likes, or has liked, to describe himself as a ‘suppositional’ novelist. Much of his writing practice, he has said, takes off from a ‘what if?’ What if Franz Kafka had made it to America and there lived on to become a New Jersey schoolmaster? What if Anne Frank had survived and found out about the publication of her diary from a chance reading of Time magazine? What if a man could actually become a breast? What if a decent, shamefaced Jewish boy were to extol the joys of masturbation?

And what if we, Roth’s readers, could join in and ask, for instance, what if an earnest young Jewish novelist of the 1950s were to find himself unfairly chastised for his disloyalty to Jews? And what if this same novelist decided to respond by handing his chastisers something they could really, and fairly, get to work on? What if he were to zap them with Portnoy’s Complaint and proceed to sell half a million copies of said horror to the Gentiles? And what if he were then to find himself outlawed and reviled, not just by tribal religious types but even by wise, novel-reading intellectuals? What if one of these intellectuals were to call Portnoy ‘the book of which all anti-semites have been dreaming?’ And what if yet another were to dismiss this earnest young Jewish novelist of the 1950s as a mere pedlar of cheap gags? ‘The cruellest thing anybody can do to Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice,’ said Irving Howe – and this was just about the cruellest thing he could do to Philip Roth.

Philip Roth has told the story of his early travails many times, and in many different tones of voice, and more than once has allowed himself to wonder: what if this life of mine had not been mine? What if he hadn’t, in 1957, printed a short story called ‘Defender of the Faith’, a story in which one of the main characters is a manipulating, fake-religious Jew? And what if some big-shot rabbi had not then demanded of the Anti-Defamation League: ‘What is being done to silence this man?’ – this man being, of course, Philip Roth?

With the rabbi’s question, we now know, the course of Roth’s writing career was fixed for good. Not to be silenced became, for him, the chief spur to his eloquence. Portnoy, Tarnopol, then Zuckerman: all of them big talkers. ‘The dirty little secret,’ Roth once said, ‘is no longer sex; the dirty little secret is hatred and rage. It’s the tirade that’s taboo.’ And, boy, does Roth give good tirade. And now we have a 24-book oeuvre teeming with ultra-articulate prosecutors and defendants, with tribunal-mocking surges of subversion and angrily denounced wrong verdicts. Nearly all of the exciting things in Philip Roth occur between quotation-marks. And talkativeness is habitually a token of vitality and sexual verve: indeed, verbal conquest sometimes can stand in for sexual conquest (see Deception and The Counterlife for scenes in which the talk is much more fun to listen in on than the sex). To succumb to Roth is to be swept along by a relentless love of speech, speech for the sake of speech, the opposite of silence. What if that rabbi had been smarter, what if he had known how to distinguish between literature and life? What if he had preferred literature to life, or words to no-words? What if he had known how to hold his tongue?

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