Serious in the Least Likely Way
Philip Roth died yesterday at the age of 85. The LRB published nearly twenty pieces on his work, from Michael Mason on The Ghost Writer in 1979 to Tim Parks on Nemesis in 2010, and Roth himself made four contributions to the paper in the mid-1980s.
Nicholas Spice on Everyman (2006):
Reading Roth, when he is in the groove, is exhilarating because of the way one feels caught up in the swing and drive of the prose as it sweeps forward into the future of the text. His great interest has been in states of extreme mental and emotional excitation – notably rage and lust – and his writing has found a way to embody these states, whether in impassioned speech or wild interior monologue, with an intensity unrivalled in modern fiction.
Frank Kermode on Indignation (2008):
Roth is, notoriously, not without enemies. Long ago it was (rather surprisingly) Irving Howe who campaigned against Roth for the damage to American-Jewish culture said to have been done by Portnoy’s Complaint. The best response was to call this a misunderstanding and cite the abundant evidence that the truth was in fact the opposite. Now the recent crop of books has engendered more hostility to Roth. He ought to be past caring, but it isn’t always easy, given the man’s temperament, to overlook the meanness of spirit that characterises the attacks, determined as they are to ‘get’ him. He is a writer of quite extraordinary skill and courage; and he takes on bigger enemies in every book he writes.
Much of the material Roth has gathered into the Shylock bundle … is nothing short of stunning: fiction fulfilling one of its most honourable roles as a series of thought-experiments, giving voice to tangled, emotionally overdetermined ideas and theories that somebody somewhere is bound to be thinking anyway, and which are safer tried out in a novel than unleashed in their inchoate form on the world outside.
Ian Hamilton on The Human Stain (2000):
Roth has time and again – often testily – insisted that Zuckerman is a fictional and not an autobiographical creation. We don’t, of course, believe him but we take the point that whenever life meets art there are distortions, inflations, overlaps, interpenetrations and so on. Roth hates to hear it suggested that he never makes things up. Zuckerman, he insists, is one of his ‘what ifs’, a figure of ‘mock-autobiography or hypothetical autobiography’. Novelists, he says, are like those ‘people who walk into the police station and confess to crimes they haven’t committed’.
Portnoy complained that his life was a Jewish joke, and Philip Roth himself once suggested that American reality beggared the imagination of even the most extravagant novelist. Who could have invented Eisenhower, he asked, and no sooner had he invented a caricature of Richard Nixon in Our Gang than Nixon turned out to be caricaturing himself in the same way, locker-room slang and all … Life doesn’t imitate art. Life disgraces art; art, for all its slumming, has no idea how far life will go, how low it will sink.
Roth on Roth (1987):
Ambitious young writers are always tempted to imitate those verified by authority; the influence of an established writer upon a beginning writer has almost entirely to do with the search for credentials. However, finding a voice and a subject of one’s own entails making fiction that may well prompt the writer’s first readers to think, ‘But he can’t be serious,’ as opposed to ‘Ah, this is very serious indeed.’ The lesson of modernism isn’t encapsulated in a technique that’s ‘Joycean’ or a vision that’s ‘Kafkaesque’ – it originates in the revolutionary sense of seriousness that’s exemplified in the fiction of Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Céline – even of Proust – fiction which to an unknowing reader probably bears the earmarks less of seriousness than of high eccentricity and antic obsession. By now the methods of these outlandish writers have themselves become the conventions of seriousness, but that in no way dilutes their message, which isn’t ‘Make it new,’ but ‘make it serious in the least likely way.’