I am disorder

Michael Wood

  • Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
    Cape, 451 pp, £15.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 224 03814 1

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. ‘No a man’s character isn’t his fate,’ Roth writes in Operation Shylock: ‘a man’s fate is the joke that his life plays on his character’ – and a person in that novel is described as ‘a woman forged by the commonplace at its most cruelly ridiculous’. 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.

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