‘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?

And this in turn leads us to conjecture: what kind of novelist might Roth have been, without the rabbi? Would we have seen more of the pile-it-high naturalist who gave us the largely rage-free, largely joke-free and yet pretty wordy Letting Go? Or would he have turned into a rustic fabulist, a world-rejecting seer, along the lines of The Ghost Writer’s E.I. Lonoff: ‘Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, transcendent calling’? This sense of roads not taken, or of roads unjustly barred, is the ‘what if?’ that seems to lurk behind even the least indignant stretches of Roth’s fiction. Certainly, it animates his work’s most noticeable strains: the terrible-injustice strain (why has the world done this to me?) and the deep-buried and persistently eruptive strain of guilt (or am I, was I always, like this anyway?).

That scandalised rabbi was wrong, of course, but – here we go again – what if he was also right? Right not about the story but about the author? What if he, with his dark rabbi’s instincts, had sniffed out what Roth himself had half-feared from the start: that this earnest young Jewish-American was more American than Jewish and therefore at least half as earnest as he ought to be? Certainly, Roth’s appetite for mischief, for gratuitous delinquency, has sometimes seemed compulsive. The wish to know what it feels like to be bad is almost as powerful in his work as the refusal to accept that ‘bad’ is what most people say it is. Roth is forever testing out new definitions of ‘offence’, even though the main thing that he himself has been offended by is the way some people take offence at what he’s written – about Jews, about Israel, about women, about writing, about England, about Philip Roth and all that he’s had to put up with, and so on.

Portnoy, Roth has confessed, was meant to do exactly what it did. It was fiction-as-riposte. The riposte was to the rabbi, as in: ‘You are offended by my inoffensive story? OK, holy man, try this.’ And then, post-Portnoy, this (The Breast) and this (Our Gang), and so on. For most of the 1970s, Roth rode the wave of his own notoriety, and seemed eager to project himself as a transgressive homo ludens (his description). The naughtiness was bitter and sardonic, to be sure, and funny now and then, but altogether it appeared to do its job. In rabbi-riling terms, it upped the ante. After all, a man found to be guilty might as well do more of what he’s reckoned to be guilty of.

Roth, though, has never been all-playful any more than he has ever been all-earnest. Hence Nathan Zuckerman, his novel-writing alter-ego and star of several of his novels of the 1980s and beyond. Zuckerman’s own writing life, like Roth’s, has been determined by false accusations and it was he who paid homage to the saintly Lonoff (who Roth persistently refuses to ‘identify’ as Bernard Malamud or Isaac Bashevis Singer, the critics’ choices). Zuckerman, too, has scores to settle and finds it impossible to keep his mouth shut. He, too, is possessed by demons and would sometimes quite like to turn into a breast.

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’. With Roth and Zuckerman, of course, there is no need to make false confessions. As they see it, their erroneous charge-sheets were drawn up long ago, and by policemen whose authority they can’t acknowledge. Their instinct is to plead not guilty. ‘Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life,’ Roth testified some years ago. ‘There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguises. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend.’

‘Fake biography’, Roth calls it. Does this mean that he can conceive of a biography that is not, at some level, fake? In his several pronouncements on this subject, he has poured scorn on the idea of a ‘reliable’ biographer, and we get the feeling that he somewhat dreads the day when someone will step forward with ‘the facts’ on Philip Roth – dreads it, and yet, we can be fairly sure, is making plans to deal with it. On the matter of reliable life-writing, Roth is surely school of Henry James. ‘There are secrets for privacy and silence,’ James said, ‘let them only be cultivated on the part of the hunted creature with even half the method with which the love of sport – or call it the historic sense – is cultivated on the part of the investigator ... Then at last the game will be fair and the two forces face to face.’

Over the years, Roth’s method with investigative profilists has been to get in first with his own versions of the Roth biography – versions that have been ‘mock’ or ‘hypothetical’, perhaps, but which have had the effect, he would contentedly contend, of muddying the waters. The day will surely come, though, when biography (‘envenomed by resistance’, in James’s phrase) will have its say. And if Roth is indeed made nervous by this prospect, who can blame him? Over the past decade, he has been exposed to the kind of journalistic coverage that beset him during the immediate post-Portnoy phase of his career. First of all, there was the matter of his health – a quintuple heart bypass followed by a nervous breakdown – and then there was his split up with Claire Bloom (and Bloom’s subsequent exposure of the ‘facts’ about their marriage). At times, it must have felt like old times. Remember, post-Portnoy, that ‘affair’ with Barbra Streisand, whom Roth had never met? He still mentions it in interviews.

All this has been real life, off the page. On the page, Nathan Zuckerman has endured similar upheavals (although the Bloom business, or some of it, is coped with by another character, who tells Zuckerman all about it). But Zuckerman is not the man he used to be. Nowadays, he is more spectator than participant. In this new novel, The Human Stain, he listens but he rarely speaks. The people he listens to are in the main as vehement and brilliantly articulate as he himself once was but these days he just soaks things up. Passionate, unruly humans confide in him about their secret lives and he skilfully reports their tales to us (and if they aren’t too good with words, he supplies them with internal monologues – some of which contain the richest, most vivacious writing in the book). One could almost mistake him for a biographer. His gifts are to do with curiosity and empathy, and he tells us as little as he needs to about himself.

Rendered impotent by prostate surgery, Zuckerman has retired to the wilds of New England, away from ‘all agitating entanglements, allurements and expectations’. The trick is, he says, to find sustenance in the ‘communications of a solitary mind with itself (the words here are by Hawthorne, whose presence haunts this book in ways I can’t quite fathom). He no longer indulges the ‘pernicious wish for something else’, and the last thing he thinks he can endure again is the ‘sustained company of someone else’:

The music I play after dinner is not a relief from the silence but something like its substantiation: listening to music for an hour or two every evening doesn’t deprive me of the silence – the music is the silence coming true. I swim for thirty minutes in my pond first thing every summer morning, and, for the rest of the year, after my morning of writing – and so long as the snow doesn’t make hiking impossible – I’m out on the mountain trails for a couple of hours nearly every afternoon. There has been no recurrence of the cancer that cost me my prostate. Sixty-five, fit, well, working hard – and I know the score. I have to know it.

The 67-year-old Philip Roth, who now also lives in rural seclusion, recently described his solitude for the New Yorker:

I live alone, there’s no one else to be responsible for or to, or to spend time with. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living-room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours ... If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.

For Zuckerman, the emergency appears in the shape of Coleman Silk, a former professor at nearby Athena College (recalling Athene College, where E.I. Lonoff used to teach). Silk, who was once all-powerful at Athena, has been forced to retire after being accused of racism by two of his black students. He wants to tell everything to Zuckerman. Now in his early seventies, Silk had almost been destroyed by the injustice that ended his career but, with the help of Viagra, is now enjoying an intense love affair with the much-younger-than-him Faunia, a college janitor and part-time farm-girl, one of those super-feisty Roth heroines (see Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater) who like sex as much as men do and are better at it and wittier about it. Thanks to Faunia, Silk has been reborn but also thanks to her he has become the target of new accusations. Not only is he a racist but he is also an exploiter of illiterate young women (Faunia, for complicated reasons, pretends she is dumber than she really is). Why, Silk wants to know, is everybody out to get him? Zuckerman is obviously the right guy to go to with questions of this sort.

Silk is in a state of outrage and he wants revenge. At the same time, though, he is relieved that no one, except Faunia, has rumbled his real secret: that he is not in truth the Jewish ex-professor that he seems to be. He is by birth a pale-skinned black who, at the start of his career, was mistaken for a white man and decided to stick with the error. Thus the whole of his professional life, and most of his personal life, has been a treacherous impersonation. And now this black-turned-white has been branded as a Jewish anti-negro.

This is the book’s central ‘what if?’ and Roth has needed all his skill to make it plausible. He triumphantly succeeds, though, and Silk is one of his most subtle and affecting creations: a man who is guilty, to be sure, but not of the crimes that he’s accused of. The book’s plot has other twists and turns and some of these make it possible for Roth to delve yet again into the social history of 1940s Newark (Silk is from Newark’s black neighbourhood; for Newark Jews of the same period see American Pastoral) and to add another episode to his evolving exploration of American history, post World War Two. In American Pastoral, we had the 1960s and student revolutionaries; in I Married a Communist, McCarthyism. In The Human Stain, there are some rather strained attempts to drag in Clinton and Lewinsky, but the history that matters here is ancient/recent. The emotional backdrop, as in so much of this fine writer’s most impassioned work, is Newark: what it was like to have belonged there, to have actually been made there, and what it has been like to escape – or to have imagined that escape was possible. Yet again, the question is ‘what if?’ and yet again, for Philip Roth, aged 67, the question is the answer.