A few weeks ago, I spoke to some undergraduates about what makes writing “Jewish.” What qualities or characteristics might identify a fictional text, or a real writer, as Jewish? We talked about Jewish content and rituals; about the pressure of language, and the addiction of commentary; of passing, and passing through borders; of humor and prophecy emerging in response to the black ice of historical experience; and of the intense quality of Jewish conversation — some might even call it interrogation — developed and modulated to hear and then analyze the subterranean rumblings that constantly threatened to fracture the body politic and social. Jews were often the first to fall through those cracks, and so Jews — as well as Jewish writing — had to ask sharper and deeper questions than their neighbors.
In a career that spanned more than 50 years, the novelist Philip Roth — who died on Tuesday at age 85 — hit virtually all of these notes, writing in a jet-fueled prose that carried the reader into the manic heart of the American/Jewish experience. For Roth, this experience was essentially about the promise and peril of freedom — sexual, social, religious, intellectual and familial. By pushing against the bonds of communal expectation, Roth clarified how intricate and powerful they actually were.
There may be no freer book in American Jewish literature — or perhaps even in American literature — than “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth’s 1969 comic zeitgeist-buster which brought to a close a decade of social conflict and individual freedom-mongering. Most readers of this book likely remember the indelible scenes of masturbation and sexual hijinks (the liver lobby never recovered from one famous scene). But the key line, I think, is the last one. After 289 pages of crowing and kvetching, the never satisfied Alexander Portnoy utters a primal scream and collapses. The punchline? “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” This whole time Portnoy had been on his shrink’s couch. And now, we are told, the real conversation must start.
The genius of Philip Roth is that each and every book became a conversation. His stories from “Goodbye, Columbus” forced a national Jewish conversation about loyalty and community; “Portnoy’s Complaint” became shorthand for libido as social leverage; his novella “The Ghost Writer” asked American Jews to consider their responsibility to history; his post-modern masterpiece “The Counterlife” prompted Jews to wonder whether there was, or had ever been, a single coherent story about Israel; “The Human Stain” prompted Americans to consider what it meant to pass, no matter one’s ethnic origins; and “The Plot Against America,” which may very well be his most prophetic novel, forced Americans in 2004 to imagine a pop culture autocrat winning a surprise election and running our country off the rails.
For me as a writer, Philip Roth was the influence. He would disgorge a book into the world, and I would consume it in act of absorption closer to cannibalism than reading. It wasn’t only the gravity defying prose, or the fearlessness of the observations. It was also the utter originality of his ideas, and the skill to match language to concept.
Take the question of Israel. In my 20s, as I cut my teeth as a cultural reporter, I read Roth’s two great “Israel” books — “The Counterlife” (1986), which suggested that our community’s stories about Israel may be incompatible, and “Operation Shylock” (1991), in which the “real” Philip Roth describes a rogue Philip Roth wandering Israel, arguing for a counter-Zionistic return to Europe, which he dubbed “diasporism.”
Apart from the magisterial reporting and acute sociological observations, these books suggested that many American Jews saw Israel as if through a fun-house mirror, making it impossible to distinguish between the truth of Israeli life, and American Jewish stories about it. The overlapping, conflicting narratives — as symbolized by one Roth fighting another — suggested that we now lived in a realm of impossible questions: Are Jews now the victims or the oppressors? Are we outsiders or insiders? Is there such a thing as the Jewish story? The question I asked myself was the following: Was there any other writer besides Roth who could do justice to the complexity of the American-Jewish experience?
Roth’s impact on me, and on my generation of writers, was so immense that many of us suffered what critic Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence,” in which we first cowered in the shadows of his parent-like authority, and then felt provoked to overturn him — to fell him — with prose we hoped would be equally energetic and innovative. I’ve long said to friends that my own difficulties in finishing a novel — as opposed to stories and plays and other creative writing — owed something to the Rothian standard that I feared I would never reach. My ongoing literary response to him, which itself is something out of a Roth novel, was to start another novel, about a young Jewish writer’s response to an older Jewish writer’s work. After I say Kaddish for Roth, maybe I’ll feel the freedom to finish that book.
There are exceptional Jewish writers of my generation whose work is Rothian in certain ways. At the risk of simplifying the achievements of these writers, one could point to the energy and humor of Gary Shtenygart and Jonathan Safran Foer; the social and historical awareness of Nicole Krauss; the range and social intelligence of Michael Chabon. And there are writers like Allegra Goodman and Dara Horn who brilliantly plumbed old-new territory — spiritual and religious, for starters — that Roth never quite got around to, or perhaps even cared about.
Just after The New York Times announced Roth’s death, a friend texted me. “What’s next?” he asked. My response: “Now vee may perhaps to begin.” Roth was a true American original. If he didn’t exist, we would have had to invent him.