“If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.”
May 23, 2018 2:02 AM   Subscribe

posted by mfoight at 2:35 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by Kattullus at 2:37 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by Pendragon at 3:05 AM on May 23, 2018

I always bring up his letter to Wikipedia when explaining to disgruntled people why their Wikipedia articles have errors.
posted by Vesihiisi at 3:06 AM on May 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


The first line of Roth's that I ever read was the opening of Sabbath's Theater: "Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over." What followed was prose that grabbed the attention and roamed - filthy, spiteful, joyful prose full of misanthropy. At times, it was absolutely breathtaking.
posted by humuhumu at 3:17 AM on May 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

posted by Cash4Lead at 3:27 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by dannyboybell at 3:43 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by Thorzdad at 3:53 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by mumimor at 4:20 AM on May 23, 2018

I was thinking about him yesterday while listening to Bob Dylan in the car. The thought was: "They won't give Philip Roth the Nobel Prize because they're worried about people calling him a misogynist, so they give it to the writer of 'Just Like a Woman' instead?"

I'm not American or Jewish or part of his generation but it's always meant a lot to me that he's been there, writing so well. When he threw the sponge in a few years ago I thought of Aleksandr Blok, who wrote in 1908: 'It often enters one's head that nothing matters, everything is still straightforward and not fearfully relativistic so long as Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy is alive. For a genius by his very existence seems to demonstrate that there are firm granite foundations... And if the sun sinks, Tolstoy dies, the last genius departs - what then?'
posted by Mocata at 4:55 AM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


So he was really tall then?
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:02 AM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

No loss to women. I am not sad. Maybe it is time to stop giving talented misogynists a pass.
posted by mermayd at 5:03 AM on May 23, 2018 [21 favorites]


"Look, I told Hope this morning: Zuckerman has the most compelling voice I've encountered in years, certainly for somebody starting out."

"Do I?"

"I don't mean style"- raising a finger to make the distinction. "I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head. Don't worry too much about 'wrong.' Just keep going. You'll get there."

From The Ghost Writer (the place to start with Roth.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 5:37 AM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

*looks up* hm. *resumes working*
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:37 AM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's been a long time since I've read Roth but for many years he was my favorite writer. Such an extraordinary career--so many truly great books.

The thought was: "They won't give Philip Roth the Nobel Prize because they're worried about people calling him a misogynist, so they give it to the writer of 'Just Like a Woman' instead?

I've never heard that argument as to why he hasn't gotten the Nobel, but it's interesting that you bring up that particular Dylan song as it always reminds me of Roth's The Dying Animal. I don't think either work (or man) is misogynist. They both seem to me to be about frightened men who take refuge in a particular woman who they feel comfortable enough not to be afraid around. They're both aware of their weaknesses and the fact that these women are superior to them, expressed, at least in my mind, in these lines:

Dylan: "Please don't let on, that you knew me when / I was hungry, and it was your world."

Roth: [a character debating whether he should visit his ailing lover]: "If you go, you're finished."

Both works have echoes of Hoagy Charmichael's line:

"I get along without you very well
Of course I do
Except perhaps in spring, but I should
Never think of spring
For that would surely break my heart in two"


Thanks, Mr. Roth, for Nathan, and Kepesh, and Portnoy, and Mickey and so many others. RIP.
posted by dobbs at 5:39 AM on May 23, 2018 [9 favorites]

posted by Gelatin at 5:39 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by lalochezia at 6:25 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by Fizz at 6:32 AM on May 23, 2018

posted by thivaia at 6:33 AM on May 23, 2018

When my mother (former English professor) retired, she set herself a goal of reading the complete works of four writers: Shakespeare, Dickens, Henry James, and Philip Roth. Probably ten years ago, and I think she's close to completion. It's just always struck me how high she ranked him in the canon. I don't quite get it, but maybe someday I will.

posted by dlugoczaj at 6:33 AM on May 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

The misogyny is his novels turned me off as well. There is a case to be made that he wasn't so much supporting misogyny as representing it and critiquing it, and he said as much in his last interview with the NYTimes, but I guess I feel about it the same was when people make the same argument about Game of Thrones -- the first is that critiquing it is still representing it, the second is, you know, the critique is not that clear, and thirdly it would be nice if misogynistic male characters were not considered so fascinating as the be the main characters in fiction with the women the abuse relegated to a supporting role.
posted by maxsparber at 7:04 AM on May 23, 2018 [16 favorites]

posted by gwint at 7:59 AM on May 23, 2018

I read Portnoy's Complaint at about the same age that most kids these days discover Internet porn. Books are dangerous things. Misogynist? I had no idea the titular hero was considered a role model. I thought he was just being funny.

From Philip Roth I learned:
1. what it's like to have a penis. Honestly and in detail. There's not many male writers willing or able to explain exactly how it feels to follow your dick around all day long. It wasn't taken for granted that I already knew about that.
2. how a certain kind of man thinks about women. If nothing else, the guy was self-aware. It was a good primer in how to spot them and how to avoid them in later life.

Too many filthy jokes. Am I allowed to laugh?
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 8:42 AM on May 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth in the same month? And Thomas Pynchon is in his eighties. Is there anyone left to write pretentious, misogynist metafiction in which rich old dudes pontificate endlessly on the rise and fall of their own dicks-as-metaphors?


posted by xylothek at 8:44 AM on May 23, 2018 [11 favorites]

When I was in late high school/early college, I started reading Roth's work: Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, The Breast. I made it most of the way through The Great American Novel before stopping. Most of it was a bit above my head, but I enjoyed how he wrote even if some of his writing was a little distasteful.

Fast forward 15 or 20 years, and a summer alone overseas, I started reading Zuckerman Bound and, amazingly, read it all the way through ("amazingly" because I rarely stick with very long books; even less so, series). Again, Roth's way with words held me even when his protagonist was unsympathetic (as I now recall it).

I don't have an opinion on him as a man because I didn't know him personally. But he could write.

posted by the sobsister at 8:49 AM on May 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

From Philip Roth to R Zimmerman by Amy Rigby
posted by maurice at 8:53 AM on May 23, 2018

His 2005 novel The Plot Against America, an alternate history of America during WWII in which a Nazi-sympathizing celebrity (Charles Lindbergh) becomes president of the United States and quickly begins to dismantle the institutions of its government, the civil liberties of its citizens, and any international alliances that conflict with the interests of the totalitarian foreign leader (Hitler) who is not-so-secretly pulling his strings, seems more than a bit relevant today.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:06 AM on May 23, 2018 [11 favorites]

I probably read “Portnoy’s Complaint” right around twenty years ago, when I was in my early-mid 20s. I can’t really recall a reading experience I’ve enjoyed nearly as much. It was that rare, uncanny experience of feeling like even though this was a famous, classic work known by many, that it was as if the novel had been written specifically for me at that exact point in my life, as a young Jewish man with observant parents (and the inherent expectations therein) trying to strike it out on my own in the secular world.

I’ve read several other Roth books since then, really enjoyed some (“American Pastoral”) thought others were overrated (“The Human Stain”), but nothing will ever quite compare to the experience of having come across the perfect book at the exact right point in my life.
posted by The Gooch at 9:11 AM on May 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

posted by thursdaystoo at 9:59 AM on May 23, 2018

He was a cantankerous old bastard (even when he was young) but I'll be damned if he wasn't a great writer.

posted by zeusianfog at 10:07 AM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

His 2005 novel The Plot Against America

is currently being developed as a six-part series by David Simon (presumably for HBO).
posted by dobbs at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Philip Roth, Limited Novelist Who Explored Only Male Lust, Male Jewish Life and Male America..."

FTFY, NYTimes.
posted by praemunire at 11:25 AM on May 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

It sucks to lose someone so irreplaceable.

posted by edeezy at 12:22 PM on May 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Limited Novelist

I know why people feel the need to point it out in his case - because he's held up as something more than that, one of the Great Writers - but I will say he wrote the things (thing?) he did know fairly inimitably, early on.
posted by atoxyl at 1:35 PM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I didn't read Roth until this decade because of how bad people here made him sound. I got American Pastoral in the mail from my Grandmother in 2010 and read it. I kind of started out hate reading it, wasn't thrilled by some of his thoughts on the 60's, but ended up thinking that it was rather well written. I then read all of the other Zuckerman books and that was enough to convince me to read the rest of his stuff in order. Portnoy's Complaint was probably one of his worst books, but it was still enjoyable.

I'm not sure what to say. The type of person who was so prone to talking shit about him that they prompted me to wait so long to start reading him is still most likely to be the type of person who is prone to talking shit about him. (Oddly, I'm probably to the left of most of them, despite not being someone who expects artists to be perfect people) I probably would still be that type of person if my grandmother hadn't sent me AP.

I'm not going to convince anyone to change their opinion, so there isn't any point in arguing. That said, even if you rate your books by their politics, I would argue that what he had to say about being a Jewish American was more important than what people perceive as misogyny inherent in his descriptions of flawed dudes was detrimental. In addition, helping to introduce or support foreign authors like Kis, Konwicki, Schulz, Appelfeld, Andrzejewski, Klima, and O'Brien to an American audience was a great usage of his privilege and also a great benefit to me as a reader (even if I ended up reading most of them before I read him or knew that he helped get some of them published).

If anyone wants to read him brutalize misogyny, I would suggest Sabbath's Theater. If you come away from reading that thinking that he idolizes or respects dickheaded men, I'm not sure what to say to you. If anyone wants to read his stuff about Jewish identity, I would suggest:

-Operation Shylock
-Goodbye Columbus
-The Ghost Writer
-The Counterlife
-His piece imagining a Kafka who lived

I kind of already did my mourning when he retired. It's a loss, though. The only American who came close to having as many great (many greater than anything Roth wrote, a point Roth would have concurred with) novels as Roth was Faulkner. Faulkner had some stupid political opinions and he too would be unacceptable to modern readers, but man could he write. The same goes for Roth, and it's too bad that his death is a time that people think it is appropriate to kick dirt on him like he was Scalia or something.

Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth in the same month? And Thomas Pynchon is in his eighties. Is there anyone left to write pretentious, misogynist metafiction in which rich old dudes pontificate endlessly on the rise and fall of their own dicks-as-metaphors?



Thankfully we still have Vollmann. I don't think that he is rich, but you would probably hate him too. That said, the extent to which you seem to be looking forward to Pynchon's death comes across as somewhat unseemly, but different strokes for different folks, I suppose.
posted by bootlegpop at 1:01 AM on May 24, 2018 [13 favorites]

He sure could overextend a metaphor.

Roth for me falls firmly in the category of authors who, while a single volume of their work on someone's shelf isn't damning in itself, more than a couple will raise some serious flags.

He had a huge effect on American Letters, but AFAICT it was almost entirely negative. He was also the kind of atheist that gives the rest of us a bad name.

Dude hewed veeeery close to MRA territory - wouldn't be shocked if he had a Jordan Peterson book on his nightstand when he kicked it.

Pynchon is a completely different animal and the association is pretty forced IMO.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:27 AM on May 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm glad that I ran out of bookshelf space and put his books in a giant taller than me stack in the corner of my bedroom with my Waugh and Nabokov then, so that no one will think less of me for having all of them on my shelves I guess.

I'm not so sure about Peterson as Roth went to school back when the sources that Peterson bastardizes were required learning, and he seemed like a guy who would prefer source texts to inferior derivatives. All the same, while the man born in the 30's probably wouldn't make it as a 2018 liberal feminist, I think that he was a lot closer to our side than the other one, even if The Human Stain might lead one to believe that he was somewhat butthurt by the Clinton impeachment and early "PC culture" For instance, see these 3 paragraphs from a recent article about him:

“I was born in 1933,” he continued, “the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

“Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-seventies, American writers haven’t had their driver’s licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don’t live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless—or until—there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Trump’s river of lies. In the meantime, I imagine writers will continue robustly to exploit the enormous American freedom that exists to write what they please, to speak out about the political situation, or to organize as they see fit.”

Asked if this warning has come to pass, Roth e-mailed, “My novel wasn’t written as a warning. I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940, at the end of the most pointedly anti-Semitic decade in world history. I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us. As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”
posted by bootlegpop at 5:40 AM on May 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Yeah I feel like we're reading different Philip Roths here. I would be astounded if he even knew who Jordan Peterson was, let alone looked at a text of his. If he did I imagine he'd burst out laughing.

If someone has read Philip Roth and doesn't dig him then fair enough. But this idea of him as unreflective toxic masculinist/right-wing old man/writer of generic overwritten professor-lusts-after-student novels really makes me wonder if we're talking about the same guy.

I can just about see how you could cobble that image together out of bits of The Human Stain, American Pastoral, The Dying Animal and Portnoy, and come to think of it those were the books you were most likely to see on people's shelves after his amazing resurgence in the 90s. (And yes, The Human Stain was weirdly overrated, and would raise alarm bells with me if it was the only Roth on someone's shelf, because why have only a duff one?)

But come on! The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, Everyman, even Goodbye, Columbus - those aren't the books someone writes who's an idiot who'd be into Jordan Peterson, or an idiot who's filled with hatred of women or blind support for patriarchy or whatever.

Clearly he was 'of his time' and got old and a bit grumpy and didn't think of Bill Clinton as a rapist. But he never spewed macho bullshit like Norman Mailer, or went right-wing and a bit racist like the later Saul Bellow, or went in for golf and Republican gentility and creepily rapt and overwritten descriptions of vaginas like John Updike.

It's mostly because of him that we now think of Newark or one's immigrant grandparents or the uglier bits of one's sexual self as almost cliché 'literary' subjects, but that wasn't the case at all when he was starting out.
posted by Mocata at 6:24 AM on May 24, 2018 [11 favorites]

or went in for golf and Republican gentility and creepily rapt and overwritten descriptions of vaginas like John Updike.
On the other hand, I can imagine him writing about one of his characters doing this and it being excruciatingly hilarious. Maybe he did; I really need to read some more. I'm sad he's gone.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 9:13 AM on May 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Dude hewed veeeery close to MRA territory

This is so ignorant as to be laughable. You either know nothing about MRA or less than nothing about Roth.
posted by dobbs at 7:13 AM on May 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm incredibly sad to see the harshness here, which is why I waited so long to comment. But here it is.

After my father died, I took a bunch of books from his library. I wish I could have taken them all, but as it was, I took maybe 50 books. Portnoy's Complaint was one of them. I'm not sure why as the name was only vaguely familiar to me. But I took it.

It ended up being the first book from my father's library that I read after his death. My father was also a Jew from NJ, and a lot of the book resonated with me. It kind of felt like getting to really know him. In addition, it was a book that radically changed how I though of literature, which up until that point had been Steinbeck and Shakespeare and Austen.

I read many of his books after that. Some I loved like Sabbath's Theater. Others I disliked like the Human Stain. And still others, like Our Gang, I couldn't even finish. But overall, he left a body of work I thoroughly enjoy, which has enriched my life since discovering him way back in 1994.

When he announced he was quitting writing, I didn't believe it. I thought for sure he'd return. But he meant it. I didn't want to believe the end was this close, but here we are.

I am sad that he is gone.


posted by miss-lapin at 1:46 PM on May 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

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