Waxing Roth

If you try to handicap the Americans who, year by year, get considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature and keep getting passed over for people of whom even serious literary types have never heard, you probably can narrow it down to four. First, there's John Updike, whose work is probably too white, middle-class and abundant (going on 60 volumes by now, too many of them mediocre, cleanly hit singles that rarely threaten the home-run wall) for the Nobel Committee to pay obeisance to. Then there's Thomas Pynchon, whose epoch-making Gravity's Rainbow thrust him into contention way back in 1973, whose inconceivably bad Vineland got him tossed out in 1988, and whose gorgeously genius Mason and Dixon got him reinstated in 1997. Third comes Don DeLillo: not only is he the most consistent of any American novelist, but also his high points (The Names, White Noise, Underworld, The Body Artist) make him, to my mind, the most deserving candidate. Finally, there's Philip Roth, whose publisher trumpets at every opportunity the fact he has won every major literary prize an American can win (many of them twice), but who really shouldn't be faulted for that, since the scope of the man's career is legitimately Olympian, beginning with such early classics as Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint, settling into the long, serpentine middle period of his obsessively self-reflexive Zuckerman novels, and then breaking out of the postmodern mire with the surprising and extraordinary neo-realist work typified by American Pastoral and The Human Stain.

Now, the Library of America, whose business it is to preserve for posterity the (more or less "complete") works of great American writers in high-quality, fairly priced hardbacks, is going about the process of canonizing Roth. Having selected him as only the third post-World War II writer in their series (the others are Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty), they're giving the Nobel people another reason to give Roth the nod and the rest of us the opportunity to get re-acquainted (in the first two volumes of a projected eight-volume set) with Roth's early period, a period whose radical trajectory—basically from Henry James to Henry Miller—is as wild as the '60s, when most of it was written. You can't understand Roth's early work without the '60s context, of course, which began in literature as in life with the straining for "maturity" and the staid accommodationism of the pre-Kennedy, pre-Beatles years and ended with calls for liberation of every stripe, including the liberation from modern literary forms that had calcified into a Henry James-like moral seriousness that couldn't adequately address the blatant weirdnesses of postwar life.

Roth himself was one of the first to notice the inadequacy of contemporary literary forms to contemporary life in his classic 1961 essay, "Writing American Fiction," but he nonetheless remained committed for most of the decade to the old Jamesian modes—gravely sincere, tragedy-tinged investigations of psychological and moral life—whose spirit can be summed up by the Thomas Mann quote Roth used as an epigram for his long novel from 1962, Letting Go: "All actuality is deadly earnest; and it is morality itself that, one with life, forbids us to be true to the guileless unrealism of our youth." By the time Roth published his giddily pornographic ode to Jewish guilt and beating off, Portnoy's Complaint, in 1969, it had become clear that, in late '60s America, it wasn't youth that was unrealistic: reality itself had become unreal, and it was the writer's job to find new forms (and to deconstruct the old ones) in order to represent it. And so Roth abandoned his early models (James, Mann, Flaubert) that so influence the fiction collected in Library of America's first volume in favor of the literary experiments of Volume Two, experiments that are in many ways as hysteric as the closing years of '60s America: Portnoy's first-person scream from the analyst's couch; the rage-based Swiftian satire of Roth's anti-Nixon howl, Our Gang; and the truly weird Kafkan fable The Breast, in which a man metamorphoses not into Kafka's insect but into a six-foot-long mammary.

But to align Roth's development with sociological changes is too easy, not to mention much less interesting than to see it as a manifestation of hidden autobiography. You see, while Roth was writing the severe, studious moral fiction of Letting Go, When She Was Good and Goodbye, Columbus, he was living a private nightmare so at odds with his mature writerly persona that it made his eventual literary breakout something that was as much a matter of psychological necessity as it was literary. The nightmare had to do with his first marriage, which began when his mate tricked him into believing she was carrying his child by testing for pregnancy with urine she bought from a homeless pregnant woman on the street. The marriage ended in divorce, but it lived on in endless litigation and in cycles of recrimination so rancorous that, as Roth puts it much later in his autobiography The Facts, "I always understood that one of us would have to die for the damn thing ever to be over."

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And then—wishing her to be dead but feeling powerless to effect it—as in some deus ex machina plopped into some lousy play, she died in a car accident in 1967, and Roth—rigorously moral, strenuously serious Philip Roth—found himself beside her casket speaking to her in the most un-Jamesian tones, yet in the most glorious relief: "You're dead, and I didn't have to do it." You can trace Roth's conversion from Moral Realist to Brash Liberato to the '60s if you want to, but I prefer to point to Roth's casket remark, which shattered in one fell swoop his pretensions to the moral rectitudes of his early fiction and made for a true letting go—after that, Roth accepted that his life was absurd and his own conscience filled with murderous desire. (You get the full fictional treatment of these tortuous events in 1974's My Life As a Man, one of Roth's greatest novels, which Library of America will republish in a future volume.)

The changes in form and subject traced in these two volumes, from 1959's Goodbye, Columbus in the first volume to 1972's The Breast in the second, show a writer transforming himself with the daring swiftness and responsiveness to events that recalls, say, what the Beatles went through from 1964's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to side two of 1970's Abbey Road. What's fascinating is that his transformations didn't stop there, that (as Don DeLillo once wrote of Harold Brodkey) Roth went on to "one of the great fictional journeys of American literature," into the marvelous metafictional contortions of the Zuckerman novels and the magisterial late flowering of his 1990s neo-realist novels. The work collected in Library of America's first two volumes, as fascinating and as accomplished as they are, just begin the story.


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