While John Updike could offer vivid descriptions of the sexual act, no writer more than Philip Roth in the US seems to have so insistently focused on an aspect of being both sexual and being private, in retaining the enigma of one's being and exploring the nature of one's fantasies. Concerning the latter, this is most amusingly explored of course in Portnoy's Complaint, where Portnoy's onanistic activities make the word frenzied sound like too passive an adjective. "While sexual liberation was blooming all around them, nice Jewish boys were trying to reconcile their insurgent libidos with their strict family backgrounds." This is how Chris Cox puts it in the Guardian, and the book has one of the most sexually surreptitious actions in literary history. Portnoy uses as a masturbatory tool a liver that his mum will later cook. It is one thing keeping the fact that you've been beating the bishop from your folks; quite another to keep from the family that you have very idiosyncratically prepped dinner. Cox may quote Roth saying it was about "a Jew going wild in public...the last thing in the world a Jew was supposed to do", but often Roth is at his best finding the humour in the space between private desire and public acknowledgement. In Sabbath's Theatre, the central character is caught in the bath getting excited over a photo of his host's daughter, the poor girl's father, the central character's close friend, doesn't know where to put himself.
Though Roth's work seems full of private preoccupations explored publicly, interviews frequently give the sense of an immensely private thinker, very East Coast in Southern writer Eudora Welty's formulation when she says, "... in New York you may have the greatest and most congenial friends, but it's extraordinary if you ever know anything about them except that little wedge of their life that you meet with the little wedge of your life. You don't get that sense of a continuous narrative line. You never see the full circle. But in the South, where people don't move about as much, even now, and where they once hardly ever moved away at all, the pattern of life was always right there." (Paris Review) In Roth's interview in the same magazine, he says: "I work all day, morning and afternoon, just about every day. If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book." (Paris Review) Many years later he would say, speaking to David Remnick, I live alone, there's no one else to be responsible for, 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." (New Yorker) This isn't the writer drawn to the public sphere, but living a little before scurrying off to a private lair. Yet we shouldn't assume that Roth is only interested in suffocating autobiography. The books are often self-reflexively written so that the gap between the writer and the character is called into question, as in My Life as a Man. There is also the notion that at a certain point the writing isn't about excavating past real experiences but generating new creative ones. In Deception, when the two lovers talk, the man notices that when they look back and recall the young woman as his student, she didn't just assume Kafka's The Trial and Metamorphosis derived simply from his relationship with his father, but that "by the time a novelist worth his salt is thirty-six, he's no longer translating experience into a fable he's imposing his fable onto experience." We might conclude that Roth's work appears private, but that isn't the same as saying it is autobiographical.
And yet he does seem the most autobiographical of the many important East Coasters of the post-war years, more even than Updike, and more than Bellow, Mailer and Malamud. If Updike will be remembered for the Rabbit books, Roth will not be forgotten because of his Zuckermann novels, a series of books offering more or less a variation (or more specifically a complication) on Roth. These include The Ghost Writer and The Prague Orgy, yet numerous other Roth books seem consistent with them: The Dying Animal, Everyman, Indignation and My Life as a Man. The teenager going off to college in Indignation could easily have become the older figure seducing his students in The Dying Animal had he not died in Korea. The writer in My Life as a Man could be seen as a precursor to the first of the Zuckermann novels The Ghost Writer. After all the central character in the former goes by the name of none other than Zuckermann. If Updike's Maple is a distant relation to Rabbit, Roth's characters are usually closer than first cousins.
We see in the work a perspective built upon over many years and many novels, but with a sexually desiring, intellectual Jew at the centre of many of them. Some might see in Roth troublesome repetition (put aside the problem of sexual representation) but this would be to miss the aesthetic point for short-hand assumptions about what a novelist is supposed to do, and how fair the writer should be in treating those who populate his or her books. Roth's is a nuanced exploration of post-war mores, and part of the repetition is to keep exploring themes that can only be exhausted if simplified in the first place. When Roth says, to label books like mine 'autobiographical' or 'confessional', he once told the French writer Alain Finkielkraut, is not only to falsify their suppositional nature but, if I may say so, to slight whatever artfulness leads some readers to think that they must be autobiographical. (Why Write?) Anyone who insists that Roth's novels are predictable accounts of his own life and possessing sexual politics that are objectionable, might as well read the sleeves and save themselves some time. They would be reading into the books what they want to find out of their own prejudices, and the work remains intact. It is the artfulness that interests Roth, and what the reader makes of this relationship with the text. In My Life as a Man, the narrator from the final section (who is revealed to be the writer of the first two stories in the book) talks about his wife having faked her orgasms in the first year of their marriage to escape telling him how inadequate a lover he happened to be, and there the narrator was thinking how meagre were his orgasms next to the ecstatic writhings of his wife. This gets at Roth's complex sexual politics. The man might be moaning about his relationship, but his wife was moaning in false ecstasy as a way of pleasing her man, a man she no longer wants to please as she thinks it about time she got some pleasure of her own. He, of course, thought that was exactly what she was having, and might have been wondering about his relative lack of pleasure. "Characteristically she had confused the issue somewhat by leading me to believe that she and orgasms were on the very best of terms..." Perspective matters in Roth no matter how first-person the narration might appear to be. This is a novella within a novel written by a character who has for a long time thought one thing but is suddenly told his perception of events was completely wrong. This perspectivism is on occasion taken to the level of peripety, a strong reversal, as in The Dying Animal. Here we have the narrator into his sixties falling in love with someone many years his junior and fretting over his mortal status. Yet by the end of the novel, it is the young woman who will have cancer, and his mortality is turned around as he must see in this beautiful youthful flesh the dying of the light. Who, finally, happens to be the dying animal, and aren't we all?
Of course representations matter: a writer is a product of their time and a chronicler of it. We cannot admire Roth's ambitious look at post-war American society and have no interest in the surface representations of a culture. But to see Roth as an autobiographer, and a pornographer, who happens casually to symptomize his times a misogynist white male talking endlessly about hard-ons and high culture, ensconced in the luxury of Manhattan duplexes and upstate holiday homes, is to read less the writer than find one' outrage in the prose. This doesn't mean reading Roth we should absorb the views expressed as a particular perspective that everybody is entitled to hold, and as a good open-minded liberal we should be able to handle views contrary to our own. No, Roth's work is itself full of these contrary points of view as we find our sensibility partly in arguing with the writer on the page. When in My Life as A Man, narrator Peter Tarnapol says, "of course what I also wanted was that my intractable existence should take place at an appropriately lofty moral altitude, an elevation somewhere, say between The Brothers Karamozov and The Wings of the Dove," we have irony alongside referencing. Again, point of view becomes paramount. As Roth says in Paris Review: "making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that's it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade."
© Tony McKibbin