Sat 11 Sep, 2004 08:57 pm
The long road home
An intensely private man, Philip Roth is one of America's greatest writers. He is dedicated, even obsessive, about his work but loathes the fame that attends it. After spells in eastern Europe and the UK, his return to New York marked a period of creative renewal as he reflected on the US through the lens of history. His latest novel revisits - and reimagines - his childhood
"Roth's monkish routine is at odds with what he once called his "reputation as a crazed penis" bestowed on him by Portnoy's Complaint, his great panegyric to the comedy of sex. When Portnoy was published in 1969, it seemed to epitomise the anarchic spirit of the decade. Maybe it did, but the author himself was a product of the 1950s, the last generation of well-behaved, sternly educated children who believed in high culture and high principles and lived in the nuclear shadow of the cold war until their orderly world was blown apart by birth-control pills and psychedelic drugs. Portnoy was considered outrageous when it appeared, but the real outrage was Roth's and he was outraged because he couldn't help being a good boy however much he yearned to be bad. "
Roth is an interesting but wildly uneven novelist. For every good novel he has managed to write, he has cranked out three that are silly and narcissistic. The only one he has done in recent years that I think is first-class is SABBATH'S THEATER. From the reviews I have read of the new novel, it has the potential to be another flop--isn't he tired of writing about his family? The man has written two memoirs and a dozen autobiographical novels. Enough about the Roths, please-- they weren't very interesting to begin with.
I'm looking forward to reading his new novel. Also quite good were "American Pastoral", "I Married a Communist", and "The Human Stain". I liked them in that order ("AP" first), but I think they're all worth reading.
Re his family in this novel: While it's certainly the case that there are characters bearing the names of his family members, I don't think the books is meant as autobiography. After all, it concerns an event, Lindbergh as president, that never happened...
I don't know what happened to my subsequent posts--were they deleted? I'll just repeat my contention that Roth is a vastly overrated writer who doesn't belong in the Library of America. For every good Roth book, there are three or four miserable failures. I defy anyone who slogged through OPERATION SHYLOCK to re-read it. If Roth is an a great American writer, then the word "great" has lost all meaning.
Not to worry, Larry, a lot of people's posts were deleted.
Your thoughts on Roth are (again) duly noted...
Thanks, D'Artagnan. What's the fun of being opinionated if nobody has to read your opinions?
The controversy on here re Roth's position in literature is ridiculous. Nobody here has called Roth a great writer. The fact some of us enjoyed one or two of his books means nothing.
This review found in today's Houston Chronicle is compelling enough to make me want to read the book.
Author imagines `what if?'
Novel explores how a Jewish family deals with rising fascism in 1940s America
By FRITZ LANHAM
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle Books Editor
Who today remembers Father Coughlin, the Michigan priest who denounced Jews in radio broadcasts from his Shrine of the Little Flower? Who remembers the rantings of Gerald L.K. Smith, another anti-Semite and prominent man of the cloth?
And what about Lucky Lindy -- Charles A. Lindbergh? Everybody remembers the self-effacing young pilot who flew by the seat of his pants across the Atlantic. But few recall how he later cozied up to the Nazis and, in pre-Pearl Harbor speeches, blamed the British and the Jews for trying to drag the United States into the war in Europe.
Philip Roth certainly remembers, and wonders what might have happened if, as fascism swept over Europe and Asia, Americans had succumbed to the darker promptings of the national psyche. His answer is The Plot Against America, a mostly successful novel based on an eminently plausible "what if?"
What if Lindbergh, in 1940, had taken advantage of a deadlocked Republican convention to seize the nomination? What if he'd campaigned on a platform of keeping American boys out of war and defeated Franklin Roosevelt? What if President Lindbergh had signed an "understanding" with Hitler guaranteeing the latter a free hand in Europe and then launched a series of government initiatives, couched in bland, innocuous language, intended to isolate and marginalize America's Jews? And maybe pave the way for worse?
That's the set-up. But The Plot Against America only intermittently cruises at the national political level. This is the story of how America's flirtation with fascism nearly devastates one Jewish family, the Roths of Newark, N.J. It is a moving and persuasive portrait.
Philip Roth has said there's considerable autobiography in the book. The parents -- Herman, a hardworking 39-year-old Metropolitan Life insurance salesman, and his 36-year-old wife, Bess -- are modeled closely on Roth's real parents. The novel is in many respects a tribute to their strength and decency.
Roth says he took liberties with the character of his 12-year-old brother, Sandy, but not with the main character -- 9-year-old Philip, who is the author as a boy. The novel is narrated by the adult Philip, describing how he perceived and responded to events as a child. Among the book's considerable achievements is the skill with which it conveys a child's-eye view without imprisoning the reader there.
In the placid, tree-lined, lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, Lindbergh's abrupt and surprising rise to political power melts the ground of certainty the Roths and their neighbors have always felt about their country and their place in it.
Lindy's nomination, narrator Roth tells us, "assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world."
Suddenly the Roths are "different," not entirely "American," a national "problem." Their first impulse is to embrace the literal monuments of American liberty. Early in the novel the loudly patriotic Herman takes Bess and the kids on a vacation to see the sights in Washington, D.C. The family gets thrown out of its hotel when the management learns they're Jewish. Times have changed, their tour guide grimly informs them.
The heart of the novel lies in the family's agonized response to the new American order. How can this be happening in a civilized country, our country, Herman wonders. Should we fight or should we flee? And if flee, is the time now? The same dilemmas are faced, outside the pages of this book, by Germany's Jews.
Herman rails against what seems to him an incomprehensible violation of American values. Sandy, on the other hand, falls under the sway of the oily Rabbi Bengelsdorf, an apologist for Lindbergh and head of the Orwellian-sounding Office of American Absorption, a new federal agency that sends Jewish boys to spend summers living on farms so they can partake of gentile heartland virtues. Later, Bengelsdorf oversees the program to relocate entire families. He gets his comeuppance.
Young Philip, meanwhile, filters these large, confusing grownup events through the prism of his boyish concerns. He worries whether to keep the Lindbergh commemorative in his beloved stamp collection. When it appears the Roth family will be relocated, he tries to run away to live in Newark's Catholic orphanage. More seriously, he loses his moral virginity when he tells a lie that leads to the relocation of a gentle, harmless neighbor boy and his mother, with tragic results.
The weakness of the novel arises from Roth's unwillingness to play out his "what if." In a highly implausible series of plot twists, he contrives to have Roosevelt returned to the White House in 1942 and history set back on course.
Still, The Plot Against America is absolutely first-rate, possibly the best novel of the year. Written in clean, straightforward prose, it solidifies Roth's reputation, earned in such novels as American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, as our greatest living anatomist of ordinary people caught up in America's periodic eruptions of collective madness.
Edgar, my posts reversing my position on Roth and his new book were hijacked... I too am dying to read his new book.
Yes, it certainly sounds very interesting, on a number of different fronts.
I will read it, but the premise seems too far-fetched. Lindbergh beats FDR in 1940? That shows a real ignorance of
FDR's popularity in 1940 plus the fact that FDR misleadingly pledged to keep us OUT of war during that campaign. As the
Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley said in his most favorable review of the book, Roth made a mistake using Lindbergh since he had to twist the known facts too much.
Probably so Larry, but do me a favor and read the book, I'm curious as to how you like it.
I am waiting for my library to get it for me, panzade. Meanwhile I'm reading a book I can recommend enthusiastically which also deals (more factually) with 20th century history...Ha Jin's WAR TRASH, about Chinese P.O.W.s dujring the Korean war. Some of it is gruesome, but it is very well written and extremely engrossing. Probably the best new novel I've read all year--though I should finish it before passing judgment.
Many thanks Larry. It sounds interesting and definitely up my alley.
Any time, panzade. For whatever it's worth this past
Sunday's NYT Book Review gave WAR TRASH a glowing
review, calling it a "perfect book." By sheer coincidence I
had taken it out of the library several days earlier, so for once in my life I find myself reading a book the same week the TIMES extolled it.
Edgarblythe--the controversy on this thread over Roth's value is entirely legitimate. I don't know what you are talking about. Does everyone from Texas spout nonsense, or
is it just you and President Bush? I am reading Roth's novel now--about halfway through--and I can report sincerely that it is mediocre, neither terribly good nor terribly bad. It is certainly not the best novel of the year in a year which also produced Ha Jin's WAR TRASH. I will give my complete opinion of the Roth book when I finish dragging myself to the
War Trash is a good pick Larry. Universal kudos from The Times to (ahem) People Magazine.
Can't wait to read it.
Could those whose posts went missing please note their most recent number of posts after they make one - e.g. this will be my #405 - to see if that number gets adjusted?
Btw, I have no missing posts, just wondering about the server or the php code being on the blink, as participants here appear unlikely to attract the kind of heavy-fisted editing which caused me to leave this site for many months. Thanks.