Philip Roth Revealed: Deconstructing Common Myths about One of the Greatest American Writers

Philip Roth died on May 22, 2018, at 85. This is the last article I wrote about him:

Before you read this post, you must understand and accept that nothing about it is objective or detached. I’m a huge fan of Philip Roth, who is considered by many one of the greatest American writers. I love his books. From the first Philip Roth I ever read – I was 17 or 18 at the time, young and impressionable – I was hooked for life. The fact that it happened to be the outrageously funny and scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint undoubtedly had something to do with my obsession. So my disclaimer is this: partiality will color this article; I’m a pro-Roth kind of person. My plan in this article is to tear down ingrained myths about the life and work of this brilliant provocateur, in my own inartistic words.

1. Philip Roth was an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew. 

Have you ever read any of his books? The fact that he was Jewish pervades his work. His self-deprecating comments can only deceive the naive. He was very proud of his ethnicity and his family and friends, although he was far from orthodox or even religious. Roth was an atheist. The misunderstandings arise from his greater pride in being an American and his love for the fundamental (although perhaps more ideal than real) values the US stands for. He never took for granted the freedom and lifestyle that are the simple result of being born and having grown up in the geographic space that comprises the United States of America. Unlike the Anne Frank of his book The Ghost Writer, he had a childhood. And if he refused to be “a good boy” to be accepted, it’s because he believed that being a good boy made it even harder to fit in. You need to be outstanding, outrageous, infamous to break down walls and belong in the world of the goy.

2. Philip Roth wrote about his own life.

 Of course, reality informed his stories, and reality is apprehended through personal experiences as much as from vicarious ones – from books we read, movies we watch, things that happen to our family and friends. So there’s certainly a lot of Roth’s own life in his stories, but these experiences are transformed by imagination; they’re not necessarily exact representations of things that happened to him or that he did himself. Everything is filtered through the powerful lens of language and fiction. Life becomes larger and its dark corners are illuminated by the spotlight of Art. Hyperbole, amplification, metaphors, and masks are all part of the process. You can’t put your finger on a single paragraph in any of his books and guarantee it describes something that really happened to him. Even the famous Nathan Zuckerman, who first appears in The Ghost Writer and continues to feature as either the protagonist or the narrator in many subsequent novels, isn’t a warranted alter ego. I’ll admit Zuckerman is the mask that most closely resembled the author behind it, but he’s not Roth. There are a couple of books, however, in which Roth dares to unmask himself and write about reality – as far as this is possible since experiences are based on memory and language, which somehow always transform them. One of these non-fictional books is The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, written after a serious bout of depression caused by taking the drug Halcion for pain in his back. He wrote this short autobiography covering only the first 30 years of his life as a healing exercise, stripping himself as much as possible of his imagination and the usual masks. The second is the moving but never sentimental Patrimony: A True Story, a “snapshot of his father in movement,” as he states in the BBC documentary Roth Unleashed (which I strongly recommend), and a portrait written so he could remember his father in as much detail as possible. “I mustn’t forget anything,” was his mantra at the time. His father was dying of a brain tumor, and Roth realized he had the makings of a book – a tribute to the old man – in the notes he took at the end of each day, after coming home from the hospital where he looked after his father.

3. Philip Roth was a misogynist. 

All I can say is Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Philip), the writer of a very interesting book titled Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, is a woman, and she strongly disagrees with the view that Roth hated women. She gives the reader great insight into his body of work, including the themes, language, characters, and masks explored in his novels, and she maintains his books probe deeply into the human soul and bring up everything, the good and the bad, and therefore include a wide spectrum of women characters. It’s not accurate to say that he always depicted women as shrews. Besides, who’s to say that the women depicted as shrews in certain novels are representative of all women? If he hated women, he must have hated men as well, or haven’t you met one of the most despicable and depraved heroes ever created in Western literature: Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Roth’s gripping novel Sabbath’s Theater?

4. Philip Roth was a misanthrope. 

Writers, as a rule, aren’t the most sociable people in the world. They need hours of solitude if they’re to produce something worthwhile. Roth was a well-integrated and sociable person in his years as a child, teenager and young adult, and made many friends in college. Some of these friendships lasted until the day he died. He survived a tumultuous marriage to an older woman he met when he was only 23 and entered into a long-term relationship with actress Claire Bloom, during which time he lived mostly in London. He had other lovers and mistresses throughout his life. As he grew older, however, he became more and more of a recluse, spending long hours on his books, which grew in scope and importance to become indisputable masterpieces. According to writer Salman Rushdie, the growth and maturity reflected in these books were a direct consequence of Roth’s turning his creative beam from the obsessive self-analysis of his early works to the depiction and discussion of what lay around him, focusing on the bigger issues and themes of his beloved America. In his early 80s, he was perfectly happy living alone in his beautiful country house in Connecticut. When asked if he ever felt lonely, he replied, “Yes, sometimes, like everyone else,” but that the absence of friction – the inevitable result of contact and negotiations with other human beings – was something he never missed. It’s bliss not to have to cope with this any longer, he claimed.

The best way to get to know the real Roth – or rather, the Roth that matters – is by reading any of his 31 books. Immerse yourself in his world of masks without worrying too much about what’s real or imaginary. Engage in his game of mirrors. Appreciate his language and power of imagination. The life of any human being is composed of memories, so its account is never 100 percent reliable. We create and recreate reality all the time, so why expect anything different from a man who earns his living writing fiction? You will never get to his core because it’s impossible to grasp, being unpredictable and transient.

Jorge Sette

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