“Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.” Philip Roth
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Capitalism versus Communism – according to Philip Roth
“Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it.”
― Philip Roth, I Married a Communist
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.
Philip Roth on Love (The Dying Animal)
“The only obsession everyone wants: ‘love.’ People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole? The Platonic union of souls? I think otherwise. I think you’re whole before you begin. And the love fractures you. You’re whole, and then you’re cracked open. ”
Takeaways from Four of Philip Roth’s Best Novels
Philip Roth died last night at 85. This article was written a couple of years ago.
For the usual readers of this blog, it’s no surprise that I consider Philip Roth the best living North American writer. This opinion is shared by many other people, so I’m not alone in this assumption. I was lucky to have read my first Roth – although in Portuguese – when I was still in college: Portnoy’s Complaint. Of course, I was duly scandalized by the account of the life and troubles of a young Jewish American man who does not refrain from telling the explicit details of his sexual activities to a silent therapist. Maybe I was not as shocked as the readers who first came across the book when it came out in the 1960s, but the late 1980s in Recife, Brazil, were still pretty conservative for the likes of Roth. As a matter of fact, I would say the whole world still is.
Roth does not mince words. He is brutal and unsentimental in the depiction of his characters, despite the love and care you sense he feels for most of them deep down, if you read his novels attentively. He tends to strip men and women of their social disguises, digs deep, and exposes them almost cruelly to our judgment. Some say he is a misogynist in his portrayal of women. Well, if you read Sabath’s Teather, in which he creates one of the most disgusting and at the same time fascinating male characters in Western literature, you may change your mind. He can be as harsh towards men, after all. The world is in general tougher on women and, therefore, misogynistic itself. Roth’s novels are a mere reflection of life as it is. More precisely: his novels illuminate angles and dark corners of life we try to hide from our eyes and thoughts.
This blog post has the simple objective of listing 4 of my favorite Roth novels and what I personally took away from them. Please don’t take my word for it. Immerse yourselves in the original sources and feel free to interpret them as you feel you should. The comments below may be entertaining, though. However, I’ll never presume they reveal the essence of each of the discussed works.
1, Nemesis: New Jersey in the mid 1940s. A horrible outbreak of polio causes mayhem in a peaceful community. Children are badly affected, especially the ones who live in the Jewish and Italian quarters of the city. Few families are not hit by tragedy. It’s practically impossible to run away from it. Are the gods against them or are they on their own in a world ruled by the random manifestations of an indifferent nature. Does it matter? The only option left for humans struck by horror and tragedy is to accept it and find a mental way of coping with the debris. Nothing else makes sense or will help our species. Stand up for yourself and fight on your terms. Throw your javelin with all the beauty and strength of a God (an image you will find in the book) and defy your peers in Mount Olympus.
2. American Pastoral: Winner of the Pulitzer prize for best work of fiction in 1998. This novel tells the story of the idyllic life of a perfect upper-middle class American family, eventually shattered to pieces when the sweet and amorous daughter grows up to become a rebel teenager and join militants in a protest against the Vietnam war, allegedly planting a bomb in the local post office and killing a bystander. She then runs away, disappearing forever from home. I guess the takeaway from this book is given in the first chapters, in a different context, when we are still in the story outside the story, which makes the complex framing structure of the novel. Do we really know what people are like? Nathan Zuckerman, one of Roth’s recurrent characters, who may function as his alter ego, shares this painful truism with us: “You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
3. Sabbath’s Theater: Not for the faint of heart, this book depicts the progressive moral and physical deterioration of a man who has never had any other ambition rather than entertain people through running a marionette show in the streets of New York. It’s when this puppeteer blurs the limits between what you can do to your dolls as opposed to other real human beings that the problems start. You cannot manipulate people without suffering serious consequences. The dolls will turn on you eventually and your life will become a nightmare. The most amazing thing about the book is the ability of the writer to turn one of the most repellent characters ever created in Western literature, Mickey Sabbath, into a sympathetic and even lovable person for a legion of fans, who can sense all the humanity that oozes out of him.
4. The Human Stain (spoiler alert: you can’t discuss this book without giving some essential info away – in my defense, all I can say is the info I’m about to share will be revealed in the first chapters of the novel anyway.) This novel is not a whodunit kind of work, rest assured. A Jewish former professor and dean of the fictitious Athenas College in Massachusetts is forced to resign after, going through the roll call, asks the class if a couple of listed students who never show up and whom he never met personally “are real or spooks”. It so happens that in those days of the end of the 1990s spook was a loaded word, a derogatory epithet for African Americans. In the intolerant and hypocritical climate of the reign of the politically correct, the professor is the perfect scape goat, and everyone who’s ever held any grudge against him jumps at the opportunity to tap into the incident to profit from it, by destroying his reputation. Unjust, unfair, stupid. Worse: Professor Coleman Silk is in truth an African American himself, who, for excelling in boxing when he was young and having light skin, passed for white in the eyes of a number of influencial people on his way up the sport’s ladder, and decided to assume this fake persona. He had been a youth in the 1950s and realized he would never have the same opportunities of a white person to fulfill his potential no matter how hard he tried. He is offered a way out and takes it, abandoning his family and his previous life, and recreating himself as a completely new person, whose potential could now be tapped to the full. He becomes the Jewish professor Silk. But he will pay dearly for it and for breaking other conventions of the times. He is a born transgressor. A fighter. The reader is therefore left with the painful and disturbing question of whether he/she would have done the same thing. Haven’t we all done something similar to some extent in our lives: compromising, betraying, discarding deeply ingrained beliefs and principles to succeed and get ahead? Or at least to be given a shot at the possibility of winning, when all the odds are against us? A powerful and uncomfortable novel, I can’t stop returning to it. I’m always going back to Silk’s saga to reflect on my own values and how truthful I still remain to them.
If you have the chance, get one of those books and read them. I can guarantee they will change you somehow.
Which novels do you wish you had written yourself?
When you are at the stage of brainstorming for a nonfiction blog post or a piece of creative writing, it’s inevitable to remember a couple of articles, books and novels related to the topic you read at some point and enjoyed. They will be a source of inspiration and influence in your writing, making you somehow even slightly jealous, wishing you had thought of that first. But, of course, you would also have needed the right language to encapsulate it. After all, more important than the plot itself is how you say things.
Take the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel, for example, whose original idea some people claim was stolen from our Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar. Well, plagiarism is hard to establish, there are a lot of gray areas, but one thing I’m sure of: Martel did not write the same story nor, most definitely, used the same language as Scliar. Jorge Luis Borges, in his marvelous piece Pierre Menard, Autor del Quixote, from the book Ficciones takes this idea even further, asserting that a book written with the exact same words by a different author at a different time would be read in a new way, due to the dissimilar historic contexts, and therefore would not be the same book at all. I agree.
After reading a comment on Facebook by a friend saying that she is full of ideas for blog posts but do not find the time to write them (yes, we all know how teachers are busy!), I made a joke saying that all my good ideas had already been stolen by the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Philip Roth.
Then I though for a moment, and decided to give serious consideration as to which novels I really wished I had written and why. This is my humble list:
1.The Human Stain, by Philp Roth: it’s hard to discuss this book without giving a bit too much away, so apologies for the spoilers. The story of a light-skinned black boy who grabs the opportunity to pass for a Jew in 1950’s America and later becomes a Classics Professor at a small college is a complex account of the choices you make in life and the responsibilities and consequences that come with them. The need to make concessions and compromise basic values to achieve a bigger goal is the central theme of the book. The deep moral dilemma you face when you take such a radical decision, including the necessity to abandon and cut relations with your family and community to start a new life somewhere else as a completely different person, is evaluated by the author from unusual and unexpected angles in this impressive book. As irony is the hallmark of Roth, the book starts with the most paradoxal of incidents: the professor, noticing that two of the students enlisted in his class never seem to be present, asks the class the question which brings about his doom: “do they exist or are they spooks?” The latter being an old loaded word, a racist epithet for blacks. It turns out that the Professor, never having seen those students before, meant spooks in the most common sense of the word, that is, ghosts, and, after all the pressure and hassle he goes through, without support from any of his colleagues and students – for a number of political reasons – he decides to resign and end his career. I would love to have written this story for its universality: any minority can identify with what Coleman, the Jewish/Black professor, goes through, and can easily put themselves in his shoes. Given the opportunity would you do the same? Would you change your race, color, nationality, sexual orientation or gender? Or would you just give up all of your chances of fully growth and spend the rest of your life as a second class citizen in a society that will only offer you the fulfillment of your whole potential if you are the right color?
2. Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis: this must be the book I reread most often in my entire life. I know it almost by heart. What attracts me is the way the characters are so well-rounded and fully developed, leaping out of the page as if you could go for a walk and talk to them. This does not mean, however, that you will know them any better. This is the whole point of the story. The dissimulation, the fact that we never know anyone completely. The impossibility of dealing with only one version of the reality. I can’t get enough of the artistry of the author, who, narrating the story in the first person, never lets the reader be sure about what really happened: was the main character’s wife an adulterer? Is the boy she gives birth to his son or his best friend’s? The doubt will corrupt his marriage and ultimately destroy all the love in his life. He becomes empty and isolated, having chosen the version of reality which will cause him the most pain and damage. Don’t we all choose the latter?
3. We need to talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver: a professional woman is in love with her work and her husband. She writes and publishes travel guides, having the chance to go places, tour interesting and remote regions, avoiding getting stuck in a housewife’s rut, being independent most of the time. Yet, she can count on a loving husband to comfort and look after her when she comes back home after a long trip: this is a dream life. She has the best of both worlds. Then, what else is it that society claims will make every woman even happier and more complete: to have a baby. From the birth of Kevin, her firstborn, to the dantesque crime scene at the end of the book, We need to talk about Kevin reads like a nightmare. You can’t put it down. A thriller in every sense of the word. But one that goes way beyond the limitations of the genre. Shriver’s ambitions are a lot more encompassing. She discusses the nature of evil. Is it caused by nurture or nature? How is it created? Has Kevin always been the monster she feared he was or was his low self-esteem caused by his mother’s lack of love and care that turned him into a criminal? Was the mother’s resentment for having to give up all the pleasure and independence of her former life, her pre-baby life, toxic enough to corrupt and undo the little creature? The sense of guilt of a mother for not conforming to the patterns of a society that takes motherly love for granted only contributes to the character’s anguish and mental confusion. Of course, the book will show different perspectives of the scenarios we painted, but the conclusion will be up to the reader.
These are all great themes and I don’t need to tell you how masterfully these concepts and ideas are exploited by those wonderful writers. The angles they illuminate, the perspectives they reveal would hardly have occurred to the average reader. That’s why they are geniuses and we are blog writers. But we can always try to get closer to their art in our writing. According to Malcolm Gladwell, another writer whose books I wish I could have written (although they are nonfictional), all it takes is a dedication of 10,000 hours of work to become a world class master at your craft.
Which books would you like to have written yourself? Let us know.
Jorge Sette Interviews Philip Roth
Based on some of my previous posts on Facebook, Twitter and this blog, many of you will already know that Philip Roth is one of my favorite writers. At 81, he is considered by many the greatest living American writer. I can’t get enough of his books. They usually investigate the depths of the human soul, are packed with painful truths, but also convey a dark sense of humor, which makes them irresistible.
Although I have already reread many of his novels, the good news is he’s so prolific that I haven’t been able to cover his complete works yet. So there is a lot to look forward to. I don’t think I will ever have an opportunity to talk to him in person, as he is very reclusive and private. And, to be quite honest, I would not like that to happen, as I want to preserve the idealized image I have of him.
So I decided to imagine and share with you, dear reader, an interview I could have had with Mr. Roth. Of course all the answers are true, since they are quotes of his or his characters. Let’s find out more about Philip Roth then:
(J stands for Jorge, and R stands for Roth)
J: Mr Roth, most of your books feel very autobiographical although they are supposed to be fictional. Do you plan to write more non-fiction in the future? Don’t you think you should have a blog or even a Twitter account like everyone else nowadays so people could get to know you better?
R: “Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.”
J: I understand you live alone now. Any romantic interest in your life at this moment?
R: “The only obsession everyone wants: ‘love.’ People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole? The Platonic union of souls? I think otherwise. I think you’re whole before you begin. And the love fractures you. You’re whole, and then you’re cracked open. ”
J: You are not young anymore, don’t you ever feel lonely and wish there was someone sharing your life? I think I would.
R: “Stop worrying about growing old. And think about growing up.”
J: Sure. Can you tell us a little about your creative process? What’s your writing routine?
R: “I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out, “Is he as crazy as I am?” I don’t need that question answered.”
J: Well, let’s turn to current events then. What do you think of the present situation in Syria and Ukraine? Don’t you think diplomacy should have worked more effectively by now?
R: “You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn’t annihilate human nature.”
J: I see. New Jersey and New York always remind me of you and your books.
R: “I came to New York and in only hours, New York did what it does to people: awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.”
J: Mr Roth, thanks for agreeing to meet with me, but I must make a confession. I feel it’s easier to know writers by reading their books rather than interviewing them. What do you think is the best way to get to know someone and understand their motives?
R: You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
J: Thanks, Mr Roth, that’s very reassuring. Can I ask you a final question? I’ve started this little blog and I’m very proud of it. I love writing, although I’m just starting. Would you give me some advice as an experienced and famous writer?
R: “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”
J: Hmmmm. Well, thank you, I guess. This will be posted online. I will let you know when. Take care.
“You’re so vain” (Books I think are about me)
I got a funny reaction to my blog post on Wuthering Heights (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-j0) from an anonymous reader. He or she wrote to me saying: “You are so vain, you probably think Wuthering Heights is about you”. I suspect this is an adaptation of a line of an old Carly Simon song, who allegedly was referring to Mick Jagger. In a way, I found the comment rather amusing, and, to be quite honest, remarkably true. Even more worrying: I tend to think that every single book I love is about me! As a matter of fact, it only interests me if I can somehow relate to it. And I guess this is what happens to every reader, at least the more romantic ones, like me. So, yes, you got it right, dear anonymous e-mail writer.
Take for example some of the best books I have read (and often reread) : Dom Casmurro (by Machado de Assis), Nemesis (by Philip Roth) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe). They are really all about me.
The first time I read Dom Casmurro I was still in high school, and totally fell in love with Capitu. The kiss she and Bentinho exchange while he is combing her hair and she drops her head back, making their faces align in opposite directions, is one of the most romantic scenes I remember as a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I saw a repeat of that scene decades later in the movie SPIDER MAN! This time he was hanging upside down from a wire fence while Mary Jane was looking up. The same kind of kiss. Also, like Bentinho, the main character in Dom Casmurro, I can be quite jealous in a relationship and totally understand how paranoid it must feel to have your kid grow up to look like your best male friend. And the best thing is, every time I read the book again, I find new clues that indicate that Capitu must have been unfaithful, although we can never be one hundred per cent sure, as the story is very cleverly told from the point of view of the narrator only, who happens to be Bentinho, the husband.
Nemesis by Philip Roth is a very universal story, and if you can’t identify with it, I’m afraid you have a problem. Although I’m not Jewish and am fortunate enough not to be physically disabled (the story is about the terrible consequences of the outbreak of a polio epidemic in the mid-1940s New Jersey), I fully identify with the book’s themes. The main message, as I see it, is, if you are struck by tragedy, if you have a disability of any kind, or anything else people may look down upon or reject you for (and that probably applies to all of us), there is no point in blaming God or the Universe for it. Get on with your life, it’s your responsibility to make the most of it and restore or construe your own meaning for happiness. Or fight back. This is something everyone needs to hear: take full ownership of your failures and problems, and deal with them. No one else will care as much. Tough, but real.
The Bonfire of the Vanities: the main character finds himself in a kafkaesque situation: he gets lost in a dangerous part of the city while driving back from the airport with his mistress, and accidently seems to strike a young black man he was sure was trying to mug them. What a nightmare! Was it a hit-and-run accident? Should they tell the police straightaway? But the wife will find out about the mistress then. Was the kid really hit, all they heard was a little noise (“thok”) after all. Surely the boy was OK. What decisions do they need to make? Mistakes are inevitably made along the way and there are terrible consequences. Moreover, there are many third parties (journalists, community leaders, attorneys, politicians, etc) trying to profit politically from the situation. Nothing is as morally simple as it first looks. Interesting questions. The reader gets deeply involved in the plot and its turns. “Unputdownable”. Besides, it’s very tempting to picture myself living the good life of a succesful Wall Street yuppie in a huge two-story apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan…without the tragedy! Another book that COULD be about me.
So I’m really sorry if the anonymous e-mail writer intended to hurt my feelings accusing me of believing that Wuthering Heights is about me. Catherine, one of the book’s main characters, says at one of the most important plot points in the story: “I am Heathcliff!” Well, so am I!