The Gripes of Roth

A great woke irony! Philip Roth’s unknown biographer is now being pilloried and pulped for Roth’s alleged sexual peccadillos, not the notorious womaniser and author of Portnoy’s Complaint himself. What’s wrong with the trophy-seeking feminist furies: can’t they see a bigger target when it’s in plain sight? Roth had over fifty years a triple career as famous novelist, notorious womaniser and political activist. He couldn’t untangle the three and neither can we, nor can the latest book-burning critics.

Philip Roth is best known for novels like Portnoy’s Complaint flaunting the transgressions of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In a different mood in later life he wrote a group of socio-political novels called The American Trilogy. They cover the turbulent decades from the 1940s to the 1980s, but also operate as a disguised autobiographical reflection mediated through his alter ego, Nathan Zuckernan. These novels present a different and far more accurate account of Roth’s changing attachments, both political and personal. Over the decades he was mugged by reality, not to mention his previous sexual partners. He had been in the 1970s an anti-Vietnam War Left-liberal, and in these novels he recaptures the political enthusiasms of his earlier life, and comes to terms with the gradual but profound changes he was undergoing. In the end he was much closer in outlook to fellow novelists Saul Bellow and Milan Kundera than to his earlier alter ego, Portnoy.

The first novel of his trilogy, I Married a Communist (1998), set in the 1940s and 1950s, provides an explanatory prologue to later events. The Great Depression and the Second World War have made life tough for people trying to improve their lot. Actual political events form the background to the novel’s action, from the Truman presidency and the recovery from the war, through the Democratic Party’s division over Henry Wallace’s candidacy in the 1948 election, to the anti-communist McCarthy episode in the Eisenhower years of the 1950s. The novel is a Bildungsroman, a tale of how the narrator Nathan Zuckerman learnt about himself and his role in the world as he grew up.

Zuckerman, a generation younger than the main characters, learns from his role models such as his schoolteacher Murray Ringold, who narrates much of the story through Zuckerman. Murray’s brother Ira Ringold, who has taken the name Iron Rinn, is the hero of the novel. Zuckerman also learns from a student friend, Leo Gluksman, an aesthete diametrically opposed to Rinn’s activist views, so both sides are covered. Zuckerman’s role is to tell, half a century after the events, the version of Rinn’s story as remembered by his brother Murray. Roth is giving the reader the flavour of the times, with the progressive Left sympathetically portrayed.

The House Un-American Activities Committee is seeking to expose Soviet and Wallace sympathisers like the Ringolds. Murray Ringold loses his teaching position for some years and his brother Iron Rinn, once a unionist and Communist Party agitator, now a popular actor playing President Lincoln in plays and speeches, is under similar pressure from the activist Right. Rinn is married to a famous Hollywood actress, Eva Frame, devious, showy, and hiding her true self. Her daughter from a previous marriage, Sylphid, a harpist, controls her mother. Rinn, formed in the rough and tough 1930s, is straightforward and self-educated, and opposite to the charming and socially adept Eva who directs his upward social mobility.

To the young narrator the atmosphere at Rinn and Eva’s townhouse is liberating: books, music, high culture and informed discussion, a sophistication rare in 1940s USA. Sylphid provides an extra dimension; with her cynical, destructive witty “amused contempt” she sends up the house’s guests. Rinn eventually has affairs with a friend of his daughter’s and with his masseuse. The marriage between Rinn and Eva deteriorates, just as their pro-communist stance falls apart as well. People ditch their erstwhile partners and friends out of a “motiveless malignity”. We are getting into Kundera territory here, where sex and politics clash. Parallels are drawn between political and personal inconstancy during the McCarthy period:

Not only does the pleasure of betraying replace the prohibition, but you transgress without giving up your moral authority. You retain your purity … at the same time as you are realizing a satisfaction that verges on the sexual with its ambiguous components of pleasure and weakness, of aggression and shame: the satisfaction of undermining.

When Eva publishes her memoir, I Married a Communist, dumping on her former husband Ira, he is described in the novel as “hell bent in getting his revenge”. This is a direct take from real life: the negative portrait of Eva Frame in the novel is Roth’s own revenge on his former wife, the famous actress Claire Bloom, who had portrayed Roth so unfavourably in her memoir. This was an enormous shock to Roth: Portnoy-like activity was not a bed of roses.

Rinn is attacked from both sides: the communists claim he has sold out, while at the same time the McCarthyists pursue him. In the 1960 the New Left attempts to rehabilitate him. In all this Roth takes a detached stance; writing in the 1990s he knew from Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera and other East European writers he met there that communism had been exposed as hollow, but believed it worthwhile to capture the beliefs, atmosphere and rationalisations of the time. This second big realisation led him to act courageously. He helped beleaguered East European writers by editing the successful Penguin series “Writers from the Other Europe”, which gave these authors protection at home and publicity abroad.

In the second novel of the trilogy, American Pastoral (1997), which is centred on the 1960s, the main figure, Seymour Levov, from a second-generation US Jewish family, is an all-American sports star in his youth who inherits his father’s successful business. The Levov family saga is presented as typical of the inter-generational conflicts of the period. The pioneering grandfather Lou Levov is a traditionalist, his son Seymour is a liberal, and his granddaughter Merry has been radicalised by hatred of her father, of capitalism, and of America itself. The desire for assimilation of previous generations has been halted, replaced by contempt for a slack society: “Once Jews ran away from repression; now they run away from non-oppression.” In the novel three ethnic groups face this dilemma: confident, long-standing WASP families like the Orcutts; Irish Catholics like the family of Dawn Dwyer, Seymour’s wife; and the Jewish Levov family itself. Roth’s imagination has a sociological stretch which effectively captures key social currents. Extended dialogues between Seymour Levov and his daughter Merry, and between Seymour and his brother Jerry, are recounted to present both sides of the arguments at the time.

In the third generation Merry is indulged as a young girl with horses to ride and all she wants. Then her revulsion against her way of life deepens:

A vision from which she was willing, if not to kill, then cruelly abandon her own family, a vision having nothing to do with “ideals” … blind antagonism and an infantile desire to menace—those were her ideals. In search always of something to hate.

Merry scorns her parents and the American way of life, becomes radicalised in the Weatherman terrorist cult, where in the course of bombing a commercial premises a bystander is killed. After this episode she is forced to live underground, during which time three more people are murdered as a result of her activities. This wrecks the life of her liberal parents and leads to family disintegration, shattering the immigrants’ American dream of continual improvement. The US nation, social norms, communities, families and individuals are all broken, the novel reveals, by this sudden upheaval. All certainties vanish:

People suddenly forced to make sense of madness. All that public display. The dropping of inhibitions. Authority powerless. The kids going crazy. Intimidating everybody. The adults don’t know what to make of it.

Zuckerman (and Roth) notice by the end that people are lost, having cracked under the strain. They don’t know who they really are, their outward performances belie their true, distraught state. Their past and the identities they have formed are not enough, the props are gone:

She [Dawn] was nothing like the one he had imagined … How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess … What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed? People were standing up everywhere, shouting This is me! This is me! … the truth of it was that they had no more idea of who or of what they were than he.

The novel has certain similarities to Bellow’s Herzog, which had appeared three decades before. The same political events set the scene. The disturbed Seymour manically sends off letters of protest “telling off the state and President” to public figures to relieve his own anguish, as Herzog does. Both heroes live in rural locations in New England close to the action in New York, as both authors did at the time. The novel is called American Pastoral: in its later part the survivors of the 1960s lick their wounds in rural tranquillity, in contrast to earlier scenes of ghastly industrialised Newark.

The Human Stain (2000), the third novel in Philip Roth’s trilogy, satirises political correctness in the later decades of the century. A Dean of the Humanities, Coleman Silk, at a college in the Berkshires in New England, refers to students who never appear at class as “spooks”; the word, however, has a secondary slang meaning of “black” or “Negro”. This trivial incident is escalated into an accusation of racism against Silk, whom we later find has black ancestry. Since his appointment Silk has cleared out time-serving plodders and recruited young trendy staff, many newly-minted literary theorists, led by a feminist French lecturer, Delphine Roux, who is ambitious, attractive, conniving and successful, but hollow at the core. Silk admonishes her: “To have nothing to say about them [two plays by Euripides] other than they are ‘degrading to women’ isn’t a ‘perspective’, for Christ’s sake—it’s mouthwash.” Roth also depicts her as desperate and conflicted, a victim of her own wiles. Instead of displaying gratitude for their positions, the new staff play the racism card against Silk until, under the pressure of an unstoppable political correctness campaign, and with his wife dying from the strain, he has no option but to resign (just as Ringold is forced out from the opposite side in the first novel of the trilogy). Male academics, themselves emasculated by this feminist onslaught, are criticised as weakly going along with this blackballing,

Silk first reacts with rage and a desire for revenge. Like Bellow, Roth shows how in a personal crisis learning can’t teach you how to live: “All the education and nothing helps. Nothing can insulate from the lowest level of thought.” He has to get over being expelled from his previous life and to settle into “dignified contemplation … To live in a way that does not bring Philoctetes to mind. He does not have to live like a tragic character in his course.” He has to get away from “the ridiculous quest for significance. From the never-ending campaign for legitimacy.” But he does learn from ancient Greek writers about “the many horrors that can ensue when the highest degree of indignation is achieved and, in the name of justice, retribution is exacted and a cycle of retribution begins”. East European authors understood that a revenge cycle extends, not ends, the original disturbance, and warps the personality.

Silk gets over his rage principally through his love affair with Faunia Farley, a cleaner at the college. She is uneducated, basic, close to the natural world and with an innate decency (qualities opposite in every way to Delphine’s). Faunia is stalked by her former husband, Lester, a disturbed Vietnam veteran. Faunia and Lester are both part of the underclass, the rural hill-country poor. Both are victims, living invisible lives: “These are people whose fundamental feeling about life is that they have been fucked over unfairly right down the line.” Silk now sees his own unfair treatment in perspective. The Vietnam vet syndrome at first blush seems unattractive; Lester’s post-traumatic stress disorder is not alleviated by fashionable psychiatric treatments, but by fishing alone in the woods and mountains which are his home. The novel ends like a Greek tragedy—the human world, unlike the world of nature, leaves an indelible stain.

In his trilogy Roth links the decades of the 1940s, 1960s and 1990s, all times when political fanaticisms swept through public life and caused mental mutations. Roth aligns right-wing McCarthyism with later left-wing political correctness, each dominated by “the malevolent puritanism with which you will be tarred and feathered” by “America’s oldest communal passion … the ecstasy of sanctimony”. Silk is ostracised on false grounds, as the central character McCoy is in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mr Sammler in Bellow’s novel Mr Sammler’s Planet. Roth, once a radical liberal, now led, with fellow novelists like Bellow and Wolfe, resistance to the madness of the age.

Patrick Morgan’s new book, Living Memory: Selected Essays 1964–2014, published last month by Connor Court, collects 31 of his essays on a range of topics, literary, political, historical and cultural.


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