Writing about Philip Roth in the New Yorker, Zadie Smith proffered that there is something “ancient and rabbinical” in Roth’s “attraction to paradox and imperfection.” That may or may not be true depending on what one means by either of the two key terms. Roth, of course, was neither “ancient” nor “rabbinic.” And yes, while the oeuvre is obviously modern and American Jewish, by ancient and rabbinic one might still mean two “primordial” characteristics, which when held together, are echt Jewish. These would be the predilection for biting contradiction and conflict coupled with deep, tribal fellow feeling.
Roth famously claims to have been an American writer, not a Jewish writer, but as Plato understood, artists always lie. I am pretty sure, for instance, that he was never invited to appear on panels at Protestant theological seminaries, as he was at Yeshiva University in a famous event, famously mischaracterized by the author and described here by Steven Zipperstein, correcting the record. As did other American Jews writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Roth wrote himself out of the Jewish ghetto from within a position deep inside a Jewish cave. Against the ghetto of Jewish narrowness circa 1959, Roth stood out and still stands out as the acrid critic of clichéd Jewish tripe. But the more he dug his writing out of “Jewishness,” the more he dug it back in, like a burrowing creature in a short story by Kafka.
Returning again and again to Newark, New Jersey, Roth was a profoundly local American writer. About this, though, there’s nothing especially “ancient” or “rabbinic.” As my friend and colleague Gail Hamner pointed out in a private conversation, Roth was no different in this respect than Faulkner. And to Faulkner one could easily add Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, and James. Except for one major difference. Unable to enjoy the majority privilege of American Christian whiteness, Roth’s writing was savage. At once social and existential, it came from a deeply self-conscious and beleaguered minority subject position that lent itself to parody and aggressiveness. The place in the world in Roth’s writing, its place in America was hemmed in by doubts, questions, and kindred inconsistencies relating to sex, death, and comedy. Uninhibitedly vulgar, the binary oppositions in Roth’s fiction are uncomprehending ones between Jew and gentile, Jew and Jew, men and women, reason and unreason.
But there was always this. Steeped in postwar middle class, third generation Jewish family ambience, there was always something deeply heimisch about Roth’s writing. Always coming back to fathers, mothers, brothers, sons and, on rare occasion, daughters, it didn’t matter that these settings were couched viciously. The family fellow-feeling was something that I first noticed a long time ago when I read Patrimony, a non-fiction work about his father, and in the family setting that defines Plot Against America, a vulnerability in the world together. Almost mawkish, except for that bite. Roth’s fundamentally sympathetic relation to the inner circle of Jewish social being gave to many of his stories a warm tint of kindness, just on the other side of explosive anger. The family ambience accounts, as per Smith, for that arch tolerance for the stain of human imperfection, unable to adjust and to make it, viewed from inside. I don’t think anything else interested Roth as much as the sexual, social, and existential failures of fathers and of men.