Philip Roth: Novels 1993-1995 — the enlightened solipsism of the gray hyena of American letters

October 10, 2010

I don’t doubt that at some point or other I’ve resorted to the cliche of referring to Philip Roth as one of the aging “lions” of American letters. If I have, let me apologize, both to Roth and to any readers collaterally wounded by that shallow characterization. There’s nothing lazy and leonine about Roth, he’s more jackal or hyena — a waste-not scavenger foraging in the margins of a certain kind of (frankly hermetic) human experience. He’s Raven or Coyote — a trickster with an iron heart — anything but the warrior king. And I love him although I know there’s little chance he’ll love me back.

I feel guilty to be just getting around to the Library of America’s latest edition of Roth’s collected works — the sixth volume of his work they’ve collected. Philip Roth: Novels 1993-1995 — which comprises his novels Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater. It went on sale last month, and I honestly meant to write a piece on Roth for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette around that time. (Roth’s latest novel, Nemesis, just came out too — it’s reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review today. So maybe I’m not that late.)

Anyway, though I’ve been cautioned that people won’t read long posts, I’m going to have my say about the LOA’s lastest Roth installment here on Blood, Dirt and Angels, because — well, frankly, because that’s what this blog is here for. It’s at least partially a response to the fiscal realities of our times. Space, in newspapers, is dear. But out here on the darknets, we’ve got nothing but time.

It’s very weird for me to see these two particular books enshrined as part of the American canon. Not just because Roth is still very much alive, but because I actually reviewed both of these novels for my newspaper when they were released. Actually, I think my review of Operation Shylock was the first (and possibly the longest) book review I wrote for the newspaper. Those were better days than we knew. In Shylock a character named Philip Roth encounters a doppelganger who has appropriated the author’s identity and is toruing Israel promoting a kind of crackpot anti-Zionism he calls “Diasporism.” To stop him, the “real” Roth is compelled to impersonate his impersonator.

Operation Shylock is a comedy, as funny a book as Roth has produced since The Great American Novel,” I wrote, “but tuned to a darker key …. Armed with a liar’s paradox — ‘This confession is false’ — this is a shaggy dog story that glances off actual events and personages as it ricochets around one of the most potent imaginations of our time, a kind of Vonnegut-with-verisimilitude romp through the Middle East of the Mossad, Arafat and the intifiada….

“Roth, like Mailer and — to a lesser degree — Bellow and Updike, has made a career of enlightened solipsisim.”

And on Sabbath’s Theater:

“Since the 1959 publication of ‘Goodbye, Columbus,’ Philip Roth has been engaged in the solipsistic adventure; he has picked through the ashes and ruins of his own life and libido, sounded his own psyche and — almost as a side effect — produced some marvelous fiction.

‘Though there are no doppelgangers, no ‘Philip Roths,’ in this latest book, the author’s universe remains unchanged; Mickey Sabbath is yet another .. self-absorbed stand-in for the main man, the wizard behind the curtain. In some respects, Sabbath might be seen as an older version of Alex Portnoy or Nathan Zuckerman or any of Roth’s other writer-protagonists.

‘They all share the author’s middle class Jewish/Jersey Shore background, as well as his fascination with the erotic, unfettered, Dionysian self. Roth’s characters are typically hamstrung between duty and the desire for self-gratification; they are all intelligent and alert observers of their own tics and appetites, they all move with the self-consciousness of actors, with the result that they have trouble distinguishing performance from genuine displays of feeling. They all, to some extent, feel, as Sabbath at one point complains, ‘locked up in me.’”


  • Comment by DLindsay — Oct 11,2010 at 12:26 pm

    PLEASE write longer posts, especially about books, and authors, for that matter. It’s rarely being done elsewhere. Good job, PM.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Oct 11,2010 at 12:35 pm

    I’ll try to mix in a few long form things here and there. And this is going to be a site about books. And about golf clubs.

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