View Full Version : The originality of Philip Roth

04-07-2014, 10:57 PM
I've been reading a review (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1389252.ece) in the Times Literary Supplement of a book entitled The Infinite Voices of Philip Roth. I haven't read the book, but I think the review itself is a good assessment of Roth.

Of course Roth is a prolific writer, publishing his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959. In 2012 he announced that he was retiring, being nearly 80 years old.

What I find most unique about Roth is his voice -- frenetic, uninhibited, and often chaotic. He also inserted himself into the characters in ways that are fascinating. We take this kind of writing for granted now, but the review reminds us of how unusual it was when he started doing it. A few snippits:

The real Roth is in his malicious inventions. “The butcher, imagination”, Roth once observed: “You wouldn’t want it as a friend.” And he’s right: who’d be friends with an imagination? True imagination is the absolute asocial. I kept remembering one of Zuckerman’s rants (himself impersonating somebody else), raging against “the anti-humanity that calls itself nice. Nice. I don’t care what my kid grows up to be . . . so long as he doesn’t turn out nice”.

That was the universal conflict for which Roth created his new forms – his new invention in the art of the novel. He made novels into toys and contraptions of offensiveness: gruesome, collapsed, with all the usual proportions and distances deflated, like those Hans Bellmer dolls. In order to provoke the maximum discomfort, he needed to dismantle the usual aesthetic distance, and the usual social politesse – those old-fashioned worries over shame, or dignity. The deformations wrought on Roth’s own personal biography by his alter egos, by Kepesh, Portnoy, Zuckerman, and so on – “concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life” – are interesting not for their overlap with his own biography, but for their use to him as a novelist, an importance signalled in the way he likes to orchestrate his bibliography according to his multiples, into Roth books, Zuckerman books, Kepesh books. The refusal of distance between the life and the work was designed to create a new effect – the refusal of distance between the reader and the work, in a sort of novelistic crumpling. And so he came up with his experiments in what Pierpont beautifully calls the “first-person intimate”, this collage of italics and capitals and exclamation marks and rhetorical questions, a voice submitted to the endless, sprightly indignity and humiliation of desire

And finally this:

“ . . . But why must I explain myself! Excuse myself! Why must I justify with my Honesty and Compassion my desires! So I have desires – only they’re endless. Endless! And that, that may not be such a blessing, taking for the moment a psychoanalytic point of view . . . . But then all the unconscious can do anyway, so Freud tells us, is want. And want! And WANT! Oh, Freud, do I know!”

It's an interesting essay -- I recommend it.

04-08-2014, 09:21 AM
Thanks, Colo. I'll read it. The only Philip Roth work I ever read was his first, Goodbye, Columbus, and I quite liked it. That was almost 50 years ago. But there's no doubt he's a major figure in American fiction over that last half-century, and as long as he's alive, is a leading American candidate for the Nobel in Literature.


07-24-2014, 05:48 PM
I couldn't get through the first twenty pages of Professor of Desire (erratic, energetic, odd), but The Human Stain kept my interest throughout. The style of THS is so much calmer and I suppose the narrative is clearer because of it; I also have a fascination with the boxer archetype. Thought it was a good metaphor.

William Haskins
07-26-2014, 05:25 AM
the human stain was his high-water mark, in my opinion.

chris' description of "frenetic, uninhibited, and often chaotic" is spot-on.

William Haskins
07-26-2014, 05:27 AM
take a few minutes and enjoy: