A Jewish friend once told me, “Philip Roth is writing the story of my life. I wait for each new book to discover the next chapter.” Many are the Jewish men who have expressed, each with a different nuance, similar gratitude to and affection for the writer who died May 22 in New York City at eighty-five. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, a Jew born in South Africa and raised in Britain, expressed gratitude in print, on the very day when the sad news broke, for the way that Roth had introduced him to the liberating Jewish-American way to be Jewish—or to be himself.
Philip and I have been friends—it hurts to say “were friends”—since 1974. In that year, I was working as an instructor on a temporary appointment (I would leave academic life within the year) at the University of Montana. There, I read “Imagining Jews,” a long article that he had just published in the New York Review of Books, and wrote him about it, c/o the Review. He answered, a correspondence ensued, and he invited me to visit him if I ever came east. Some months later, I did so, and the friendship took off from there. Among Philip’s immense gifts was the gift of friendship.
My reason for writing him had arisen from several key passages in “Heroes Jewish Writers Imagine,” the second section of “Imagining Jews.” Considering Saul Bellow’s heroes, Philip, while regarding Bellow as “to my mind the country’s most accomplished working novelist,” found
That almost invariably his heroes are Jewish in vivid and emphatic ways when they are actors in dramas of conscience, but are by comparison only faintly marked by their Jewishness, if they are Jews at all, when appetite and libidinous adventure is at the heart of a novel.
In Portnoy’s Complaint, Alexander Portnoy exclaims to his psychiatrist at one point, “Doctor, doctor, let’s put the id back in yid!” In “Imagining Jews,” Philip provided that much-quoted line, among so many others in his raucous 1969 bombshell of a novel, a subtle and deeply pondered social and literary context.
Regarding Bernard Malamud, an almost equally celebrated Jewish novelist back in 1974, he made a related point even more sharply:
For Malamud, generally speaking, the Jew is innocent, passive, virtuous, and this to the degree that he defines himself or is defined by others as a Jew; the Gentile, on the other hand, is characteristically corrupt, violent, and lustful, particularly when he enters a room or a store or a cell with a Jew in it.
Now, on the face of it, it would seem that a writer could not get very far with such evangelistic simplifications. And yet that is not at all the case with Malamud (as it isn’t with Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird), for so instinctively do the figures of a good Jew and a bad goy emerge from an imagination essentially folkloric and didactic that his fiction is most convincing the more strictly he adheres to these simplifications….
Philip was entirely right about the appeal on the page of “these simplifications,” even for a Gentile reader. Reading Malamud as an “innocent, passive, virtuous” but, notably, a Catholic young man, the kind who could (and did) enter the seminary, I identified powerfully with the interior life of Malamud’s deep, idealistic, morally anguished or conscience-driven Jewish heroes. But naggingly in the back of my mind, brought forward only when Philip brought it forward in his analysis, was the fact that in these works, no one like me in ethnicity or religion or education ever is innocent, passive, virtuous, idealistic, etc. So, for me, you might say that while putting the id back in yid, Philip proposed to put the morally longsuffering oy back in goy.
But I hasten to add that the id on such vivid display in Portnoy’s Complaint—very specifically, the masturbation—had mattered as well when I read that novel two years before writing its author. In the late 1950s, boys like me attending Catholic schools were taught that masturbation was a sin that, if not confessed in time to a priest, could damn you to hell forever. Masturbation was thus a “mortal” sin, tantamount to bank robbery or perjury. It would rob you not of your few decades of life on Earth but of your eternal life in Heaven. This was tough news for any boy tempted to what Philip, on another occasion, would call “that one peccadillo of which nearly every boy is sooner or later guilty.” I was twenty-seven, or about as old as the narrating adult Portnoy of the novel, when I read Portnoy’s Complaint and had long since let slip the Catholic high school melodrama of “self-abuse” as an act of monstrous malefaction. It was not the case, then, that Portnoy’s Complaint “freed me from Catholic guilt.” Guilt of this Catholic sort plays, in any case, no role at all in Portnoy’s psychological affliction, the “complaint” of the title.
That complaint resides—for Portnoy and for me even at twenty-seven—in the elusive shame of the act, its impropriety, its peculiar incompatibility with all the rest of a life of honest ambition, moral integrity, reasonable decorum, and, in some cases, intellectual or artistic aspiration. Why should it be so? No matter: it is so, perhaps because deeper than that one messy little act or any other sex act itself is the sex drive behind it—intractable, maddening, disruptively omnipresent, intrusive anywhere and at any hour of the day or night: the drive that time after time has brought about the kind of female outrage and ruin that this year is making almost daily #MeToo headlines. It is this about sex, the blind and raging passion behind it, that so tormented but also mesmerized and fascinated St. Augustine in The Confessions. A man of dignity and probity, an achieved and manly man, should be a man in calm and secure control of himself. Napoleon’s supposed instruction to Jacques-Louis David, as the great historical painter began his portrait of the French general crossing the Alps, was, “Portray me serene upon a plunging mount.” Similar serenity should characterize—but rarely does—a man’s control over the plunging mount of his own sex drive. Therein lay the scream in the novel so often called “screamingly funny.” The triumph of Portnoy’s Complaint was the way it enabled so many overcome by such uncontrollable desires—certainly not Jews alone—to laugh with a kind of relief at their own defeat.
But what then of Roth’s post-1974 portrayal of Gentiles? Did he proceed to practice what he preached in “Imagining Jews” when it came to imagining non-Jews in his later work? And before answering, let me ask a further question: When you think “Gentile,” do you think white or black? I ask this question, for I rest my case for Philip’s breadth on just one Gentile character: Coleman Silk in The Human Stain.
Among all American Gentile types who might be said stereotypically (often prejudicially) to embody raw physical power and rampant libido, does any surpass the African-American male? I doubt it, but Coleman is a light-skinned black man who passes as Jewish, marries a Jew, rises in academic life as a professor of classics (classics!), and—in the manner of so many dynamic literary Jews in the 1960s and 1970s—brilliantly disrupts the sleepy status quo of the venerable New England liberal arts college where he ends up before being taken down in countercultural crossfire.
It would not be Philip’s way, of course, to handicap the libido or any other aspect of the masculinity of the highly intellectual Gentile placed at the center of his most intricately plotted novel, and he does not do so. Coleman has a brief career as a boxer, then a career as a military man, during which his racial masquerade is viciously uncovered by a prostitute in a brothel. But intellectual ambition and, above all, love—filial, fraternal, marital, spiritual, and carnal—are richly on display in this work and in this character from start to finish. The African-American Coleman Silk, as Jewishly complex and conflicted as any Jew in Philip’s oeuvre, is his greatest Gentile character—and, in fact, his last great character.
Though, unlike most critics, I read Nemesis, his last novel as an elegant encore, like a simple Chopin waltz played by Arthur Rubinstein after a long and stunning concert, I read The Human Stain as the climactic work of his long career. Everything after it, down to that encore, has read for me as a long denouement.
The late novelist and critic Richard Stern once wrote (I paraphrase) that to refer to Bellow and Roth as Jewish writers would be like referring to Hawthorne and Thoreau as Congregationalist writers. His point was well taken, but for me it was scarcely necessary. I know as a reader, never mind as a friend, that Philip Roth is not a novelist for Jews alone because he has been…he was…so long and so intimately a writer for me.