Goodbye, Philip Roth


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In the story, Neil Klugman, recently out of Rutgers and the army, works behind the desk at the Newark Library. I knew myself to be a future wife; I harbored dreams of having children.

Goodbye, Philip Roth | Cognoscenti

They looked immortal sitting there. The irony needled me. The line stayed with me for years.

Philip Roth Unleashed Part 2 BBC One Imagine 2014

I was sure, on last reading it, that Roth meant not that the mothers individually looked immortal but that the condition of motherhood—and fatherhood—was immortal, the inescapable, wearying lot of most of humanity. Neil was girding himself to get out while he could. I read it now and I wonder what made me so sure. Only Brenda shone. What was I loving, I wondered, and since I am not one to stick scalpels into myself, I wiggled my hand in the fence and allowed a tiny-nosed buck to lick my thoughts away.

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Neil is smart, inadequate, needy, competitive. He longs for Brenda and fears her rejection, tempering his desire with pre-emptive attack. All the things one recognises and does. But, of course, as I got older I understood. One cries not because it is sad but because it is true, and no matter how funny he is, reading Roth always leaves one a little devastated. Emma Brockes is a novelist and Guardian columnist. Philip Roth was more than capable of the kind of formal patterning and closure that preoccupied the work of Henry James, with whom he now stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the American literary firmament.

So yes, one can always choose a singular favourite — mine is the early story Goodbye, Columbus, though I know the capacious greatness of American Pastoral probably warrants favourite status. Hence the spillage of self, of characters real and imagined, of characters really imagining and of selves fictionally enacting, from work to work to work.

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So, here, Philip Roth , is to a job well done. I read it when I was about 18 — an off-piste literary choice in my sobersided studenty world. Ven der putz shteht! Into the hat that he wears on his head! A vision of hell that was also insanely funny. Was I, a Wasp reader, entitled to admit I shared that stricken swoon of yearning? Only it was a Jewish girl I was in love with. I read everything that appeared from Goodbye, Columbus I was led to Roth by the excellent film but then kind of fell by the wayside in the mid s with The Counterlife. Maybe, in the end, the Zuckerman novels are novels for writers, or for readers who dream of being writers.

One of the secret joys of writing fictionally is writing about yourself through the lens of fiction. Not every writer does it, but I bet you every writer yearns to. And Roth did it, possibly more thoroughly than anyone else — hence the enduring allure of the Zuckerman novels. Is this what Roth really felt and did — or is it a fiction?

Goodbye, Columbus

Zuckerman remains endlessly tantalising. William Boyd is a novelist and screenwriter. Philip Roth is not my favourite writer; that would be John Updike. This is never true. David Baddiel is a writer and comedian. American Pastoral bagged the Pulitzer — at last — for Philip Roth, but it is not, I suspect, his best-loved book with readers.

And yet, of all his books, American Pastoral probably lays the strongest claim that Roth was the great novelist of modern America. And in a terrible way, now that school shootings — almost invariably done by young people — are an all-too-common occurrence in America, the bafflement the Swede feels about Merry seems all too relevant. Hadley Freeman is an author and Guardian columnist. But this is Roth, and his lens is never satisfied looking in a single direction. Through the downfall of Swede Levov, Roth portrays the effects of the grand narratives of history on the individual, and questions our notions of identity, family, ambition, nostalgia and love.

Great novels hit you differently each time you revisit them, but a second reading of I Married a Communist felt like being flattened by a steamroller. These days, I think it may well be his best. I Married a Communist charts the rise and fall of Ira Ringold, a leftist radio star who finds himself broken on the wheel of the s red scare. Xan Brooks is a novelist and journalist. I read The Human Stain when it was published in I was in a book club comprised of gender studies academics, gay women, women of colour.

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No men allowed. We had been reading bell hooks, Jamaica Kincaid and along came Philip Roth.

Goodbye, Philip Roth

I expected it to be savaged. I expected to do the savaging, having never read Roth before, precisely because of his much-disputed misogyny. Then I read it, this tender, shocking and incendiary story on the failure of the American dream refracted through the prism of race, blackness and the alleged racism of Coleman Silk, a year-old classics professor who embarks on an affair with a cleaner half his age, as if by way of consolation.

Here we go, I thought, and raised an eyebrow when she danced for this priapic old fool. But The Human Stain is much more than that single scene. In less masterful hands, it could have read as dreadful appropriation.


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