Published On: Thu, Mar 7th, 2013

Philip Roth is the most highly regarded author in America

Philip Roth Flickr Madison Guy

Philip Roth Flickr Madison Guy

/ By Dorit Silberman /

Philip Roth is the most highly regarded author in America, this fact was established by a survey performed by Vulture the site run by the culture magazine of New York.  He was voted as such by 77% of the respondents.  Is he worthy of receiving the Nobel Prize for literature? was an additional question and to this 97% answered in the affirmative.  An additional humorous aside- in the survey the question was asked: “what is the subject he deals with the most? 43% answered- he himself.

On March 19 of this year, Philip Roth will be 80.  He has been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for a number of years.  In the past, Jewish American writers have won the Nobel Prize. They are: Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joseph Brodsky the Russian who immigrated to America. During the 1960s American Jewish literature was in full bloom and the author Bernard Malmud was also outstanding in this period.  Today, interest in ethnic cultures has changed to other sensitive minorities such as Chinese-American authors as well as Indo-American ones.  Philip Roth grew from the background of a flourishing Jewish-American literature.  He is a writer who has received many literary awards among them: two National Book Awards, three Penn-Faulkner awards, the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker prize for lifetime achievement.

Roth grew up in NewarkNew Jersey and at the age of 16 began his studies at BucknellUniversity where he obtained a Bachelors degree in English.  From there he went to the University of Chicago where he earned an M.A in English literature.  Roth taught comparative literature at both the University of Iowa and at Princeton.  For many years he also taught comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania before retiring from teaching in 1991.

Roth already stood out with his short stories among which was “Goodbye Columbus” which dealt with the Jewish identity crisis in a sharp and witty manner. In 1969 he published his book Portnoy’s Complaint which was translated into Hebrew (in 2005 it was published with a new translation). Portnoy’s complaint is tear producing funny.  Outrageous and with no limits it deals with the depths of Jewish identity.

The book aroused strong disputes when it was published but has sold over six million copies to date!  In my humble opinion, as one who has written a doctorate on Philip Roth, this is his most monumental work, his greatest literary achievement and greatest influence.  In my opinion, Philip Roth is the spiritual father of Woody Allen and all the dealings with the “Jewish mother” which we have transformed to the “Polish mother” began with him.

The Polish mother has undergone “Visualization” however “always Polish” by Yair Verboz which is delightfully funny could not have been written if not for Philip Roth and the “Book of Internal Grammar” by Grossman is really based on those same  rules of grammar with slight changes made due to the Israeli background.  Roth tended to describe the loving mother as being suffocating/controlling/pushy/ambitious/cold and based on the hypocritical Polish manners.

God-like figure

However, despite the comical and unforgettable depiction of the mother image, it is the father figure that is most important in his work.  For beyond the humorous answer given by the participants in the survey who answered that he deals mainly with himself, a deeper investigation of his works reveals that this same “self” is actually “I am a divided Jew”. The image of the hero is divided between the father and the son.  Both are parts of the same “self” as is written in the book of Psalms “my son today I am your child”- and the image of the father is a God-like figure.

Although Roth like Roth, in his humorous and witty manner places this God-like image in the toilet in his book “Portnoy’s Complaint”.  And yet the son still “hears the voices” and his father’s voice serves as the voice of God.  Roth idolizes and at the same time diminishes the image of the father however the God-like and worshipful image of the father repeats itself in all of his works.  The divided “self” also applies to the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.  Roth’s young hero is filled with lust however on a visit to Israel, the holy land, he becomes impotent.

  In his book “My Life as a Man” the story is divided into four possibilities: in the first case the protagonist is an American Jewish dentist, who is married and has a lover.  When his doctor tells him that he must take medication to lower his blood pressure and save his heart.  However, this will be at the cost of losing his potency. Alternatively he could opt not to take the medication and die quickly.  He does not take the medication as he does not want to lose his lover and so he dies and his brother eulogizes him.

In the second case the protagonist does take the medication and after he loses his interest in sex he makes Aliya to Israel, settles in the “territories.” A fanatical Kahanist and his brother try to save him, restore his sanity and bring him home.  In the third case this occurs to the brother and not the doctor.  The brother is faced with an even more serious dilemma: he is a bachelor who, relatively late in life finally finds his shoul mate who is a Catholic and he feels that he must have a son.

He is seemingly open and enlightened however when his son is born he fights with all his might to have his son ritually circumcised, a ritual that as recently as his wife’s pregnancy he called “primitive”.  Arguing in favor of the circumcision he claims that this rite dispels the intrauterine naïveté.  It shows the Jewish child that life is difficult and painful, and better prepares him for the real world.  In the fourth case the protagonist takes the medication and is destined not to have children.

Philip Roth. Obama Confers Nat'l Medal of Arts/ Getty

Philip Roth. Obama Confers Nat’l Medal of Arts/ Getty

Roth maintains a love-hate relationship with Israel as well as with the Judaism.  What troubles Portnoy is popular, that is, even though the heads of Jewish congregations were angry with him under the principle that one does not speak ill of Israel.  Or in his words: “what will the Gentiles say?” They claimed that Roth denigrated and insulted the Jewish people and that he makes the Jews despicable to the Gentiles.  They were angry that he revealed intimate secrets of the community and describe it in a distorted manner its life values.

Philip Roth underwent psychological treatment and wrote a trilogy in which he the main character is a writer by the name of Zuckerman who was a sort of alter ego of Roth himself.  Zuckerman wrote an international best seller and he suffers from Jews who hate him.  A sort of internal anti-Semitism like ulcers in which the body’s immune system destroys the body.

religion and non-religion

Philip Roth his also divided between subconscious religion and non-religion.  It was Jung who stated that in each of us is buried a subconscious religion.  Victor Frankel added: God is jealous and anyone who pushes him into the subconscious will pay the price.  And so Roth’s heroes go crazy more than once.  The protagonist Eli, in one of Roth’s early short stories called “Eli the Fanatic” is a modern lawyer who attempts to sympathize with new immigrants that have arrived in America following the holocaust in Europe and who are trying to establish a Yeshiva adjacent to an American community in which Jews and Gentiles are living together.  After much effort they finally receive approval to build this Yeshiva.  Members of the community fear that this Yeshiva will harm them and revert the community to traditional anti-Semitism.

Eli is sent to ask the Rabbi to see to it that when he or any of his students come to the town they change their black clothes to ordinary modern clothing. As a gesture he takes a green tweed suit exquisitely tailored and sends it to the Rabbi. Eli’s wife at just this time is in the hospital waiting to give birth when he hears a knock at the door.  Eli opens the door, doesn’t see anyone outside but finds a small package left on the sill.  He goes back into the house and opens the package to find inside a black, ultra-orthodox style suit, a coat, a streimael and ritual fringes.

It is a present from the head of the Yeshiva.  An unexplained urge causes him to “just try the suit on” and as he stands before the mirror he finds himself happier from minute to minute.  He goes out dancing into the house’s garden and immediately receives telephone calls from neighbors who suspect that a burglar has entered his home and garden.  He races to the hospital in his new outfit to tell his wife how much he is at peace with his Jadishness, however he appears to all to be too happy until too attendants arrive to put him into a strait jacket.

Roth means to imply that the American Jew rejects his Jadishness to the depths of his subconscious, is accepted by society but is not at peace with himself and when he is at peace with himself infernally he is regarded as insane by society. Thus the divided Jew is trapped between his essence and the external.

Will the survey be published in New York in order to exert pressure in order to help Roth receive the Nobel Prize?  Is it to tell him as he approaches his 80th birthday how much his readers appreciate him?  Or that he is the greatest living American writer active today?  You are invited to read his books, most of which have been translated well into Hebrew, and judge for yourselves.

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