“A man who writes a book, thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind;
he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the public to whom he appeals must,
after all, be the fudges of his pretensions.”
Philip Roth’s first book, a collection of stories called Goodbye Columbus, was a critical smash. Reviewers hailed it as witty, energetic, and accurately detailed; they noted with astonishment that Roth was only 26, and they predicted a distinguished career. Goodbye Columbus earned Roth the National Book Award and a three year stint as writer-in-residence at Princeton.
Goodbye Columbus appeared in 1959. Roth’s next book-published three years later—was Letting Go, a 600-page novel that tracks the labored passage from innocence to experience of a self-absorbed and largely unpleasant academic. Letting Go had its admirers, but many critics agreed that it was too long and turgid, and more than a tad pretentious. Roth spent five years sweating over his next novel, When She Was Good (1967), which also did little to increase his readership or reputation. More than one critic noted that When She Was Good-the only Roth novel with an entirely non Jewish cast-was both flat and unconvincing. Jonathan Baumbach, writing for Commonweal, suggested that Roth’s portrayal of a family of Midwestern Protestants was “an accomplishment comparable, say, to Zero Mastel doing an extended imitation of Jimmy Stewart.”
Roth’s next novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, was one of the biggest sellers of 1969. It brought Roth more than $500,000 in advance royalties and paperback sales, and another $250,000 from the Hollywood producers who turned it into a widely flacked movie starring Richard Benjamin and Karen Black. For months, Portnoy’s Complaint was a major topic of discussion on radio and television talk shows and in offices and bars throughout North America. Everybody read the thing, or—perhaps more commonly thumbed through its pages in search of “the good parts.”
Portnoy’s Complaint dealt with subjects that—even in the startling 60’s—were considered taboo. Alexander Portnoy, its 33-year-old narrator, rambles on and on about his obsessive sexual fantasies and masturbatory practices-and he spares no details. He calls his chronically constipated father a “moron” and a “schmuck”; he attacks his mother with even greater vituperation. According to Portnoy, she is the “big smothering bird” who caused his lack of confidence and his excessive fear of germs-particularly goyische germs; who left him “marked like a road map from head lo toe with my repressions.”
Praise for Portnoy’s Complaint came from influential quarters. Time, for example, called it “skillfully paced” and “too funny not to be taken seriously.” But its detractors probably out numbered its defenders; indeed no novel published in the 60’s was as widely and aggressively slammed. Kingsley Amis—writing in Harper’s—suggested that Portnoy’s Complaint was little more than “a heavily orchestrated yell of rage,” and that, inevitably, “rage Review, wears office down.” In The Hudson Review, J. Mitchell Morse called Roth “a servile entertainer” who had thrown together “a series of burlesque skits” and “a swirl of ‘contemporary cliches about Jews in general: Jews Have a Strong Family Life. Jewish Family Life Is Hell. Jews Are Either Extraordinarily Intelligent or Extraordinarily Stupid and Gross. Some Intelligent Jews Are Also Gross. . . . “
Scores of Jewish commentators echoed Morse’s condemnation; some bluntly insisted that with Portnoy’s Complaint Roth had “betrayed his people” and proved himself to be as vile as any Nazi. Feminists also fumed. Portnoy’s Complaint, they noted, showed women to be nothing more than scolds, airheads, and whores. It proved that Roth was every bit as rotten as Norman Mailer.
To his credit, Roth made no overt attempts to cash in on his sudden celebrity: he did not seek the manufacture of Portnoy calendars and ashtrays, or join Jacqueline Susann in hitting every stop along the talk show trail. Roth did tell interviewers that Portnoy contained autobiographical touches; but he insisted—more vigorously—that it was not a thinly disguised version of his own life. He also suggested that critics and readers who dwelt on the book’s sex scenes were probably missing its more central concerns. Tired of the hoopla, Roth even hinted that perhaps Portnoy’s Complaint should have stayed forever in some bottom drawer. In a 1969 interview with Albert Goldman, Roth noted in passing that, since completing Portnoy’s Complaint, he had been haunted by the phrase “a terrible mis take has been made.”
Portnoy’s Complaint should not be dismissed as mere pornography. None of it seems contrived to inflame sexual passions; in fact its tone is so farcical—so hyperbolic-that it might best be described as an anaphrodisiac. The novel certainly savages domineering mothers, but it doesn’t simultaneously set up the self-obsessed Portnoy as the sort of fellow that the youth of America might profitably follow. Consider the book’s closing scenes, in which Portnoy jets to Israel and—with his customary crudeness—attempts to seduce a female lieutenant in the Israeli army. He fails; indeed, the lieutenant winds up thrashing Portnoy and providing him with an unflattering but accurate analysis of his character. She calls him a “baby,” a “pig,” and “shlemiel.” “You,” she says, “are disgusting.”
And so is much of Portnoy’s Complaint. The descriptions of sexual acts and bodily functions that occur throughout the book often go well past the ribald into the tasteless. The torrent of obscenities that Roth puts into Portnoy’s mouth quickly lose their dramatic impact and begin to grate. It is, in fact, difficult to read Portnoy’s Complaint—or several of Roth’s other novels without hearing in the back ground of almost every paragraph the grinding of an ax.
As Irving Howe observed in Commentary in 1972, the Philip Roth who authored stories and novels in the 60’s and early 70’s appeared to be motivated largely by the urge to needle and nag-to score points. He routinely displayed the sort of smart-alecky “literary narcissism” that one finds “among minor satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity.” Roth’s fictional works—observed Howe—contained very few “moments of tenderness”; they instead betrayed “a swelling nausea before the ordinariness of human existence.” They were the creations of a writer whose “relation to the mainstream of American culture, in its grand sweep of democratic idealism and romanticism,” was “decidedly meager.” In Roth’s works Howe found an “attitudinizing” made up of “the frayed remnants of cultural modern ism, once revolutionary in significance but now reduced to little more than the commonplace ‘shock’ of middlebrow culture.”
Nathan Zuckerman is the principle character in Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, which consists of three novels—The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983)—and a heretofore unpublished novella, The Prague Orgy. Like Roth, Zuckerman was born in Newark in the 1930’s and—while in his 20’s achieved wide acclaim. While in his 30’s, Zuckerman unleashed Carnovsky, a novel about Jewish family life that, like Portnoy’s Complaint, grossed millions while grossing out much of the public and raising the ire of leading Jewish critics. One of those critics, Milton Appel, owes nearly as much to Irving Howe as Zuckerman owes to Roth: Appel accuses Zuckermanz—as Howe accused Roth—of wallowing in vulgarity and of regarding his characters with smug contempt.
In The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman is 23 and already the author of sardonic stories about American Jewish life that shock and depress his father, a Newark podiatrist locally famous for his “ardent lifelong support of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League.” Nathan-a “highbrow-in-training”—thinks of his father as a hopeless philistine and concludes that his true mentor can only be one E. I. Lonoff, an author of wry and allusive novels and short stories. In The Ghost Writer, Nathan visits Lonoff at his home in rural New England where he finds himself awed by the master’s discipline, erudition, and sophistication. Nathan hopes that one day he too will be able to spend his days sitting in a booklined study slowly shaping sentences and sipping tea. At 23, he is unable to appreciate Lonoff’s warning that 30 years of a life spent doing little more than “reading and writing and looking at the snow” is not much of a life at all.
Zuckerman Unbound takes place in New York City in the late 60’s. Much of it shows Zuckerman dealing with the astonishing success of Carnovsky, and thus with groupies, crackpots, and gossip-sniffing reporters. The Anatomy Lesson, set in Manhattan in 1973, shows that Zuckerman—at 40—is beginning to suspect that Lonoff was correct when he implied that a compulsive writer’s life was likely to be both lonely and self-destructive; that perhaps Appel and Company were on the mark with their harsh diagnosis of his artistic flaws. Indeed, some days Zuckerman sees himself as nothing more than “a nasty, nothing fellow, surreptitiously vindictive, covertly malicious,” who had produced “mean, joyless, patronizing novels, contemptuously dismissive of the complex depths”; who “behind the mask of fiction had punished his adoring mother for no reason.”
Neither Zuckerman Bound nor The Anatomy Lesson are as subtly, smoothly constructed as The Ghost Writer; like The Prague Orgy (which shows Zuckerman in 1976 sipping cocktails among depressed writers in a cheerless Czechoslovakia), they contain too many flat characters and unconvincing conversations; they are rather too strongly seasoned with the now very stale “curse of genius” theme. But both Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson come alive when Nathan examines his conscience and considers the myriad consequences of his fiction; when he faces his critics, including his younger brother Henry, who insists that old “Doc” Zuckerman suffered a fatal heart attack because of the scandalous Camovsky and that he died in anger and shame. At one point Henry shouts at Nathan:
You and your superiority! You and your hijinks! You and your “liberating book.” Do you really think that conscience is a Jewish convention from which you are immune? Do you really think you can just go have a good time with the rest of the swingers without troubling yourself about conscience? Without troubling about anything but seeing how funny you can be about the people who have loved you most in the world?
The answer turns out to be no. Throughout much of The Anatomy Lesson, Nathan Zuckerman broods about how his fiction—and his life as an ambitious fictioneer-has often unhappily affected his relationships with family members and friends. With particular intensity—and poignance—he thinks of the “social embarrassment” and “wounded pride” that his recently deceased mother endured in the wake of Carnovsky and his other explicit and sarcastic writings. For in “real life” Mrs. Zuckerman didn’t resemble the loud and pushy woman who abused Camovsky—or Portnoy. She was a small woman of simple dignity who kept a clean house and drawers full of family snap shots and mementos; who liked to send out lots of thank-you notes that were bordered with little flowers; who knit sweaters for grandchildren and daughters-in-law; who-many years earlier—had patiently taught Nathan “the box step so that he could dan_ct at his bar mitzvah reception.”
Zuckerman Bound is a complex -and ambivalent-work that cannot be simply described as one long apology for past artistic wrongs. Nor can it be fairly likened to I Remember Mama. It is full of all the more disreputable four-letter words; it contains sex scenes that can be reasonably de scribed as gratuitous and crude, but it is not short of “moments of tender ness” nor of provocative meditations on the moral implications of art-on the ironic, unforeseen ways in which serious fiction intersects with the real world. It certainly proves that, when he wants to, both can do considerably more than rant and shriek and posture.
[Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy & Epilogue, by Philip Roth (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $22.50]