Philip Roth’s New Novel About Philip Roth

Backward: A Purim Spoof

By Ilan Stavans

Published March 04, 2009, issue of March 13, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

THE PLAGIARIST
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 212 pages. $25

Philip Roth has always been a conflicted warrior, balancing his high regard for his literary and sexual talents against a contempt for his own venality. His newest novel, “The Plagiarist,” is, yet again, a recapitulation of his overarching career, but the master has managed to revisit this well-worn ground in a shockingly new way.

With a crisp, pungent style, Roth looks at “the Machiavellian years” of the W. regime as a nightmare of greed and duplicity. The novel centers around a legal suit brought in New York District Court by the literary professor Nathan Zuckerman against Philip Roth, accusing him of stealing his work, most recently in “Exit Ghost,” which, Zuckerman argues, is a thin reworking of his memoir “Free Flow.” At first it seems like standard Roth, musing upon the uneasy relationship between art and appropriation. But at about page 30, it becomes clear that Roth isn’t making this up. Nathan Zuckerman exists. And Roth has been screwing him over for years.

Nathan Zuckerman: From certain angles, bears a striking resemblance to Philip Roth.
Nathan Zuckerman: From certain angles, bears a striking resemblance to Philip Roth.

The book opens with Zuckerman, a Newark-born, neurasthenic English professor, in a phone conversation with his lawyer, Augusta Davidow, complaining that “the real plot rightly belongs to me and not to that bastard.” He points to a long history of literary thefts, dating back to “The Ghost Writer,” which, Zuckerman claims, comes from a short story Zuckerman published in 1968 in DeVries Technical College’s “Literary Review.”

The genius of “The Plagiarist” lies in its exploration of academic resentment. Zuckerman is an opaque professor who looks back at the modicum of success he has achieved as insufficient to satisfy his expectations. His description in the deposition of Roth’s sexual escapades (“with a Mexican cashier even”) is sorrowful. The tense scene in which Zuckerman and Roth meet in court, their tenuous eye contact, Davidow’s argument that Roth is an example of the “American indiscretion and our collective indulgence with celebrities” and the innuendo pointed at by Davidow that Roth attempted “to find an exit from the quagmire” by asking her on a date, are drawn with accustomed skill.

At the core of “The Plagiarist” is not an accusation but an apologia that all Jews are plagiarists. As partners in an open, enlightened society, we not only imitate gentile mores but subvert them. “The Jew is an intrepid appropriator,” a law partner tells Davidow. The argument allows Roth to raise the question of his lack of originality while asking those questions in a forum that is, in Zuckerman’s words, “a farce arranged to generate applause.”

What makes this novel more ambitious is the heightened sensibility that results from placing the Zuckerman-Roth confrontation in the context of the Bush-Cheney regime. Roth compares his abuse of Zuckerman’s work and reputation tangentially, but with aplomb, to the scandal of Abu Ghraib, and his legal manipulations to “the Alberto Gonzáles Justice Department charade.” And yet Roth also undermines this conceit by making it clear, through his own frank admissions and extensive documentation, that his crimes extend back for decades beforehand.

The novel’s end is unexpected. Roth wins the suit against Zuckerman only to be gunned down by David Kepesh, a high school chemistry teacher from Cairo, Ill., who has been similarly wronged. One could read this as a metaphor for the way that fictional characters turn against their artists, and that forces once unleashed often run amok. Or one could simply say that what goes around comes around.

In 2008, Ilan Stavans was the only non-baseball player named in The Mitchell Report. He was described as using performance-enhancing drugs to keep up “a frantic, absurd pace of writing.” Stavans adamantly denied these allegations before a Congressional committee. His latest book is “My Life as an Insomniac” (Hyperactive Press, 2008).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.