Editor’s note: The following essay was originally delivered by Salman Rushdie on September 27, 2018 as the Newark Public Library’s Third Annual Philip Roth Lecture. The Forward spoke to Rushdie about Roth’s legacy and the challenge of serving as his eulogist; read that interview here.
The last time I heard from Philip Roth was in October of last year. “Because I am a son of Newark,” his email read, “the Newark Public Library has recently instituted a lecture series in my name… It’s only 12 minutes to Newark by train and not much more by car. This Library and its branches were a great stimulant to me as a boy, and I’d be delighted if you’d come sometime in the latter half of September 2018 and talk about the present American moment, which is so exuberantly made manifest in your new book. Yours, Philip.”
Now, if Philip Roth writes to you and asks you to deliver the Philip Roth lecture, the correct answer to that question is “yes.” So of course I accepted immediately, and was also, I confess, surprised and flattered to know that Philip had read and liked my latest novel, “The Golden House.” I also agreed to talk, as he requested, about this present American moment, which I will get around to doing. But after he died (I feel that Philip would have disliked passed away or left us; this was not a writer to whom one looked for euphemisms!) I felt that the first Philip Roth Lecture after Philip Roth’s death should properly take, as its subject, Philip Roth himself. He was a writer through whose writing many American moments, past and present, can be explored and understood, and whose work, to use his phrase, has been a “great stimulant” to me and many writers of my generation and the generations following mine.
To my regret, I didn’t know Philip as well as I would have liked, in spite of my great admiration for his work and the happy coincidence of our being represented by the same literary agency, the Wylie agency. We did, however, meet several times over a long period. My most vivid memory is of a conversation in London in the mid 1980s, at a dinner in the house in Chelsea where he was living with Claire Bloom. He spoke of his desire to return to America because of his growing dislike of British anti-Semitism, and the irritation caused by the accompanying British refusal to admit that there was such a thing as British anti-Semitism, and their desire to explain to Philip that he had probably made some sort of cultural misunderstanding. I have been thinking again about what Philip perceived all those years ago, because the British Labour Party is presently in the throes of a dispute about the widespread anti-Semitism within its ranks, a problem the existence of which the party leadership has appeared to minimize or even deny until quite recently, and which, even now, has not been firmly dealt with. Not for the first time, Philip Roth was a long way ahead of the curve.
I told him that evening about my only personal experience of anti-Semitism. One summer when I was young, before I had published anything, and when I was not even slightly fashionable, I was somehow invited to a fashionable rooftop party in London, at which I was introduced to a designer of extremely fashionable hats named Tom Gilbey, whose work, I was told, was often featured in Vogue. He was quite uninterested in meeting me, was curt to the point of discourtesy, and quickly went off in search of more fashionable party guests. A few minutes later, however, he came back towards me at some speed, his whole body contorted into a shape designed to convey embarrassment and regret, and offered the following apology. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “you probably thought I was very rude to you just now, and actually, I probably was very rude, but you see, it’s because they told me you were Jewish.” The explanation was offered in tones which suggested that I would immediately understand and forgive. I have never wanted so much to be able to say that I was in fact Jewish. When I recounted this incident to Philip he said with great emphasis, “Exactly. That’s it, exactly.” So for that moment we were just a couple of Jews having dinner together in London. It’s a proud memory.
I still have the battered Corgi paperback edition of “Portnoy’s Complaint” that I read in early 1971, when I was 23 years old. To put this in personal context, this was 10 years before the publication of “Midnight’s Children,” when I was three years out of college and struggling and failing to find my way as a writer. This was also before I had ever set foot in the United States, a magic land I knew only through its literature and its movies. America for me then was “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “In Cold Blood,” “Rosemary’s Baby” “Bullitt,” “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “MASH,” “Love Story,” “Klute,” “Carnal Knowledge” and “The Last Picture Show.” In literature, it was “Native Son” and “Invisible Man” and “Augie March.” It was Pynchon and Vonnegut and Morrison and Updike’s “Rabbit” and Cheever’s “Swimmer” and Joseph Heller’s fictional Captain John Yossarian and Nabokov’s “Lolita.” My knowledge of Jewish American life, too, came exclusively from books, from Bellow and Malamud and Singer. This is how America is to those of us looking at her from outside: Simultaneously very well known indeed and totally unknown. It is both the embodiment of power and the many-sided expression of liberty, both Uncle Sam and Emma Lazarus, both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Blue Suede Shoes” or Louis Armstrong singing “Wonderful World.” When as strangers we first set foot on New York streets, we think we recognize everything because we have seen it many times, filmed and photographed and televised and painted, and yet we don’t know our way around and easily get lost. We carry in our heads the music of America but we don’t know the lives of the people from whom that music came, and, if we are bookish people, we carry the written words too, without really knowing anything of the lived experiences from which those words arose. Without ever having seen the Windy City I memorized the opening lines of “Augie March,” “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way…” and the equally celebrated last lines, “Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe that you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they brought him home in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.” I was looking for help, for words that would open doors for me into the unknown lands that would, I hoped, spread out in my own gaze, and these words, these images, these sounds were what I clung to. Maybe they would show me how to do what I wanted to do.
Into this imaginary, imagined America, “Portnoy’s Complaint” dropped like a bomb. “Whacking Off”? “Cunt Crazy”? I’d never read anything like it. I can remember being genuinely astounded not only by the subject matter but also by the rhapsodic glee with which it was treated, the unashamed nakedness of the language, the almost fanatical frankness of the prose. I grew up in India where people weren’t even allowed to kiss on screen in the movies and public displays of affection were frowned upon in real life, and where the ancient sexuality of Tantric art had long ago been replaced by an easily-shocked prudery of which I, too, was partly guilty. In my own writing I’ve often been reluctant to be explicit about the details of human sexual activity, believing that these things are best done off stage, so to speak, but there are scenes in which, looking back, I can easily discern the influence of Roth, about whom Jacqueline Susann — of all people, Jacqueline Susann! — said to Johnny Carson, “I’d like to meet him, but I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.”
In my novel “Midnight’s Children” there’s a moment in which the narrator’s mother, fondly remembering her long-lost first husband, pleasures herself in the bathroom, not knowing that her son the voyeur is hiding out in the family washing chest, watching her. This scene may be Philip Roth’s fault. In general however my narrators, unlike Alexander Portnoy, have found sex tough to write about. In “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” the narrator tries to describe his parents making love for the first time: “He came to her as a man goes to his doom, trembling but resolute, and it is around here that my words run out, so you will not learn from me the bloody details of what happened when she, and then he, and then they, and after that she, and at which he, and in response to that she, and with that, and in addition, and for a while, and then for a long time, and quietly and noisily, and at the end of their endurance, and at last, and after that, until… phew! Boy! Over and done with!” This passage does owe to Roth my realization that if you are going to write about sex, make it funny. Elsewhere in that passage, I confess, I was given courage by my readings of Roth to be a little more shocking, and, what’s more, to conflate sex and religion. “Did you ever see your father’s cock, your mother’s cunt? Yes or no, doesn’t matter, they point is these are mythological locations, surrounded by taboo, put off thy shoes for it is holy ground, as the Voice said on Mount Sinai, and if Abraham Zogoiby was playing the part of Moses then Aurora my mother sure as eggs was the Burning Bush.” Thank you, Philip. Taboos, he taught me, are there to be broken. This lesson has, on occasion, gotten me into trouble.
During the biggest time of trouble, the furor that followed the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” I thought of Roth many times. I remembered that after the publication of “Goodbye, Columbus,” he was accused by some Jews of anti-Semitism, and after the publication of “Portnoy,” the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem called the novel “worse than the notorious ‘Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.’” I also recalled that one of the ways in which his radical text was attacked was the accusation that it was unreadably bad writing. “The cruelest thing anyone can do with ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’” Irving Howe wrote, “is read it twice.” That form of attack was one with which I also became familiar, and that stung more than the assault of the Ayatollah. It was comforting to know that Philip Roth had come through the same fire.
In spite of Irving Howe, I have now read “Portnoy’s Complaint” twice. When I first read it at age 23, I was less than a decade older than Alexander Portnoy, and the anguish of male adolescence was still a living memory. What then struck me most forcibly was that this utterly unknown world, the world of a Jewish boyhood in Newark, felt so familiar to this Bombay boy. The overwhelming family above all. My own mother was quite unlike Sophie Portnoy, but many of my friends’ mothers — Hindu, Christian, Parsi — would have fitted right in to Roth’s Newark. It was strange, and delightful, to find in this writing from far away so much that gave me the pleasure of instant recognition.
Reading the book again at 71, that recognition-pleasure is still there, even though Roth’s evocation of adolescence now seems to me like a message from a distant planet. What is most striking, however, is the sheer relentlessness of the text. If one were to be critical of it, one would say that it is all on the same note. But that note — that supercharged shriek of need, pain and desire — that voice of which Roth said that, for the first time, he “let it rip” — had never been heard before, and still, all these years later, retains all its power. Yes, it’s shocking, but also yes, it still knocks you off your feet. To find this kind of speech today, we have to listen to stand-up comedians. Maybe Dave Chappelle is Alexander Portnoy’s African-American child.
To re-read “Portnoy” and “Goodbye, Columbus” is also to encounter the earliest versions of what one might call the Rothian Beloved: Brenda Patimkin, Bubbles Girardi, the much-fantasized-about blonde shiksa whom Alex Portnoy names Thereal McCoy, and most significantly Mary Jane Read a.k.a. The Monkey, whose sexual appetites match Alex’s own. The Rothian Beloved has come in for a good deal of criticism over the years, but the rediscovery of these first examples of the breed made me see, firstly, with what affection they are drawn, and secondly, that Roth’s male voices are quite obviously and deliberately unreliable narrators of his women. That is to say, we can see through Alex Portnoy’s tirade and understand that his creator sees his women with more profundity and passion than Alex does. One finishes “Portnoy” feeling a genuine affection for Alex, born of the knowledge that he represents a deep truth about young boys and men, but we come away with an equally deep affection for, and understanding of, The Monkey.
Humor is what makes the book work. Without humor, Alex Portnoy and the novel itself would be unbearable. But there’s humor in every line, and so instead of finding him, and it, unbearable, we love him. After half a century, his power is undimmed.
Here is what Philip Roth wrote in The New Yorker about re-reading Saul Bellow’s “Augie March,” which was published 15 years before “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and undoubtedly helped to show Roth the way to his own work. “The transformation of the novelist who published ‘Dangling Man’ in 1944 and ‘The Victim’ in 1947 into the novelist who published ‘The Adventures of Augie March’ in 1953 is revolutionary. Bellow overthrows everything… in ‘Augie March,’ a very grand, assertive, freewheeling conception of both the novel and the world the novel represents breaks loose from all sorts of self-imposed strictures, the beginner’s principles of composition are subverted, and… the writer is himself ‘hipped on superabundance.’…There is the narcissistic enthusiasm for life in all its hybrid forms propelling Augie March, and there is an inexhaustible passion for the teemingness of dazzling specifics driving Saul Bellow.”
If one substitutes Alexander Portnoy for Augie March, “Letting Go” and “When She Was Good” for “Dangling Man” and “The Victim,” and Philip Roth for Saul Bellow in this passage, we have a near-perfect description of the revolutionary genius of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and its extraordinary impact, especially coming after the two more conventional novels of Roth’s that preceded it. The device of making the entire text a record of Alex’s session or sessions with his analyst set Roth free. “The theatre of the analyst’s office,” he once said to David Remnick, “says the rule here is that there are no rules, the rule here is no inhibitions, the rule here is no restraint, the rule here is no decorum.”
Roth and Bellow, Bellow and Roth. The two writers are forever yoked together, at least in the minds of writers of my generation. To give, again, the view from elsewhere: For Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and myself, these were the two American writers who not only showed us America most clearly, most brilliantly — who took the American Jewish novel and transformed it into something pretty close to the Great American Novel — but who also opened doors in our own heads, helping us to see more clearly how to make the worlds we were trying to make.
I was thinking a good deal about language, trying to find an English that didn’t sound like it belonged to the English, that could incorporate and represent the polyglot hubbub of the Indian street, and in Roth and Bellow I heard the energy I was striving for. I saw, too, a willingness to use untranslated words from another language. Reading Roth, I wondered: Do all Americans know what it means to be given a zetz in the kishkes? Because I had to look it up. I guessed from context that a zetz was painful and that the kishkes were vulnerable, but the exact details eluded me. And yet here they were, Yiddish words in an English text, unapologetically offered. This was the way we spoke English in Bombay, sprinkling it with Hindi, Urdu, Marathi or Gujarati words. It was also the way we spoke Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and Gujarati, sprinkling those languages with English words where they seemed appropriate. Also, Indian English was not very like the Queen’s English. Like the Irish, West Indians, Australians and Americans, Indians had reshaped English to suit themselves. The Indian English word for the accused person in a court case is the “undertrial,” because, you see, he is under trial. Your boss is your “incharge,” so Martians landing in Bombay would have to request, “Take me to your incharge.” When the police kill somebody in a shootout, he is said to have died in a police “encounter.” And sexual harassment, I’m sorry to report, is “Eve teasing.” I read “Augie March” and “Portnoy” and understood that I could use “my” English, just as these two masterworks used “theirs.” And if I wanted to drop in words from other languages — rutputty, khalaas, shanti, whatever — that was okay, as long as I made their meanings clear from context, so the Anglophone reader would understand, or guess, that rutputty meant something like “ramshackle,” khalaas meant, approximately, “finished” or “done for,” and shanti meant “peace.” English, I understood, could be chutnified. That was a moment of real liberation.
I was also thinking about form. I have long believed that there are only two kinds of really good novels. One is what I call the “everything novel,” what Henry James called the “loose baggy monster,” the novel that tries to include as much of life as possible. The other is the “almost nothing novel,” the novel that, so to speak, plucks a single thin narrative strand from the head of the goddess and turns it in the light to reveal truth. Jane Austen, W. G. Sebald and Raymond Carver — in his very different way, in the short story form — are writers of this kind. The interesting thing about Bellow and Roth is that they have been both kinds of writer at different points in their career. Bellow started small — “Dangling Man” — then did the big, world-swallowing baggy monsters — “Augie March”, “Herzog,” “Henderson the Rain King,” “Humboldt’s Gift” — and then in later life went small again — “The Bellarosa Connection,” “A Theft,” “Ravelstein.” In Roth’s case, the big, all-encompassing books came in a late, brilliant surge — “Sabbath’s Theater,” “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist,” “The Human Stain” — which revealed him to be at least the equal of Bellow’s “grand, assertive, freewheeling conception of both the novel and the world the novel represents.”
I’ll have more to say about those books in a moment, but I want to look at Ruth’s “middle period” first, the period of his many alter egos: David Kepesh, Peter Tarnopol and pre-eminently Nathan Zuckerman, who first walked on stage in “The Ghost Writer” and then essentially, like Kauffman and Hart’s “Man Who Came to Dinner,” never left. Again, there’s a Bellow comparison. Moses Herzog in “Herzog” and Charlie Citrine in “Humboldt’s Gift” are Bellow’s stand-ins. Charlie is a sort of disciple of the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, just as Bellow was a sort of disciple of the model for Humboldt, Delmore Schwartz. And the story of “Herzog,” in which Moses loses his wife to his friend, mirrors events in Bellow’s life during his years at Bard. (In the novel, the traitorous friend has become a one-legged man. Such are the privileges and revenges of fiction.) But perhaps nobody has explored more nuances of the literary alter ego than Philip Roth.
We know, or we ought to know, that autobiographically-based fiction is not reliable as autobiography, that Stephen Dedalus is and is not James Joyce, that “Marcel,” the narrator of “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu,” is and is not Proust; that Nathan Zuckerman’s controversial novel “Carnovsky” is and is not “Portnoy’s Complaint.” But, because we live in an autobiographically obsessed age, there’s a tendency simply to equate the alter ego with the author. Nobody has done more both to encourage, to play with and to finally demolish that idea of equivalence than Roth. Somewhere in one of Hemingway’s bullfighting texts he writes that the greatest bullfighters work closest to the bull. Roth, by allowing Zuckerman to stand as close to the bull as it’s possible to stand, and yet to pirouette so expertly that he is never impaled on the horns, is the unquestioned master of that sport. If Zuckerman and Kepesh and Tarnopol come to life, at a point pretty adjacent to their creator, by the time he’s done with them they have moved into independent lives of their own. That journey, from personal origins to fictional autonomy, may be called the act of creation.
Roth explores with subtlety the ambiguities of this kind of writing. In “The Counterlife,” the anger of Nathan Zuckerman’s dentist brother Henry at Zuckerman’s fictional portrait of him and of their family strikes a chord in the heart of any writer who has worked this close to the bull. When I read “The Counterlife,” I was in the middle of writing the novel that became “The Satanic Verses,” and at the end of that novel, perhaps a little affected by my reading of Roth’s book, I decided to use some very personal material — my father’s death — to create the scene near the end of the book in which Saladin Chamcha is present at his father’s deathbed. When the novel was finished that scene caused some distress to my sister Sameen, because, she argued, I had left her out of my depiction of the moment, which was as important to her as it was to me. You didn’t do that for him, she said; I did that. He didn’t say that to you, he said it to me. I could only reply that she wasn’t a character in the novel, an answer which didn’t really appease her. At that moment I understood exactly how Henry Zuckerman felt. Having a writer in the family is perhaps always a disaster for the family, especially when his alter ego is as ornery as Nathan Zuckerman. In Roth’s partly nonfictional book “The Facts,” its very title just one of Roth’s ways of messing with our heads, Roth allows Zuckerman to comment on his portrait of his “real” family. Zuckerman tells his author that he has made himself and his family too nice. “Don’t publish,” he advises. In “The Facts,” he suggests, Roth is not telling the truth, or not nearly as well as his alter ego Zuckerman tells it in the novels.
In the end, this inward-looking, self-referential mirror-image approach was bound to run out of steam, and it’s plain that Roth knew that. “Operation Shylock” is his transitional book: On the one hand, perhaps the most extreme example of mirror-image writing yet, in which Philip Roth, emerging from a Halcion-induced breakdown — seemingly the same breakdown referred to in “The Facts” — discovers that there’s an impostor Philip Roth in Israel attending the trial of John Demjanjuk from Cleveland, who may also be — who probably is — Ivan the Terrible of the Nazi death camps. This fake Roth is promoting ideas the real Roth dislikes, notably “Diasporism,” which proposes that Jews should exit Israel and return to Europe before the Arabs launch a second Holocaust. Europe, the fake Roth is telling people in Israel, is “the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been.” The interesting thing is that while the Rothian game of mirrors continues in this novel, the subject matter has changed. We see Roth beginning to look outwards as well as inwards, to take the world as his subject instead of, or at least as well as, himself, and to begin the grand project of tackling, in his fiction, the great matters of his time — in this case, the matter of Israel. This turning outwards will be the key to his late-period literary golden age, and the answer to the problem which faces Nathan Zuckerman: The loss, the exhaustion, of his subject.
“Zuckerman had lost his subject. His health, his hair, and his subject. Just as well he couldn’t find a posture for writing. What he’d made his fiction from was gone — his birthplace, the burnt-out landscape of a racial war, and the people who’d been giants to him dead. The great Jewish struggle was with the Arab states; here it was over, the Jersey side of the Hudson, his West Bank, occupied now by an alien tribe. No new Newark was going to spring up again for Zuckerman, not like the first one: no fathers like those pioneering Jewish fathers bursting with taboos, no sons like their sons boiling with temptations, no loyalties, no ambitions, no rebellions, no capitulations, no clashes quite so conclusive again. Never again to feel such tender emotion and such desire to escape. Without a father and a mother and a homeland, he was no longer a novelist. No longer a son, no loner a writer. Everything that galvanized him had been extinguished, leaving nothing unmistakably his and nobody else’s to claim, exploit, enlarge and reconstruct.”
In this passage from “Zuckerman Bound” I feel my deepest point of identification with Philip Roth. I, too, know something about what it is to lose a place, a past, and to be unable to reclaim it because it’s no longer there to reclaim; something about the feeling of having, all of a sudden, no ground beneath one’s feet, no solid ground for the wheels of art to grip, and for the things that made one want to write in the first place being used up, and a second act being hard to find, and something, too, about finding that second act not in oneself but in the world in which, having no alternative, one has lived. “There are no second acts in American lives,” Fitzgerald famously said, but the late grandeur of Philip Roth disproves the assertion, because Roth, if not Nathan Zuckerman, found his new subject by looking away from his origins — what A.E. Housman called “the happy highways where I went / and cannot come again” — and taking a good hard look at the present, in which, having no alternative, he found himself.
The prologue to the great trilogy is a novel which many people think may be Roth’s finest, the rambunctious, astonishing “Sabbath’s Theater,” for which an alternative title might have been “Alexander Portnoy Grows Up.” The aging puppeteer Mickey Sabbath delivers himself, as young Alex did, of what one of the other characters calls “a remarkable panegyric for obscenity.” Like young Portnoy, old Sabbath is aroused — not a little sleazily — by sex objects: Not a piece of liver this time, or his “fat elder sister’s brassière,” but underthings stolen from the dresser of a teenage girl, or a phone-sex tape, or the blouse concealing a student’s breast. He, or his author, also possesses the astonishing, driving narrative force with which Portnoy and Roth burst upon the scene so long ago. He is outrageous, and sometimes close to unbearable, but because what we have here is the mature Roth, not the youthful one-note monologuist — what we have here is “Great Expectations,” not “David Copperfield” — Mickey Sabbath and the novel that bears his name also turns out to be moving and profound.
Mickey Sabbath remembering his beloved older brother who died in the Second World War; Mickey’s memories of his childhood on the Jersey Shore; Mickey in the cemetery where his family lies, picking out his own grave; perhaps above all, Mickey bidding farewell to his lover Drenka… these great scenes show that Roth has moved past Zuckerman, and now his subject is as much other people as himself. Of course, there is a little of Portnoy in Sabbath. The moment in which, as an act of love, the puppeteer urinates on Drenka’s grave, and is then arrested for doing so by her son the policeman, is a moment of which Alex Portnoy would have been proud.
Of the trilogy of masterpieces that followed “Sabbath’s Theater” — “The Human Stain,” “American Pastoral” and “I Married a Communist” — so much has been written, and so much deserved praise bestowed, that I will not add more than a few contextualizing molehills to that mountain. Suffice to say that Nathan Zuckerman shows up in all three novels, but now he’s telling other people’s stories, not his own, and the people whose stories he tells — Coleman Silk, Swede and Merry Levov and Iron Rinn — take Roth’s work into the dark heart of America as it was during the course of his lifetime. That time finds many echoes in our own. “I Married a Communist” deals with McCarthyism, and at an American moment when powerful fingers are being pointed at so many good men and women, notably journalists; when good men and women are being defamed as “enemies of the people;” the destructive force of red-scare politics can easily be read as a metaphor for the present.
“The Human Stain” takes up the subject of crossing the color line, of passing for white, which has been a subject for American writers from Mark Twain’s “Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson” through Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” Langston Hughes’s stories “Passing” and “Who’s Passing for Who,” and Fannie Hurst’s “Imitation of Life,” about a light skinned black girl named Peola, whose name Toni Morrison echoes in the character of Pecola, the black girl driven insane by her unattainable dreams of white beauty in “The Bluest Eye.” “Imitation of Life” was filmed, the story much transformed but still concerning the subject of passing, by Douglas Sirk in 1959, starring Lana Turner and Susan Kohner as “Sarah Jane,” the renamed Peola. Philip Roth’s Coleman Silk, the powerful academic living his life as a Jewish American, echoes the real-life case of Anatole Broyard, who, as Henry Louis Gates has said, “was born black and became white.” Broyard was successful, sexually attractive, and often actually anti-black, attacking Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” thus: “If I have to read one more description of the garbage piled up in the streets of Harlem, I may just throw protocol to the winds and ask whose garbage is it?”
Henry Louis Gates also quotes an associate of Broyard’s, Evelyn Thornton, who remembered Broyard’s reaction to being asked for money by a drunken black man. He remarked in anger, “I look around New York, and I think to myself, if there were no blacks in New York, would it be any loss?” (In “The Human Stain,” Roth’s Coleman Silk is also accused of anti-black racial prejudice.) These dark choices, real, fictional and transformed by Roth into art, gave Roth his point of entry into the subject of race in America, a subject still at the very center of the American story.
And if “The Human Stain” took on race, then “American Pastoral” faced up to the consequences in America of the Vietnam War, and the rise, driven in part by the anti-war movement, of an American radicalism that took the form of violent, even murderous domestic terrorism. Today, when most terrorist acts in America are carried out by heavily armed white people, Roth’s portrait of the terrorist Merry Levov has more resonance than ever. “American Pastoral,” perhaps Roth’s most “public fiction,” includes consideration of the bombings carried out by the so-called Weathermen or Weather Underground, as well as the 1967 Newark riots, the Black Panthers, the trial of Angela Davis, the Watergate affair, and Deep Throat (both the then-anonymous source for Woodward and Bernstein, subsequently identified as the FBI’s associate director Mark Felt, and the porno movie starring Linda Lovelace). Once again, one can’t help hearing contemporary echoes. Now that the present administration speaks so often about the alleged attempts by the so-called “deep state” to undermine the government, the story of “Deep Throat,” a man at the heart of the deep state who did just that during the Nixon presidency, reminds us that there may be times when loyalty to the country takes precedence over loyalty to the presidency.
These books transformed my thinking about Philip Roth. Until I read them, I confess that in the Roth-Bellow debate I had placed Bellow just a little above Roth, just one step above him on the highest rungs of the ladder — thinking Bellow’s greatest books to be a little more ambitious, more world-swallowing, bigger. The trilogy silenced that line of argument forever. I have always believed that we live at a time when public events impinge so directly on our private lives that literature now needs to show how that works, that novels can no longer be accounts of wholly private lives, as “Madame Bovary” was, or “Pride and Prejudice.” In my own work I have often tried to find the points of intersection where the private conversation within me engages with the public conversation all around me, and to see Philip Roth writing in that way was and is exhilarating and inspiring.
This is the Philip Roth who, in “The Plot Against America,” ended up as a kind of prophet, a Cassandra for our age, warning us what was to come, and, like Cassandra, not being taken seriously. When I first read “The Plot Against America,” with its highly-imagined alternative history account of the rise to the presidency of the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh — a populist demagogue, radical isolationist, racist and anti-Semite, a man who found it easy to make an accommodation with Adolf Hitler, and who revealed, in this triumph, the dark underbelly of American prejudice — I remember thinking that I didn’t buy it, that it was too extreme, that, in short, it couldn’t happen here. But here we stand, with a celebrity president who is a populist demagogue, an isolationist who is putting up tariff barriers against most of the world; a man whose cultural targets (LeBron James, Don Lemon, Maxine Waters) are invariably people of color, and whose administration has unleashed, in its political base, a tide of racism; a man who has found it easy to cozy up to the murderous tyrant Vladimir Putin, and whose followers, some of them seen last week wearing T shirts reading “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat,” are indeed revealing to us how dark and swollen the underbelly of American prejudice (and stupidity) still is. To use R.D. Laing’s description of schizophrenia, America has become a deeply “divided self,” and Roth, a writer fascinated from “Portnoy” onwards, by psychoanalysis, offered us, in this book, the shrewdest of analyses of our divided reality. This is Philip Roth’s accidental fate: To begin as a literary revolutionary and to end up, after a long, strange and relentlessly interesting journey, as a political prophet. One can only bow one’s head before such a career, while expressing deep regret that, in this prophetic work from 14 years ago, Roth turned out to be right on the money, and that he’s no longer around to help us work out where we go from here.
Salman Rushdie is the author of thirteen novels, including, most recently, “The Golden House.”