Philip Roth passed away yesterday at age 85. Here is a piece I wrote back on 18 October 2004
By ELLIOT JAGER
Confession time: Until last month I had never read a Philip Roth book. Everything I "knew" about Roth turned me off.
He was a self-hating Jew, mocking the image of Jewish mothers as the source of all neuroses, writing post- modernist claptrap, and serving as the darling of people whose trendy liberalism had replaced yiddishkeit.
It didn't help that I first heard of Roth in yeshiva, not from the teachers (needless to say), but from some guys who had purloined a copy of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth's magnum opus, about the eponymous hero's insatiable need for auto-erotic sexual relief.
What drew my attention to Roth was the deluge of publicity, including a front-page splash in the October 3 New York Times Book Review, about his latest work, The Plot Against America. It ranks high on the best-seller lists: number 2 on the Times's, number 5 on Amazon.
It's a "what if" novel in which Nazi sympathizer and isolationist aviator Charles Lindbergh is unexpectedly elected president in 1940, defeating Franklin Roosevelt.
Since Steimatzky didn't yet have the book, I picked up Roth's The Ghost Writer (1979), which we had lying around the house. It's exactly the kind of book I would have found profane in my less openminded days: Young Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's alter ego) meets and falls in love with Anne Frank, several years after the Holocaust.
In 1979 the Post's Matt Nesvisky said, "It is hard to imagine any fiction about Anne Frank being more banal and ignoble."
Why would Roth go down that road?
Joseph Epstein, writing in the January 1984 Commentary, suspects Roth wants to strike out against the Jewish bourgeoisie - "and to be adored for his acute perceptions of it."
Ruth Wisse's assessment is that Roth is incapable of distinguishing "between Judaism and his own childish perception of it."
Next I read Operation Shylock (1993), set in Jerusalem during the first intifada, where a character named "Philip Roth" impersonating the real Roth advocates an alternative to Zionism called Diasporaism - the ingathering of Ashkenazi Israelis to post-Holocaust Europe.
When I finished the book I still couldn't figure out where Roth stands on Israel.
He's certainly no stranger to these parts. As early as 1963 his comings and goings were noted in the pages of the Post. He's described Israel as "the homeland of Jewish abnormality" - whatever that means. And in The Counterlife, Nathan Zuckerman makes clear he "is not one of those Jews who wants to hook themselves up to the patriarchs or the Jewish state."
Maybe what's really telling was his signing on, in April 1989 during the first intifada, to a Tikkun magazine proclamation, along with Woody Allen and Arthur Miller, calling on Israel to "begin negotiations with the PLO."
YET IT'S equally pertinent to ask where Roth, at age 71, stands on America.
In the wake of 9/11 Roth pronounced that the US was indulging in "an orgy of national narcissism." Is that why he wrote The Plot Against America - to warn that the real danger was not al-Qaida but the Bush White House and The Patriot Act?
No way, says Roth; the idea for The Plot came to him before 9/11. Writing in Britain's Daily Telegraph, he explains it was only by chance that he stumbled upon the tale of "some Republican isolationists who wanted to run Lindbergh for president in 1940. It made me think, 'What if they had?'"
Roth's demurs notwithstanding, a laudatory Paul Berman in The New York Times Book Review admits, "You would have to be pretty dimwitted not to recall our current president striding around the carrier Abraham Lincoln in his own flying attire" when reading Roth's description of Lindbergh.
And The Washington Post's astute Jonathan Yardley gets the same message: "The novel's subtext gives every appearance of being an attack on George W. Bush and his administration."
London's Times sees in The Plot "disturbing echoes of Washington's more recent curtailment of civil liberties in the war against terror."
"Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman-a-clef to the present moment in America. That would be a mistake," Roth wrote in The Telegraph. He insists The Plot is intended to "illuminate the past through the past."
Yet, in his next breath, Roth - who talks out of both sides of his mouth for a living - says: "And now Aristophanes, who surely must be God, has given us George W. Bush, a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim... our lives as Americans are as precarious as anyone else's: all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy."
It's as if Roth was playing Meir Kahane, warning US Jews it is "time to go home" but meaning John Kerry, not Israel. But 69 percent are already at home with Kerry.
Roth may be infuriating, but the more you read him the more engrossed you get in his story-telling. His politics still rubs me the wrong way, and I doubt I'll figure out what makes him tick, but tackling the Plot is a pleasure I won't deny myself.