The Arty Semite

Why Philip Roth Is 'Too Jewish' for Nobel

By William Kolbrener (Haaretz)

  • Print
  • Share Share
farrar, straus and giroux

When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded, I knew that Philip Roth had not won.

A colleague condescended: “I never liked Roth,” a put-down to me, a Miltonist and teacher of Renaissance literature, who really doesn’t know better. A couple of decades ago, someone would have mentioned the more elegant, supposedly more disciplined and intellectual – and Nobel Prize-winning - Saul Bellow.

Roth, as the story goes, is Bellow’s vulgar counter-part, obsessed, with his body, and when he’s long enough distracted from that, the bodies of women. Woody Allen was a spermatozoa in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, and Roth – with a nod to Kafka – becomes a 155 pound “breast.” He’s the modern example of the celebratory, sometimes self-despising , Jew, and the Swedish judges, one can speculate, just find him uncouth.

Roth began his career masturbating in Portnoy’s Complaint. And then there is the persistent obsession of what he calls himself in Operation Shylock that “pervasive, engulfing, wearying topic…the Jews.” For the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Roth is undoubtedly not only too vulgar, but too vulgarly Jewish.

But saying that Roth is too Jewish is like saying the Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses is too Irish, or the London depicted in Eliot’s The Waste Land too English. Roth may not be Joyce or Eliot, but if the latter began to question our ideas of narrative and identity, Roth is their natural inheritor, and it’s not only in the boutique part of the college catalogue called “American Jewish Literature.”

For more go to Haaretz

Video: Nate Lavey

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: literature, jewish, 2fall books 2013, nobel, philip roth

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!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • 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.