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
Today is Philip Roth’s 80th birthday, and the literary hounds are on the scent. Here’s what’s going on:
Roth’s hometown of Newark N.J. is celebrating with a photo exhibit at the New York Public Library, a bus tour, and an invite-only talk by Roth himself at the Newark Museum.
There is a two day conference hosted by the Philip Roth Society titled “Roth@80,” featuring notables such as Jonathan Lethem, Claudia Roth Pierpont (author of the forthcoming “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books”) and Hermione Lee.
PBS is about to air “Philip Roth: Unmasked” (which, critics agreed pretty much unanimously, unmasks nothing). You can read our review here.
Flavorwire has Roth’s 10 grumpiest quotes. Here’s the best one, from Esquire, 1981:
For Philip Roth’s upcoming 80th birthday on March 19, New York magazine assembled a “Literary Caucus” to assess the career of a writer that some love, others hate, but everybody who knows anything about literature respects. While Roth himself had no hand in the piece, the 28 men and five women who weighed in on Roth’s life, times and books were more than enough to add fuel to an already fiery conversation. It didn’t help that n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen answered the question, “Is Roth a misogynist?” with: “If you hate women, why would you want to spend all your time thinking about f*cking them?”
The piece sent readers and writers into a tizzy, prompting discussions on everything from the gender imbalance of the “caucus” to Gessen’s answer, and on the decades-old discussion about Roth himself. What people failed to mention is that while Roth and his work have been stirring up controversy since the 1950s, this conversation was something totally different — Philip Roth was able to enrage people by proxy. He did nothing but serve as a starting point for several different debates. It is a testament to Roth that in his eighth decade he doesn’t even need to write anything and can still cause trouble.
On March 29, PBS will be airing “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” as part of its American Masters series. The documentary debuts March 13 in New York on the big screen at Film Forum, and will no doubt spark more discussion about Roth and his work. But this time it will be about things Roth actually says, rather than what a bunch of writers he influenced have to say about him.
We’ve reached a strange point in the ongoing saga, “Philip Roth: America’s Greatest Living Writer.” After releasing a new book every year from 2006 through 2010, he stopped without anyone noticing. In an interview with a French newspaper, partly translated by Salon on Friday, Roth announced that he was done writing novels. “Nemesis” would be his last book. He was satisfied with the body of his career. He plans to spend his time preparing his archives and helping his biographer, Blake Bailey, tell the story of his life. Roth is clear: no more novels.
I decided that I was done with fiction. I do not want to read, to write more,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”
The italics are mine. Roth is done with the novel and with making up stories. His comments leave no margin for another novel.
Which can only mean that Roth will be writing for years to come. There’s no reason to doubt what Roth says, no reason to doubt that the novel no longer enchants him as it once did. That is, there’s no reason except for the multiple books Roth wrote with “Philip Roth” as a character. In “The Facts,” Nathan Zuckerman sends a letter to Philip Roth castigating Roth for the terrible job he’s done narrating his autobiography. “Operation Shylock” is about an imposter Philip Roth who travels around Israel giving speeches about the need for Jews to leave Israel and return en masse to Eastern Europe. Could Roth be setting up a sequel? No evidence suggests otherwise.
Salon is reporting, on the basis of an interview with a French magazine, that Philip Roth is putting down his pen as a novelist.
“To tell you the truth, I’m done,” Roth told the magazine, in the most definitive statement he has ever made about his future plans. “‘Nemesis’ will be my last book.”
The modern history of Finland’s Jews, who during World War II fought on the Nazi side to combat the Russians, is genuinely surreal. It seems appropriate that the leading novelist of Finland’s tiny Jewish population — today estimated at around 1,500 people — should be equally expressive of a surrealist sensibility.
Daniel Katz, born in 1938 in Helsinki, is a prolific author, whose books have been translated in many languages, but not English. His 2009 story collection, “The Love of the Berber Lion,” was published on March 9th by France’s Gaïa Editions, in French as “L’amour du lion berbère.” Its offbeat sensibility follows in the tradition of his previous books, such as 1969’s “When Grandpa Skied to Finland”, an autobiographical novel in which his grandfather Benno goes through the First World War unscathed but then is injured when a mohel’s knife slips during his grandson’s bris.
A prolific novelist, Philip Roth, at 78, has authored 31 novels and received the most distinguished literary awards, including, most recently, the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to him yesterday despite heavy opposition from one of the judges, Carmen Calil. Calil, a feminist author and publisher, criticized Roth’s repetitiveness and resigned from the judging panel in protest over the award. In the midst of the controversy, and his generally reclusive nature notwithstanding, Roth made a rare public appearance May 18 at YIVO, where some 300 people gathered for an evening dedicated to his most recent novel, “Nemesis.”
Described by YIVO Executive Director Jonathan Brent as a novel of “remembrance and loss,” “Nemesis” tells of a polio epidemic that strikes a Jewish neighborhood in Newark in the summer of 1944. A panel of four scholars — Bernard Avishai (Hebrew University), Igor Webb (Adelphi University), Steven Zipperstein (Stanford University, and Brent — spoke about the novel and its relation to Roth’s greater body of work, many touching on the question of Jewishness in Roth’s novels in general, and in “Nemesis” in particular.
“Beaufort” director Joseph Cedar has made a splash at Cannes with “Footnote,” a film about a competitive father-son pair of Talmudists.
The LABA fellows at the 14th street Y will culminate their year-long journey into eros with the LABA festival, starting tonight.
The National Yiddish Book Center is raising money to restore a collection of recorded Yiddish books.
Richard Brody discovers Stanley Kubrik’s unmade Holocaust film, “The Aryan Papers.”
Joel Schalit has a run-in with the garbage Nazis of Stuttgart.
Philip Roth is among the nominees for the Man Booker International Prize.
Forward contributor Mark Oppenheimer on the new teenage anti-hero.
Rediscovering Julie Eichberg Rosewald, cantor at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El from 1884 to 1893.
Michael Weiss on why Boris Pasternak matters.
Was Jewish humor created in 1661?
Steven Spielberg has secured the rights to make a Wikileaks movie.
The new edition of the Laba Journal, “Eros,” is out, featuring Stephen Hazan Arnoff on music and artificial memory, Shari Mendelson on the work of Charles LeDray, fiction by Jeremiah Lockwood, and Elissa Strauss on why we want to kill the ones we love.
In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish novels of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
It’s been some year for Jewish fiction, though we continue to scream about, ponder and dissect what that even means. It is produced by Jewish writers, certainly, but not always. It centers on otherness, our history and culture, the nature of family and whatever we call god. It’s set in Israel or in Europe before or after the war, in New York City, England and America’s heartland. Its heroes are bold, men-children, revolutionists or the inward-looking. And like we’re boarding Noah’s ark, much of the fiction we loved this year can be discussed in pairs.
There were the young men who wrote big books that tinkered with language and form while winking at their readers. Joshua Cohen mellifluously skewers capitalism in “Witz” as he writes about the last Jew on earth. With less hubris, Adam Levin’s “The Instructions” spurred difficult conversations about religion and terrorism by tunneling into the mind of a puckish Day School student.
Earlier this week, Avi Steinberg wrote about Kafka in Tel Aviv and shared a horribly embarrassing memo. His first book, “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian,” was just released. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Winter Fridays in Jewish day school were the moments that made you proud to be of Israelite stock. I speak, of course, of early dismissal. Shabbes starts early, really early, and so the school day ends up being just a class or two in the morning — and one of those classes is Hebrew, which totally doesn’t count. For the uninitiated, Hebrew class in Jewish schools, at least where I went, is taught by some churlish Israeli mom who reeks of cigarette smoke and has neither the qualification nor the slightest inclination to teach the language. Typically, she would use Friday’s early dismissal as an excuse to whip out the accordion and have a sing-a-long.
I mention this by way of introduction. While I cannot offer you an accordion sing-a-long, I will, in honor of the great Jewish tradition of early Friday dismissal, be relatively brief.
When Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy discusses the arcane symbolism of his girlfriend eating a banana, or talks about time spent alone in the bathroom with women’s underwear hanging on the door, or any number of other things that can’t even be implied in the html of a family website, he is revealing his innermost “perversions” to his analyst, the things he’s repressed and sublimated and kept far away from public view; Nick Kroll’s Rodney Ruxin says the same things to his group of friends on “The League” every week and they celebrate him for it, and enjoy provoking him to see what invectives he’ll throw their way.
“The League” is an FX show about a group of 30-something high school friends in the Chicago area who continue to bond over fantasy football. The characters are ethnically diverse in the way of most North Shore Chicago suburbs (Poles and Protestants) and Ruxin, as the Jewish member, marks the ironic result of six decades of suburbanization by American Jews. He’s been raised in suburban American settings, and is accepted as a normal white American by his friends, but he’s simultaneously been brought up on a Jewish American culture that emphasized outsiderdom from general American society (30 years of Roth and Woody Allen) and has been permanently affected by the meta-criticism of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.
Michael Wex is best known for his acerbic, authoritative books on Yiddish language and culture, but in this fall’s “The Frumkiss Family Business,” he has turned his attention to fiction. The sprawling novel is a farcical family saga, following three generations of a Jewish clan in Toronto’s Bathurst Manor neighborhood and questioning, in Wex’s characteristically hilarious way, the role of Jewish culture in a secular society. Recently, Wex took some time prior to his October 30 appearance at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors to speak to The Arty Semite about his new novel, the Canadian Jewish experience, and being compared to other Jewish writers.
Emily Landau: Where did the germ of this novel come from?
David Grossman has won the German Book Trade Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Isaac Bashevis Singer comes to Carbondale, Illinois.
As the music consultant for The Israeli Opera, Idan Raichel has chosen Vieux Farka Touré to open the new season on November 26.
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week. Watch him speak in 2007 at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center.
Read an excerpt from “Eden,” the latest novel by Israeli (and “In Treatment”) writer Yael Hedaya.
Ranen Omer-Sherman leafs through “Turn Right at the End,” a controversial comic book series by Israeli artist Sivan Hurvitz.
Philologos gets devilish.
Stuart Schoffman reviews Philip Roth’s latest novel, “Nemesis.”
I review Elie Wiesel’s latest novel, “The Sonderberg Case.”
Allan Nadler reviews the unfortunately titled “The Relationship of Orthodox Jews With Believing Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews.”
For most New Yorkers, the idea of Jews beyond Israel, New York and New York South (aka Florida) is an annoying complication. For many American Jews, the existence of proud, older, historically significant communities in places other than America and Israel is a constant surprise. As a friend of my then girlfriend asked when first meeting me, “There are Jews in England? Does the Queen know?”
So when the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced, containing within the baker’s dozen Britain’s best known living Jewish novelist and a Levy (Andrea), the general inclination was to either ignore it or to grasp at straws — “Didn’t the New Yorker do a piece on David Mitchell?” “Was “The Sopranos” based on Alan Warner’s book of the same name?” “Will Howard Jacobson make it in America?”
Jacobson, who was named one of the shortlisted authors today (along with Levy and four others), has been an important writer for over 20 years. He was previously longlisted for the Booker twice: for “Kalooki Nights” (2006) (which he described as ”the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere”) and for “Who’s Sorry Now?” (2002).
Larry Gopnik, the main character in the Coen brothers most recent and most Jewish film, “A Serious Man,” has been widely understood as Job-like figure. But what would Job be without Satan to test him? (Besides having more children and fewer boils, that is.)
Enter Sy Ableman, Larry’s beardy nemesis, whose role as self-righteous cuckolder well nigh stole the show and earned actor Fred Melamed some long deserved recognition. Over the years Melamed has appeared in several Woody Allen films (most notably as the shrink in “Hannah and Her Sisters”) and has played countless deep-voiced bit parts, but few have been as diabolically funny as his role in “A Serious Man.”
In a recent interview with New York Magazine’s Bilge Ebiri, Melamed discusses his long acting career, Woody Allen, what it’s like to work with the Coens (they’re very nice folks), and Philip Roth’s mother. Also, his goal to “bring the pompous, Jewish, overweight, rabbinic figure back to the center of American sexuality.” Read the whole thing here.
Someone on the grounds crew at the Corporation of Yaddo, the artists colony in Saratoga Springs N.Y., has a sense of humor. In the “Breast Room” (so-called because Philip Roth wrote “The Breast” while residing in it) of the West House building, the shower is mislabeled. When one turns the dial from off at the bottom, through C, to H at the top, the water gets (and stays) cold. However, if one moves the lever just above the off switch where one would assume the cold would be, hot water comes blasting out. Clearly, someone was encouraging Roth to take a cold shower when he stayed here. And, how different literature would be if he had.
Or maybe the installer of this shower was encouraging those writers residing here to learn the lesson, of “getting hot water when the tap says ‘cold.’” This could certainly be the story of my own writing life, persisting in writing, realizing that even though I’ve gotten plenty of rejections and cold water thrown in my face, the hot water is still there if only I know how to get to it. In this case, all I had to do was ask the groundskeeper; I wish it were only so easy to find an agent to start turning cold water to hot.