Philip Roth: Why Write? Col­lect­ed Non­fic­tion 1960 – 2013 (The Library of America)

Philip Roth

  • Review
By – January 12, 2018

For any­one who seeks to deep­en their under­stand­ing of the many facets of Roth’s career, this col­lec­tion of Philip Roth’s essen­tial essays, lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, and inter­views from over half a cen­tu­ry — includ­ing a few recent reflec­tions pub­lished here for the first time — pro­vides a rich and illu­mi­nat­ing coun­ter­point to the fic­tion itself. Roth schol­ars will rec­og­nize the well-known essays and inter­views from the 1960s through the ear­ly 80s, the pro­nounce­ments that reveal Roth as a superbly attuned read­er of his own con­tro­ver­sial ear­ly sto­ries and nov­els (like Defend­er of the Faith” and Port­noy). For those read­ers who want to learn how Roth respond­ed to the crit­i­cisms hurled by the guardians of Jew­ish mid­dle-class sen­si­bil­i­ty in the late 50s and ear­ly 60s, the essay Writ­ing about Jews” remains required read­ing. In this scorch­ing 1963 response to his crit­ics, Roth announces — per­haps dis­cov­ers — the themes that would occu­py him in the 60s and beyond. I had told the Gen­tiles what appar­ent­ly it would oth­er­wise have been pos­si­ble to keep secret from them: that the per­ils of human nature afflict the mem­bers of our minority.”

Fit­ting­ly, Why Write? opens with the famous sto­ry, “‘I Always Want­ed You to Admire My Fast­ing’; or Look­ing at Kaf­ka,” writ­ten in 1973. The plac­ing of this sto­ry indi­cates how deeply Kafka’s com­plex feel­ings about Jew­ish life and his­to­ry, his vexed rela­tion to the fathers” (above all his own), his habit of self-evis­cer­a­tion, and his long strug­gles in roman­tic love, res­onate with the core themes in the Roth fic­tion­al canon. In a con­ver­sa­tion also includ­ed in Why Write?, I. B. Singer observes that Roth and Kaf­ka pos­sess an affin­i­ty of souls.”

In addi­tion to reprint­ing Roth’s cru­cial lit­er­ary-cul­tur­al crit­i­cism (above all Writ­ing Amer­i­can Fic­tion” [1i 960], which needs to be reread in the Age of Trump), the vol­ume includes Roth’s key Paris Review inter­view with the British crit­ic Hermione Lee, which draws its ener­gy and verve from Roth’s fre­quent sojourns in Lon­don: I don’t hate any­thing here … What bliss‐​but for the writ­ing that’s no asset. Noth­ing dri­ves me crazy here, and a writer has to be dri­ven crazy to help him to see.” Anoth­er superb inter­view reprint­ed here is Roth’s 1981 con­ver­sa­tion with the French philoso­pher Alain Finkielkraut in Le Nou­v­el Obser­va­teur. In it Roth deep­ens the Kaf­ka con­nec­tions (“I was eager to find out what the rest of Amer­i­ca’ was like. Amer­i­ca in quotes — because it was still almost as much of an idea in my mind as it had been in Franz Kafka’s.”). And in response to a ques­tion fre­quent­ly asked of him, con­cern­ing the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal dimen­sion of his fic­tion, Roth says to Finkielkraut, per­haps with a sly eva­sive smile: Am I Lonoff? [from The Ghost Writer] Am I Zuck­er­man? Am I Port­noy? I could be, I sup­pose. I may be yet. As of now I am noth­ing like so sharply delin­eat­ed as a char­ac­ter in a book. I am still amor­phous Roth.”

Why Write? also includes Roth’s impor­tant con­ver­sa­tions with key writ­ers (Singer, Aharon Appelfeld, and Pri­mo Levi as well as the Czech writ­ers Milan Kun­dera and Ivan Klí­ma), pre­vi­ous­ly print­ed in his book Shop Talk: A Writer and His Col­leagues and Their Work. Viewed togeth­er, these con­ver­sa­tions chart the lit­er­ary-cul­tur­al polit­i­cal genealo­gies that have shaped Roth’s own work. They also deep­en our recog­ni­tion of his supreme impor­tance on the world lit­er­ary stage, above all in help­ing writ­ers under the thrall of total­i­tar­i­an regimes to find pub­li­ca­tion in the West.

As for the new­ly pub­lished mate­ri­als, per­haps the most mov­ing is Roth’s 1992 speech accept­ing the New Jer­sey His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety Award for Pat­ri­mo­ny, his pro­found mem­oir of his father’s fatal ill­ness and his own rela­tion to Jew­ish gen­er­a­tions. Speak­ing of his father, he said: To nego­ti­ate from the mid­dle, between the impo­si­tions of the past, as embod­ied in the cus­toms and val­ues of his Yid­dish-speak­ing par­ents, and the claims of the future, as artic­u­lat­ed in their very bear­ing by the Amer­i­can chil­dren, became not only his task but the endeav­or of his entire gen­er­a­tion of immi­grant offspring.”

In many ways the raw ener­gy pro­duced by the immi­grant encounter with Amer­i­ca has been Roth’s sub­ject, his pas­sion, his inspi­ra­tion. This final Roth vol­ume in the Library of Amer­i­ca series con­firms Philip Roth as our great­est liv­ing nov­el­ist, as it gath­ers vir­tu­al­ly all of his most impor­tant reflec­tions and engage­ments with his crit­ics, and, more impor­tant­ly, with his seri­ous read­ers, who will now have Roth’s rich archive of lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al crit­i­cism in a sin­gle, indis­pens­able volume.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions