When Philip Roth started his literary career, the people he enraged most were his fellow Jews. These days, Goodbye Columbus and Other Stories (1959) might seem fairly innocuous. Yet, at the time, its depiction of less-than-heroic Jewish Americans — including their moments of lechery, cowardice and greed — was enough to have Roth denounced in synagogues, with one rabbi even wondering in public “What is being done to silence this man?”
Jewish opposition to Roth received a further boost in 1969 with the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint and, while it’s certainly faded, has never completely gone away. In more recent years, though, the really enraged objections to his work — and the greatest desire to see him silenced — have come from another direction entirely.
In the mid-70s, the influential New York magazine The Village Voice carried a front page featuring photos of Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer — together with the large headline “WHY DO THESE MEN HATE WOMEN?” And from there the charge of sexism has not just become increasingly widespread; it’s turned into something of an article of faith — or even plain statement of fact — for many feminist critics. In 2008, for example, Yale professor Amy Hungerford baldly informed her students that “Roth, in case you haven’t noticed, is a very misogynist writer”.
For his part, Roth responded to both sets of attacks with the same two-fold defence. The awkward truth, he regularly pointed out, is that not all Jews or women are as unfailingly virtuous as their champions would like them to be — and given that awkward truths are central to the business of fiction, any novelist who reflects that fact is only doing their job. In any case, the idea that the presence of a less-than-righteous Jewish or female character means the author is denouncing all Jews or women is so obviously ignorant as to indicate a “numbness to fiction”.
And for Roth, numbness to fiction was a very serious deficiency indeed. After all, this was a man with what even he called the “fanatical habit” of writing all day every day, before relaxing in the evening with a spot of Conrad, Tolstoy, Chekhov or Dostoyevsky. (“We weren’t idealistic about much, we children of the 1950s,” John Updike once said, “but we were certainly idealistic about art.”) He was also high-mindedly adamant that fiction was far too precious and important to be used for propaganda purposes, including as “stupid propaganda for life itself — for life as it might itself prefer to be publicised”.
In The Human Stain (2000), he writes of how the revelation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky caused a mass outbreak of sanctimony when “life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America”. And in fact if you wanted to reduce Roth’s whole oeuvre to a single soundbite — not something he’d have approved of — then “life in all its shameless impurity” mightn’t be a bad attempt. But it’s also, I’d suggest, precisely this shameless impurity that’s confounded his own, often sanctimonious critics.
In this, sad to say, they seem to have the support of the prevailing cultural mood, when the key test of whether any remark should be said, written or tweeted is not so much whether it is (or might be) true, but simply whether it’s a virtuous thing to say, write or tweet. It’s a test, of course, that Roth is always doomed to fail, thanks to his unswerving belief that the purpose of the novel is never to be virtuous, but to depict human beings as they are, rather than as they’d like to see themselves.
Take this little incident in Sabbath’s Theater (1995), possibly his funniest and most blisteringly sustained assault on all modern pieties. At one point, the ageing but still ferociously libidinous main character Mickey Sabbath is (accurately) accused by an old friend of leching after that old friend’s daughter. As ever, though, Sabbath is not repentant. “I am sixty-four,” he replies calmly. “She is nineteen. It’s only natural.”
Now, it may well that 64-year-old men oughtn’t to lust after 19-year-old women. Yet just imagine — if you can — that some do. Should the fact that their behaviour is inappropriate, problematic (or any other adjective of modern disapproval that you prefer) mean it shouldn’t show up in fiction, especially in the form of such a great, dark, quintessentially Rothian joke?
Not long ago, the answer to that question would have been a blindingly obvious “no”. Now, it’s alarmingly possible that the mood of the times will make it very difficult for anybody to be so fearless again in writing about the messy and frequently unedifying business of male desire, complete with all the thoughts that men shouldn’t have, but still do.
If so, and even after his death, it’s more vital than ever that nothing should be done to silence this man.