Saturday, November 24, 2012

Philip Roth calls it a day


  1. I developed a bad habit of announcing that Philip Roth was not my favorite novelist before offering a considered opinion on particulars of his that I had just read, opinions, oddly enough, that were generally favorable to the work. Despite my protests , there were times I argued that what Roth was doing as a novelist was singularly brilliant, obsessed and varied; Roth might have had just a few themes and, but unlike a good many serious writers his age, he continued to find new ways of invading old ideas. Above all else, he favored story over fashioning a glittering prose style to reinforce old prejudices. Roth is not my favorite writer, as his prose style isn't as graceful or elegant as others of his generation--not Cheever, not Mailer, not Updike, not Didion, not DeLillo.

     As stylists, writers of breathtaking prose, they are Roth's superior, but there is in each of them a theory of the novel that they are bringing forth in their respective bodies of work. Although I have gotten more  sportsman like thrills from  Mailer and had my heart torn   out  by the ongoing heartbreak of Cheever's tales of sad, alcoholic men, it was Philip Roth, who superior novelist in many respects .

     The particular theoretical prejudice about what the novel needs to be, the obligation to make a story perform in a manner that is determined by intellectual conceit even without the author's awareness, is all but missing in Roth's prickly collection of novels. Anger, lust, rage, hatred, jealousy, self loathing and grotesque self-infatuation are the hot button emotions in his acidic comedies and tightly coiled melodramas. Roth is a combination of craftsman, inventor and moral interrogator, showing a series of characters in bad situations who are forced to make decisions that result only in more misery an recrimination, un-buffered by the convenient cushion of irony. 

    There are no neutral corners in Roth's fiction, even to the extent that the author, who has a readable if decidedly poetic method of getting his thorny characaters and terrains into the world, of not offering the reader the distancing , ease giving relief of a simile burdened style. His punchlines and catharses have the effect of body blows.   I realize that I have read about ten of his books over the years, a goody amount I thin, and I realize belatedly that I been reading books by an American  Master. Regardless of ethnicity  or creed, Roth is the master  showing his following how human beings create their own customized versions of Hell by doing nothing more than following their bliss.

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