Philip Roth: A Counterlife

Ira Nadel

  • Review
By – May 3, 2021

The pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion may see Philip Roth as the trans­gres­sive author of Portnoy’s Com­plaint, the scan­dalous bad boy of Amer­i­can let­ters. Pos­ter­i­ty is more like­ly to appre­ci­ate him as the great­est Amer­i­can nov­el­ist of the mid- and late 20th cen­tu­ry, eclips­ing Saul Bel­low, Bernard Mala­mud, Nor­man Mail­er, or John Updike. Mas­ter­pieces like Amer­i­can Pas­toral and The Plot Against Amer­i­ca, and short sto­ries such as Good­bye Colum­bus,” will speak to read­ers for gen­er­a­tions to come.

In his biog­ra­phy of Roth, Ira Nadel — who wrote a Crit­i­cal Com­pan­ion to Philip Roth—explores the many con­nec­tions between the novelist’s work and his life. He doesn’t read the fic­tion as a dis­guised ver­sion of Roth’s life, but rather treats it as a way of under­stand­ing the man. Tak­en togeth­er, the fic­tion and the life mir­ror cer­tain recur­ring themes that con­tin­u­al­ly pre­oc­cu­pied Roth: secrets, ill­ness, betray­al, and rebellion.

Of course Roth did use actu­al inci­dents in fic­tion­al form. He mar­ried his first wife, Mar­garet Mar­tin­son Williams, after she faked a preg­nan­cy test and told Roth she was preg­nant, an episode which lat­er appeared in his 1974 nov­el My Life as a Man. His mar­riages and oth­er rela­tion­ships often spawned coun­ter­parts in his fic­tion direct­ly or indi­rect­ly. It was Roth’s way of work­ing out his inner tur­moil, his seething anger or resent­ment. As he once remarked, Those goy­im: they don’t know any­thing about hate, that’s their trouble.”

Nadel takes par­tic­u­lar inter­est in Roth’s lit­er­ary influ­ences, from Hen­ry James and Thomas Wolfe to Franz Kaf­ka and Bruno Schulz, and his lit­er­ary friends includ­ing James Atlas, Saul Bel­low, Leslie Fiedler, Janet Mal­colm, Cyn­thia Ozick, Susan Son­tag, and William Sty­ron. Nadel rec­og­nizes the ground­break­ing impor­tance of Roth’s Writ­ers from the Oth­er Europe” book series, inspired by a vis­it to Czecho­slo­va­kia in 1972. He even fol­lows Roth’s jour­ney from pub­lish­er to pub­lish­er, end­less­ly pur­su­ing bet­ter deals.

Nadel uses the messy facts of Roth’s pri­vate life in order to trace their effect on his fic­tion. Not­ing the crit­ic Vivian Gornick’s opin­ion that Roth’s women are only sex­u­al objects, fur­ther vil­i­fied as they become vic­tims of old­er men,” Nadel finds the same atti­tude in the pro­tag­o­nists of The Dying Ani­mal and The Human Stain. While Roth was furi­ous about his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s revenge mem­oir,” reports Nadel, five dif­fer­ent wives in Roth’s sub­se­quent fic­tion died or disappeared.

In short: for a sol­id account of Philip Roth’s life and work, Ira Nadel’s Philip Roth: A Coun­ter­life is the book we’ve been wait­ing for. It’s reveal­ing, per­cep­tive, sen­si­tive, sen­si­ble, and immense­ly read­able, a tri­umph of insight and scholarship.

Discussion Questions