The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race, and Autobiography

Jacques Berlinerblau

  • Review
By – October 18, 2021

Over his long, pro­lif­ic career, Philip Roth cul­ti­vat­ed a mys­tery: his pri­vate self. In recent biogra­phies, he’s a puz­zle. In his self-reveal­ing, self-con­ceal­ing nov­els, he’s a trick­ster. Roth can seem like Dylan or Warhol — the inscrutable famous, and famous­ly inscrutable. We know too much about them, while also know­ing too little.

Now comes a thought­ful, time­ly explo­ration by Jacques Berlinerblau. In The Philip Roth We Don’t Know, hehe attempts to X‑ray Roth’s fic­tion while assess­ing his lega­cy. Will Roth’s rep­u­ta­tion sur­vive #MeToo? Should it? To answer, he reads Roth foren­si­cal­ly. His project is sim­ple yet ambi­tious: read­ing Roth rig­or­ous­ly; map­ping Roth’s obsessions. 

One endur­ing obses­sion was self­hood. Roth was a poet of the self: selves in trou­ble, selves in flux, selves reflect­ing end­less­ly on their prob­lems. Roth’s male hys­ter­ics sim­ply can’t pause; they’re not only motor­mouths, they’re motor­minds,” non­stop thinkers. Roth’s pro­tag­o­nists might make idi­ot­ic deci­sions,” Berlinerblau writes; let it nev­er be said that they do so thoughtlessly.” 

Anoth­er obses­sion — neglect­ed by schol­ars — was racial mat­ters. As Berlinerblau shows, Roth returned repeat­ed­ly to race, in ways that trig­ger sus­pi­cions. Read­ing the ear­ly nov­els, he finds them quite dis­turb­ing” and not infre­quent­ly racist.” These strong asser­tions require a dar­ing leap — that Roth is speak­ing through his char­ac­ters. At worst, Roth seems big­ot­ed. At best, he’s sim­ply obtuse, like an embar­rass­ing old­er uncle. 

Con­vinc­ing or not, this analy­sis rais­es time­ly ques­tions. Should we judge a writer’s obses­sions? If those obses­sions make us queasy, should we dis­card him? This leads to Berlinerblau’s sec­ond chap­ter, Old Men, Young Women,” about Roth’s much-debat­ed misogyny. 

Here, Berlinerblau is more equiv­o­cal. He refus­es to label Roth just anoth­er White Guy who prose-ogled women’s bod­ies.” True, lech­er­ous males abound. Young, attrac­tive women beguile vast­ly old­er men. What both­ers Berlinerblau, how­ev­er, is Roth’s revenge-tak­ing on actu­al women — his ex-wives and girl­friends. The charge of misog­y­ny,” he writes, becomes hard to avoid.” 

Today, many younger read­ers share his unease. And no won­der. Roth is exces­sive, unruly, anar­chic; if he’s pious about any­thing, it’s trans­gres­sion: say­ing the unsayable, describ­ing messy, shame­ful, con­flict­ing desires. Can we cel­e­brate Roth’s rude rebel­lions against group­think and good taste? Or is our plea­sure damp­ened by Roth’s nar­cis­sism and hypermasculinity?

These issues enliv­en Berlinerblau’s book, as do ques­tions of inter­pre­ta­tion. A com­plex, divid­ed author; a huge, var­ied oeu­vre. Can Roth be pinned down? What­ev­er you’re seek­ing, you’ll find it — and its oppo­site — in Roth’s twen­ty-eight nov­els. Call it the Roth Para­dox: the loud­est, most per­son­al of authors was also capa­ble of van­ish­ing into his art.

Still, Berlinerblau’s smart, thought­ful sur­vey large­ly suc­ceeds. It scans Roth’s fic­tion, trou­bles our enjoy­ment, and, despite call­ing itself a reverse biog­ra­phy,” deep­ens our under­stand­ing of Philip Roth. Nev­er trust the artist,” wrote D. H. Lawrence. Trust the tale.” Heed­ing that advice, Berlinerblau locates Roth in his fic­tion. Of course, he was there all along, hid­ing in plain sight.

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