Cel­e­brate Jew­ish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invit­ed an author to share thoughts on #Jew­Lit for each day of Jew­ish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and dis­cov­er! 

Today, Joseph Kertes, the author of The After­life of Stars, writes about the Philip Roth effect.

Of all the writ­ers I have read, Philip Roth has giv­en me the most plea­sure as a read­er and the most courage as a writer. When I came upon his ear­ly works, Good­bye, Colum­bus and Portnoy’s Com­plaint, I laughed out loud, of course, but I also real­ized the pow­er of com­e­dy and satire in lit­er­a­ture to reflect the cul­ture — the absurd world we live in, in all of its shades of light and dark. If Shake­speare invent­ed the human, as Harold Bloom pos­tu­lates, then Philip Roth invent­ed mod­ern humans, caught up in their own neu­roses, their own inep­ti­tude, their own anguish, their own puny respons­es to the giant forces that shape their lives — our lives. And most remark­ably, the books read as if they were writ­ten in one sit­ting. One word fol­lows so nat­u­ral­ly upon anoth­er that they are like musi­cal notes, like Mozart, every word right, as if it wasn’t cho­sen but dropped onto the page out of the air. There is a breath­less­ness to the prose, an inevitabil­i­ty always dri­ving us forward.

Roth went on to write many more come­dies (The Breast, Zuck­er­man Unbound, The Anato­my Les­son), but he wrote tragedies too, to use the term loose­ly (The Coun­ter­life, The Human Stain, Amer­i­can Pas­toral). But most remark­ably, he blend­ed dark­ness and light, tragedy and com­e­dy, as if they lived togeth­er, as they do in life.

For me, the best exam­ple is Sabbath’s The­ater. An aging Mick­ey Sab­bath, a one-time pup­peteer before his arthri­tis got the bet­ter of him, embarks upon a mad affair with the sul­try, volup­tuous­ly round­ed Dren­ka Balich. The novel’s first third throbs with their crazy love. It is desire and desire alone dri­ving it all, with Mick­ey and Dren­ka in the back seat, going where appetite takes them. Iron­i­cal­ly, adult though it all is, it feels child-like at heart because noth­ing mat­ters but the joy of the present. And then Dren­ka dies of can­cer, and the whole nov­el turns in on itself as if the child has implod­ed, and mor­tal­i­ty in all of its dark forms takes up res­i­dence in Mickey.

That is why Roth has giv­en me courage as a writer. He has con­vinced me that any­thing goes, as long as what you’re say­ing is truth­ful. It should all be seri­ous play, the way a child takes his or her play seri­ous­ly before any­one tells the child NO, you can’t, you mustn’t. There is some­thing wild­ly lib­er­at­ing about writ­ing that way, believ­ing every word will fol­low nat­u­ral­ly upon the last, as long as you believe it is true.

So when I wrote my lat­est nov­el, The After­life of Stars, inspired by my family’s escape from Hun­gary dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion against the Rus­sians in 1956, I want­ed to blend the trag­ic his­to­ry of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Europe with the child­ish excite­ment of head­ing out to the new world.

But my two boys nev­er make it out to the new world. I had care­ful­ly planned out their route, but once I set them on a path, they took over the nov­el from me and ran off with it, tak­ing me on an adven­ture I could not have antic­i­pat­ed. I found myself fol­low­ing them wher­ev­er they would go, and writ­ing down what­ev­er they would say. I was as excit­ed as they were about the uncer­tain­ties that lay ahead, but as appre­hen­sive as they were, not know­ing where we were going, but going there nonethe­less with the force of inevitabil­i­ty I admired so much in Roth. And so com­e­dy wove itself into the dark threads of the sto­ry as they would in any child’s mind, when­ev­er it arose. And it all made sense.

The result was a nov­el that prover­bial­ly wrote itself. It was Roth who had giv­en me per­mis­sion to take the wild ride and to trust in it.

Joseph Kertes was born in Hun­gary but escaped with his fam­i­ly to Cana­da after the rev­o­lu­tion of 1956. He stud­ied Eng­lish at York Uni­ver­si­ty and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. His nov­el Grat­i­tude won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for fic­tion. Kertes found­ed Hum­ber Col­lege’s dis­tin­guished cre­ative writ­ing and com­e­dy pro­grams. He is cur­rent­ly Hum­ber’s dean of cre­ative and per­form­ing arts.