Friday, March 19, 2010

Notes For March 19th, 2010

This Day In Writing History

On March 19th, 1933, the legendary novelist Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were of Ukrainian-Jewish descent. Roth graduated from Newark's Weequahic High School in 1950. He attended Bucknell University and earned a degree in English. For his graduate studies, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he earned a Master's degree in English and worked briefly as an instructor in the university's creative writing program.

Roth continued his teaching career, teaching creative writing at the University of Iowa and Princeton University. Later, he would teach comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania until he retired from teaching in 1991. While at the University of Chicago, Roth met legendary novelist Saul Bellow and Margaret Martinson, who would become his first wife. Though they separated in 1963 and she was killed in a car accident five years later, she would have a huge impact on his writings and be the inspiration for female characters in several of his novels.

Philip Roth began his writing career by publishing short stories and reviews in various magazines. He reviewed movies for The New Republic. In 1959, his first book was published, and it established him as a major talent. Goodbye, Columbus contained the title novella and five short stories, all of which were steeped deep in Judaism - specifically Jewish American culture and customs.

The title novella told the story of Neil Klugman, an intelligent college graduate who is nonetheless a poor, working class Jew who lives with his aunt and uncle and has a low-paying job at a library. Neil falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, a student at Radcliffe who comes from a wealthy Jewish family. What at first seems to be an uncomplicated summer romance evolves into a complex story of existential angst, as class differences begin to derail Neil and Brenda's relationship.

Goodbye, Columbus won Roth the National Book Award. It would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1969, starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw as Neil and Brenda. The book may have been celebrated by critics and most readers, but the Jewish community objected to Roth's less than flattering portrayal of some Jewish characters. In the short story Defender of the Faith, a Jewish American army sergeant resists when three lazy draftees try to manipulate him into granting them special favors because they are also Jewish.

In 1962, Philip Roth and the acclaimed black novelist Ralph Ellison appeared on a panel to discuss minority representation in literature. The questions directed at Roth soon turned into denunciations, and he was accused of being a self-hating Jew - a label that would dog him for most of his career. Roth would strike back at his Jewish critics with his famous 1969 novel, Portnoy's Complaint - a scathing, raunchy black comedy.

Portnoy's Complaint is an experimental novel in the form of one long monologue, as the middle-aged, neurotic Alexander Portnoy pours his heart out to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. Portnoy is loaded with neuroses, complexes, and of course, sexual hang-ups. He's a self-hating Jew who rages at the injustices of having to grow up Jewish in a gentile-dominated country. He rages at his overbearing mother, which burdens him with the heavy chains of guilt. And he rages at his inability to enjoy sex.

It's sex that frustrates Portnoy most of all. As a teenager, he masturbated excessively, not out of lust, but as a form of narcissism. He's both attracted to and repelled by gentile women, whom he uses and abuses and gives demeaning nicknames such as "the Pumpkin" and "the Monkey." Portnoy's absurdly funny sexual exploits are described graphically - so graphically that the novel proved to be a shocker for readers in 1969. The book was banned in Australia. When publisher Penguin Books resisted the ban and secretly printed copies of the book, the authorities tried to prosecute them and failed.

Philip Roth has written many more great novels. He is most famous for his series of Zuckerman novels, which are narrated by Roth's alter ego, Jewish writer Nathan Zuckerman. The first Zuckerman book was The Ghost Writer, published in 1979. His 1997 Zuckerman novel, American Pastoral, won him the Pulitzer Prize. In it, Zuckerman attends his 45th high school reunion and runs into his old friend, Jerry Levov, who tells him the tragic life story of his older brother, Seymour "Swede" Levov, who recently died. Most of the story deals with the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 70s, as Swede's teenage daughter Merry protests the horrors of the Vietnam War by becoming a domestic terrorist and bombing a post office. Years later, she remains in hiding.

Other Roth novels of note include The Human Stain (2000), where Nathan Zuckerman tells the story of his new neighbor, Coleman Silk, a 71-year-old college professor who falls victim to an unjust accusation of racism by two black students, which leads to his resignation. It is later revealed that Silk is really a light-skinned black man who, for most of his life, has been passing himself off as a white Jew.

The Plot Against America (2004) is a fascinating piece of "what if" historical fiction. In it, national aviation hero Charles Lindbergh (who in real life was an anti-Semite and Hitler supporter) defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election and becomes President of the United States. As Lindbergh establishes a cordial relationship with Hitler and keeps the U.S. out of the war, American Jews - including Roth's family - worry about what will become of them. One of Lindbergh's top cronies is car magnate Henry Ford, who in real life was a virulent anti-Semite and the author of a non-fiction book called The International Jew - the World's Foremost Problem.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Roth has written non-fiction works, including an autobiography. His 31st novel, Nemesis, is due for release this year. It tells the story of a Newark, New Jersey community in 1944, struggling to cope with a polio epidemic.

Quote Of The Day

“I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you -- it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists.” - Philip Roth

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a 2004 interview with Philip Roth. Enjoy!

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