After reading the twelve collected essays and Roth interview in Reading Philip Roth, I am afraid I feel no more enlightened about the author in question than I did before. Why so unsatisfying? True, all the critics and Roth himself have explored in Modern Language Association symposium detail one or more arcane segments of the Roth mystique. But the net result seems to belong to the beating-a-dead-horse syndrome or the "so what" reader response.
Aharon Appelfeld and Hana Wirth-Nesher join legions of others in addressing the Jewishness of Roth. Appelfeld begins oddly by saying that he does not believe in the usefulness of definition; then he defines Roth's Jewishness. His weighty conclusion is that Roth belongs to a tribe called Jews, and his fiction reflects this: "Roth has a spiritual homeland whose roots are in Jewish Newark." Wirth-Nesher focuses on Roth's fictional journey from Newark to Prague, which, according to her, "marks the passage from a literature of immigration and assimilation into a literature of retrieval," ostensibly of one's Jewish past. And now to more news.
Other essays deal with Roth's themes of exile, homelessness, asceticism or renunciation, metamorphosis, the old American unconscious or the new Jeremiad, the true "self," the son-father complex; and Roth's use of irony, imagination, and show business. Along the way Roth's important stories such as "Eli the Fanatic," "Defender of the Faith," and other early stories, as well as major novels such as Portnoy's Complaint and the Zuckerman series, are explicated to substantiate whatever critical wardrobe the essay in question advocates.
Roth has never been reticent about explaining himself and his fiction. His collection of self-defense essays appeared as Reading Myself and Others (1975). In the interview that heads this collection he grants that he has two sets of readers: "a general audience and a Jewish audience." And once again he tries to address both. Once again he insists that "a writer's first responsibility is to the integrity of his own kind of discourse," and once again he concludes that "we," presumably all of us, "are all writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time."
Roth has written some fine fiction. He and his critics have on occasion uttered some enlightening remarks about the fiction. But the material in this current book on Roth will, I believe, not unjustly, be labeled pedestrian rather than high flying.
Gershon Shaked is a learned and benign Israeli teacher and writer. Born in Vienna, he emigrated to Palestine as a youth on the eve of World War Two and ultimately became Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University. He writes on Jewish literature for the Israeli press and lectures at prestigious universities in the United States. [End Page 645]
This collection of essays on modern Jewish writers is one of about twenty volumes of criticism he has published. Here he writes of Kafka, the Jewish heritage, Hebrew literature. He writes of Wasserman, Zweig, Bialik, and Agnon. And he writes of American writers Bellow, Malamud, and Philip Roth.
About the early period of Israeli writing, the "1948 generation" or the "Palmah generation," Shaked notes in one essay that the writers wrote of the new Israel within the context of the "foundations for a new society that had been laid down by their parents." They identified with the pioneering ideals of the previous generation. "The Holocaust and the founding of the State provided the historical climaxes in their development."
In another essay he discusses contemporary Israeli writers. And here, although he admits he is uncertain of current literary thrusts, he notes that the Israeli writers of the seventies and eighties rejected the world picture of the earlier writers. In short, for them the Israel of the founding fathers was a utopia, but the present is "nothing but a great and ugly dystopia."
Reading Shaked in this collection...