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  • Philip Roth's Holocaust
  • Eric J. Sundquist (bio)

In a startling but enigmatic scene in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Nathan Zuckerman's mother, dying of brain cancer, is asked by a neurologist to write her name on a piece of paper. Instead of her name she writes the word "Holocaust." His mother had a tumor in her head the size of a lemon, says Zuckerman, and "it seemed to have forced out everything except the one word. That it couldn't dislodge. It must have been there all the time without their even knowing." Zuckerman's "it" is slippery—both tumor and Holocaust have been there all the time without their even knowing. Zuckerman keeps the piece of paper in his wallet because he cannot bring himself to throw it away. "Who can?" Philip Roth asked in a 1984 interview with the London Sunday Times. "Zuckerman isn't the only one who can't throw this word away and is carrying it with him all the time, whether he knows it or not." The Holocaust, said Roth, "is simply there, hidden, submerged, emerging, disappearing, unforgotten. You don't make use of it—it makes use of you." Like a hidden malignant tumor, it is there all the time, without one even knowing.

The Anatomy Lesson is a novel about pain—literally, in the sense that Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's fictive nom de guerre, spends the book paralyzed by a "hot line of pain" running from his head through his torso, branching downward "like a menorah held bottom side up." No physician can diagnose the source of his agony, and he spends days lying on the floor watching the Watergate hearings on television and being nursed, sexually more often than otherwise, by a cycle of four women. It could be that his pain is a symptom of the fact that he has, we are told, "lost his subject." His father and mother are dead; [End Page 226] he is estranged from his brother; and his own West Bank, the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, is "occupied now by an alien tribe," the once Jewish neighborhood of his childhood having been transformed into the black ghetto of post-1960s Newark. "Everything that galvanized him had been extinguished, leaving nothing unmistakably his and nobody else's to claim, exploit, enlarge, and reconstruct." His psychoanalyst, however, sees Zuckerman's crippling pain as his just reward for having written the novel Carnovsky, a stridently offensive satire of postwar Jewish American life quite like Portnoy's Complaint, the 1969 novel whose profane dissection of Jewish familial and communal sensibilities earned Roth much scorn and even more fame. The "shamelessness that enraged [Zuckerman's] tribe," according to this theory, has been answered by scriptural justice: "If the writing arm offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee."

The agent of retribution in The Anatomy Lesson is not Jesus (who is preaching against adultery in the passage from Matthew 5:30 to which Roth alludes) but the critic Milton Appel, who has assailed the fictive novel Carnovsky in much the same terms that Irving Howe had assailed Portnoy's Complaint in a lacerating 1972 essay. Revising his earlier favorable estimate of Roth upon the publication of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Howe now found Roth to be a literary narcissist of the first order and Portnoy's Complaint a work of great vulgarity, not because of its lewdness but because its single tone is "a shriek of excess, the jokester's manic wail." His own comparable dismissal of Carnovsky notwithstanding, Milton Appel tries to enlist Zuckerman, on the basis of his celebrity, to write an op-ed for the New York Times in support of Israel, besieged in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War by anti-Zionist campaigns in the United Nations and elsewhere. Or, asks Appel, does Zuckerman still feel, as his character Carnovsky says, that the Jews "can stick their historical suffering up their ass?" Uncertain that he had ever written such a passage, Zuckerman has to look it up, which only makes him more indignant that a serious man of letters could confuse the rebellious outcry of a...


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pp. 226-256
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