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  • Reading Philip RothPrimacy Effect, Authorial Intentions, and the Writer's Extended Mind
  • Pia Masiero (bio)

Reflecting on my first encounter with philip roth is a tricky matter. We all know that there is no such thing as remembering things as they indeed were because memories serve different functional purposes and are, thus, inevitably, the result of narrativizing moves. The problem concerns the possibility of returning to the moment of previousness, to the first eventful crossing of the threshold of the first book. The context of that first reading emerges against the context of my writing this piece now. This latter erodes and problematizes the founding necessity of the former because it has narrativized it to look like a sort of prologue of my story as Roth's reader. The prologue, thus, bears the signs containing the seeds of future development, which happens to be the very core of the narrative that makes the retrieval impossible. In this disheartening circularity, there might be one way to retrace the phenomenology of that eventful first encounter. What I set out to explore in the following pages may be condensed into one question: what kind of reader did Roth's books allow me to be?

This question touches upon the most obvious of facts: I have met Roth as a reader. Yes, I was privileged enough to be present at his eightieth birthday in Newark in March 2013, to shake his hand and have my two-minute glorious exchange. Still, Roth is essentially, quintessentially, I should say, the man behind the words I can read and reread on the pages of his books. His words, thus, and only his words, are the tangible presence I can deal with; when speaking about novels, words are the phenomenon, as Martin Heidegger put it, the showing-itself, "that which does the announcing, that which in its showing-itself indicates something which does not show itself" (53). This is the field of phenomena, the world, that my readerly consciousness discloses, or rather, following Edmund Husserl, "the corresponding subjective experiences in which we become conscious of [the world or the things], in which (in the broadest sense) they 'appear'" (qtd. in Gallagher 1). The words on the page disclose—and [End Page 111] continue to disclose every time I read—the world that Roth is, which does not show itself but is both contained and evoked in the words he chooses for every sentence in his thirty-one novels.

Back to my first encounter, then, keeping this frame in mind.

I read my first Roth novel—The Human Stain (2000)—during the Louisville Summer Institute on Contemporary American Literature in 2005. The third installment of Roth's American trilogy was meant to contribute to drawing a literary map of the Contemporary American literary landscape. Coleman Silk's ode to the "raw-I" (805) and his destruction at the hands of forces greater than his pioneering individuality was part of a heterogeneous syllabus that included, among others, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Guillermo Gómez Peña. This is—in itself—worth pondering: on the one hand, Roth reached me with his twenty-second book, well past the conflicting relationships with his Jewish community and into his major phase; on the other, he crossed my path together with a melting pot of writers and not through a genealogy of Jewish American authors, as the junior to two formidable elders, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. Be as it may, The Human Stain was my first encounter with a Roth novel: a Zuckerman book presenting both the apotheosis of Roth's immersion in American history and his obsession with narrative matters.

I was far from knowing and understanding the underpinnings of Roth's masking practices; nonetheless, it was clear to me that this was a book about a writer's handling of his materials at least as much as it was a book about memorable, intrinsically opaque, characters trying to find a usable sense of themselves against an overpowering, larger than life, American history. The opacity of the so-called other minds came to me as the singular predicament of Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who tackles it...