Since Philip Roth announced his retirement last month, there’s been an appreciation of him that would otherwise accompany his obituary, and I endorse this trend.
Philip Roth has been such a fixture of American Literature, that it’s easy to take him for granted. More than take him for granted, to resent him for his misogyny and anti-Semitism. But when Philip Roth started, the New Yorker wouldn’t print a story that had plot points based around a diaphragm. But since then and now, Philip Roth has been a standby, making gloves interesting, flirting with Terry Gross, writing an entire novel about the decay of the body.
I specifically endorse reading, or rereading, Goodbye, Columbus. It seems like the only way to tell a love story, to get into the mechanics of what works, is to tell its break-up and show what didn’t. Brenda and Neil: they’re attracted to each other, but kind of hate the other, and themselves, too. Their self-disregard matches up nicely with the other’s disdain. And while the first part of the novella feels like a love story, there’s foreboding in the title.
There’s an earnestness to Goodbye, Columbus that’s missing from Roth’s later work. The Plot Against America, for example, is an intellectual exercise—what if America became violently anti-Semitic? In fact, a lot of Roth’s later works are a question: What happened to the Swede? What if you were mistook for a racist? Goodbye, Columbus is the story of a girl from Short Hills breaking a boy from Newark’s heart, not the question of what it would be like if that happened.
As for the charges of misogyny and self-hatred go, as anyone who has ever been through a break-up knows, or as The Lumineers put it, the opposite of love is indifference. I’m not saying that Philip Roth’s characters are sweet on women or are abstaining from pork. But their complicated relationships with women and their faith show the significance of both in their lives.
And just as an aside, my friend whose last name is Roth briefly lived in the same building as Philip Roth. Once Friend Roth said to him, “You’re my favorite writer,” to which the Writer Roth replied, “In the building?” “No,” Friend Roth said. “In the whole world.” Then some time passed, and dry cleaning got delivered to Friend Roth’s apartment, which he accepted, thinking the pants were his stepfather’s, though they are really Writer Roth’s. After the pants were returned to the rightful Roth, Writer Roth acted as if the dry cleaning mix-up were some Larry David-esque attempt on Friend Roth’s part to build a relationship.