Anti-Gentilism-The hate that dare not speak its name (8-11-21)

Charlotte Allen writes: Gentiles were also among Roth’s lifelong fixations as antagonists. He was ever on the alert for anti-Semitism, both real and imagined. He even classified Bloom, herself Jewish, as an anti-Semite; apparently, it was fine for Roth to rib his fellow Jews, but not Bloom. As an undergraduate at Bucknell University he found it “especially hateful” (Bailey’s words) that Bucknell during the 1950s required its students to attend weekly Christian chapel—leading me, at least, to wonder why, if that were so, Roth hadn’t picked a less sectarian institution of higher learning. In Roth’s fiction, gentiles are usually a curious mix of alcoholics, layabouts, thugs, wife-beaters, nymphomaniacs, genteel underachievers, and nascent Nazis: “goyish chaos,” as he called it. Roth had many gentile friends and many, many gentile lovers, but he insisted upon perpetually casting himself as the maligned and persecuted outsider…

Roth was indeed a brilliantly vivid writer, with a genius for recreating the human scene in sharp-eyed detail and with dialogue that uncannily mimicked heard speech. He could also write lyrically when he wanted to. He was not, however, as great a writer as he thought he was. As Shulevitz pointed out, he wrote a few great novels over the decades (his Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral, published in 1997 and surprisingly sex scene-free, is likely among them), with the rest ranging “from good to terrible” in Shulevitz’s words. His admirable work ethic (inherited from his insurance-agent father) required him to spend eight hours a day every weekday writing, but the result was that he wrote much too much. The Human Stain (2000), about a distinguished professor, a black man who has renounced his ethnicity and passed for Jewish, only to be forced into retirement by accusations of racism over a chance remark in class, is a page-turner, but it has its longeurs—worked-over set pieces that go on and on, such as the 10 pages devoted to the disgraced professor’s three-decades-younger girlfriend’s dancing naked in front of him after the two have had sex. Roth never knew when to stop, and criticisms that he wrote the same novel over and over, and even the same passages over and over, were not unfounded.

Furthermore, he had trouble creating believable characters other than the many versions of himself—Alexander Portnoy, David Kepesh, the Roth-like writer Nathan Zuckerman (who shows up in nine Roth novels, including American Pastoral and The Human Stain), and even a pair of “Philip Roths”—whom he made his talky first-person narrators over the years. Lack of “roundness” isn’t just a problem with Roth’s female figures, but with all of them. They can be colorful enough—dazzling, Dickens-like sketches—but it is hard to believe that they could actually exist. To his Bard students of 1992, whom he characterized in his notes as saturated with “puritanical feminism,” Roth defended Sabbath’s Theater’s lascivious Drenka Balich with her English-as-a-second-language malapropisms, as “every bit as nasty/interesting” (Bailey’s phrase) as his male protagonist, Mickey Sabbath. But in fact Drenka, the self-described “sidekicker,” with a carnal appetite that defies realism, is yet another broadly drawn Roth cartoon.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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