Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"A Harp in the Hallway": Edna O'Brien and Jewish-Irish Whiteness in Zuckerman Unbound

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"A Harp in the Hallway": Edna O'Brien and Jewish-Irish Whiteness in Zuckerman Unbound

Article excerpt

On the 19th of March, 2013, the Irish author Edna O'Brien stepped onto the stage of the Newark Library auditorium and gave a stirring introduction to her long-time friend, Philip Roth: "Feared and revered, plagiarized, envied, hermit and jester, lover and hater, foolish but formidable, too adorable for words, a very great friend, and undoubtedly, one of Yeats's Olympians" ("Roth@80"). Her presence at Roth's eightieth birthday and de facto retirement celebrations served to underscore her curious absence from Roth scholarship. Though Roth has interviewed O'Brien, prefaced her work, and quoted her in epigraph, she rarely appears in Roth criticism.1 Yet where she is mentioned she provides stimulating perspectives on Roth's oeuvre, as, for example, when Debra Shostak cites the O'Brien epigraph to The Dying Animal (2001)-"The body contains the life story just as much as the brain"-as proof of Roth's "continued preoccupation with how the self comes into consciousness of itself within and through its fleshly habitation" (60). Likewise, Darren Hughes astutely notes that in his 1984 interview with O'Brien, Roth "could be conducting another of his self-interviews" (267). This recalls David Gooblar's contention that the "presence of Franz Kafka and Anne Frank in Roth's fiction [often] tells us more about Roth himself than about those ostensible subjects" (59). Roth's speaking of and to other writers can thus be read as a displaced commentary on himself. An important corollary to this insight can be extrapolated from when Roth writes of another cultural group, he is also writing about American Jews. These suppositions frame this paper and its consideration of the presence of O'Brien in Roth's fiction.

Though by no means as immediately tangible as that of Frank and Kafka, O'Brien's presence in Roth's work was revealed at Roth@80, when she teasingly proposed herself as a likely model for Caesara O'Shea in Zuckerman Unbound (1981). Just as Zuckerman shares significant biographical data with Roth, Caesara does so with O'Brien. As Roth summarizes, O'Brien was "born in the isolated reaches of Ireland, raised on a lonely farm in the shadow of a violent father and educated by nuns behind the latched gate of a provincial convent" ("A Conversation with Edna O'Brien" 42). Caesara grows up in an identical milieu, the rural confines of Connemara, under a father who "drank whiskey" and beat her mother (190). More significantly, both Caesara and O'Brien share with one another (and with Zuckerman and Roth as well) the experience of being ostracized from their communities as a result of their vocations.2 Caesara thus in many ways offers an Irish female "counterlife" for Zuckerman, as O'Brien might be said to do for Roth. Just as Roth employs Kafka and Frank to delve into the parallels between Jewish experience in Europe and America, he engages O'Brien to examine the equivalences between Jewish and Irish cultural identity. In doing so, Roth uses the example of the Irish as a warning to Jewish Americans against blindly supporting a mythologizing nationalism abroad and falling into an unaware ethnic whiteness at home. Brett Ashley Kaplan has already explored how "Race figures in Zuckerman Unbound in ways that echo the tension between identification and anxiety," looking specifically at blackJewish interrelations in America (45). Meanwhile, Scott W. Klein unearths traces of James Joyce in the 1980s Zuckerman books that highlight Roth's use of the Irish modernist writer to investigate "national difference" (154). Building on these foundations, this essay adds another layer of interpretation to Zuckerman Unbound's complex analysis of race by focusing on its representation of Irishness-and specifically on Caesara, "the very heart of Ireland" (187).

Caesara is introduced to the reader through a letter she has left for Zuckerman: "I was so sad to leave without saying goodbye. But when Fate changes horse the rider is carried along [. . .] Vague memories, nothing but memories" (186). …

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