Magazine article Tikkun

Potok on Roth

Magazine article Tikkun

Potok on Roth

Article excerpt

Vol. 2, No. 2. 1987.

The Counterlife by Philip Roth.

Quite different from the basically realist mode Roth has written in before, this book at key points simply comes to a dead stop, contradicts itself, goes off in different directions, doubles back, shifts voices and tenses, comments on itself, and comments on the comments. Different, too, is the way Roth deals, for the first time, with specifically religious Jewish issues that are woven into the work and become part of its intrinsic form. The Counterlife is meta-fiction with a vengeance. . . .

What are we to make of all this? And what, especially, are the specifically Jewish elements of the book-Israel, Zionist nationalism, gun-toting jingoistic Israeli rabbis, a lengthy argument for circumcision-all about? . . .

Much of the early furor about Roth and his supposed Jewish self-hatred appears to have diminished; the current generation of young Jews takes self-mockery with a greater measure of ease than did its wounded parents whose memories of Europe were still vivid and whose knee-jerk outrage over Roth's startlingly abrasive and comedic manner was all too understandable.

That same abrasiveness is present in The Counterlife, yet it seems somehow no longer to have its old cutting edge. Perhaps we've simply grown accustomed to it; perhaps it's the unusually fine writing; more likely, it's because it is balanced here by other elements: intelligent talk; serious issues involving Israel; the sudden experience of rabid, old-fashioned, Christian anti-Semitism . . . ; and here and there touches of deep concern about family life, the raising of children, and commitments to old values. . . .

Still, it is curious that Roth chose precisely this kind of work, with its highly quixotic mandarin structure, in which to introduce, for the first time in his writing, charged Jewish material. . . . It is precisely this Jewishness that hints at the possibility that there may well be a hidden structure here, a scaffolding that undergirds the novelist's apparent tergiversations. The peak Jewish events in the book are Henry Zuckerman's decision, just before the middle of the book, to settle on a religious kibbutz in the West Bank, and, at the end of the book, the decision by Nathan Zuckerman to have his son circumcised. . . .

The Jewish material that Roth has chosen to write about here tells us something about him as a writer and thinker. …

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