Critical Mass

Celebrating Philip Roth #3: A Timeline in Reviews

By Jane Ciabattari

Critical Mass postings celebrating Philip Roth include a podcast of the National Book Critics Circle collaboration with the Center for Fiction in celebration of Philip Roth, a 50-minute video of Roth reading from his NBCC-award winning autobiography, Patrimony, his acceptance speech when he won the National Book Critics Circle fiction award for The Counterlife in 1988, and this timeline of a range of reviews beginning in 1959.


In the 1990s Philip Roth won America’s four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony (1991), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath’s Theater  (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral  (1997). He won the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist (1998); in the same year he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. Previously he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Counterlife (1986) and the National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). In 2000 he published The Human Stain, concluding a trilogy that depicts the ideological ethos of postwar America. For The Human Stain Roth received his second PEN/Faulkner Award as well as Britain’s W. H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year. In 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, given every six years “for the entire work of the recipient.” In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians Award for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003—2004.” In 2007 Roth received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman and the inaugural PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. This sampling of eviews of his books gives a sense of the critical response to his work over the years, beginning with Saul Bellow in Commentary in April 1959.


Commentary, April 1959

Goodbye, Columbus  review by Saul Bellow

Goodbye, Columbusis a first book but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso. His one fault, and I don’t expect all the brethren to agree that it is a fault, is that he is so very sophisticated. Sometimes he twinkles too much. The New York Times has praised him for being “wry.” One such word to the wise ought to be sufficient. Mr. Roth has a superior sense of humor (see his story “Epstein”), and I think he can count on it more safely than on his “wryness.”


Harper’s, July 1962

Letting Go, “New Books” review by Elizabeth Hardwick

Roth’s Letting Go is very interesting and has the same command of amusing idiom that made his Goodbye, Columbus so often delightful.  It is another, in part, of those academic novels. At the beginning one thinks of Malamud’s A New Life, and it has similarly a grim, rather depleted young man as one of the central characters. Roth’s is a rich book, full of incident, and genuinely novelistic complications. It is wry and sad and even in its most desolating scenes somehow amusing. The subject is most unlikely: the effort of a rather mismatched young couple, graduate students, to have an abortion and then, later, to adopt a baby. It is a jarring and dismal enough story, but there are other characters and other plots and subplots of great interest and charm. Roth reminds one a bit of Saul Bellow in this book, even if he is less intellectual and experimental. A series of Thanksgiving visits to New York are brilliant; the dialogue is unusually good and Letting Go seems in every way a book worthy of Roth’s first promise.


The New York Review of Books, February 27, 1969

“Up Against the Wall, Mama!” review of  Portnoy’s Complaint by Alfred Kazin

Alex Portnoy of Newark, who is all complaint and therefore a very funny case, is the latest and most vivid example of the tendency among American Jews to reduce their experience to psychology. Of course many non-Jews in America do this, too: in a country so crammed and lively with jostling human styles, languages, traditions, races, it is most practical as well as sophisticated to recognize one’s role, to see on every hand how different a role can be. But to young American Jews, who in this most smashing of times and countries often feel that they have been born not to faith but to a neurosis, a “condition,” a burden, a complaint, the proximity of psychoanalysis often seems the only liberation from the monotony of Jew, Jew, Jewish. No Jew in his senses still believes that the Revolution will do anything for Jews as Jews (or even for Jews as anti-Jews, pace the ghosts of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Stansky, etc., etc.). But psychoanalysis will not refuse Jew or Greek, is nevertheless clinical perspective and distance, and hints not only of a new consciousness to come, but of bridges to creativity. That is why the Jew as raucous vulgarian (Groucho), as parodist of the genteel culture (Perelman), as existentialist (Bellow), as martyr (Malamud), has been succeeded by so many Jews in show business who sound as if they had rewritten the third act in consultation with the analyst.

         Psychoanalysis may leave indeterminate effects of renewal, but as one can see from so many analysts, the seeming control over one’s life stimulated by so much new consciousness leads to pressing feelings of creativity. And to what group can this be so stimulating as to young Jews who are swingers and skeptics, mod to the point of panic, born secularists in this most secularist of cultures? To them the Jewish “condition” is more and more meaningless, unwanted, embarrassing to their Negro friends, reactionary.

         But they are stuck with it, often enough have internalized all the woes and hysteria of four thousand years from their near-immigrant parents (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) and see no liberation in sight but through psychoanalysis and the inspiration it will surely bring to write as freely as Paul Goodman.

         This is not exactly the case of Philip Roth only because Roth is vibrantly talented, an original, as marvelous a mimic and fantasist as has been produced by the most verbal group in human history, and therefore not given to the concessiveness that less interesting Jews fall into. But it is Roth’s case in the essential that he can write of Jews only as hysterics (and does not write of “Christians” half so well), that he writes without the aid of general ideas (Herzog suffered twice as much as Portnoy does, but Herzog also lived in history; Portnoy lives only through his mother). Roth is pitiless in reducing Jewish history to the Jewish voice. “Why do you suffer so much?” the Italian “assistant” jeeringly challenges the Jewish grocer in Bernard Malamud’s novel. To which the answer of course comes (with many an amen! from Jesus, Marx, Freud, and others too numerous to mention)—”I suffer for you!” “Why do I suffer so much?” Alex Portnoy has to ask himself in Newark, Rome, Jerusalem (Alex is lonely even in the most crowded bed). His answer, his only answer, the final answer, what an answer, is that to which many a misanthropic son of the covenant is now reduced in this mixed blessing of a country—”My mother! My….. Jewish mother!”

         This is still funny? In Portnoy’s Complaint it is extremely funny, and the reason that Roth makes it funny is that he believes this, he believes nothing else. He is not an easygoing “humorist” but a writer whose view of life is harsh, whose intellectual temper is fanatical, who likes his material to get defiant and wild, who works his narratives out to a point which in its hysterical sharpness is not unlike a real suffering Jewish mama’s. Portnoy is more sustained than I would have expected from reading advance sections, it is touching as well as hilariously lewd, because Roth projects and exaggerates his mimic’s gift to form a glamorously desperate monologue, a manic aria. Portnoy in heat is particularly funny. Even when he graduates from the nearest receptacle to other bodies, sex remains his favorite form of protest. In the wildest throes, his bitterness is more in evidence than his passion, and his life remains, as always, furiously mental.


The New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1971

“Our Gang,” review by Dwight McDonald

Philip Roth has become as hard to classify as Norman Mailer. His first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” a fitfully brilliant collection of short stories on Jewish-American themes, won the 1960 National Book Award. Was he the new Bellow? His next, “Letting Go” (1962), was a regression to conventional Jewish-American fiction, turgid with angst and alienation. The new Malamud? Five years later he published “When She Was Good,” a psychological dissection of a sick (gentile) heroine in the context of a sick (gentile) society done with 19th-century amplitude. It didn't work. Is a new Flaubert or Eliot (George) possible?

         Then, after a decade of false starts he found his true voice–like an actor who discovers his limitations and so his possibilities–with Portnoy's Complaint (1969), which didn't win the National Book Award. Portnoy was the Jewish novel to end all Jewish novels (which it unfortunately hasn't), a ribald, frenetic Bronx cheer to the whole schtick all the more effectively disturbing because it was delivered with love and even a kind of nostalgic reverence. It was more important to Roth personally–killing not the father but the momma. But its importance to him as a writer was greater: he discovered his congenial mode, satire, and his natural style, the vernacular, which he used with an unerring ear to get humorous effects that are most serious when they are funniest.

         Our Gang is a political satire that I found far-fetched, unfair, tasteless, disturbing, logical, coarse and very funny–I laughed out loud 16 times and giggled internally a statistically unverifiable amount. In short, a masterpiece. The most fantastic assumptions–fantasies we, alas, read daily in the papers and see nightly on TV–are worked out with the lunatic logic of Swift's “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents and Country” (i.e., by fattening them for consumption as English breakfast bacon). How unfair can you get? “Our Gang” is a strong second. And as an inveterate American, I'm delighted by the way Roth's most extreme satirical flights–like those of Mark Twain, Ring Lardner and Nathaniel West–take off from a sound base of volkische knowledge; our lingo; and the national character it expresses, seems to alarm him as much as it did them and does me.


Esquire, October 1972

Review of The Breast by Theodore Solotaroff

The young American fiction writer who was starting out twenty-five years ago would likely have fallen under the influence not only of Hemingway but also of a general pattern of literary conditioning that identified fiction with masculine aggression and tough-mindedness.  Dreiser, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Farrell, Wright, Steinbeck, Wolfe, Henry Miller….The power of their influence is immediately apparent in the next generation of writers such as Mailer, Jones, Bourjaily, Algren, Styron … but … this model has been breaking down pretty rapidly in recent years, along with the taboos that helped to support it.  The example at hand is Philip Roth, whose transformation from … cool, steady realist … has led him now to write a short and devastating book about a literature professor who turns into a female breast—The Breast being, among other things, a fable of bisexual recognition in all of its strangeness, torment, and possible use.

         Actually, Roth has been stealing up on this theme, or it on him, since Goodbye, Columbus. Both Letting Go and When She Was Good bear an undercurrent of despair that grows out of Roth’s preoccupation with the power of women to control their men’s lives by a kind of moral one-upmanship that attaches his virtue, indeed his humanity, to his willingness to satisfy her needs, however unending or corrupt these may be.

         …The Breast is not only the best example yet of Roth’s astonishing prowess when he is at the top of his talent and control—the literary equivalent of a hole-in-one hit with a beer bottle—but also a permanent addition to the writer’s consciousness of himself.


The New York Times Book Review, January 4, 1987

“Deciding to Do the Impossible,” review of The Counterlife by William H. Gass

There have been thousands of different drawings of the world, many maps made of reality. Each puts the gods, the good, the false and the true in a different place. They cannot each be correct – there are too many counterclaims – yet society after society has sailed to greatness (not simply to the doom they also doomed themselves to) following these false charts, these fictions that have been projected upon the planet. And the planet, like the great screen of a drive-in movie, accepts them all, lighted by the illusions of passion, for as long as the passions last. If so, then our lives are made of fictions, beliefs we construct and then dwell in like a beach house in Malibu. When we change our life – one of the central themes of Philip Roth's magnificent new novel, a remarkable change of direction itself – we recreate ''a counterlife that is one's own anti-myth,'' as Mr. Roth's protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, surmises.

''Nothing is impossible,'' declares Mordecai Lippman, the fanatical Zionist of the novel, who, like the phoenix, practically invents himself out of ashes and heat. ''All the Jew must decide is what he wants – then he can act and achieve it.'' But first of all you must become a Jew, a root Jew, not merely a branch Jew like some bank in the suburbs. In novel after novel, Mr. Roth has asked what Jews want with somewhat the same irritated bewilderment we associate with Freud's question: ''What do women want?'' In The Counterlife, the query has become more riddling, more radical and, despite the antic flipflops of the plot, more serious yet no less witty for all that: can a Jew, if he wishes – if he wants -change into a Jew? And in what direction should he go to do that? And why should the quiet course of a comfortable life be shattered by such questions, which were always there to be put, but were answered by not being asked? And is not the anti-Semitism of a Jew the refusal of a Jew to be one?

         These are a few of the questions Philip Roth's latest novel considers, turning them round like meat on a spit. With respect to his own past as an author, there are many questions – the hedges, qualifications, objections entertained by critics – to which it gives a resounding answer. The Counterlife, it seems to me, constitutes a fulfillment of tendencies, a successful integration of themes, and the final working through of obsessions that have previously troubled if not marred his work. I hope it felt, as Mr. Roth wrote it, like a triumph, because that is certainly how it reads to me.

         The style is a triumph too. It is no longer a style at war with itself, as Mr. Roth's sometimes used to be, its cleverness undercutting its own emotions, its satire thinning a subject already sliced. Its combativeness is no longer pointed at the reader, the critic, the family or some other ancient adversary. The world of The Counterlife is made of intelligent, argumentative, witty, observant words. They are words woven now, after the practice of many years, into a rich, muscular, culturally complex style that even in purely narrative moments seems to come not from the end of a pen but through the flow of the voice, thus from a mouth – the organ that Zuckerman's brother, a dentist, seductively describes, for the young assistant he is about to hire, as genital. It is surely the opening through which, to continue life, the world is received. It is also, quite as surely, the loudspeaker of the soul. And in The Counterlife a lot of those loudspeakers are on. Full blast.


The New York Review of Books, November 16, 1995

“Howl,” review of Sabbath’s Theater by Frank Kermode

For all the anarchic force of its language there is nothing unruly about the structure of Sabbath’s Theater; it is hardly news that Roth is a bold and skillful architect. Like his hero, he has illusionist skills, everywhere in evidence—he is a sort of puppeteer, a virtuoso of both dissimulation and impersonation; it is well known that he likes to set himself difficult technical problems. Deception is an example, a novel entirely in dialogue, finely exploiting its self-imposed constraints, and although not in what one immediately recognizes as his palette, it gives a new coloring to certain of Roth’s obsessive interests. He is fascinated by all the different possible ways of doing narrative, as well as by the relation of the told to the teller, the problem to the solver. Roth may well believe, or wish one to believe that he believes, that writers are, or ought to be, in certain respects, quite like Sabbath; from Deception we learn that the nature of the writer is “exploration, fixation, isolation, venom, fetishism, austerity, levity, perplexity, childishness, et cetera. The nose in the seam of the undergarment—that’s the writer’s nature. Impurity….” The speaker here is condemning Lonoff, the austere, temperate, dignified author celebrated in The Ghost Writer. He is also impersonating his own author. It is almost redundant to point out that “the terrible ambiguity of the ‘I’ ” is a topic that obsesses Roth. The provisional title of a biography of the alter ego Zuckerman is Improvisations on a Self. In Roth there is no question of the disappearance of the author; he is there, sometimes even under his own name. But he is there on his own terms, in charge; he doesn’t despise Lonoff’s control of affairs.

         Other themes recur, whatever the narrative finesse; one is the distinctiveness of being an American Jew, so different from being Israeli, yet also bound to a terrible past and to connoisseurship of the varieties of anti-Semitism. These preoccupations take many different narrative shapes, but the novelist’s passion for strange, new-fangled narratives is always in some respects a passion for his own narrative, his improvisations on himself. Roth often looks back over his own work and considers, in its many transformations, the terrible ambiguity of the “I.” Sometimes he does so with that saving hilarity which can be a mask of tragedy. Sabbath’s Theater is funny, but as a means to an end; it succeeds in the task Shakespeare set his young lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost, to move wild laughter in the face of death. Possibly another laugh might come from awareness of the pretentiousness of that intention; but all the same this book is undoubtedly, in the final analysis, about matters of life and death….

        King Lear, with whom Sabbath advertises a certain affinity—each, in his way, a foolish and a fond old man—rages not against his own faults but against Justice, as it is conceived by its exponents, the corrupt judge and the beadle with the lash—all covert lechers, all enemies of life, of a sexual freedom they secretly envy. It is this justice that Sabbath rages against; and so, with all his characteristic ironies and reservations, does the author of this splendidly wicked book.


The New York Review of Books, November 5, 1998

“Waiting for Lefty,” review of  I Married a Communist by Robert Stone

I Married a Communist is not as original or powerful a work as American Pastoral, a visionary novel that, in its imaginative exposure of illusions, is perhaps Roth’s greatest accomplishment. His latest novel is a bitter, often funny, always engrossing story that wonderfully evokes a time and a place in our common past. Those who remember them will find the idealism and hypocrisies of the postwar period brilliantly resurrected; those for whom they are history will learn more than any number of variously self-serving memoirs convey. What I Married a Communist tells us above all is that Philip Roth is very much with us as a writer, every bit as contemporary and vital as he was when he began. We can be reassured in not detecting the faintest signs of mellowing elder-statesmanhood. Readers in search of enlightened reconciliation to the world of the possible can look elsewhere. Philip Roth remains as edgy, as furious, as funny, and as dangerous as he was forty years ago.


photo by Nancy Crampton