The Book Club

Roth and Women

Dear Philip,

I agree with God re literature. I’m glad you didn’t run down that bicyclist. 

To your points:

1. It’s true that novelists have their own particular fields to cultivate, and work a limited range of themes and materials. But part of the novelist’s job is to appear to make it all new each time, no? I’d never say of an Edith Wharton novel, “Oh Lord, more new York socialites!” Or of a Dostoyevsky one, “Not more crazy Russians!” Their characters, although to a large extent types and relatives of each other, seem freshly invented for each book. Not so with Roth. I agree with you totally that Roth is getting deeper and deeper into the Zuckermans and their Newark neighbors. But I felt he got already enough into them in previous incarnations. If his books were more plot-driven that would be okay, but both American Pastoral and I Married a Communist are rather weakly plotted: Melodramatic episodes we both found not too persuasive connecting big wedges of character analysis and sociological-lyrical-autobiographical exposition, in which Dad, and Newark, and Weequahic Park, and the old Italians of the First Ward, and the old Jews of the third Ward, etc etc, are analyzed from scratch as if they are coelacanths fresh from the briny deeps. I felt buttonholed, as if Roth were grabbing me by the arm and saying hey, did I ever tell you what a great guy my Dad was under his rough exterior? And my mom–what a sweetheart! Maybe all I’m saying is I don’t think I learned anything new about the materials of Roth’s childhood this time round–did you? BTW, I think you are unfair to Portnoy’s Complaint, which is also “much more than masturbation jokes and suburban caricature.” It’s a great book, because it doesn’t try to be fair, and understand, and empathize, and be like Irving Howe.

2. Confessing and Betraying. It was the official policy of the CP during the McCarthy era to keep membership secret: Ira’s lie to Mr. Zuckerman was a Party directive. In retrospect, it might have won them more respect if they had pled the First Amendment rather than the Fifth and gone nobly off to jail. But by the time they’d garnered this respect, they would have made a lot of license plates–and going along with McCarthy would surely have encouraged an expansion of the witch-hunt. Similarly, we would all have admired the Prez if he had confessed to whatever with Paula Jones and invited her lawyers to do their worst. But would he still be Prez today? Or (as a lawyer I know was arguing today) would he only have encouraged his enemies to be even more vicious?

Let’s talk a bit more about Roth and women, shall we? In American Pastoral and in I Married a Communist , women are the instruments of the hero’s downfall.  Both political and personal evil comes through them. The manly and virtuous liberal Swede Levov’s teenage daughter is a crazy radical bomber who becomes a mystical nut, his wife is unfaithful, and (unlike the two infidelities of Ira Ringold, which are presented as understandable, not weighty, just something men do) it matters. The climax of the book is a dinner party which features not only the revelation of the wife’s infidelity but the out-of-control drunkenness of the other female guest, who physically attacks Levov’s father (another blustery but  loving and decent Jewish dad).  In I Married a Communist , we have Eve Frame, the framer of her husband, and the ghastly Sylphid; also Ira’s young British lover, who cooperates with the witch-hunters in order to avoid deportation, and his  blow-job providing masseuse, who supplies crucial evidence against him out of drunken spite. Then there’s the genteel woman “writer” Katrina van Tassel Grant, who with her husband, a McCarthyite columnist, is behind the whole thing. Each of these characters is vivid and distinct (except for Swede’s wife and daughter–but then Swede himself is kind of limp too.  I think you’re exactly right to see that book as burdened by Updike).  But it makes a picture: The only “good” women are the docile Jewish wives back in Newark, fifty years ago.

It does seem that, for Roth, intellect, whether as command of a major subject or as a spirit of free inquiry, belongs to men. Women can be arty, and clever, and literary. But they do not, in his books, share the quest of so many male characters for a wider deeper understanding of humanity, to free themselves from received ideas. They’re either conventional or big trouble.

Vivian Gornick wrote an essay in which she contrasted today’s major male novelists with those of the late nineteenth-century century in terms of their response to feminism. She thought that Henry James, H.G. Wells, Gissing and others made a real intellectual and imaginative effort to come to terms with the New Woman of their day  in their fiction.  Not that they were necessarily positive (see James in particular).  But they knew something important was happening that they had to reckon with.  Gornick argued that Roth, Bellow, Updike et. al. have failed to rise to the challenge.  They just mock and belittle and ignore and hope it all goes away.

What do you think, Philip?