TNR: Leon Wiseltier Disrespects Philip Roth

The CounterlifeWe've written on occasion in a disrespectful monotonic voice in the past and we regret that now. It was easier and cheaper at times to be angry and sarcastic or to go off just plain negative and deprecating.

It is harder to aspire to be Talmudic. You have to do a long apprenticeship before you can knowingly approach life, love and letters with a voice from the Talmud that combines analysis, energy, alternatives, certainty and skepticism.

Leon Wieseltier has published, "The Explored Recesses" in TNR -- his review of Philip Roth's new book The Humbling. He says lots of intelligent things in the piece, because Leon is a learned man, who wants to sound sage and philosophical, and so he does. He also passes not such humble judgment. His verdict is persistently negative and gently disrespectful.

Leon does not adore this book; he does not like it.
Roth’s tiresome infatuation with virility, with a coarse and nasty masculinity, is once again on offer. The sex in this novel is joyless, witless, loveless. It is conceived as an old man’s retort to death, except that it is already dead. His sex has pre-deceased him.
When we were younger we adored Roth. His characters did and thought and said so many of the things that we could not. Though we did not call it that at the time, to our mind Roth epitomized the archetype of the Talmudic person. His masterpiece, The Counterlife, brought the world to a stop for us. We can still recall the shocks and surprises of every astonishing turn in that narrative. How could a writer be so clever? Where does that content come from?

And so now, Leon the literary editor has reached his dour verdict about this current book.
This is a lonely book. Before the horrors of mortality, and the excruciations of a failing soul, Roth has chosen not to extend himself, or to examine his confidence. Wisdom does not interest him. He is interested mainly in his own powers, his own compulsions. The Humbling is a smug and therefore insolent recitation of surfaces and appearances. It certainly gives no evidence of any humbling: this is exactly how Ivan Ilyich did not die, and was not written. All mastery, no mystery—that is Philip Roth, and a lesser greatness.
We are confused by this verdict. Roth always spoke in a plain voice without mystery. Where did that get him? Pretty far it seems.

In 2006 the Times conducted a little poll of "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages." The question was, "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?"

The results that came back singled out six Roth novels multiple times. In the article the Times lists about 22 books - six are by Roth: The Plot Against America,The Human Stain, Sabbath's Theater, Operation Shylock, The Counterlife and American Pastoral.

Once, Roth was the plain voice of the formerly sexually repressed and suddenly liberated Jewish male in the prime of his powers. Now Roth is the plain voice of the bewildered every-man of years in a slow spiral of declining energy, who each day understands less about his universe. We see our father, ourselves, our friends in this portrait, no more or less than we did in the previous Roth narratives.

The jury reached a verdict about Philip Roth long ago. He spoke for us when we set forth to conquer the world and mold the universe and he remains the voice of our generation as it descends now back down from its once lofty peaks. And if ever we admit that our generation is no different than any other, Roth will attain immortality as a a chronicler of the timeless human condition.


Henry Frisch said...

But Tzvee, the past is not necessarily prologue--this latest book is garbage. I read it regretting that part of Roth's legacy is this.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

many early reviews of his books strongly disliked them. and remember --- Philip Roth Attacked and Excommunicated at Yeshiva University --- http://tzvee.blogspot.com/2006/04/philip-roth-attacked-and.html

Henry Frisch said...

His writing is very mixed in quality, from outstanding to dreck. His latest book is very much in the latter class.