Friday, September 16, 2011

Phillip Roth and Jewishness

Phillip Roth on Phillip Roth:-

His next discovery was that he could put his uncensored language, experiences and fantasies on paper, just as he had recounted them to his shrink. The result was “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which in 1969 became an overnight sensation, and a scandal.

Mr. Roth had already had experience with causing a furor. His first published short story, which came out in The New Yorker in 1958, had also been a lightning rod. Unlike “Portnoy’s Complaint,” it wasn’t about sex and masturbation; it was — in his own words — about “some Jewish guys in the Army,” which was enough to stir the anxieties of many Jewish readers who called The New Yorker to cancel their subscriptions.

“I was suddenly being assailed as an anti-Semite, this thing that I had detested all my life, and a self-hating Jew,” he recalls in the film. “I didn’t even know what it meant.” The labels both angered him, and motivated him; in “Goodbye, Columbus,” published in 1959, he included the portrait of a middle-aged adulterer and a young girl who bought a diaphragm, both of them Jewish. Again he was attacked.
“I maintained then as I do now that there were Jewish girls who bought diaphragms, and there are Jewish husbands who are adulterers,” he says.

The point was that Mr. Roth drew heavily on his Jewish background, neighborhood, upbringing and family, with detonating consequences. At the start of the film, he quotes the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz: “When a writer is born into a family, it is finished.”

Mr. Roth vigorously resists the clichés that he feels continue to dog him. “I’m not crazy about being described as a Jewish American writer,” he says in the film. “I don’t write Jewish, I write American. Most of my work takes place here. I am an American.”

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s so there is now way I didn't read Roth.


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