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Philip Roth's Rude Truth

Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity

Ross Posnock
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Philip Roth's Rude Truth
    Book Description:

    Has anyone ever worked harder and longer at being immature than Philip Roth? The novelist himself pointed out the paradox, saying that after establishing a reputation for maturity with two earnest novels, he "worked hard and long and diligently" to be frivolous--an effort that resulted in the notoriously immaturePortnoy's Complaint(1969). Three-and-a-half decades and more than twenty books later, Roth is still at his serious "pursuit of the unserious." But his art of immaturity has itself matured, developing surprising links with two traditions of immaturity--an American one that includes Emerson, Melville, and Henry James, and a late twentieth-century Eastern European one that developed in reaction to totalitarianism. InPhilip Roth's Rude Truth--one of the first major studies of Roth's career as a whole--Ross Posnock examines Roth's "mature immaturity" in all its depth and richness.

    Philip Roth's Rude Truthwill force readers to reconsider the narrow categories into which Roth has often been slotted--laureate of Newark, New Jersey; junior partner in the firm Salinger, Bellow, Mailer, and Malamud; Jewish-American regionalist. In dramatic contrast to these caricatures, the Roth who emerges from Posnock's readable and intellectually vibrant study is a great cosmopolitan in the tradition of Henry James and Milan Kundera.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2734-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xix-xx)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. 1 Introduction: Roth Antagonistes
    (pp. 1-38)

    Decrying the “sanitized” eulogy he has just heard delivered over the coffin of his friend the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who has suddenly died during heart surgery, an unidentified mourner, bearded and middle-aged, gives an impromptu countereulogy on the sidewalk:

    He made it easy for them. Just went in there and died. This is a death we can all feel good about. Not like cancer. . . . The cancer deaths are horrifying. That’s what I would have figured him for. Wouldn’t you? Where was the rawness and the mess? Where was the embarrassment and the shame? Shame in this guy...

  7. 2 Immaturity: A Genealogy
    (pp. 39-87)

    We can start engaging the particular literary inheritances and affiliations involved in Roth’s investment in what he calls the “unserious” and “frivolous” and “irresponsible”—what I have been calling immaturity—by entering more fully the scene of Nathan’s funeral inThe Counterlife.The funeral elicited, as we have seen, an improvised countereulogy on the sidewalk. The sidewalk countereulogist has an audience of one—Nathan’s brother Henry; he too is disgusted by the synagogue eulogy but for reasons quite different. Henry has just heard Nathan’s most notorious novel,Carnovsky, praised as a “ ‘classic of irresponsible exaggeration,’ as though irresponsibility, in...

  8. 3 Ancestors and Relatives: The Game of Appropriation and the Sacrifice of Assimilation
    (pp. 88-124)

    “What is it, this genealogy that isn’t genetic?” the young Nathan Zuckerman asks himself inI Married a Communist. He is thinking of the “allegiances and affiliations” that he has made, turning them into the “chosen parents” of his “adulthood,” mentors and guides, living and dead, whom he has acquired “through a series of accidents and through lots of will” (217). Nathan will come to realize the advantages for young, ambitious, literary intellectuals who grow up in a home without books to help constitute a repository of cultural riches (people such as himself and his creator). What seems a deprivation...

  9. 4 “A very slippery subject”: The Counterlife as Pivot
    (pp. 125-154)

    Published between the two Zuckerman trilogies,The Counterlife(1986) is not only pivotal chronologically but is a crucial transition in Roth’s art. That the novel is alsoaboutthe fact of transition and pivots—in particular abrupt, baffling turnings placing us in New York, Tel Aviv, London, among other locales—at once suggests something of the book’s self-reflexive intricacy, its disruption of formal expectations, a playfulness usually associated with postmodern self-consciousness (a connection, we will see, that Roth refuses). Rather, Roth is continuing an earlier American tradition, one whose watchword is Emerson’s “Nothing is secure, but life, transition, the energizing...

  10. 5 Letting Go, or How to Lead a Stupid Life: Sabbath’s Nakedness
    (pp. 155-192)

    In his novelDeceptionof 1990 Roth briefly recurs to Nathan Zuckerman’s youthful reverence for E. I. Lonoff inThe Ghost Writerby inventing a character who is Lonoff’s biographer. When he started the project, the biographer felt stymied because the protective family wanted a “pious memorial.” But a meeting with Zuckerman rekindled his inspiration; the novelist gave him a “sort of license to transgress.” Having himself once idealized the “fastidious hunger artist” and having worked through this fantasy, Zuckerman has now become “the great sanctioner” able to relieve the biographer of “this phony nobility” he has about Lonoff (D...

  11. 6 Being Game in The Human Stain
    (pp. 193-235)

    “We could have great times as Homo Ludens and wife, inventing the imperfect future. . . . All it takes is impersonation,” quips Nathan Zuckerman to Maria at the end ofThe Counterlife(321). Nathan’s playful remark about man the player sums up his plea to become emancipated from myths of the natural, pastoral’s “idyllic scenario[s] of redemption.” The novel that is about to conclude—replete with vertiginous acts of literary artifice and self-conscious self-fashioning—has exuberantly enacted and affirmed Nathan’s late hymn to homo ludens.The Human Stain(2000) renews and enlarges the emphasis on man’s propensity for play,...

  12. 7 The Two Philips
    (pp. 236-259)

    A consideration of Philip Roth and immaturity is bound to find the novelist’s important friendship with the painter Philip Guston (1913–1980) hard to resist, for reasons that will soon become apparent. A distinguished New York abstractionist in the late forties till the early sixties, Guston is best known today for an act of apostasy—beginning in 1970, in the work of his final decade, a period that coincided with his meeting Roth, he outraged critics and friends alike by breaking with formalism and its ban on recognizable subject matter. In canvases that litter empty landscapes and crowded interiors with...

  13. Coda: “The stars are indispensable”
    (pp. 260-266)

    Uncle Asher, as readers hardly need to be told by now, is Roth’s most reverberant character in my view, and thus perhaps an inevitable figure to help conclude this study. We have just heard his plea for openendedness. It turns out that his celebration of the “flow” rather than the “bottling” of experience is part of a larger effort: “What I’m in favor of is getting back in tune a little bit with nature,” he tells his nephew Paul Herz (LG429). Asher waxes cosmic about his gospel of serenity: “I’m talking about taking a nice Oriental attitude for yourself....

  14. Notes
    (pp. 267-286)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 287-294)
  16. Index
    (pp. 295-301)