Philip Roth Remembered

July 7, 2018

I discovered Philip Roth at age 17. In retrospect, it was the ideal age for a young Jewish man growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey to discover this “pre-eminent figure [of] 20th-century literature”.

I owe Roth a great debt. He showed me that the lives of Jewish men in suburban New Jersey could embody both romance and the “larger than life” elements that make stories big and give meaning to our existence. In his first book, Goodbye Columbus, consisting of a novella plus five short stories, the lead story (“Columbus”) runs only 97 pages in the paperback edition that I have carried with me through numerous households and two countries (see image below). The story charts a doomed summer romance between Neil Klugman, a lower middle class young man who works in the Newark library, and Brenda Patimkin, an over-indulged upper middle class sculpted beauty who lives in suburban Short Hills and studies at Radcliffe College (Harvard University).

Roth wrote in 1989 for the novella’s 30th anniversary edition, that he was both “unapologetic and critically freewheeling about the class of Jews whose customs and beliefs had shaped his boyhood society,” highlighting “the mundane household dramas of his Jewish New Jersey”. Roth was thrilled and amazed:

that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan – about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.

Although the book was published in 1959, I didn’t discover it until much later, around the same time that the movie version (1969) was released, starring Richard Benjamin as Neil and Ali McGraw at Brenda. As a long-time writer and lecturer on Jewish film, I frequently use Goodbye Columbus (the movie) as one of my best examples. Set in a totally insider Jewish environment, the film neatly captures the same feeling – the American-Jewish suburban experience – as the book, although sadly updated the action to the Bronx and Westchester from my beloved New Jersey. It does, however, present – satirically, mostly lovingly, and never less than critically – a good range of Jewish suburban characters. Two scenes stand out in my memory: Neil’s first dinner at Brenda’s house (click here for a 2’26” YouTube clip) and the infamous and frequently criticised over-the-top Jewish wedding scene (short YouTube clip here).

In my last year of high school I produced a “term paper” that analysed Roth’s first four novels: Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good and Portnoy’s Complaint. The second and third novels are far from Roth’s best, and – despite widespread critical acclaim – I never warmed to “Portnoy”, which became a truly terrible film. My term paper accurately predicted that Roth would become one of America’s great modern novelists; my then English teacher disagreed. Other than our New Jersey Jewish upbringing, Roth and I shared one other salient fact: both of our fathers worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance company, now known as MetLife.

Roth has continued to play an important role in my literary and personal life since those high school experiences – he has his own category in my writing blog – although has been far from the lodestar role he played at age 17. My favourite Roth books are his “political” novels: American Pastoral (which became an under-released film that never made it to Australia), I Married a Communist, The Human Stain (read my review of the 2004 film here) and The Plot Against America, a frightening book which has taken on unexpected new meaning in the age of Trump.

Roth also played a role, albeit indirectly, in my own romantic life choices. I was introduced to my wife some years ago by a Jewish yoga teacher from New Jersey whose father taught English to … yes, Philip Roth … at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey. In more recent years, I reviewed The Humbling (2010) for the Australian Jewish News, and have closely tracked the adaptation of Roth’s books into films, most recently reviewing the film adaptation of Indignation (2016).

I am not the only person so affected by Roth’s writing. Nathaniel Rich –  almost a generation younger than me – writes that:

I felt an immediate intimacy with the novel’s author, Philip Roth. Though two generations separated us, I felt that he spoke directly to me or, in some mystical, incoherent sense, spoke from somewhere inside my brain. I had read novels that frightened and delighted me, made me laugh, made me question—Roth’s writing did all that, but it also elicited a spookier response. I had never before read a writer who knew me. It was a shock to discover that others felt the same way—including many who were not Jewish teenage boys.

More on Roth

Very few authors have a whole journal devoted to their work. Philip Roth does, published by Purdue University Press since 2005. Wikipedia has produced a full bibliography of Roth’s work. The New York Times has provided a “starter kit” of what Roth novels to read – although I don’t agree with their choices: no reference to The Plot Against America – seriously? What’s fascinating is how Roth reached so many non-Jews, such as ABC Radio presenter Sarah Kanowski, interviewed about Roth’s legacy on Late Night Live in May. For more analysis of Goodbye Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s original review of the book in the July 1959 edition of Commentary, and Elaine Blair’s rethinking of the book’s ending in The Paris Review, April 2017.

(Image above: the cover of my original copy of Goodbye Columbus, 1968 Bantam paperback edition)

Film review of Indignation

August 27, 2016

(This film review of “Indignation” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 18, 2016 in a shorter form.)

Directed and written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth

Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger and Noah Robbins

This week’s release of the film “Indignation”, based on a 2008 autobiographical Philip Roth novel, calls our attention to this pre-eminent American-Jewish novelist of the late twentieth century.  Without exception, each of his more than 30 novels and collected stories exist in a Jewish world and Jewish framework of reference.

He also holds the record for more film adaptations than any other American-Jewish author.  Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven other Roth novels have been turned into movies, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”) and “The Humbling” (2014).

“Indignation” the film closely follows the plot of the book and is based on Roth’s experiences studying at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.  Set in the early 1950s, 19 year-old Marcus Messner – the only son of a Newark kosher butcher – leaves home to study at “Winesburg College”, in itself a fascinating reference to Sherwood Anderson’s early twentieth century short story collection.

Jumping from Jewish New Jersey to Gentile Ohio is a shock for young Messner: of 1400 students on campus, only 80 of them are Jewish.  Upon his arrival, Messner finds himself rooming with two other Jewish students.  He rebuffs attempts by the only Jewish fraternity on campus (as did Roth in real life) to try and make his own way, quietly and calmly, skipping the opportunity to try out for the baseball team to focus on his studies.

But Messner (played by Jewish actor Logan Lerman) – who is haunted by excessively anxious parents back in Newark – does not count on meeting the wealthy, blond-haired and very beautiful WASP, Olivia Hutton.  Hutton is played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who brings a sassy but delicate beauty to her “femme fatale” role that is reminiscent of the young Lauren Bacall.

After a sexual encounter with Olivia, Messner muses in a voice-over, “In Newark, it was inconceivable that girls like Olivia Hutton could do such a thing.  But in Newark, there were no girls like Olivia Hutton.”

These lines are indicative of Roth’s excellent original writing, nicely adapted for the screen and directed by James Schamus.  Although this is Schamus’ directorial debut, he has had a sterling film career as a producer, writer and film academic, frequently working with Ang Lee on projects such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Lust Caution” and “Taking Woodstock”.  Schamus – who is also Jewish – has assembled an extraordinary cast of unknown faces that bring a real freshness to this film.  In addition to Lerman and Gadon, Tracey Letts plays the antisemitic Dean of Students of Winesburg College, and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond play Marcus’ parents.  The two tense scenes between an increasingly stressed Marcus and a cool, calculating and dogged Dean Caudwell, are masterpieces of writing, acting and directing.

“Indignation” carries a certain old-fashioned quality, with its concerns for the 1950s American-Jewish experience and the genteel antisemitism faced by American Jews at the time, topics that were popular in the 1960s but have mostly faded from cultural consciousness.  This film’s closest cinematic relative is “School Ties”, an inferior and less intellectually complex 1992 movie about a Jewish football player at a very non-Jewish college who also faces antisemitism.  That film was also a “throw back” to the era of “Marjorie Morningstar” and other films that explored the American-Jewish post-war suburban experience of assimilation and suburbanisation.

Because “Indignation” is far from capturing our current Jewish “cultural moment” in the way that television series such as “Transparent” have done, it may not grab a large audience.  But that’s a pity, because it is one of the finest coming-of-age dramas released in cinemas in 2016, made with great care, attention and devotion to Roth’s excellent prose, all done from a thoroughly Jewish perspective.

If I were now – as I once was – an American-Jewish college student on campus now, “Indignation” could very well have become my favourite film of the year, in the way that “Goodbye Columbus” captured my attention so many years ago.  Yet I am thoroughly taken by the charms and emotional depth of “Indignation”, a major achievement by Schamus.

Logan Lerman Sarah Gadon2(photo above: Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in “Indignation”)

The end of bookshops in a Borders age

March 6, 2011

Big news in Australian bookselling in recent weeks has been the imminent closing down of a number of Borders bookshops, following the bankruptcy of the American chain.  What a shame, but not wholly unexpected.  My first experience with Borders was in East Brunswick, New Jersey – my first real book superstore – back in around 1993 or 1994.  What a delight to spend time in there.  So when the Borders chain opened in Australia, I was thrilled.  When others complained that there was just a lot of American books, I found it wonderful – it SMELLED like an American bookshop!  But two things happened: (1) Borders over-expanded (just look at the list of where they opened large shops:  really did some of those malls really want or need 250,000 titles in stock? I doubt it), and (2) they started treating their patrons like, well … shit.  I did not mind (too much) that they did not discount, but I sure minded when they refused to stock latest books (I looked in vain for Philip Roth’s latest book “Nemesis” for months after it was released in late 2010 in the Borders Macquarie Centre, Hornsby and Chatwood shops, all in Sydney’s north shore) and they started charging GREATER THAN the Australian Recommended Retail Price (RRP) – a good example was the book The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – RRP $32.95 in Australia, except Borders was charging $36.95, almost 10% higher.  Who did they think they were?  I KNEW the retail price, and held that book in my hands four times but each time refused to buy it at 10% OVER the RRP.

I am deeply saddened by what appears to be the passing of Borders (I doubt the chain can survive this, mostly because most publishers will probably not want to supply them when they are not paying), but I am not surprised by it.  I love bookshops, almost as much as I love movies, but bookshops must respect their patrons.

The Humbling book review

March 22, 2010

Book review of “The Humbling” by Philip Roth. (Published by Random House, A$29.95)  This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 11, 2010.

In the same way that Woody Allen staked out so much of the territory of intellectual American Jewish men in film, Philip Roth has operated this way in literature, particularly in relation to sex:  what erogenous story can a Jewish-American male author write that Roth has not already claimed for his own?

In recent years, Roth’s books have fallen into one of two categories:  semi-autobiographical tales of working class New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s, and present-day stories of ageing and raging men, all afflicted with various ailments of male old age (prostate cancer, depression, you name it).  In the former category sits “The Plot Against America” (2004) and “Indignation” (2008), and in the latter “Everyman” (2006) and “Exit Ghost” (2007).

Sitting firmly in the second is Roth’s latest, “The Humbling”, released late last year.  It is the story of Simon Axler, formerly a leading stage actor who in his sixties has lost all of his abilities.  The book opens thus:

He’d lost his magic.  The impulse was spent.  He’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened:  he couldn’t act.  Going onstage became agony….  He couldn’t get over to the audience.  His talent was dead.

His wife has left him.  He has no children, no family, no close friends, no local acquaintances, no life other than the theatre – which has now failed at.  But into Axler’s life unexpectedly wanders Pegeen, the forty year old lesbian daughter of old friends, and with whom Simon has a passionate late life love affair – despite his concerns about the inappropriate pairing.  The character of Pegeen is not well-drawn, but this is not her book – it is all about Axler.

At only 140 pages, “The Humbling” is a book to read in just a few hours (“an overstuffed short story”, writes Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times).  This short length – a novella, really – also makes it ideal for transformation to the screen – and Jewish director Barry Levinson is now slated to direct Al Pacino (recently seen in Australian cinemas as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”), with a script adaptation by 79 year old Buck Henry (“The Graduate”).

It is highly likely that the film version will be much better than the book, which has had a poor reception:  one of the worst in Roth’s long career.  Writing in the Observer, William Skidelsky called the book “an embarrassing failure” and “dismayingly poor”, likening it to Roth’s worst misfire “The Breast” (1972), which was a re-working of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.

Although there have been a few positive reviews, notably Jesse Kornbluth in the Huffington Post (“best book in years”), Katie Roiphe in the The New York Times wonders “How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?”

Yes, the sex is still there.  And enraging sex scenes are at least interesting scenes.  But “The Humbling” – at least for me – is a depressing book about a depressive man, with an unhappy ending to boot.  There is a great deal of similarity to two of Roth’s accomplished and popular novels – “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) and “The Human Stain” (2000), but little of the character development, surprise, creative spark and vitality of those two books.  But Roth being Roth, there is still more to look forward to:  his novel “Nemesis”, set in 1944 Newark, is the story of the impact of a polio epidemic on Jewish neighbourhoods, and is due for release later in 2010.

Philip Roth on screen

April 24, 2009

Philip Roth continues to be one of the most astonishing writers of our age, proving year in and year out that he “still has it in him”, by writing consistently interesting – and frequently popular – novels, even as he has just passed 76 years old.

I have always felt a strong affinity with Roth, ever since I read his first short novel (novella, really), Goodbye Columbus, first published in 1959.  I loved that book – set, as it was, in the suburbs of New Jersey (where I also grew up) and charting the bittersweet romantic adventures of a lower middle class Jewish guy and his upper middle class Radcliffe girlfriend.  In my junior (year 11) or senior (year 12) of high school, I wrote a major paper for English class about Roth’s then first four novels: Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go (1962), When She Was Good (1967) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).  I recall my English teacher at the time arguing with me that he was not a major writer, but I successfully argued back that he would indeed be one.  So I got to write the paper.

I was right, of course.

I have not read all of Roth’s books, but well more than half, and he continues to astonish me. I  am still haunted by his book The Plot Against America, truly one of the best “alternative histories” ever written.

He and I have a few things in common:  like growing up Jewish in New Jersey, and both of our fathers working for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. A nd here’s another one – my former yoga teacher’s father taught English at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey … to Philip Roth.  Just two degrees of separation there.

Considering Roth’s amazing output of books (twenty-five novels, two memoirs, two books about writing, and apparently two more in the works – The Humbling due out later this year (2009) and The Nemesis due in 2010 (see Wikipedia’s Philip Roth Bibliography) – it’s interesting that relatively few have been adapted to the screen as films:

Goodbye Columbus, made in 1969 (with the action transferred out of New Jersey to New York and the suburbs north of New York City), starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw – and a candidate for one of my favourite films of all time.  The best portrayal of American Jewish middleclass life circa the late 1960s (when the film is set, a good ten-plus years after the book was set, which was in the late 1950s).

Portnoy’s Complaint, made in 1972, again with Richard Benjamin, and a definite contender for one of the worst films of all time.

The Ghost Writer, a TV adaptation made in 1984 which I have not seen.

The Human Stain, made in 2003 starring Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, the African-American pretending to be Jewish (see my March 2004 review of this film), and Nicole Kidman as his illiterate girlfriend.

Elegy (based on Roth’s book The Dying Animal), which has just been released in Australia in April, starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz (see my separate posting on Elegy).

American Pastoral, apparently set for release later this year (2009), directed by the Australian Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence, Patriot Games and Newsfront, which surely is one of the best Australian films ever made) and rumoured (BUT NOT confirmed) to be starring Jennifer Connelly, Evan Rachel Wood and Paul Bettany.

The Human Stain

April 24, 2009

Film review of The Human Stain, originally published in the Australian Jewish News, March 5, 2004

Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise and Wentworth Miller

Noted American-Jewish author Philip Roth’s novels have had a mixed result when adapted to the screen (see my post about this topic):  Goodbye Columbus became the most successful Jewish-theme films of the 1960s (and remains fascinating to this day for its insightful and humorous portrayal of suburban Jewish life), but Portnoy’s Complaint was a classic case of a book that never should have been adapted to the screen. So it is with interest (concern?) that I approached the latest adaptation: Roth’s best-seller The Human Stain, directed by Robert Benton and written by Nicholas Meyer.

The Human Stain is not a perfect novel, but arguably one of Roth’s most fascinating creations and one of the most absorbing modern American novels on the nature of personal identity.  The lead character is Coleman Silk, a professor of classics at a New England college who carries a wounding secret:  he is an African-American, but “reinvented” himself in the late 1940s (well before it was fashionable to do so) as Jewish.  In doing so, the light-skinned Silk turned his back on his family and rejected not only his race and his roots but his whole young life.

The book (and film) picks up the story in 1998, during the Clinton Presidential impeachment hearings.  Coleman Silk – who has had a very successful academic career at Athena College, rising to the position of Dean of the College – is accused of racism for referring to two absent (and totally unseen) students as “spooks”.  To this charge, Silk only responds with anger, and not the (hoped for) contrition.  Silk, now at age 70, later commences an affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate cleaner at the college who is half his age.  This passionate relationship comes with its own trials, shadowed by the recent death of Faunia’s two children and her half-crazed violent husband Lester, who stalks her.  The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman (a character from a number of other Roth books), a withdrawn and emotionally damaged Jewish writer (with a passing resemblance to Roth himself) who befriends Coleman Silk and discovers his secrets.

 There is a lot of plot in The Human Stain, what with extensive flashbacks to Coleman’s early life in the navy and in university, backgrounding his decision to “become” Jewish – neatly turning the question of Jewish assimilation 180 degrees: Jews want to become Anglos, but the blacks are so desperate they want to become Jewish.  In all of this, Meyer’s script is outstanding, and one of the best complex adaptations I have seen.  He has kept the main story both in feel and in action, and stripped the book of inconsequentials.

Benton is also an excellent director, and The Human Stain (the film) looks exactly like I had imagined it should:  shot in and around Williams College and Williamstown, Massachusetts, the absolutely perfect setting for Athena College.  The supporting cast are also extraordinary.  Ed Harris plays the redneck Lester Farley with the controlled menace and believable madness.  Gary Sinise – who I would not have picked for an introspective Jewish writer – did end up convincing me, mostly because I felt his pain.  In his first film role, Wentworth Miller reportedly felt his role of the young Coleman very strongly, as he comes from mixed black and white parentage.  Anna Deavere Smith is scintillating as Coleman’s mother.

But I am still troubling over the headlining actors of The Human Stain:  Anthony Hopkins as the older Coleman, and Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley.  Hopkins can play crazy, or British butlers or academics, or industrialists, or even Richard Nixon, but an American black man masquerading as Jewish stretched my credibility.  Kidman was a great Virginia Wolff and a convincing Cold Mountain preacher’s daughter (also see my review of her in the film Australia), but has skin too fine and a bearing too regal to become the down-on-her-luck Faunia. Hopkins and Kidman act superbly in The Human Stain, but that’s just what it is: acting, not inhabiting their roles in the true sense that they were written.

The Human Stain is a wonderful and at times moving film marred by odd casting choices.  That, of course, is the point of the story: in modern America, we can reinvent ourselves, be who we want to be, but it does cost us in the end.