- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005


By Philip Roth, edited by Ross Miller

Library of America, $35, 913 pages

NOVELS, 1967-1972

By Philip Roth, edited by Ross Miller

Library of America, $35, 672 pages


The Library of America has released two volumes of early writing by Philip Roth, the first in a series that, when completed in 2013, will serve as the collected works of the prolific novelist. Since the 72-year-old author shows no sign of slowing down — many critics feel he’s at the top of his game — LOA had best budget for a baker’s dozen rather than the projected eight books.

This is the third time the nonprofit publisher, whose stated mission is to preserve America’s most significant writing in authoritative editions, has reissued work by a living writer, the other two being Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty (both now deceased). “Roth’s inclusion in the series seems to us a natural and obvious choice,” says James Rudin, LOA’s director. “Not only is he perhaps the crucial literary figure to emerge from the cultural ferment of the 1960s, but like few other American writers — Henry James is one who comes to mind — he has found ways periodically to reinvent himself, opening up new phases, startling imaginative directions, in his writing.”

Mr. Roth is without doubt one of the best writers to emerge in the second half of the 20th century, a huge talent, and his place in American letters is assured. His first book, “Goodbye Columbus,” won the National Book Award in 1960, as did “Sabbath’s Theater” in 1995. He received the Pulitzer Prize for “American Pastoral” in 1997, PEN/Faulkner Awards for “Operation Shylock” in 1993 and “The Human Stain” in 2000, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ prestigious Gold Medal for Fiction in 2001. He is often mentioned as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The LOA’s initial two volumes, more than 1,500 pages of fiction, indicate the scope of the project, second only to the 14 volumes (and counting) that compose the collected work of the aforementioned James. “Novels and Stories, 1959-1962” pairs “Goodbye, Columbus & Five Short Stories,” compact and focused pieces, with “Letting Go,” a sprawling saga of 20-something academics set in Chicago, where Mr. Roth did graduate work in the mid-‘50s. “Novels, 1967?1972” groups “When She Was Good” and the infamous “Portnoy’s Complaint” with “Our Gang,” a venomous parody of the Nixon administration, and “The Breast,” a Kafkaesque transformation of man into mammary.

A precocious but uneven writer who at the beginning of his career switched restlessly between drama and satire, Mr. Roth was capable of beautifully wrought stories like “Defender of the Faith,” about a battle-tested soldier whose notions of duty and allegiance are no longer synonymous with his Jewish heritage, as well as clumsy parodies like “The Conversion of the Jews,” which pits a smart-aleck adolescent in a test of wills with his bumptious rabbi. Almost half a century after its celebrated debut, “Goodbye, Columbus” remains a timeless story about first love as well as a product of its time, the 1950s, when Jews were struggling with questions of assimilation and aspiration.

Readers who revisit these stories and the equally disparate novels that followed may be surprised at how quickly America moved on from the moral issues, not to mention the prose styles, that dominated society and culture in the middle of the 20th century. Mr. Roth’s early fiction revolves around the ethical and practical dilemmas posed by abortion, birth control and premarital sex, matters long since transferred from the arena of public consequence to that of private conscience. His thematic and esthetic concerns, until the radical departure of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” owe more to the psychological realism of Theodore Dreiser than to the psychedelic hallucinations of ‘60s contemporaries like Ken Kesey and the Beats.

“Portnoy’s Complaint,” however, would be Mr. Roth’s breakout book. Published in 1969, the angry, sardonic rant on sex (still serving as a stand-in for assimilation) was pornographic and poetic at once, an uncensored emetic that owed as much to Lenny Bruce as to Sigmund Freud. The book-length monologue, hurled by Alex Portnoy at his silent psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel, was the perfect vehicle for the author to vent his spleen, hurling invective at supercilious Jews and sanctimonious Wasps alike.

“When duty, discipline, and obedience give way — ah, here, here is the message I take in each Passover with my mother’s matzoh brei — what follows, there is no predicting,” complains Portnoy, extemporizing on his repressed childhood but, in his inimitable fashion, declaiming the theme at the core of Mr. Roth’s early stories. “Renunciation is all, cries the koshered and bloodless piece of steak my family and I sit down to eat at dinner time. Self-control, sobriety, sanctions — this is the key to a human life, saith all those endless dietary laws. Let the goyim sink their teeth into whatever lowly creature crawls and grunts across the face of the dirty earth … . Let them eat eels and frogs and pigs and crabs and lobsters … a diet of abominable creatures well befits a breed of mankind so hopelessly shallow and empty-headed as to drink, to divorce, and to fight with their fists.”

Mr. Roth explored similar material in “Letting Go,” published seven years before “Portnoy’s Complaint” but in many ways a superior book. More experimental in method but less controversial in subject matter, this ambitious novel about young adults coming of age — that is, experiencing the inevitable limitations and disappointments of sex, marriage and family — is beautifully realized. Here more than anywhere in these two volumes, Mr. Roth exhibits his considerable talents: his ability to create and sustain sympathetic characters, his insight into the vagaries of the human heart and his skill at weaving multiple plot lines into a rich tapestry. “Letting Go,” which employs multiple points of view and shifting time frames in unpretentious but prescient ways, will be one of the books Mr. Roth will be remembered for, the overture of an aspiring writer who clearly had great expectations.

Certainly the LOA could justify reprinting Mr. Roth’s early work if these books were hard to obtain. That’s not the case. Everything in the two-volume set is available (in paperback) on Amazon (the listing of books by or about Mr. Roth approaches nearly 325 entries). More fussy readers can get hardback copies (including first editions) on Ebay and elsewhere at reasonable prices (sometimes cheaper than the LOA editions).

Did Mr. Roth significantly rewrite these youthful works for the LOA series? Apparently not. Are the notes to these works extensive or enlightening? Not particularly. The overriding question is, do we need eight volumes of Roth reprints, when his work is readily available in bookstores everywhere? Surely the LOA feels no need to promote Mr. Roth, to canonize a favorite son, already widely celebrated.

The same argument might have been made concerning Bellow and Welty, although Bellow was already a Nobelist when the Library decided to reissue his early work. Everyone can agree all three writers have earned their place in the (contemporary) canon, but so have many others who are not only missing from LOA’s list, but missing in action altogether.

Take, for example, John O’Hara, who died in 1970. Readers can find his best novels on Amazon (“Appointment in Samarra,” “Ten North Frederick”) and there are various editions of his short stories (his best work and without doubt worthy of inclusion in the LOA), but nothing that encompasses the breadth and variety of his output. O’Hara is exactly the kind of writer LOA should be reissuing, particularly since 2005 is the year of his centennial anniversary, a milestone the Library observed in the case of Isaac Bashevis Singer by publishing his “Collected Stories.”

What about Truman Capote? Ray Bradbury? Zane Grey? Langston Hughes? Bernard Malamud? Some writers, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald and even Emily Dickinson, are unavailable for reprint because of copyright issues. Living authors, on the other hand, might be eager, like Mr. Roth, to forge a “special arrangement” with LOA. But what committee can predict which writer’s reputation will withstand time’s onslaught? John Updike? John Barth? John Irving? And that’s only a short list of contemporary writers whose first name happens to be John.

When the LOA announced itself in 1979, everyone who cared about American letters celebrated and the organization generated new interest in the nation’s literary heritage. It would be a shame to see it turn into yet another nonprofit institution with an agenda. For the immediate future, let’s hope the LOA concentrates on printing the works of Anne Bradstreet, not Ann Tyler.

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer living in New York City.

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