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Derek Royal

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Can We Really Know Philip Roth?

Posted: 03/15/2013 6:04 pm

The title of this posting is a question that many readers are currently asking, and it's one that I and Jacques Berlinerblau recently discussed in our public interview, a salute to Philip Roth. In the days leading up to Roth's 80th birthday, which is March 19, Georgetown University hosted a celebration event for the novelist in the form of song, cake, laughter, camaraderie, and our intense one-on-one conversation. On that occasion, I joined Jacques for a lively discussion of the life and work of one of the most significant novelists, if not the most important writer, in America today. We used the occasion to speculate on some of the key experiences in Roth's biography, at least those that found they way -- fictionalized or otherwise -- into his books. We also looked at several of the novels that made Roth famous and established his reputation, for better or for worse, and conversed over some of the lesser known or overlooked works, such as Letting Go and Our Gang, as well as the stories "The Day It Snowed" and "On the Air." Jacques and I paid particularly close attention to the many masks, literary games, and narrative misdirection that have come to define the Roth "brand," including the Nathan Zuckerman novels -- those found in the collected Zuckerman Bound, The Counterlife, and the American Trilogy -- and autofictional works such as The Facts, Patrimony and Operation Shylock. At one point Jacques broached a touchy topic concerning Philip Roth, the charges of misogyny that have cropped up over most of Roth's career and the author's representation of women in his fiction. ("Touchy" not in the sense of Roth's sensitivity to the issue, but more in the way that admirers and critics react to such gender-related accusations.) "Is Roth a dude writer?," as Jacques succinctly put it, and I and the audience ran with it. Along the way we discussed the best of Roth, the worst of Roth, the successes of Roth, and the limitations of Roth. We also got around to speculating on the actual Philip Roth, with or without masks, someone who, despite the now-in-process biographies of Roth, of both the authorized and the unauthorized varieties, we will probably never know. But we were okay with not knowing, for, after all, doesn't Roth tell us in several of his novels that not knowing is what life is all about, that being wrong means being alive? Our audience was wide-ranging, including professors, community members, and students, all whose exposure to and experience with Roth's fiction made them lively participants in the discussion and festivities.

All of this is leading up to other notable events, such as the Posen Foundation's talk at The New School, "Philip Roth and the Modern Jewish Predicament" (on March 18) as well as the upcoming Roth@80 conference, inaugurated and sponsored by the Philip Roth Society, in cooperation with the Newark Preservation and Landmark Committee. The conference will be held in Roth's native Newark on March 18th and 19th. The first half of the Roth@80 event, taking place on Monday, will include critical presentations that cover the entire range of Philip Roth's writings, from his earliest novels and stories -- such as Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, and My Life as a Man -- to his more recent Nemeses Tetralogy, with papers focusing on a diversity of topics and cultural perspectives. In addition to the formal presentations, the conference will include a reception on March 19 at the Newark Museum, with Philip Roth as the honored guest. Speaking as well will be a number of noted writers and critics such as Jonathan Lethem, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Hermione Lee, Edna O'Brien, and Louise Erdrich. The event will also include a photo exhibit at the Newark Public Library and the "Philip Roth Tour of Newark," marking a variety of locales and sites appearing in Roth's fiction.

And after all of these events, after the celebrations,the critiques, and the laudatory speeches, I'm sure I will return once again, as will many of my fellow readers, to the question I had before the week began: Can we really know Philip Roth?

See how we addressed this question:

 

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