For the past two decades, Philip Roth has been a major presence in my intellectual life. I came to the fiction of Roth through Saul Bellow, who is widely read among the Indian intelligentsia. As a student of language and literature, I have learnt from Bellow and Roth much that has transformed my outlook on life. With Bellow gone and Roth having elected to seek retirement from writing novels, wistful readers like me have much to feel sad about. Given my considerable intellectual debts to Roth, the news of the novelist's retirement triggered ruminations that were as much about my own life as about Roth's fiction.
Why should Roth's decision to retire from writing fiction affect me much? Clearly, I know the novelist is free to make up his mind on when and what to do with his life. Of course, I would hasten to add that my readerly investment in the novelist over the years has become something of an obsession. For instance, the uneasy awareness that Roth's fiction written in the 21st century lacks the verve and subtlety of his earlier fiction in no way diminished my excitement on every occasion his most recent novels were published. As always, the distinct narratorial voice that puts a spin on contemporary American history, the signature concerns that illumine a certain Jewish cultural milieu, and importantly the manic energy that drives the Roth narrative remained for me sources of endless delight.
My fascination with Roth's fiction has its origins in a curious cultural story. I hail from a South Indian Brahmin family and, though unlike the Roth persona, my connection with my tradition is fairly coherent, it is no less characterized by ambivalence and irony typical of the former's attitude to his Jewish origins. Never a rebel, I have internalized the best in the brahminical tradition even while subjecting such an experience to the litmus test of modernity. In negotiating an identity in the interstices of a living tradition and an equally laudable modernity, I have learnt to look for inspiration in Roth's fiction that mines a Jewish male's identity negotiations in the New World.
As a specialist in contemporary American literature, I am convinced that it is the multi-layered significance of Roth's fiction that ensures his fellowship among the celebrated modern international literary authors. While I am familiar with the works of many of these superb writers, Roth's fiction singularly speaks to me often illuminating my own beliefs, concerns and outlook. Roth's ironic take on purity which he characterizes as "the ecstasy of sanctimony" in his classic The Human Stain particularly touches upon my own ambivalent attitude to the ideal. After all, I come from a milieu that is responsible for saturating the Indian sociocultural ethos with the taboo of impurity. If I have whole-heartedly embraced a humanist vision, I am not always sure if I have succeeded in exorcising the purity ethic out of my system.
Be that as it may, Roth's fiction has helped me to address my dilemma and achieve clarity on the issue. Significantly, one of the engaging philosophical conundrums that Roth's fiction poses consists in the essential unknowability of human affairs. Roth memorably phrases this idea in American Pastoral thus: "The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you." I am grateful to Roth for the life-lesson that all our self-righteous appropriation of the other is shot through with inaccuracies and fallacies.
A discerning Roth reader is quick to notice the strong sense of place that characterizes the novelist's fiction. In its powerful evocation of America as an idea and experience that emerges in tandem with a realistic assessment of its cultural discontents, Roth's fiction qualifies as a compendium on America of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The ringside view of contemporary America that I have gained from reading Roth has helped me to become supremely responsible about my own citizenly roles as an Indian.
Reading Philip Roth for me has been a psychically explosive experience. While the shibboleths of convention have withered, I have also come into possession of those enduring and empowering elements of life, namely, will-power and a thorough-going need to examine beliefs before admitting these to enter the realm of lived experience. In the final analysis, Roth's decision to retire from writing novels after such a long stellar career is no matter for despair. Let the great writer have his well-deserved rest! For me as for several others across the globe, now and for ages to come, Roth will ever remain a transgressive Columbus who ventured to navigate the choppy waters of selfhood.
Gurumurthy Neelakantan, Rahul and Namita Gautam Chair, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur
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