Posted tagged ‘Philip Roth’

books read in April

May 3, 2021

I’ve been busy with “latest big project” (I think I’m about halfway done with a first draft), so maybe I’m not devoting as much time to reading as I typically would. There was a time in my life when I wanted to average reading one book a week — and I achieved it — but I now consider that unhealthy and a little disrespectful to the authors and the works. So I savor the books I’m reading rather than race through them (mostly).

These are the books I read in April of 2021:

Jewfish by Andrew Fuhrman – I had never heard of this book or author, but a friend sent me an old clipping of a review this man wrote of Philip Roth’s alternative history work The Plot Against America, and when I looked him up online, I found he had several novels to his name, so I immediately bought this one. The title can be read on several levels. There is a grouper that was once called “jewfish,” and that reference features briefly in the novel, but the protagonist happens to be a Jewish man who is a professional fisherman in south Florida, trying to keep his business running without compromising his values. There is a lot of backstory about his family and the changes in the small-scale fishing industry. This is deeply and broadly imagined with credible characters in credible situations. It has not so much a happy ending as a sufficient ending. It was a worthy read.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth – It’s purely coincidence that the Roth connection to the prior book happened when it did. I picked this up (my second reading) because I thought it could relate to how I am trying to develop “latest big project.” Roth’s novel is a first-person, novel-length monologue with a whole lot more going on than the ostensible, naughty subject matter. As with all of Roth’s work, I get the sense that everything, every word and bit of punctuation, is exactly right. I think he developed the style he would use for much of the rest of his career in this novel, most closely in Sabbath’s Theater.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson – This one didn’t work for me. I picked it up at the used bookstore because it sounded interesting, though I’d not heard of the author before. It is based on some apparently true history in his family about a person born without certain body parts to identify gender. This malformed plumbing is not, however, life threatening, and the child grows into young adulthood, eventually identifying as a woman. It’s set on a farm and in a small town in Mississippi a century ago, and there is the usual bleakness typical of such settings in fiction. Everyone around her is unhappy. Everyone around her dies. But she seems unaffected by all of it. Maybe that’s the point. Still, I found the writing chaotic. At times the narrator has a folksy tone, using phrasing that must have been slang of the time and place, yet in other passages the voice was clinical and abstracted. I thought it could have used a good editing. It was long listed for the National Book Award.

Upstate by Ben Tanzer – Full confession: I’ve been listening to Tanzer’s This Podcast Will Change Your Life for a while. Even so, I had known/known of Ben for years through a mutual friend, and I’d read one of his collections of essays about writing and running before: 99 Problems. Upstate is a collection of short stories linked by recurring characters/events and a common location (a small, depressed town in upstate New York). Most of the stories are spare like Raymond Carver would write; some are surreal. The characters are all too relatable. As I read this I thought of some parts of Richard Russo’s and Willy Vlautin’s novels. (Not to be confused with Upstate by James Wood, which I’d also read recently.)

random photo Tuesday

August 27, 2019

There are several things you can see in this photo. One is a selection of books from my Philip Roth shelves. I understand The Plot Against America is being made into a film. American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Dying Animal have already been done.

Another thing to notice is the relatively fine finish of the table top. This is not a piece of fine furniture; that’s a veneer on top of particle board. But it no longer looks as nice. The grands have all made contributions to its “seasoning.”

The third thing is that Sisyphus bookend. I made that at a several-weekends class at the nearby community college. I’m sure you know the story of Sisyphus from your general knowledge of Greek mythology and/or your familiarity with the writings of Albert Camus. (Right?) I created the form out of wax then dipped it repeatedly in the slurry that then dries and forms a shell around it. The wax is melted out of the shell, and the shell is filled with the molten brass. Then it’s a simple (and satisfying) matter of shattering the shell with a hammer to reveal the work of art within.

Were I to do this again — and I had wanted to make a pair of bookends at the time — I would probably just cast Sisyphus and then attach his hands to one of my round rocks. As a hobby, bronze casting is not cheap.

this week’s rescue read

June 19, 2019

This week’s rescue read is The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth. When I finish a book that I don’t really like, I search for one I do so that I can “rescue” my reading self from its wander into the wilderness. I’ve said here before that I’ve probably read The Ghost Writer thirty times, and while I have ready it many, many times, on reflection I don’t think it’s been thirty.

I came to the novel in the first year of my marriage (more than thirty years ago), and for a while I read it every year. I think there may have been a year when I read it twice even. But it is part of a trilogy (and the central character makes appearances in other Roth novels not related to the trilogy) so when I finish this novel, I tend to pick up the next two, and that, along with reading everything else in the world, tends to spread out my visits.

I think it’s safe to say, however, that I’ve read The Ghost Writer more than twenty times. Many people find American Pastoral to be Roth’s greatest novel. Some cite The Human Stain. Some even think Sabbath’s Theater earns the title (in which Roth first discovered his angry old man theme). But if I were going to introduce someone to Roth’s writings, I would make the case for The Ghost Writer, at least as the best place to begin.

Add to this the fact that the central character is in search of a new spiritual father and you can see why I like it so much.

Here is a single sentence from the novel. A young, aspiring writer is meeting who he thinks is his hero novelist:

In fact, the writer who found irresistible all vital and dubious types, not excluding the swindlers of both sexes who trampled upon the large hearts of his optimistic, undone heroes; the writer who could locate the hypnotic core in the most devious American self-seeker and lead him to disclose, in spirited locutions all his own, the depths of his conniving soul; the writer whose absorption with “the grand human discord” made his every paragraph a little novel in itself, every page packed as tight as Dickens or Dostoevsky with the latest news of manias, temptations, passions, and dreams, with mankind aflame with feeling — well, in the flesh he gave the impression of being out to lunch.

triplets, triptychs, trinities

December 31, 2018

My high school English teacher had assigned Lord Jim as my reading and term paper project in my senior year. That turned out to be a watershed moment in my (eventual) creative life because it introduced me to Joseph Conrad, whose novels I’ve read throughout the ensuing decades. Some I’ve read more than once. Lord Jim I’ve read thrice. (Maybe more. I wasn’t keeping good records in my callow youth.)

When my reading turned to Philip Roth, and I read some of his nonfiction, he discussed the influence Conrad had on his own writing and teaching. What I specifically remember was his respect for Conrad’s use of threes in a sentence: three examples, three clauses, three points.

I had long noticed by that time that I was commonly using threes in the sentences I wrote, and I was delighted to learn their apparent influence from my extensive reading of Joseph Conrad. Normally I don’t want to know too much about my creative process since I fear familiarity will lead to analysis, which would slay creativity. (Have I really been writing this blog for more than a decade?)

So here is a sentence I recently wrote for a story I’m working on (with the apt title “Three Small Words”*):

“Nonetheless, he wanted to find some moment, some event, some thing in the past that could be blamed and attacked and conquered rather than admit that his father had been mortal all along, was now simply getting old, and had a limited number of days as all men do.”

By my count, there are three incidents of threes in that sentence. I did not do this consciously; it just rose from the murk of my creative subconscious and flowed through my fingers onto the keyboard and then onto the screen.

I realize that it may be one of those darlings you’re supposed to kill, and that my yet happen since I’m only in the first draft stage.

But for the present I’m going to wallow in the perceived influence of Joseph Conrad.

*The three small words in the story are “Don’t tell Mom,” and an argument in the story is conducted with a series of three-word sentences, but the title harkens to some other threes in One-Match Fire including the three notes of the whippoorwill and the words “I love you,” a feeling that permeates that novel in many unspoken ways, so the whippoorwill is given the job of saying it.

Philip Roth

May 24, 2018

I’m sure most of you know that I have been a reader of Philip Roth’s books for nearly four decades. I’ve read his entire fiction output (except some of his very early short stories that are not in print any longer), some works several times, and one (The Ghost Writer) more than thirty times I’ve estimated. He died on Tuesday at the age of 85, and I think it’s appropriate I make some mention of him on this humble blog.

Philip Roth is my favorite writer. (I consider Iris Murdoch to be my favorite novelist. There is a difference, I think.) With Roth’s fiction, especially the novels of his middle period, I get the sense that every word, every bit of punctuation, is exactly right. There are some sentences that I will pause after reading, reading them again because they strike with such power. He was not my introduction to Jewish literature in the U.S. (that would be Chaim Potok) but Roth did show me how the U.S. Jewish identity could be looked at in a different way. I always found his characters credible, with realistic motivations as well as self-destructive tendencies. (Even when his characters were often thinly veiled versions of himself, sometimes named Philip Roth!)

But I was never a fan of the man himself. It was always all about the work for me. I know he’d been defined as a misogynist and a self-hating Jew, but I won’t pause on those judgments. In fact, when I read the biography of him called Roth Unbound, I found myself not wanting to know about his personal life and how it informed his fiction.

You may know that he stopped writing fiction some years back. (Many people did not believe it when he announced this and are expecting posthumous novels now. I doubt it.) As with many of his statements about his works, I’ve heard him say various things about his cessation. Most recently it seems that he acknowledged that he had written himself out and that he was past his best years. That aligns with what I’d found in reading his later works. He seemed to have lost his subject, or rather, was stuck with his subject — his past — and couldn’t stay contemporary. (His last novel was about the polio epidemic of the 1950s.) And I think he tipped his hand with his late novel The Humbling. It is the story of a renown actor who has lost his talent. I think Roth was acknowledging in his fiction that he was slipping as well. (The critics were not kind to the novel, not regarding the story but regarding its execution. It was derided as “thinly imagined” for Roth.)

I will continue to re-read his novels but all things must pass.

it’s Philip Roth’s birthday today

March 19, 2017

but you probably already knew that!

what I’m reading now

February 29, 2016

Happy Leap Day to you and yours!

I know most of you have been anxious about whether or not I finished The Village. I did. It pulled itself together somewhat at the end, but I think I’ll scratch David Mamet off my list of novelists to read going forward. (There are so many books, and a fellow can’t read them all in a single lifetime.)

So, you’re asking, what is he reading now?

Well, I have an anthology of Victorian-era detective stories on my nightstand that I’ve been dipping into off and on for months. It’s called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (which, I should add is only one of many anthologies with that title, most of which I own and have read), and I’m nearly finished with it. So I decided that after I finished The Village, I would pick up Rivals and make my sprint to the finish arch.

Except I picked up a book on my to-be-read shelf to have just a quick look at the introduction. Pretty soon I had read the whole introduction and was started on the first chapter. And so the Rivals have a rival.

The book I am now reading is Roth Unbound: A writer and his books by Claudia Roth Pierpont. It is a literary biography of Philip Roth, which is to say it is about the influences, creation, and consequences of Roth’s writings more than it is about his life. I’m only just a short way into the book, but already it’s clear that much of his life has influenced his fiction, thus there is a good deal of biography included. That’s fine. Much of it I already knew, but every page offers some nugget of insight, which makes me appreciate his fiction more. (I suppose I’ve already told you that I’ve read his novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. Do you have one go-to book that never lets you down?)

Philip Roth is my favorite writer. I get the sense that every word, every bit of punctuation, is thought through and exactly right. Let me hasten to add, though, that Iris Murdoch is my favorite novelist, if you appreciate the distinction.

So I expect to make quick work of Roth Unbound, and then I’ll be on to the next book. Maybe Rivals. Maybe the next Murdoch novel in the series I’m re-reading from start to finish. Maybe something else altogether.

have I read this book?

September 2, 2015

So I completed re-reading The Flight from the Enchanter the other night, and I enjoyed my second trip through it, confirming that Iris Murdoch is worth reading and re-reading. But I must confess that I only remembered one scene and only a few of the characters from my first reading. It was as though I had never read the novel once before.

Granted, I had read it originally many years ago — as much as a decade ago. (I could look it up because, like everyone else in the world, I keep a list of the books I’ve read and the date I completed them.) But can I say I’ve actually read a book, gave it a serious and thoughtful reading, if I can’t remember it years later?

Certainly there have been many books I’ve read that are not worth remembering, and there have been many that are intentionally light weight — “beach reading” is a common term for these — that are meant to be enjoyed at the time and then left behind. But what can I say about myself and my “serious” reading if I can’t remember a novel years after I’ve read it? Did I really read it with the seriousness it deserved? Did I pause and reflect on elegant passages, humorous scenes, unexpected insights? Did I give the novel the attention it deserved?

I suppose that parts of the novel have entered the matrix of thoughts that make up what passes for my consciousness in ways I don’t recognize. (In fact, generally when I have a sudden insight about something, I question whether the thought is one of my own or something I’ve recycled from another but don’t recognize.) I suppose the first reading left impressions I’m not aware of but use in the ceaseless conversation of ideas that goes on in my head. At least, I’m going to tell myself that.

I’ve read Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. I know that story well. I know the characters. The scenes. The humor. The pathos. And yet, each time I read it, I find something new in it, something I hadn’t seen in my other visits. I’ve often said that I don’t think you can begin to know a novel until you’ve read it a second time. It just bugs me with Enchanter that it is as though my second time is my first time.

writing is rewriting

August 17, 2015

“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”

Gustave Flaubert

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie on the sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

E.I. Lonoff in Roth’s The Ghost Writer

So, writing is rewriting. That was a hard lesson for me to learn when I was just a pup starting on this adventure. The stories I wrote then demanded so much of me, so thoroughly exhausted my life experience and the shallows of my musings, that when I finished one, there was nothing more I could do with it. It was finished. Complete. Perfect just the way it was. And behind me.

And undoubtedly dreadful. I’ve not whipped up the courage to go back and read any of those from the early days. I know now that they were my apprentice work, my crawling before stumbling before walking before running. And I know even more, know with well-deserved humility, that no first draft is complete or perfect just the way it is. Certainly not one of mine anyway.

This has not been a good writing year for me. I know many people are dismissive of the idea of “writer’s block.” And perhaps that is not what is afflicting me. Ideas for new stories, ideas for developing partially written stories, even ideas for stories that are finished and published, flood into my chaotic brain just as much as they ever did. But sitting before the laptop in the wee small hours of the morning and making myself enter that creative place where the writing flows (or trickles or sometimes dams up) has just not been happening. Yes, I did manage to put together two short stories in the last few months, but they were completions of work I had started long before, and I’m not sure they’re actually complete. Two stories in eight months ain’t much in the realm of productivity.

But if you can’t write, you can always rewrite, and that’s what I’ve been doing more of lately.

One of my “completed” Fathers and Sons stories (one? more like a half dozen!) had always felt forced and more than a little schmaltzy. Despite those misgivings, I had submitted it to several magazines and duly received rejections. Fine. That’s the nature of this biz. Knowing that it wasn’t right, I’d revisit it and tinker with this or that, and maybe I’d improve it in increments, but I wasn’t getting it where it needed to be. It was flawed in some deep way that I couldn’t identify.

But then the epiphany came. One of the fathers in the stories succumbs to dementia in his old age. Much of the sons’ legacy is lost (or trapped) inside his mind. And what is gleaned from there is suspect. What I realized, as I reflected on the many stories in their many states of completion, is that memory is a recurring theme throughout them. I hadn’t set out to make this a touchstone. (I hadn’t even set out to write a cycle of stories; I just wrote one, liked it, set it aside, then found I had more to say about the characters.) Memory recalled, memory mistrusted, and, in the case of this story, memory manufactured and whether true or not, cherished.

The story is titled “Comfortable in his skin” and it deals with a pivotal day in the life of one of the sons. Yet as he remembers the day, he can’t be sure it happened they way his imagines. But he decides he’s going to accept the memory as true.

The problem with the story was that I’d had the wrong narrator. I had the father telling the story, lovingly, about his son and this important day in his young life. And while that would make it true in the universe of the cycle, it was just too saccharine and “final” for my liking. To have the son “remember” the day decades later, to have him fill in the missing parts as he wanted them to be, allowed the schmaltziness to become sweetness. It’s still a sentimental story, but it is the story as well told as my skills can do.

Discovering the theme of the story is what allowed me to salvage it. That same thing happened in a big way in my story “When we were young and life was full in us,” which I still think is the story I’ve written with the best control; every word in it was considered and weighed. Every sentence was turned around. I think I did get that one exactly right. (And there is a motif in “Comfortable” that recurs in the later-in-the-cycle “When we were young” that I’m pleased with.)

Is “Comfortable in his skin” finished? Probably not. I’ve sent it to a writing friend for his opinion. (Note: he told me I was always welcome to send him stuff.) I’m not good at taking advice, but he is good at seeing through the fog, so I’ll give his words consideration.

I’m not sure I’m past whatever has bottled up my creativity this year, but it is gratifying to get another story in better shape. I’ll take that much until something better comes along.

important day

March 19, 2015

Today is Philip Roth’s birthday. Please make the appropriate observances.