Page 105 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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LOWIN / PHILLIP ROTH AND THE NOVEL OF REDEMPTION
9 7
was, in fact, not so unlike what welled up in me when I . . .
realized that out of everything humbling from which my own
striving, troubled father had labored to elevate us all, a liter­
ature of such dour wit and poignancy could be shamelessly con­
ceived.” (GW, p. 12) What literature does for Roth is to take
the facts and transform them. What it transforms them into
is a value. In his article on “Writing about Jews,” discussing
the much maligned short story “Defender of the Faith,” Roth
conjectured that “literary investigation may even be a way to
redeem the facts, to give them the weight and value they should
have in the world, rather than the disproportionate significance
they probably have for some misguided or vicious people.”
(WAJ, p. 449)
Literature is more than a text; it is an act. Moreover, as this
essay has endeavored to demonstrate, it can be a redemptive
act when it leads inexorably back to life. In what is possibly
the most surprising conclusion in all of Roth’s works,
The
Counterlife
is brought to an end with a deft analysis of the role
that circumcision plays in the collective life of the Jewish people.
What is surprising is not that Roth, in his later years, should
appear to be an apologist for the one Jewish ritual that sets
Jews apart from the Gentiles. Rather, Roth concludes his novel
by contrasting circumcision with a gentile literary genre. “Cir­
cumcision is everything that the pastoral is not and, to my mind,
reinforces what the world is about, which isn’t strifeless unity.
Quite convincingly, circumcision gives the lie to the womb-
dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory, the
appealing idyll of living ‘naturally,’ unencumbered by man-
made ritual. To be born is to lose all that.” (TC, p. 323) The
equation Roth sets up here is a negative one: circumcision is
the opposite of idyll. Circumcision forces the Jews to realize
that, in their quest for the redemptive, and in the search by
Jewish authors and readers for the novel of redemption, there
lies the imperative to come back — always — to real life, to
a real life, moreover, that is not strifeless, that is not unprob­
lematic, that has in it real people named Epstein, Peck,
Grossbart, Portnoy, and Zuckerman, people who are not living
in an ideal world but whose striving invites them to contemplate
what life would be like in such a world.
Philip Roth has asserted that “at their best writers change
the
way
readers read.”16
The Counterlife,
the culmination of the