Page 91 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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JOSEPH LOWIN
Philip Roth and the Novel of
Redemption
In
t h e
s p r i n g
o f
1988 Philip Roth was honored for the sec­
ond time in his career with the National Jewish Book Award
for fiction. The muted reaction on the part of the non-literary
official Jewish community to
The Counterlife
— the 1988 winner
— was in marked contrast to the hue and cry aroused by
Goodbye
Columbus,
the collection of short fiction that was awarded the
1960 prize, and by another of Roth’s earlier works, the notorious
1969 novel
Portnoy’s Complaint.
In 1988 there were no outraged sermons from synagogue
pulpits, no accusing symposia at Jewish institutions of higher
learning, no defensive reactions from leading national Jewish
organizations. Rather, there was merely a word-of-mouth re­
sponse to the Jewish content of
The Counterlife.
People were say­
ing that, somehow, in his later years — Roth had just turned
fifty-five — the au thor of “Defender of the Faith” and
“Epstein,” stories for which Roth was once accused of Jewish
self-hatred, had become a Jewish penitent (a
baal teshuva)
and
in
The Counterlife
had redeemed himself for his earlier negative
portrayals of Jews.
As this essay proposes to demonstrate,
The Counterlife
is in­
deed “about” redemption by fiction. And yet, far from repre­
senting a break with his past, Roth’s recent novel may be used
to illustrate a fundamental unity of his oeuvre, a unity which
Roth proclaims is the essence of every writer’s work: “It’s all
one book you write anyway,”1he told a
Paris Review
interviewer,
and, in the acceptance speech prepared for the National Jewish
Book Award ceremony, a model of graciousness read by his
1. Hermione Lee. “The Art o f Fiction LXXXIV: Philip Roth.”
The Paris Review
93 (Fall 1984): 236-37.
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