Page 92 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
editor, Roth asserted that his aim as a Jewish writer in
The
Counterlife
was to offer a proper presentation of what is “trou-
blesomely Jewish” in the lives of his characters. This, he adds,
emphasizing what he sees as his inner consistency, “has been
my goal as a writer from the start.” Roth, the writer, has not
changed. I f it is not Roth who has been redeemed by this book,
have not Roth’s readers themselves changed? Roth hints at the
possibility of that eventuality in the conclusion of his acceptance
speech. “What you seem to be telling me with this award,” he
states, “is that in 1988 there is an established body of respectable
Jewish opinion that doesn’t consider the ways that I pursue this
goal [of presenting Jewish problems properly] to be necessarily
dishonorable. This is not only an interesting development but
a gratifying one.” I f Roth is consistent, as he insists he is, then
perhaps it is his readers who have changed and have finally
learned how to read him, redeeming themselves as readers.
Among the literary critics who have read Roth correctly, that
is to say, as he would like to be read, is Yale’s Harold Bloom,
for whom Roth seems to be “prophetic in the biblical tradition.”2
Roth might not be so hubristic as to make such a claim himself,
but he does seem to think that the prophetic tradition is not
a bad one for any public Jew to adopt. In his response to his
early detractors, those who would have preferred that he not
wash Jewish dirty linen in public, Roth wrote in 1963 that “to
indicate that moral crisis is something to be hushed up is not,
of course, to take the prophetic line; nor is it a rabbinical point
of view that Jewish life is of no significance to mankind.” (WAJ,
p. 4 5 1)3 In that essay, Roth takes advantage of the fact that
both pulpits and periodicals have called him “dangerous, dis­
honest, and irresponsible” to lay down a credo of fiction-writing
that does indeed appear to be in the prophetic tradition. “Fic­
tion is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that ev­
erybody seems to hold, nor does it seek to guarantee us o f the
appropriateness of our feelings. The world of fiction, in fact,
frees us from the circumscriptions that the society places upon
feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both
the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways
2. Harold Bloom. “His Long Ordeal by Laughter.”
The New York Times Book
Review
(May 19, 1985): 42.
3. See the Key to Abbreviations which follows this article for references to
Roth’s works.