Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Philip Roth's Alternative America |
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Philip Roth's Alternative America

‘“Portnoy, yes, it’s an old French name, a corruption of porte noir, meaning back door or gate. Apparently in the Middle Ages in France the door to our family manor house ...”’ Thus the young Alexander Portnoy dreams of convincing the pert shiksa ice-skater that he is not a Jew. But even in his dream she is not to be misled. ‘“You seem a very nice person, Mr Porte-Noir, but why do you go around covering the middle of your face like that?”’ As the narrator goes on to explain, to us if not to her, it is because of his nose, which, unlike his penis, is now, with the onset of adolescence, so insistent on extending itself that it can’t be persuaded to retract even temporarily. ‘That ain’t a nose,’ shouts his interior voice, ‘it’s a hose! Screw off, Jewboy! Get off the ice and leave these girls alone!’

The Jewish notables who vilified Philip Roth after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 were objecting to a lot more about its hero than his preoccupation with sex. They didn’t like his preoccupation with his nose, either. They didn’t like Roth’s apparent suggestion that there was no level ground for a young American male Jew between the twin peaks of tormented insecurity and priapic self-assertion. As a goy who was born and raised in Australia, where the book was banned, and who first read it in England, where it wasn’t, I couldn’t see their point at the time. I was too busy rolling around fighting for breath. It was the funniest book in the world. What was there not to like, except perhaps the hilarious sexual frankness that had caused the distinctly non-Jewish puritans of my benighted homeland to wig out? Why should his own people attack him?

With his latest book, The Plot Against America, the answer becomes clear. It was because the very idea of ‘his own people’ was bad news to people who wanted their ethnicity to be a minor issue, not a major one. A re-reading of Portnoy’s Complaint — and there could be no more delightful occupation — reveals that the rabbinical elders who convicted its author of Judische Selbsthass, Jewish self-hatred, had quite a lot to go on. Not without reason, they were even more shaken up by what was going on in Portnoy’s mind than by what was going on in his pants. Compared with his throbbing self-consciousness as a Jew, Portnoy’s throbbing crotch was a sideshow. But Roth’s judges convicted him without trying him first. He was proud of his background: savagely proud. Along with all the other themes he has explored since, his exultant celebration of Jewish-American social cohesion is there in his first book to become world famous. The earlier books — Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go and When She Was Good — had each stated some of his future subjects, but Portnoy’s Complaint stated the whole lot, packed together and painted like a circus act. Portnoy’s Complaint is a trick car out of which, instead of a family of dwarves, novels climb one after the other, at an astonishing rate and seemingly without end. None of them is without its felicities, a round dozen of them are indispensable reading, a good handful of that dozen are among the best novels ever written in America, and all of them can be found tightly encoded into his original masterpiece. That lavish celebration of baseball in The Great American Novel, for example, is there in little, in the scenes where the grown men of Portnoy’s Arcadian neighbourhood play seven-inning softball on a Sunday spring morning while the youngsters long to be so masculine, funny and sure of their place. But this new novel was in there too: a novel wholly, instead of partly, concerned with being unsure — with insecurity.

Insecurity saturates The Plot Against America. Unfortunately the saturation goes right to the level of its telling. For a writer blessed with the eyes and ears to find real life fantastic in every detail, fantasy is the wrong form. As a narrative idea, Roth’s latest brainwave is down there with The Breast: perhaps even further down, because at least The Breast had Kafka’s cockroach for a predecessor. The predecessor of The Plot Against America is Robert Harris’s Fatherland: a considerable book in its own right, but one that exhausts the possibilities of its narrative trick, yielding Roth little room for manoeuvre. In Fatherland, America is unable to intervene decisively against Germany, leaving the Nazis a free hand in Europe. In The Plot Against America, America is unable to intervene decisively against Germany, leaving — what? Well, it leaves Roth a chance to speculate about what might have happened to America’s Jews.

* * *

But first of all, and you might well ask, what happened to America? Charles Lindbergh became President. To make this plausible, Roth has to re-jig the 1940 Republican convention. The re-jigging entails quite a lot of jiggery-pokery, but he just about makes it stick. There is a persuasive swing to the way Lindbergh captures the electorate’s imagination by flying from city to city. It would be more persuasive if he were doing it in Germany, where Hitler, in his first campaigns, actually did do that. He made a point of dropping from the clouds all over the place, and Leni Riefenstahl’s orgasmic scenes of the smitten populace searching the sky for the arrival of his aircraft are a fair registration of the enthusiasm he actually aroused. You can just about imagine Lindbergh having the same effect on the American backwoods, and there is no strain at all in imagining the appeal of his message: ‘Vote for Lindbergh or vote for War.’ Voting against war with Germany was what almost everybody was keen on until Japan attacked, and they might well have remained keen on it afterwards. If Hitler had been less crazy he would never have declared war on the United States, which the terms of his treaty with Japan did not oblige him to do. If he hadn’t, Roosevelt might still have had a hard job to get America into the war against him. That was the true fork in history, which Roth might have chosen to treat, but it would have meant leaving Lindbergh out. Roth, however, wanted Lindbergh in, because Lindbergh had anti-Semitic views.

Roth’s preparation of an alternative history is just a rearrangement of the furniture. If it had really concerned him he might have done it more adroitly. But what really concerns him is the retroactive prospect of an America with its traditional anti-Semitic prejudices given official endorsement. ‘Our homeland was America,’ says the Roth-like narrator. ‘Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.’ Roth’s challenge is to show how it changed. The challenge is not easily met, because America was never Germany. Certainly America was no stranger to official brutality: in America’s gaols and police stations between the wars, the third degree was common. There are plentiful records, some of them filmed, of Henry Ford’s armed goons violently repressing protests from laid-off workers, of Bonus marchers being put to flight by the troops of that barely controllable authoritarian General Douglas MacArthur, and, of course, of racist atrocities in the South. But there was no case of a minority’s being permanently threatened with violence backed by federal law. The Nazis did indeed come to power legally, after which they remade the laws in their favour, so that the hounding and eventual extermination of the Jews could be done on a legal basis. But none of that would have been possible if Hitler had not been granted dictatorial powers.

In the United States, where the separation of powers is a fundamental principle of the constitution, not even the most charismatic President — not even, say, Charles Lindbergh — could have instituted, in peace time, racially selective federal laws without the approval of Congress. Had Lindbergh set about gaining such approval, he would have had to sway the media, not to mention Hollywood. As every anti-Semite is eager to insist, the Jewish representation in those fields has always been large. Aware of these considerations, Roth knows that an American version of Nazi Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws framed against the Jews won’t do even as a fantasy. So he introduces the idea of the Office of American Absorption. He isn’t clear about how this apparently benign organization could have been set up without a debate in Washington about its possible malignancy, but he is disturbingly persuasive about how it might have operated had it come into existence. Bright young urban Jews of the Portnoy type are selected for temporary resettlement in the rural heartland, where they are encouraged to question the ethnic solidarity of their origins. The result is meant to be an erosion of their communal identity. This nightmare by Roth gains force from its closeness to the dream of every Jewish assimilationist. Not only calling themselves Americans first and foremost, but feeling it, the young Jews forget their heritage as a prelude to denying it.

Roth is dealing here with a continuing dilemma — individual acceptance is bound to be hindered by any cherishing of a collective uniqueness — and might have made more of it. He shows how the views of the Lindberghs, man and wife, might have made the anti-Semitism of the American upper orders even less shy about expressing itself. Jews not only can’t get into the country club, they can’t get into an ordinary hotel. He also shows that top-level anti-Semitism might have gained quite a lot of tacit support from top-level Jews. In Germany during the Weimar Republic, the influx of orthodox Jews from the East was frowned upon by assimilated Jews who were already there, on the grounds that it would inflame Nazi-style anti-Semitism further. (Actually the Nazis didn’t need any inflaming, but the full possibilities of that fact were not yet apparent, even to them.) Even in America, and especially in uptown New York, there was a sad but understandable tradition by which the settled and successful haute juiverie frowned on the raw immigrants whose habits might fan goyische prejudice. If Roth, as well as seizing on the real-life character of Lindbergh, had seized on the real-life character of, say, Walter Lippmann, he might really have been on to something. When Britain was battling alone against the Nazis, the destroyers-for-bases idea that saved Britain’s life was almost wholly Lippmann’s. But he had come too far in downplaying his own Jewish origins to take up the collective fate of the Jews as his chief concern. During the war he wrote nothing about the extermination of the European Jews, and after it he wrote little. Lippmann was the living definition of the Jew who considered himself an American first, and he might have provided Roth with the ideal demonstration of just how divisive that attitude could have been if there had been a subtle but comprehensive campaign to destroy Jewish solidarity. It could be said that by declining to adopt the role of representative Jew, he had already been conducting one.

And he could have said, and been right, that the very idea of a collective Jewish identity — the idea that all Jews were connected in a conspiracy of blood — was a fantasy made real only by Hitler. Even in Germany, and especially among the Jewish intelligentsia, it took time to grasp the reality that the Nazis would make no exceptions. It just seemed too insane. As Hannah Arendt once argued, you had to be a madman to guess what was coming. In Roth’s alternative America, the man who spots the implications of the insidious new official encouragement of anti-Semitism is a journalist unhindered by a sense of proportion. If Roth doesn’t seize on the real-life character of Walter Lippmann, he does seize on the real-life character of Walter Winchell. This is the most daring stroke in the book, and leads to its most original single sentence, which Roth puts into the mouth of another force for good, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia: ‘Walter is too loud, Walter talks too fast, Walter says too much, and yet, by comparison, Walter’s vulgarity is something great, and Lindbergh’s decorum is hideous.’

Roth’s Winchell fights the good fight, and pays for it with his life. After President Lindbergh mysteriously disappears, there is an ultra-right coup d’état, Winchell’s own presidential candidacy is terminated by his assassination, and America temporarily goes openly pro-Nazi as a prelude to preparing war on Canada. Why did Lindbergh disappear? It would be spoiling the story to tell you. Roth does a pretty good job of spoiling the story himself, by dishing out the improbabilities with shameless haste: if it were not for the quality of the writing, you could be reading The Da Vinci Code. Luckily for the reader’s mental health, Roth is no more capable of an uninteresting sentence than Dan Brown is capable of an interesting one. But you would wonder why Roth bothered, if it were not so obvious that his chief concern is not with official repression, but with social prejudice, as it was then and still is today. Here, once again, and as always, he is in a cleft stick. He knows that he was brought up in an artist’s Arcadia, the ideal combination of domestic stability and psychic turmoil. (‘Doctor,’ Portnoy asks his analyst, ‘what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred ... or the love?’) Lest we doubt that, he gives it to us again: the Weequahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, in all its emotional uproar, gnawing neurosis, flagrant embarrassments, and career-forming linguistic vitality. (With the proviso that literature should never be thought of as a branch of sociology, the novels of Richard Price can be said to give us the bitter contemporary reality of the boroughs that once inspired Roth’s sweetest memories.) But Roth also knows that another Arcadia patronizes the one he came from. To the blessed denizens of WASP Heaven, or Lindbergh Land, the noisy passions of his childhood will always look like a joke. The only possible defence mechanism of the Jewish comic writer is to get in with the joke first, and time it better: it was Woody Allen’s idea to stick himself with a rabbi’s beard in Annie Hall. But to the mind in which it is operating, the defence mechanism must inevitably seem a form of concession, and especially when the mind belongs to Roth — a man who has taken comic writing to the highest level of philosophy, politics and social analysis.

Roth emerged from his borough as a full-blown sophisticate, and it is hard for the sophisticate to look back on his origins without looking down. Porte-Noir can’t lust after his button-nosed ice-skater without tacitly conceding that a standard marriage to a nice Jewish girl is beneath his ambitions. His irrepressible schlong is a rock drill to a higher stratum. The price of rising in the social world is an apparent alliance with the prejudiced; to prove that there is no alliance is a constant battle; and the result is a torn conscience. In Roth’s case, the torn conscience has been the motor of a steadily accumulating literary achievement without parallel in his time — an achievement whose resonance reaches far into Europe and the Middle East, making even the most illustrious of his American contemporaries look comparatively provincial. He is aware to the point of self-laceration that he was born in the right spot: he was probably already aware of it when he put his childhood pennies into one of the Blue Tins that helped to build Israel. But he is stuck with the anguish of an insoluble paradox. As an individual, he rejects the role of being a representative: but he is bound to be a representative when he fights prejudice.

As a man of reason, Roth must have figured out early that it has always been even worse for blacks: any photograph of Duke Ellington taken late in his life shows the accumulated effect of what being cast as a representative can do to the face of a genius. Ellington was too polite to say that an invitation to the White House was no full consolation for all those times he would have liked to sleep in the kind of hotel that wouldn’t have let him past the front desk. There was never a hotel that Roth couldn’t get into, but he can be excused for inventing an alternative and worse American past in which his father would be told that the room he had been given was unavailable after all. It’s an understandable bad dream. But it hasn’t led to a good book, and couldn’t have. The United States will never be free of racial prejudice for the same reason that it will never enshrine racial prejudice in anything like the Nuremberg Laws: it’s a free country. Being that, it is bound to be full of things we don’t like, but the federally sanctioned destruction of a racial minority isn’t among them, and hasn’t been since Wounded Knee. As Roth must have realized long before he finished writing it, the insuperable problem with The Plot Against America is that America is against the plot.


Not long after completing the above piece I belatedly read Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein and wondered whether I had been right in implying that Roth has the greater cosmopolitan scope. Trying to rate Bellow and Roth in order is an occupation for someone who shouldn’t be reading either of them. But there can’t be much question about their relative standing when it comes to international politics. Bellow’s writings on the Middle East bring all his rhetorical power to the task of defending Israel against its external enemy. Roth deals with the internal enemy as well. In non-fiction at least, he has the full range of tragedy. In fiction, both of these majestic writers give us so much that it is often easy to forget how all they do depends on the shape of a sentence. Each is a bewitching example of the individual voice that starts, as Roth once put it, behind the knees. In the case of Roth, I am sometimes reduced to a childish longing that he would write books to order, so that I could telephone for a take-out. There are subjects that demand his voice, and only his. For instance, I would like him to write a book about how, in 2004, the Red Sox came back from nowhere to take the pennant from the Yankees, and went on to bury the Cardinals in the last game of the World Series. But he might not do it. Great writers write what they must, not what we would like. Their voices do not belong to us. We get that illusion only because they sound the way we do to ourselves, in those interior flights of eloquence that never reach the page.