THE COUNTERLIFE by Philip Roth

Book Quote:

“Zionism, as I understand it, originated not only in the deep Jewish dream of escaping the danger of insularity and the cruelties of social injustice and persecution but out of a highly conscious desire to be divested of virtually everything that had come to seem, to the Zionists as much as the Christian Europeans, distinctively Jewish behavior — to reverse the very form of Jewish existence. The construction of a counterlife that is one’s own antimyth was at its very core. It was a species of fabulous utopianism, a manifesto for human transformation as extreme — and, at the outset, as implausible — as any ever conceived. A Jew could be a new person if he wanted to. In the early days of the state the idea appealed to almost everyone except the Arabs. All over the world people were rooting for the Jews to go ahead and un-Jew themselves in their own little homeland. I think that’s why the place was once universally so popular — no more Jewy Jews, great!”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (JAN 07, 2011)

Long though it is, this quotation sums up just about everything about Roth’s magnificent novel of 1976: its strange title, its grand theme, its somewhat simplistic view of history, and its humor that jumps cheerfully into offensive self-mockery. A long section of the novel takes place in Israel shortly after the Yom Kippur War, when the stereotypes were indeed being turned on their heads, and conversely significant criticism of the state was beginning to be heard from the West. But Roth’s principal subject is not the engaged Jews who assert their selfhood either through Zionism or religion, but the countless secular Jews like himself, living securely in a distant country; how do they establish their identity, especially in mid-life when the question of “Is this really all I am?” typically arises. And of course, being Roth, he handles this quest for the total makeover — the counterlife — also at a much baser level, in terms of the male need for female conquest as the final proof of potency.

I am writing this review also as a follow-up to my recent piece on Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, the most recent Man Booker winner. By coincidence, a friend gave me her copy of the Roth on the same day that I bought the Jacobson; neither of us connected the two. But now, having enjoyed both books immensely, I am amazed at how closely Roth anticipates Jacobson 34 years earlier. Both authors treat the same subjects (male libido and Jewish identity), in the same context (Roth’s book is set partly in England, Jacobson’s entirely so), and with the same sardonic humor (except that Jacobson would spell it “humour”). As far as contemporary events go, the three-and-a-half-decade time gap seems as nothing: Roth alludes to Western condemnation of Israel’s actions in the Yom Kippur War; Jacobson’s characters agonize similarly over Gaza. Both writers invade the no-man’s land between antisemitism and paranoia; Roth is the more neurotic of the two, but he has more bite to his satire, and is to my mind the greater author.

Roth has had two abiding subjects in his oeuvre: Judaism and sex. The Counterlife explores both, though from an oblique perspective, in that his principal characters are neither committed Jews nor always sexually potent. The book opens with Henry Zuckerman, a successful Newark dentist, not yet forty, suffering from impotence caused as the side-effect of his heart medication; sex is what he used to enjoy (with both a mistress and a wife) but can now no longer have. He takes the extreme step of having a risky bypass operation, in order to make a radical change in his life. In the next section, Roth offers a different outcome to Henry’s story, in which he abandons his comfortable American secularism and moves to Israel as a fervent Zionist, living in a militant West Bank settlement and studying Hebrew and Torah. In each of these scenarios, Henry is visited by his elder brother, the successful novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several other Roth novels and is clearly the author’s alter ego. Roth (or Nathan) has several other variants in store, but each involves an attempt at radical life change, moving into the heart of an issue from its fringes — the Counterlife of the title.

Writing through an alter ego who is one of the characters in the book enables the author to play narrative tricks that used to be called Pirandellian but are now labeled post-modern. One, as I mentioned, is the ability to change the story at will. The five sections of the book — labeled respectively Basel, Judea, Aloft, Gloucestershire, and Christendom, although these are not in every case their settings — contradict one another in several significant ways, as though emphasizing the author’s ability to manipulate a story at will. The Gloucestershire section (a skeleton key to the whole) even changes tack three times in eighty pages; it begins with the author describing his own funeral and ends with a preview of the final Christendom section, discussed by two of the characters who are to appear in it! While more literal readers may find this confusing, I found it remarkably easy to buy into the parameters of each section, as the only realities at the time. These switches not only added intellectual excitement, they also deepened the perspective and the seriousness of the issues being addressed, albeit in Roth’s characteristically flippant voice.

While Judaism and sex continue to battle for the spotlight, the sexual aspects will in the end be secondary. The answer to the question “Is this really all I am?” may be sought in adultery or divorce, but conversely by the former playboy settling down and starting a family; both are found in this novel. What makes the book so much more than soap opera is that Roth also poses the who-am-I question as a matter of ethnic and religious identity: What does it mean to be a secular Jew in a largely assimilated society? Is it the role of Israel to serve as what he calls the American-Jewish Australia, taking misfits attempting to find themselves as a people? His Judea section is brilliant in its portrayal of many different views of that extraordinary society, many of them extreme, few of them compatible, but all in essence true. He has one striking passage (a single sentence) describing a Sabbath meal in the settlement that, though probably intended with slight condescension, also brings a light to Zuckerman’s eyes: “Singing in the Sabbath, Ronit looked as contented with her lot as any woman could be, her eyes shining with love for a life free of Jewish cringing, deference, diplomacy, apprehension, alienation, self-pity, self-satire, self-mistrust, depression, clowning, bitterness, nervousness, inwardness, hypercriticalness, hypertouchiness, social anxiety, social assimilation — a way of life absolved, in short, of all the Jewish “abnormalities,” those peculiarities of self-division whose traces remained imprinted in just about every engaging Jew I knew.”

But Ronit is a minor character; all the principal women in the novel are Gentile. Roth’s men need non-Jewish wives for camouflage and, as it becomes clear, as opposites against whom to define themselves. Nathan returns from Israel to the suave dining-rooms of Mayfair and meadows of Gloucestershire. In turning these also into ethnic battlegrounds, he exaggerates hugely (though with a germ of truth). Yet he speaks strongly to the need of so many of us, Gentile as well as Jewish, to validate ourselves in opposition to the world around us, rather than settling for the quiet beauty of the ordinary.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (August 6, 1996)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: The Philip Roth Society

Wikipedia page on Philip Roth

EXTRAS: The New York Times review of The Counterlife (1987)
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Nemesis

The Plot Against America

Indignation

Exit Ghost

Everyman

Bibliography:

** Philip Roth appears in novel

Zuckerman Novels:

David Kapesh Novels:

Nonfiction:

E-Book Study Guide:

Movies from books:


January 7, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Facing History, Israel, Literary, Man Booker International Prize, National Book Critic Circle (NBCC), y Award Winning Author

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