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Philip Roth and Self-Reflexivity

‘Self-Reflexivity’ – “A literary work that is marked by or makes reference to its own artificiality and process of artful composition”

by Harry Carlson | 12 January 2021

(For those unfamiliar with Roth’s work, at the end of the piece I have written a short introduction to each of the novels I will be discussing) Philip Roth was amongst the most pre-eminent writers of the late 20th-century, sitting beside the likes of John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Pynchon. From his propulsion to literary celebrity after the publication of 1969’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, through to 1993’s ‘Operation Shylock’, Roth consistently experimented with the proximity between ‘The Author’ and ‘The Character’. In a sense, Roth worked under a number of pseudonyms throughout his career without ever publishing under another name than his own. In 1974, Roth began to work in the medium of what I see as the half ‘Roman á Clef’ in his work, ‘My Life As a Man’. In the first section of the novel the reader is introduced to the one of Roth’s pseudonyms, Nathan Zuckerman, in two short stories. In the second section of the text, we read from the perspective of Peter Tarnopol, a young Jewish writer who wrote the two stories in the first section of the novel and discover that the two short stories following the sexual escapades of Zuckerman refashion disturbing elements of Tarnopol’s own life – just as the novel does of Roth’s. So begins Roth’s own version of the literary mise en abyme constructed of the author’s literary alter-egos. The novel sees Roth explore metafiction and authorship in his work for the first time through the concept of ‘the novel within the novel’ – four years before Calvino would explore the concept in ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’. Further to this, Roth was also acknowledging the discussion around the degree to which his earlier work was autobiographical, as well as transferring his own marital tragedies into fiction through the character of Tarnopol. ‘My Life As a Man’ is often overlooked by many when discussing Roth’s work, grouped in with his less acclaimed satirical works of the early 1970’s, but this is where the author begins to exhibit the self-reflexivity that would play a central role in the development of nearly all his later novels. ​If ‘My Life As a Man’ was Roth dipping his toes into the metaphorical pool of postmodernist literary devices, the ‘Zuckerman Bound’ trilogy was the equivalent of jumping into the deep end head-first. Placing the character of Zuckerman at the centre of his work, Roth published ‘The Ghost Writer’ in 1979 to wide acclaim. In the novel, Zuckerman visits a successful writer named Lonoff in New England, where he also briefly meets a young woman named Amy who has a vague background. Zuckerman begins to fantasise about Amy and eventually comes to believe that she is Anne Frank, living anonymously in the United States, having survived the Holocaust. Zuckerman imagines Anne surviving the concentration camps, being rescued from a coma, changing her name and living with foster families in England before being brought to the United States as a protégé of Lonoff. She then discovers that her father is alive, and that her diaries have been published and adapted to stage yet decides to keep living as Amy instead of identifying herself. The lack of compunction or sensitivity with which Zuckerman, and vicariously Roth, approaches the ‘story’ of Anne Frank could be by seen by some as somewhat of an assailment on one of the most sacrosanct figures in Jewish-American literature and cultural memory. The way in which ‘The Diaries of Anne Frank’ was widely read attached connotations of martyrdom beside the figure of Anne Frank in the popular imagination. But whilst the manner in which Roth explores the figure of Anne Frank and cultural narratives that have evolved around her story may seem somewhat indelicate or crass, the intertextuality of ‘The Ghost Writer’ serves as a means by which Roth can comment on the relationship between the literary and reality. When a writer transfers their personal life onto the page, they place their reality into the realms of textuality and the literary; one’s own personal experience is now up for interpretation. Fiction is a distorted lens through which to view history – personal or archaeological.

Roth in 1977

Roth furthers this self-reflexivity in his next two equally metafictional novels – ‘Zuckerman Unbound’, ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ – in which Zuckerman publishes a sexually explicit novel called ‘Carnovsky’ about a young Jewish man, for which he is equally acclaimed and denounced. Zuckerman’s critics “mistake impersonation for confession” and accuse Zuckerman of both breaching the confidentiality around the intimate details of his family and of being anti-Semitic - a “self-hating Jew”. Zuckerman returns to his childhood home in Newark where he is disowned by his loved ones. In their eyes, Zuckerman has exposed them to public ridicule and forced them into private suffering. Afterwards, Zuckerman is afflicted by writer’s block for the first time and he retreats into deep contemplation of his life in middle-age; his failed marriages, crumbling family, most acerbic critics, his own identity and the nature of the literary form. Zuckerman has become too self-absorbed to write good fiction, he is unbound. By indirectly positioning himself as the central figure in the malformed bildungsroman narrative that makes up the ‘Zuckerman Bound’ tetralogy, Roth had written three somewhat-faux-autobiographical novels and an epilogue on the consequences of writing autobiographical novels. The three novels read as both as an illustration and critique of self-reflexivity, with the added paradox of Roth’s own authorship. Central to the narrative is the way Zuckerman responds to accusations of autobiography and exploitation of those close to him; not by changing the way he writes, but instead blaming his readers for mistaking fact for fiction. There is a profound sense of self-confrontation and contradiction in almost all of Roth’s work. This is never more apparent than in his work ‘The Facts: A Novelists Autobiography’. Published in 1988, Roth quite literally confronts his fictionalised self and identity through an absurd rendition of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Double’ or Freud’s theory of the shadow. The work is ostensibly a standard, even somewhat unremarkable, work of autobiography detailing Roth’s Newark upbringing, college years, first marriage and how he reacted to criticism of his early novels from the Jewish community. Yet, what gives the work significance to my discussion is the way in which the autobiographical section of the book is bookended by two letters: one from Roth to Zuckerman, and another from Zuckerman to Roth criticising an early manuscript of the autobiography Roth has sent him. In the first letter Roth writes to Zuckerman that “If this manuscript conveys anything, it’s my exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions and lies”. In my reading, this is a deliberately facetious statement that is meant to be reflective of the book’s subtitle ‘A Novelist’s Autobiography’. Roth is acknowledging that a novelist is always a novelist, even when explicitly stating that a work is entirely autobiographical or fictional, there will be an inevitable presence of deception present in the work. ‘The Facts’ is a direct address from Roth to readers and critics – another work of self-referentiality and deflection. Peter Bailey best describes the work when he writes, “Roth manages to make the stand- off between fiction and autobiography emblematic of the impossibility of extricating the literary from the actual, the fictional from ‘the facts’”. “This book is a work of fiction…This confession is false” – Philip Roth, Operation Shylock.

Philip Roth pictured in 1968 revisiting Newark, his childhood home

In ‘Operation Shylock: A Confession’, Roth takes the postmodern and self-reflexive elements of all his previous novels and follows them to their extremes. ‘Operation Shylock’ is Roth at his most ironic, paranoid, referential and absurd – drawing the inevitable broad comparisons from Kafka to Pynchon. The novel follows the character of ‘Philip Roth’ on a visit to Israel, where he becomes wrapped up in a Mossad intelligence mission in in which he must seek out an impersonator/doppelganger who has stolen his identity and used this name to spread a counter-Zionist ideology advocating the return of Israeli Jews to their European nations of exile. By presenting a mimetic, absurd characterisation of himself, the start of the novel is fairly comical. It is clear that the bizarre actions of ‘Philip Roth’ throughout the novel are an attempt at mocking the reductive methods with which modern society aims to solve highly complex contemporary problems through comic irony. But this is quickly dampened when Roth introduces new pathways into the narrative by blending fiction with recent history through description of John Demjanjuk’s testimonies about the Sobibor extermination camp, passages on deeply upsetting Holocaust experiences, and the violence inflicted on civilians through the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a piece in The New York Times Book Review titled ‘A Bit of Jewish Mischief’, Roth describes how “a man of [his] age, bearing an uncanny resemblance to [him] and calling himself Philip Roth arrived in Jerusalem” shortly before he did. He then goes on to describe how these “factual” events are fictionalised in ‘Operation Shylock’. What Roth seems to be attempting with comic elements of the novel, in conjunction with his typically deceptive statements on his own work and the inclusion of recent history is to make the reader question the expectations around the boundaries between fiction and reality; the result is by far Roth’s most radical experiment in narrative form and representation of the self in fiction. Although the novel also invokes the ethical implications of the novel and the quasi-autobiographical work Roth had been publishing for three decades previously, I think that a discussion around the ethics of his work would deserve an entire piece of its own. Through Roth’s constantly evolving preoccupation with the self, reality, textuality and fiction in his work, Roth is constantly engaging. When some begin to read Roth’s novels, they expect a straightforward satirisation of Roth’s own comic experiences of a young Jewish American man, mostly due to the success of and controversy surrounding his early novels. Instead, they are asked to question their own fundamental expectations and assumptions around the act of interpretation, both on the part of the reader and the author. Roth refuses to distinguish between fact and fiction, and in doing so is commenting on the inability to extricate the literary from reality and vice versa. By utilising all the central postmodern devices of self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and irony, Roth kept his work compelling and sharp – even when his prose is at its most economic and sparse. To me, Philip Roth is representative of a class of exceptional writers that came to define contemporary American literature in the mid to late twentieth century. Unfortunately, that usually means almost exclusively 'pretentious, white, male and middle class’ - but this doesn't have to be entirely to his detriment. Roth offers the reader an honest insight into the male psyche in all its stupidity, impulsivity, insecurity, contradictions and occasional vulgarity. The author can be quoted in a 2014 interview with the New York Times as explaining that his “focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired”. All criticisms around the absence of minorities and the lack of depth and complexity in Roth’s depiction of women still withstanding, I feel this explanation summarises a large part of what makes Roth’s work so brilliantly compelling.

Roth's first four novels. Goodbye Columbus (1959), Letting Go (1962), When She Was Good (1967), and Portnoy's Complaint (1969

Goodbye, Columbus (1959) Roth’s first published work, a novella on middle-class Jewish-American life. The novella won the national book award, but Roth was heavily criticised by parts of the Jewish establishment due to his satirisation of Jewish-American life. He was accused of being a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) Roth’s first enormously commercially successful work, it was equally as controversial. The novel is a portrait of Jewish identity in the 60s through candid, explicitly lust-riddled monologue to a psychoanalyst from a young Jewish man, Alexander Portnoy, and the situations his fixation upon masturbation gets him into. My Life As a Man (1974) Split into two sections: first consists of two short stories, titled "Salad Days" and "Courting Disaster” about a character named Nathan Zuckerman. The second section, "My True Story," takes the form of a memoir by Peter Tarnopol, a Jewish writer who authored the two stories in the first section. The ‘Zuckerman Bound’ tetralogy is made up of ‘The Ghost Writer’, ‘Zuckerman Unbound’, ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, and ‘The Prague Orgy’ – all of which follow the character of Nathan Zuckerman. The Ghost Writer (1979) An up-and-coming writer, Nathan Zuckerman, visits an acclaimed writer and professor in New England. The novel explores the process of writing, authorship and the condition of Jews in 1950’s America. At the professor’s house he also briefly meets a young woman who he begins to fantasise about and later comes to believe is Anne Frank, living anonymously, having survived the Holocaust. Parts of the novel are a reprise of sorts on Anne Frank’s diary. Zuckerman Unbound (1981) Zuckerman has been catapulted into notoriety by his novel Carnovsky (a satirical novel detailing a young Jewish man’s rampant sexuality) and is receiving both critical acclaim and a storm of controversy. His family is falling apart as they think the characters in the book are based upon them, their conflicts and insecurities. The Facts (1988) Roth’s autobiography, detailing his upbringing, time as a young man and the development of his writing career. The text is bookended by a letter from Roth to the fictional Zuckerman that serves as an epigraph, and a letter from Zuckerman to Roth, commenting on a manuscript of the text Roth has sent him and the criticisms that lead him to believe the autobiography shouldn’t be published. Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) Follows a character named "Philip Roth" on a journey to Israel, where he becomes involved in a Mossad intelligence mission. Roth seeks out an impersonator/doppelganger who has stolen his identity used this name to spread a counter-Zionist ideology advocating the return of Israeli Jews to their European nations of exile.


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