What can the differences between the two teach us about post-World War II American literature?
Philip Roth is by many accounts the greatest living American writer. He has written 27 novels, won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award twice, the PEN/Faulkner Award thrice and nearly every other prestigious literary prize. He is the subject of lavish biographies and documentary films, and his novels are frequently adapted for the screen, with the imminent American Pastoral being just the latest in a long line of star-studded treatments. He has garnered such international acclaim and fascination that even his interviews are translated into multiple languages. Apart from his status as a living legend and perhaps one of the last of a dying breed — the fearsome, rapacious literary lion — Roth is also recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, post-WWII Jewish-American writer. He has chronicled what we pseudo-academically call "the Jewish experience" as a swirling vortex of guilt, prurience, irony, filial love and Oedipal compulsion, constructing half-swaggering, half-insecure protagonists who are walking, groveling, staggering contradictions.
But amid all the generally deserved pageantry surrounding Roth's coronation as the preeminent chronicler of the Jewish-American experience, an equally talented and unforgettable writer is getting lost in the shuffle: Saul Bellow. While not quite the 21st century household name that Roth has become, Bellow won the Pulitzer for Humboldt's Gift and the Nobel Prize in Literature, both in 1976, and several of his novels appear again and again on “Best of All Time” lists, most notably Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March and the aforementioned Humboldt's Gift.
Each author is a literary juggernaut in his own way, and together they arguably comprise (with all due respect to Salinger and Mailer, who were Jewish but did not consistently, explicitly write about Jewishness or Jewish culture in America) the two greatest voices in Jewish-American literature.
The Sensationalistic, Lustful, Misanthropic Roth
Roth has been a prolific fixture in American fiction for half a century, a mammoth display of longevity that has added to his appeal. Readers have been able to watch his development and curious transformations as a writer, from early works like Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint to late near-masterpieces such as Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. We watched as his work became denser and more refractory; the minds of protagonists, once wide-open and fully accessible, became blurry, deceptive and obstinate, as if his novels underwent a slow but inevitable drift from translucence to choppier, murkier waters. In these later works, any sense of clarity or resolution is always out of grasp.
But the novel that put Roth on the map is hardly a study in opacity. Portnoy's Complaint was a controversy-courting literary sensation when it was first published in 1969. It felt unlike any other novel of its time: ostensibly written in one deep breath, the exhale delayed until the final "punchline," in which we see the whole story has been an elaborately staged joke, literally Portnoy's verbose complaint to his psychiatrist. The whole thing follows in similarly over-the-top, hyperbolic style. The protagonist is angst-ridden, sex-crazed, racked with guilt, consumed by exasperation. He is an extreme case of, first, the Jewish boy with the overbearing, browbeating mother and, second, the Oedipus complex. His obsessive relationship with his mother is nearly matched by his combustible rage toward his father, an enduring symbol of failure, impotence and physical decrepitude. Alexander Portnoy — as recalled by Alexander Portnoy — careens through the novel at full neurotic tilt, masturbating in bathrooms and buses, fantasizing about seedy prostitutes and dodging his parents' onslaught of grief and grievances like Wile E. Coyote ducking ACME anvils — all the while, of course, still chasing tail. Portnoy's Complaint has been compared to stand-up comedy acts of the time, and the analogy is apt. The whole novel is rendered in a slapstick style, with Portnoy serving as a haphazard leading man beset by farcical danger at every turn. His girlfriend, for god's sake, is referred to only as The Monkey, and she's a self-objectifying sexual caricature with a set of fake teeth and a fifth-grade reading level.
What comedy survives in Roth's later works is painted in black and blue. Sabbath's Theater, the 1995 National Book Award Winner, again features a protagonist of inveterate sexual impulses — only this time his sexual liaisons are not comic routines; they have real consequences that insidiously alienate everyone around him. Mickey Sabbath is short, stout and, if we take him at his word, well-endowed. Throw in a thick beard and he seems to be Roth's adaptation of the Greek god Pan — only in Roth's reimagining, Pan ruins all the nymphs' lives and must reckon with his own degradation and relentless bereavement. Early in the novel, Sabbath mentions how "at some indefinable point you come to half understand that the ruthless antagonist is yourself." Yes, Sabbath is the antagonist to every other character in the novel, a selfish, immensely calloused old menace for whom compassion seems biologically impossible. Only the wonderful trick of Roth's book is that we get Sabbath's story, so we are forced to understand him as both wantonly cruel antagonist and aimless, destitute protagonist. Sabbath's Theater is only told from one perspective, but it feels like other points of view are being surreptitiously shared the whole time: those of the women whose lives he has destroyed.
Roth's later novels, most notably Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral, are dense and pitiless, diving headlong into an unflinching, masochistic realism. That's what the one-time purveyor of risible Jewish guilt and alienation matured into: a master, or the master, of contemporary realist fiction, with aging men whose lives are defined by the emblems of white American privation and failure — affairs, A.A., divorce, suicide, the familial dead and the derangement of filial love.
The Convoluted, Indefatigable Mind over Matter
Saul Bellow, whose professional climax would stretch from The Adventures of Augie March in 1953 to Humboldt's Gift in 1975, is in many ways the antithesis of Roth: Unlike Roth's morose, enigmatic heroes, Bellow's protagonists are incredibly lucid, their confusion and self-parody and neuroses practically geysering out of the page like a burst vein. And as anyone who’s read Bellow will tell you, his best novels are only tangentially concerned with plot and action. What is of the utmost importance is accurately and abundantly rendering the mind of his central characters.
Bellow invented his own stream of consciousness style, one by necessity similar to modernists like Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce, but with distinct differences and an astonishing, ecstatic sense of originality. Unlike The Sound and the Fury, for example, in which we must "decode" each narrator's interior monologue in order to follow the narrative, Bellow manages to simultaneously juggle two different modes: his main character's endlessly expanding and contracting thoughts, and a more traditional narrative structure held together by a third-person point of view and propelled by vivid, frequently hilarious dialogue. It's a brilliant feat. When you return to Bellow after reading another author, you are always freshly floored by just how extraordinary his novels' internal machinery is. In Herzog, for example, the title character slips into thought-tangents that incorporate Christianity, philosophy, intellectual history and abruptly concocted theories on the human condition, all while still, somehow, being grounded in the action of the novel. With Moses Herzog, Bellow has not simply created a character who happens to be an academic; he shows us how the mind of an intellectual works, speculating on history, philosophy, metaphysics, eschatology, Hegel and Marx, brazenly tying together different arcs of human history, if only on the ill-fated trapeze of his imagination. The talented but failed academic serves a greater thematic purpose, too: The novel is truly, deeply existential. It's not content simply to line up its protagonist's failures and regard them with self-mockery; it invents a human being who is grappling with the meaning of existence and suffering, his place in human history and to what end his mind — perhaps yet another form of bondage — serves.
Bellow vs. Roth
As with other Bellow protagonists, Herzog's mind is a means to both salvation and ruin. Still, that's more than can be said for Roth's bedraggled men, who turbulently spiral toward damnation. That's one of the crucial differences between the two postwar Jewish writers: For Bellow, the mind offers moments of transcendence, however fleeting and hallucinatory; for Roth, it’s just a receptacle for grief and the detritus of life. These implicit ideologies are brought to bear in each writer's prose. Bellow's characters' interior monologues are like leavening agents, inflating and softening the action around them. Roth's prose, on the other hand, remains flat and forbidding, precluding flights of fancy and instead expanding the narrative through calcified, matter-of-fact memories that, happy or sad, are just more bullets in the hearts of characters like Sabbath, deepening their cynicism and subservience to the only fate they have narrow-mindedly conceived for themselves.
In a way, Bellow's prose style is his characters' salvation. It lifts them out of the drab, shambling circumstances they so often find themselves in, gives their life meaning (or at least an ambitious, wildly demonstrative gesturing toward meaning). With Roth, there is little meaning outside the story itself, its bones, muscles and tendons. And as the narrative frame of American Pastoral — in which Nathan Zuckerman hears of the tragic demise of Swede Levov at a high school reunion — attests, the ability to tell the story, to recount and relive it in excruciating Faulknerian detail, may sometimes be enough.
But there's no choosing between Roth and Bellow. Both have chronicled American life in fearless, painstaking detail and shown us how Jewish literature is American literature, rather than some subgenre to be ghettoized by scholars and Wikipedia editors. However, in his highly original stream of consciousness style and towering ambition to synthesize so many strands of intellectual inquiry in a search for meaning and order, Bellow has more thoroughly inherited the aims and innovations of modernism. But he was also writing, for the most part, 20 years prior to Roth and so was not so far removed from Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway or even In Search of Lost Time. Bellow could, and did, successfully draw on that fresh legacy of authors mixing memory, imagination and the longing intellect — like Herzog, eager to encompass everything.
More than anything, the stark differences between Bellow and Roth show us just how much American literature changed in less than two decades. Sure, there are the postmodernists like Wallace, Pynchon and DeLillo, employing metafiction and bending reality through sustained irony, strung-out paranoia and warped historiography, but it seems Roth's brand of heavy-handed realism and intense focus on the vagaries and breakdowns of family life have won the day. Bellow's heroes — Charlie Citrine, Augie March, Moses Herzog — are great literary characters; they are tragic, funny, riven by strife, self-reflective, realized with incredible depth and utterly memorable. Although they are unmistakably Jewish-Americans, they would probably manage just fine in another country, thrive shambolically in England, Italy or France. Roth's heroes and antiheroes, on the other hand, are incontrovertibly American. Their lives represent the perversion and degradation of the American Dream, and there's just no sticking them in Paris or London or Venice. In that one crucial difference between the two authors, we can see how American literature has shifted from a transatlantic art form in Bellow's time to one deeply obsessed with its own country in Roth’s, and the litany of shattered promises that country makes to man and his family.
Mike Mariani is a writer and educator based in Hoboken, New Jersey. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in LA Review of Books, The Atlantic, Adbusters and Hi-Fructose, among other publications.
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