(160 pgs. Houghton Mifflin)
Over the last few weeks, writers and artists have been hard-pressed to try and make some sort of sense out of the radical shift in the political and moral life of our country. In the process, quite a bit of ink has been spilled hastily proclaiming the death of this or that, including sarcasm, irony and in some cases, even comedy. Jumping to conclusions like these and insisting that art must now reflect the new realities of our world is, in the end, a very American, and very insular way to look at the world. Not to lessen the emotional and political import of what happened on September 11th, but believe it or not, it's not the first tragedy to befall the world, and throughout it all, great art has been produced. The crisis of the artist in these times isn't just an exercise intellectual navel gazing, however, as what is at stake stabs at the very heart of the creative process - namely, how do you go about creating art that tests the bounds of the imagination when all bets are off? What is possible, and more importantly, what is permissible?
In the middle of all this, along comes Philip Roth's latest book, Shop Talk, (Houghton Mifflin) his first collection of essays or criticism in 26 years. It's a collection of ten interviews with, and essays about writers who have influenced his own work. At the core of the book lies the belief that writing can, in a very real way, be a life-and-death struggle to reconcile the artists' abstract vision of the world to the realities presented by day-to-day existence. Roth chose to speak primarily with writers confronted with physical dislocation from their native land or who have experienced something of a spiritual rift between themselves and their culture, and as such the interviews in the book allude to an almost metaphysical faith in the artists' ability to create under the very difficult conditions forced upon them.
What writers such as Holocaust survivors Primo Levy and Aharon Appelfeld and Czech dissidents Ivan Klima (who also survived the holocaust) and Milan Kundera have to say on the matter of art in a time of crisis is invaluable. These men are not public officials who have to speak in terms of realpolitik or national consensus; rather, they speak from the intensely personal viewpoint of those who have lived to tell the tale. Aharon Appelfeld, an Israeli writer who spent part of his childhood wandering the forests of Ukraine alone after having lost his parents during the Holocaust, speaks to the difficulty of creating after experiencing the unthinkable: "Reality, as you know, is always stronger than the human imagination. Not only that, reality can permit itself to be unbelievable, inexplicable, all out of proportion. The created work, to my regret, cannot permit itself all that."
Given the weighty subject matter in which Roth chooses to clothe his conversations, the book also exposes the Rothian ego in all its self-referential glory. Choosing to remain true to habit and ignoring his feminist critics, eight of the ten sections of the book concern men. Of the two sections featuring women -- a conversation with Irish writer Edna O'Brien and an exchange with Mary McCarthy -- the latter comes off as a grossly self-serving argument for the strengths of Roth's The Counterlife. After publication of The Counterlife, Roth sent a copy of the novel to McCarthy, who took issue with certain themes in the work, but instead of an enlightening exchange between two intellectuals we are only given McCarthy¹s initial comments and Roth's retort to them, effectively ending the argument before it picks up any steam and thereby making the piece sound one-sided and a bit defensive.
The way in which Roth chooses to edit his questions (which are at times much longer than the answers to them) also seems to expose a desire to lay it all out. Many of the questions are more like mini-essays on subjects such as Kafka, censorship, absurdist literature and the tie between personal freedom and creativity that somehow manage to segue into something that might require a response. He harps on the same themes time and time again, and while evoking interesting responses, one almost gets the impression that Roth is making sure to expose all of his own views while asking, in a roundabout way, the opinion of his subjects.
The opinions Roth does get, however, are often fascinating. For writers such as Klima and Kundera, who had to contend with the censorship and repression of a totalitarian regime, the answer to how to create art under the tyranny of a repressive system seems to lie in creating an intensely personal yet political satire of the individual's place in the state machine. Absurdity as a response to postmodern life is a recurring theme in the book, often in reference to Kafka and how he managed, through the dreamlike intensity of his work, to predict the plight of the individual in an ever more alienating world. Of Kafka, Klima says: "His fiction keeps insisting that what seems to be unimaginable hallucination and hopeless paradox is precisely what constitutes one's reality." In some ways, the same could be said for the more interesting, experimental and challenging aspects of some of Roth's own work.
Two other sections of the book are devoted to major Rothian influences, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, Roth's predecessors in the Jewish-American literary canon. The Malamud piece is just as much an emotional story about a friend's struggle with old age as it is a study of his work, while the Bellow section is an essay calling for Bellow's inclusion among the great American novelist-regionalists of the 20th century.
Given all this, there is one very interesting, and very subtle twist to the book that deserves special note, and which begs certain questions. Oddly enough, it occurs in the bibliography listed at the beginning of the book. Either Roth himself or his publisher has decided to newly (and neatly) assign his life's work into five broad categories: The Zuckerman Books, The Roth Books, The Kepesh Books, the rather generic Other Books and Miscellany, into which the current book is placed, joining Roth's last book of criticism, Reading Myself and Others. One wonders if the book, and the new categorization of Roth's works, are the product of an aging author's desire to get his house in order for posterity. A nice little package with his titles neatly categorized, his views and his influences readily available, and a critic's objections answered serves as the beginning to a tidy bookend to a legendary career, for sure.
In the end, Shop Talk stands as an important, if at times self-serving
book, which by the accident of timing has more to say to us about reality
versus the imagination than one would have thought only a few weeks ago.
It is also possible that it is the first installation of an extremely
self-conscious American writers victory lap.