August 15, 2008


Richard Beck

Speaking of the word "indignation," Portnoy says that it's his favorite word somewhere near the end of "Portnoy's Complaint." I also read Portnoy for the first time this summer, was struck by that little passage, and then was really struck when I saw the title of his new one.


Richard, you are absolutely right. I found my notes, and it's Portnoy, not Columbus. I've made the change and noted the passage above. Thanks!


I'd be curious where "indignation" is in GC, if you find your notes. I don't remember it and couldn't find it as flipped through just now.

GC is great summer reading. I like the fruit refrigerator.


"Giants are name-dropped unselfconsciously in a way that I suspect most contemporary novelists would avoid"

And yet he rarely, if ever, cites an English-language author or book, let alone American ones. For all that the early stories and novels are saturated in Henry James (their discreet interest in point-of-view; their obsession with the hidden overlaps between social niceties and moral imperatives), the writers he mentions are always from the European east - Kafka, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Freud, Babel; later, people like Aharon Appelfield and Milan Kundera.

Given all this, and given how foregrounded Roth's interest in these writers is, why so shy about people who write in the English language? Sabbath's Theater and some of what has come after allude heavily to Shakespeare (though, curiously, only to the tragedies), but modern English-language literature doesn't really exist in Roth. Why is this? Is it - as Martin Amis once suggested - that Roth wants to get at a book's meaning "without the obstruction of a responsive verbal surface"? Or is the fact of these writers only being accessible to Roth in translation a mere coincidence?

It's also notable the extent to which Roth is going back to his grad school reading in the later novels. I haven't read Exit Ghost or the new one, but I'd be very surprised if I didn't see Ivan Ilych shoehorned in there somewhere.


Hi guys.

Forgive me, I've never read any Roth. But this is the point of my post. I've been contemplating reading him for a few months now but have been unable to decide where to start.

Would a chronological read-through be best? Or can anyone suggest the novel to start for a complete Roth novice?




Too busy unpacking to find the link, Shane, but over at the NBCC blog, Wyatt Mason suggests The Ghost Writer, and I agree.

Niall, where is the Amis essay, do you know?

Back to boxes!


Ivan Ilych is alluded to in Everyman. However, Exit Ghost does refer to an English (in language rather than nationality) author: Conrad, specifically The Shadow-Line. The Anatomy Lesson begins with a funny allusion to George Herbert, and Letting Go begins with a very depressing reference to Portrait of a Lady. These are all off the top of my head, so if anyone else wants to help Niall, please pitch in.


Hi Mark,

The Amis essay is in The Moronic Inferno. It's presented as a single essay, but is in fact disparate reviews of Roth's late seventies/early eighties novels: The Professor of Desire and The Anatomy Lesson among them.

The point about Roth's obsession with non-English language authors doesn't really go much further than what I quoted above (and that a translated text can be referred to as "unresponsive" is something I disagree with). But I think it does suggest something about what Roth reads for: it's not for native lyricism, or for ambiguity on the level of pure language.

Mitch Nisonoff

Exit Ghost explicitly references Conrad's "The Shadow Line" a number of times. Interestingly enough, the word "indignation" also features prominently in the "Shadow Line" (as does the word "breast"(!)): When learning that the prior caption deliberately had made the bottles in the medicine chest so that appeared to contain quinine when, in actuality, they didn't, the protagonist recites: "The magnitude of my indignation was unbounded. ,,, The fittings were in order and medicine chest is an officially arranged affair. There was nothing really to arouse the slightest suspicion. The person who I could never forgive was myself. Nothing should be ever be taken for granted. The seed of everlasting remorse was sown in my breast." Conrad's influence on Roth can traced from early on in his writings: the clues are given together with the last two.

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