September 20, 2008



Mark, looking forward to reading your Roth piece.... but not quite as much as I'm looking forward to typing "stunning Saturday in Paris" myself, someday.

Nikola Lukanc

Interesting review. (36th book? To my knowledge, it’s his 29th, including two works of non-fiction).
If one is to gain an additional perspective on Indignation I think it essential – and illuminating – to read the chapter “Joe College” from The Facts as well as “Salad Days”, the first part of My Life as a Man.
In “Joe College”, the biographical account of Roth’s College days at Bucknell in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, there are lengthy descriptions of ROTC, mandatory Chapel, fraternities, his father’s anguish about his nightly whereabouts that ultimately resulted in his transferring from Rutgers College, Newark to Bucknell. At Bucknell, Roth is even admonished by the Dean, and a Panty raid actually occurred. Sounds familiar? We also find an all but verbatim sentence from Indignation: “…a civil war cannon that, according to the risqué witticism repeated to newcomers, went off whenever a virgin walked by.” – Indignation p. 20 vs. “…a civil war cannon that Marty daringly told my parents went off “when a virgin walks by.”” – The Facts, p. 45 US Vintage paperback.
The theme of the Korean War has also been explored by Roth before, albeit in an ironic, less indignant way. In “Salad Days”, which for the first time introduces N.Z. (not the “real” N.Z. – this one has a different personal history), the protagonist goes to Bass College, Vermont, studies hard, attends ROTC, suffers mandatory Chapel sermons and fears – together with his father – being drafted and sent off to Korea. Sounds familiar? And the almost verbatim sentence is here as well: “It was the same outfit I’d seen on the boy pictured on the cover of the Winesburg catalogue…he was walking beside a girl wearing a two-piece sweater set and a long, full dark skirt and turned-down white cotton socks and shiny loafers. She was smiling at him while they walked together as though he’d said to her something amusingly clever. Why had I chosen Winesburg? Because of that picture!” – Indignation p. 115 vs. “…it was the pictures in the Bass catalogue of the apple-cheeked boys in white bucks crossing the sunlit New England quadrangle in the company of the apple-cheeked girls in white bucks that had in part drawn Zuckerman to Bass in the first place.” – My Life as a Man p. 12 US Vintage paperback.

This in not to say that I dislike Indignation. Of course, it’s not in the same league as Sabbath’s Theater or American Pastoral, but nevertheless, I liked it very much. I think that “Been there, seen that” – the narrow scope of Roth’s themes is not something negative, but, on the contrary, at the heart of Roth’s genius. I think that Messner’s words “Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae? Who would have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component?” illustrate Roth’s creative process, how “every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific…” to quote Roth in his letter to Zuckerman in The Facts. I am not familiar with any other writer who manages to produce such varied works from so little – “only” by spicing up the facts with “the fictional amplification, giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen”, to quote Zuckerman in Exit Ghost – to illuminate the human condition from such a diversity of angles based only on Jew/Newark/Family/Shiksa/Indignation.


Thanks for the excellent review. And I too am awaiting The Roth Piece.


Would be interesting to compile a list of writers who make "so much from so little." Modiano might be another.

Banville reviews the Roth favorably in the Weekend FT: http://bit.ly/1VPnS4


Nikola - number of books were confirmed by my editors with the publisher.

Nikola Lukanc

I wish you were right – that would mean 7 Roth books I haven’t read yet, but I insist – Roth published 29 books (excluding the private printing of “His Mistress’s Voice” – a story originally published in the Partisan Review).
You cannot count reprints such as Zuckerman Bound or the Library of America editions as separate books.


I found this review very satisfying for reasons that I think go beyond the book itself. The claims made from many to Roth being the "greatest living American writer" have gotten under my skin. I'm thoroughly depressed by it, and it gives me hope to see someone not cowed beneath his reputation and the weight of all those books. He's written a few good novels, I admit, but the thought that a writer so stifled in his own cocoon, so soured to the world, so entrenched in the tired autobiographical cliches of much recent American writing (oversexed, aging academics, suburban coming-to-terms novels, etc.) could be the best we have to offer is horrific to me. Am I alone in thinking this? So many literary blogs I've seen are working through his back catalog (British ones especially - they must've released some new collection there) and it's making me pine for some youth movement that shows a little more energy, imagination and range.

Ed Renehan

I agree with you on Roth's latest. - Edward Renehan

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