This was a very brief introduction to the complicated War of the Spanish Succession – it was really far too brief. I suppose it was useful to a point, but I would have preferred a larger work and treatment.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at 5 ideas for decorating with books, which really isn’t my thing (at least not in a primary sense).
Like many, I was shocked to learn of novelist Philip Roth’s death.
Just a few months ago he was writing to me, making all sorts of snarky comments on the Dictionary of Literary Biography entry I had written about him.
In the margins of the proofs, Roth penned the snide remark: “I read Tropic of Cancer in 1959 or 58. It was hardly on my mind almost 40 years later.”
These kinds of sharp comments were typical of Roth. While I was conducting research for “Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth” at the Roth manuscript collection in the Library of Congress, I was able to see many of his handwritten comments back to his editor. “Keep it to yourself!” he’d write in rebuke to a critique or suggestion.
Roth’s stubbornness wasn’t isolated to these small events. Early in his career, Jewish community members loudly critiqued his work, arguing that, if not openly anti-Semitic, his fiction at least catalyzed anti-Semitic thought. Yet Roth refused to capitulate, staying true to artistic vision. Though he would eventually be mostly embraced by many Jews – including Jewish women like me – it took decades for widespread acceptance to take place.
Roth, the Jewish anti-Semite?
Much of the early criticism of Roth’s work was related to the way he depicted his Jewish characters.
Published in 1959, the collection “Goodbye, Columbus” was Roth’s first major work.
The title novella traces a summer romance between Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. The problem, especially for Brenda’s family, is class. Neil, a librarian and the son of Jewish immigrants, just can’t quite seem to fit in with the country club clique that surrounds the Patimkins.
At the time, some Jewish leaders and parents, especially those that wanted to assimilate into American culture, balked at “Goodbye, Columbus.” The Jews in Roth’s stories were not depicted as beacons of good taste – as literary, educated, tasteful and well-disciplined representatives of the assimilated mainstream. Instead they were either crass – like Neil’s Aunt Gladys – or ostentatiously wealthy, like Brenda’s father.
The rebukes were swift, and often hyperbolic.
For example, Rabbi Theodore Lewis said that Roth “depicts the Jewish characters in his short stories and novels as depraved and lecherous creatures.”
But if Lewis thought “Goodbye, Columbus” was “lecherous,” he was in for an unpleasant surprise.
Roth’s smash hit, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published 10 years later, features a young Jewish bachelor, Alexander Portnoy, who is consumed with sexual longing and frustration. Portnoy narrates the whole novel, in monologic form, to his therapist, Dr. Spielvogel, telling him that he is the “Raskolnikov of jerking off – the sticky evidence is everywhere!” Portnoy describes himself as a “sex maniac” who will not “control the fires in his putz, the fevers in his brain.”
Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem, writing in Haaretz soon after the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” argued that Roth “revels in obscenity” and claimed that “this is just the book the anti-Semites have been waiting for.”
The Holocaust looms large
It is easy to forget now, but many of the rabbis and other Jewish community members who denounced Roth’s prose had lived through World War II. They’d seen all the Nazi propaganda portraying overly sexual Jewish men raping or taking “pure” Aryan women.
As historian Dagmar Herzog points out in her study “Sex After Fascism,” “Sexual demonization of Jews was a pervasive feature of antisemitism.”
But by populating novels with hypersexual Jewish men who lusted after “shiksas,” or non-Jews, Roth was actually flipping Nazi propaganda on its head. Rather than suppress this lust, Roth sought to normalize and celebrate it: Jews, just like everyone else, could want to have massive amounts of sex and not be ashamed.
Yet because some of his Jewish readers were so close to the anti-Semitism that ultimately culminated in the Holocaust, they were unable to comprehend this reversal; they could only perceive the similarity between Roth’s depictions and those of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
While Roth could have easily ignored this censure, he engaged his detractors head-on by including their attacks in his work. Nathan Zuckerman, who appears as the narrator of many of Roth’s novels, has often been described as one of Roth’s alter-egos.
In Roth’s 1979 novel “The Ghost Writer,” the character Judge Wapter asks Nathan Zuckerman, “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?”
In “Zuckerman Unbound” (1981), Nathan, who had recently published “Carnovsky” – a fictional version of “Portnoy’s Complaint” – is considered the “enemy of the Jews.” He is told that it would be “hardly possible to write of Jews with more bile and contempt and hatred.”
By including the controversy in his novels, Roth was able to both air his rage at being unjustly labeled anti-Semitic, while responding to – and, in some cases, lampooning – his detractors.
The tide turns
But a turning point came with the publication of his prescient novel “The Plot Against America” in 2004.
In it, he imagines a counterhistory in which aviator Charles Lindbergh has become a fascist, anti-Semitic president, and Newark, New Jersey’s Jews are sent to assimilation camps in the Midwest.
With Roth explicitly exploring – and condemning – anti-Semitism in America, critics could no longer claim that Roth was lending anti-Semites a hand. The question of negative stereotyping of his Jewish characters had largely been forgotten by 2004, but this novel was Roth’s most sustained focus on the deep terrors of anti-Semitism in America.
Roth was likely thrilled that, in the results of a New York Times poll asking “What is the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years?” six of Roth’s novels were included among the 21 runners-up. In 2013, when Vulture asked 30 literary figures “Is Roth the greatest living American novelist?” 77 percent voted yes.
Roth lived to see his canonization as a great American writer – a great Jewish-American writer at that – something unforeseeable in the old days when he was supposedly bad for the Jews.
Many Roth scholars, myself included, were in Newark five years ago to celebrate the author’s 80th birthday. He seemed utterly hale and hearty as he read out passages from “Sabbath’s Theater,” and a parade of literary stars – many of them Jewish – sang his praises and toasted his stunning prose.
As the character Sabbath reflects, “The dead were anything other than dead.”
Olav ha-sholom, Roth.
Brett Ashley Kaplan, Professor of Comparative and World Literature, Director, Program in Jewish Culture and Society, Director, Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The link below is to an article that considers the purpose of libraries.
For so long an enfant terrible of the American literary world, by the end of his life Philip Roth had become one of its elder statesmen. In a career that spanned more than half a century, Roth’s work ran the gamut of literary modes and genres.
There’s the high seriousness of Letting Go (1962) and the low humour of The Great American Novel (1973). There are the extravagant excesses of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), couched in the form of a psychoanalytical monologue, and the pared-down, elliptical exchanges of Deception (1990), a novel written entirely in dialogue.
Then think of the social realism of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), that’s plot turns on the use of a birth control device in the period prior to the availability of the contraceptive pill, or the grotesque surrealism of The Breast (1972), the story of a professor of literature who metamorphoses overnight into a giant mammary gland. The versatility and variety of his work doesn’t end there. He also wrote an outrageous satire of an incumbent president in Our Gang (1971) and a dystopian tale of a fascist presidency in The Plot Against America (2004).
Although the style and content of Roth’s fiction is extraordinarily diverse, there is always audible a distinctive voice: irreverent yet earnest, questioning yet authoritative, subtle and nuanced yet powerful and passionate. But above all, Roth is obsessive, compulsive, restless, driven.
In an interview with the Paris Review in 1984, Roth remarked of his 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson that: “The book won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up.” This applies equally to all his work. Roth’s work grabs you and won’t let you go. At one point in The Ghost Writer (1979) Nathan Zuckerman – the author protagonist of many of Roth’s novels – is told by his mentor, E I Lonoff, that he has “the most compelling voice I’ve encountered in years”.
It is that compelling voice which bewitched me when I read the opening pages of Portnoy’s Complaint as a teenager. It is that voice which still held me in thrall as I read the final words of his final novel, Nemesis (2010), as a middle-aged professor.
I have been reading Roth for over 30 years and writing about him, on and off, for more than two decades, and as with any long-term relationship, mine with Roth has had its ups and downs. But I have never felt like walking out or giving up. Roth will be remembered – and deserves to be celebrated – for his fearlessness, his formal audacity and stylistic brilliance, and his ability to reinvent himself in unexpected and sometimes startling ways.
In terms of his critical reputation, you could divide Roth’s career into three phases. There are the early successes of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint in the late 1950s and 60s, respectively, followed by the relatively fallow years of the 1970s and 80s, and then the triumphant second coming in the 1990s and the 2000s.
Yet this narrative is too simplistic. The period of greatest critical hostility and indifference – a period in which, to quote Nathan Zuckerman (pre-empting Roth’s critics, as ever), the author was widely accused of “disappear[ing] right up [his] own asshole” – was also a period of intensive experimentation, which revealed Roth’s refusal to rest on his laurels and determination to interrogate his own aesthetic and ethical beliefs with a rigour of which very few artists are capable.
Although the work produced in the 1970s and 80s was uneven, it paved the way for much of what was to follow and resulted in two masterpieces – The Ghost Writer (1979) and The Counterlife (1986). These novels stand alongside Sabbath’s Theater (1994) and American Pastoral (1997) as among the greatest post-war American novels.
Roth was a writer who polarised opinion, provoking strong reactions in many of his readers, but whether you loved him or hated him, his canonical status is beyond question. I believe he will come to be seen not merely as the preeminent post-war American novelist but as the most important American author of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
When the ancient Egyptian priest and landowner Heqanakhte wrote a series of rather acerbic letters to his extended family sometime during the 12th Dynasty (1991-1802BC), he could not have known that he was creating the framework around which the British crime writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976) would, some 4,000 years later, weave one of the world’s first historical crime novels.
Death Comes as the End (1944) is the only one of Christie’s novels not to be set in the 20th century and not to feature any European characters. The death of a priest’s concubine sets off a series of murders within the family and, as in Christie’s more familiar 20th-century whodunnits, the scene is soon littered with bodies. The book is due to be adapted for the screen by the BBC in 2019.
While there are numerous plot parallels in the Heqanakhte Letters (as these papyri would come to be known), the letters themselves provide an unparalleled glimpse into land management and everyday family life in ancient Egypt. In the letters, Heqanakhte provides his children with meticulous calculations of crop yields and instructions for land investments followed by the stern injunction that he would consider any deviation from his instructions akin to theft.
The letters also contain allusions to some disharmony within the family caused by the recent addition of Heqanakhte’s second wife to the household, much like in the novel where the arrival of Imhotep’s concubine, Nofret provokes murderous hatred.
The Heqanakhte Letters are trivial in their content but unique in their form: It is very rare for this level of detail concerning the family dynamics to survive the thousands of years which separate us from Middle Kingdom Egyptians. The letters were found in the 1920s by American archaeologists from the Metropolitan Museum of Art while excavating the tomb of the Middle Kingdom vizier Ipi near modern-day Luxor. Translations of the papyri and scholarly investigations followed shortly afterwards, a study which continues to this day.
Christie in Egypt
Christie certainly knew a thing or two about both ancient and modern Egypt. She first visited the country as a young woman in the winter of 1910, staying with her mother Clara for three months at Cairo’s glitzy Gezirah Palace Hotel. The experience had a clear impact on her – her first (unpublished) novel Snow Upon the Desert (1910) was set in Cairo.
Later, she drew further on her experience of life in Egypt and the experience of tourists visiting the country during the first half of the 20th century when writing the short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1923) and, 14 years later, Death on the Nile, which follows the orotund Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as he attempts to solve the (some might argue needlessly complicated) murder of a wealthy heiress honeymooning in the Land of Pharaohs. In other words, peak Christie.
Christie’s marriage to British archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930 reinforced her fascination with the ancient Near East and ancient Egypt. The marriage – and the financial success of her novels – provided her with ample opportunity to travel both as a tourist and an archaeologist in the region, experiences which in turn resulted in the autobiographical Come Tell Me How You Live (1946) and inspired further travels for her fictional Belgian detective in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Appointment with Death (1938).
Bringing Egypt to life
However, it was her friendship with the Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, a professor at University College London who served with Mallowan during World War II, which prompted her to explore the possibility of writing a historical whodunnit moving her narrative from Art Deco drawing rooms to the dusty desert on the Theban West bank. Death Comes as the End was written by Christie during the height of war and, as Christie herself states in the author’s note, “the inspiration of both characters and plot was derived” from the Heqanakhte letters. Glanville served as a historical sounding board and consultant, a role for which he was eminently suited, having written the seminal book Daily Life in Ancient Egypt in 1930.
While the book received praise from critics upon its publication in 1944, it did cause some ructions in Christie’s own family life. Mallowan was not altogether happy that she had collaborated with Glanville. He wrote to Glanville expressing concern about the work to which Glanville rather pointedly replied: “I am not clear whether you are afraid that the book will damage her reputation as a detective story writer, or whether you think that archaeology should not demean itself by masquerading in a novel.”
Death Comes as the End is not among Christie’s most famous works, but it remains a fascinating experiment: a marriage between archaeology, Egyptology and fiction writing, a formula many later authors have dutifully followed. Along with Christie’s other works set in Egypt and the Near East it is also a tangible testament to the enduring fascination Western societies have for these ancient cultures.
The link below is to a book review of ‘J. C. Ryle – Prepared To Stand Alone,’ by Iain Murray.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at 12 of the best Sherlock Holmes stories according to Arthur Conan Doyle.