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Philip Roth and World Literature: Transatlantic Perspectives and Uneasy Passages By V ...

Chapter :  Introduction
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Philip Roth and World Literature:

Though perhaps harsh and hurtful, Howe’s essay may have acted as a catalyst for an interesting dynamics in Roth’s fiction in the mid-1970s. On one hand, Roth’s scope and preoccupations were indeed limited, for he was becoming progressively more interested in his characters’ interior lives. In 1988, focusing on Roth within the American Jewish literary tradition, Hana Wirth-Nesher emphasized this solipsistic move and explained it as Roth’s response to the “outburst of rage” occasioned by the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint. From that turning point on, she observed, “Roth’s art began to turn inward so that the drama between the Jewish writer bent on freely expressing his desires in his art and his moralistic readers bent on denouncing him becomes the central subject of his fiction” (Wirth-Nesher 23).

On the other hand, and simultaneously, Roth made an outward move as his fiction began to consistently engage the European literary tradition. The creative appropriation of his European forebears started with the post-Kafka fantasy The Breast (1972), inspired his imaginary biography of a Kafka immigrant in the United States in the essay “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka” (1973), sent his protagonists on visits to Prague in The Professor of Desire (1977) and The Prague Orgy (1985), and brought another important Jewish writer, Anne Frank, into his fiction in The Ghost Writer (1979).

In the early 1980s, Hermione Lee was among the first to highlight the dynamics between inward and outward tendencies in Roth’s work. In her monograph Philip Roth (1982), she related the protagonists’ introspective quest for self to the author’s reaching out to the art of Franz Kafka, Anton Chekov, Nikolai Gogol, Henry James, and Herman Melville. When faced with literary influence, she observed, Roth’s allegedly self-centered novels “batten on to it, consume it, use it and abuse it, and finally break free of it to find their own voice and style” (67). In this way, Lee interpreted the writer’s solipsistic move not as a turning away from culture but as a quest for developing an authentic voice against the voice of his literary mentors. Lee’s observation echoes Bernard Rodgers’s study,