Philip Roth is France’s newest literary superstar. Why?
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius presents the American author Philip Roth with the insignia of Commander of the Legion of Honor during a ceremony at the French Embassy in New York in September 2013. This month, Roth’s works were included in the Pleiade, France’s literary pantheon. (TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS — Philip Roth has never lived in France, reads French literature only in translation and has never set a novel in Paris, the cliched province of the lonely urban saunterer and existential ennui.
To say the least, the French do not seem to mind. This month, the aging titan of American letters won one of this country’s highest literary honors — an exceedingly rare accolade for a living author, especially a foreign one. All of Roth’s fiction will now be available in the famed “Pléiade,” a series published by the prestigious Éditions Gallimard with the aim of showcasing the highlights of French and world literature.
This means far more than just expensive new editions of his work, printed on pages that feel like the Bible and luxuriously bound in gold-embossed leather. It means that Roth is now an official member of the French literary pantheon, ensuring that generations of foreign readers will study him with the reverence reserved for the “great books.” In a secular society that still tends to venerate literary achievement the way America worships athletics, the Pléiade is, in a sense, the Bible.
Even Roth seems a bit surprised by this latest addition to his long list of honors. “I seem to have found a sizable audience in France and a large rapport with my French readers, though exactly why I can’t say,” the 84-year-old novelist wrote in an email.
Indeed, the reasons for Roth’s popularity in France remain hard to tease out.
Roth in 2013. (Anthony Behar/Anthony Behar/Sipa USA)
While French readers have long had a soft spot for American writers, they typically prefer those who moved to France and adopted it as their own: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and the like. As Stein wrote in 1936, in what became a kind of motto for many: “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”
That is not the path taken by Roth, whose spiritual hometown has always remained the Newark of his birth, the middle-class maelstrom a world away from the colossus across the Hudson River — let alone cosmopolitan Paris. Perhaps the only thing that links him to those francophile expatriates is his professed admiration for French literary culture.
As he wrote to The Post: “Colette the great sensualist, [Albert] Camus the great conscience, [François] Mauriac the great moralist, [Jean] Genet the great transgressor, and [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline, to my mind, the greatest novelist of all — brutal, fierce, the driven witness of an elemental world who takes us deeper and deeper into the night. Death, dying, crime, guilt, grievance, lunacy, sex — all of that and more is his daily business.”
Céline, another member of the Pléiade, is a complicated figure. While critics still praise his style, the interwar writer penned a number of passionately anti- Semitic pamphlets in the late 1930s, notably the infamous “Bagatalles pour un massacre.” Roth declined to say whether that disturbs him.
For the most part, Roth’s own “daily business” has been the insular world of suburban New Jersey, where he finds any number of deeper themes: among them, the hollowness of the American Dream, the subterranean world of male anxiety and, profoundly, the postwar experience of American Jews. Although far from universally beloved in the United States, where the critic Vivian Gornick once likened what she considers the misogyny in his novels to “lava pouring out of an active volcano,” Roth remains a cultural touchstone, if not a national treasure.
The question is: Do any of his major themes resonate in France?
France may be home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, but Roth is not necessarily seen here as a “Jewish writer” per se. The books of his that have been most successful in France — notably, “The Human Stain,” which appeared in translation in 2002 to widespread critical acclaim — have not expressly dealt with the issue. “The Human Stain,” for instance, is ultimately a novel about political correctness, originally released in the aftermath of the impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.
“The way Israel figures in these novels makes them uncomfortable, and that includes the French Jews,” Weitzmann said. “And then, of course, there’s the French reluctance to grapple with the theme of anti-Semitism whenever it appears in his work. The more nuanced he gets on this issue, the more at a loss they are.”
In general, the books that made Roth a household name in the United States at a young age — autobiographical-style novels like “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) and “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), often pilloried by feminist critics — did not find a wide readership in France. More popular here are the novels Roth published when he was older, setting his sights on broader social and historical themes.
“Well, one changes with experience,” Roth wrote in his emailed statement, describing that shift. “The impact of the world changes. In order to draw on history in my fiction I, for one, had first to live through the assault of history and to be able to look back upon decade after decade of eventfulness in order to locate the consequential moments that excited my imagination and that seemed, from the perspective of an advanced age, to have a special salience. What I was able to write about at 50 and 60 was not obtainable at 30.”
For the prominent French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, who said he has read Roth voraciously for decades, these later works, including “The Human Stain,” are masterpieces. They grapple, he said, with the questions that also define contemporary France: above all, minority relations and identity politics.
“What’s interesting about Roth for a French reader, given that France is a country that has been galvanized by an obsession with identity that is very unique, is that he plays with all identities,” Lévy said. “Maleness, Americanness and Jewishness.”
Also appreciated in France is Roth’s long history of engagement with Europe and its literature. Throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, he edited a series titled “Writers From the Other Europe,” meant to introduce what were then lesser-known writers from Eastern Europe to the American public. Among them were Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz and Tadeusz Borowski.
But to others here, there is also something essentially French about Philip Roth. His sexual frankness. His fearless fusion of the personal with the political. And perhaps above all else, his persona — specifically, the way he appears to live single-mindedly for his craft: prolific, slightly hermetic but nevertheless a cultural constant, active for more than half a century.
“While extremely American, Philip Roth’s books, in my opinion, satisfy a very French taste for literary experimentation, for play with forms and genres, for the blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality,” noted Antoine Gallimard, the head of Éditions Gallimard, in an emailed statement. “In this respect, each new Roth book was a surprise — a real renewal. I envy the readers who do not yet know Philip Roth.”
Weitzmann said: “He represents for the French a certain image of the ‘great American novelist.’ Literature remains important in France, and Roth may be the last living writer anywhere for whom literature is everything. He’s like a Flaubert for our time.”