Philip Roth, The Counterlife

The CounterlifeThe Counterlife by Philip Roth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t care for this novel as much as the distinguished critics do: Gass pronounces it “a triumph,” Wood calls it “possibly [Roth’s] greatest novel,” Updike (on the back cover) says, “Roth has never written more scrupulously or more lovingly.” But I find it has the quality of a willed experiment, and too much of the talk—usually the glory of Roth—is aimless and arid. There is nothing here as intense or vital or memorable or inventive as the fantasy of Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman in Florida settling his late mother’s affairs and Zuckerman in the hospital in The Anatomy Lesson, or the father’s death in Patrimony—to say nothing of the end of Sabbath’s Theater or the middle of The Human Stain.

The Counterlife is a complicated metafiction in five parts, each chapter but the middle one named for a character’s idea of a final destination, a pastoral into which they could escape the difficulties and conflicts of their lives: “Basel,” “Judea,” “Aloft,” “Gloucestershire,” “Christendom.”

In “Basel,” novelist and Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman attends the funeral of his more normal and upstanding brother Henry, a successful dentist who has died from heart surgery meant to save him from impotence brought on by beta-blocking medication. Because the impotence cut Henry off from the one experience—adultery—that offered relief from his respectable and orderly life, he was willing to risk death to reverse it. This section, narrated with melancholy Chekhovian humor in close third-person from Nathan’s point of view, is perhaps the novel’s most moving, attentive to all participants in the action and alive with sympathy to perspectives from Henry’s to his intelligent daughter Ruth’s.

The second section, “Judea,” imagines another future for Henry: having survived the surgery, he dismisses the fleshpots of American middle-class life and moves to an Israeli settlement under the leadership of the fanatical Mordecai Lippman. This is the novel’s high point, Dostoevskian rather than Chekhovian, as Roth gives Lippman ferocious speeches that almost, but for their hatefulness, might make one understand the attractions of Zionism, or any project of political utopianism, in contrast to aestheticism and consumerism.

The third section, “Aloft,” takes place on an El Al jet. It features an extensive correspondence between Nathan and a friend on Zionism that spells out what was already implied, and then veers into a comical but slight hijacking set piece.

“Gloucestershire,” the novel’s least interesting section, restarts the narrative again: this time Nathan (rather than Henry) faces the decision to have surgery to forestall impotence, because he’s fallen in love with an Englishwoman who lives in his building. Now Nathan dies, and Henry bribes his way into his brother’s apartment, where he finds and absconds with the incriminating manuscript of the novel we’re now reading. The chapter does end brilliantly, with a bittersweet interview between the Englishwoman, Maria, and the version of Zuckerman who lingers in her memory. Roth ranges in this novel over an impressive variety of moods and tones:

I know now what a ghost is. It is the person you talk to. That’s a ghost. Someone who’s still so alive that you talk to them and talk to them and never stop. A ghost is the ghost of a ghost. It’s my turn now to invent you.

The final section, “Christendom,” resurrects Zuckerman, marries him off to Maria, and sends him to a life in England, a potential domestic idyll with a child on the way, where he contends with the subtleties of English snobbism and anti-Semitism until they destroy his new marriage. This remarkably discursive novel is not reticent about its themes:

The treacherous imagination is everybody’s maker—we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.

And Zuckerman, in a letter to Maria at the novel’s conclusion, elaborates on the paradoxical significance of his being a Jew:

A Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple.

Being Jewish—not Judaism—is Roth’s mark of human difference, the sign of all apartness and refusal to assimilate to any schemes for an unconflicted or pure life. To appropriate another Rothian title, Jewishness is, like sexuality itself, the human stain. With this in mind, we are prepared to judge both Zionism and English nationalism as equivalently pastoral fantasies. We can also see how Roth-Zuckerman’s insistence on Jewishness departs from American identity politics, which indulges pastoralism when it encourages cultural nationalism and fantasies of group identity rather than recognizing individual self-division. The titular counterlife is both the dialogical condition of the novel itself and the way the human imagination, when not detoured by delusions of wholeness, works in its endless contestation of the given.

I find Roth’s defense of individual difference and self-difference a welcome and timely argument, and I also admire the intelligence of its dramatization. Roth’s work provides one of the better examples of how serious thinking, as profound as any in philosophy or other more official intellectual disciplines, gets done in fiction—and this without the sometimes too-easy resort to allegory, which the recent trend toward fantasy in literary fiction encourages. With its international outlook and its strongly particularized and eloquent female characters, The Counterlife also refutes the usual charges against Roth’s provincialism and sexism.

But this novel sacrifices too much narrative, too much description to its many pages of dialogue and dispute. I think it might have been a shorter novel: “Basel,” Judea,” and “Christendom” probably suffice to make the point. Without The Counterlife‘s working out of Roth’s intellectual dilemmas, he might not have been freed to write his expansive later masterpieces; for this reason, they seem to me more vivid than this dryer and more intellectualized affair.



  1. As always, a very detailed and perceptive review! Roth is always so extremely readable that I often have trouble organizing my reactions to his books after the fact. He seems to me to be the truest modern example of Bakhtinian “polyphony”, in which the character’s viewpoints take on their own independent life and can’t finally be reconciled by means of the author’s own perspective. Also- I love your phrase, the “endless contestation of the given”. Roth’s characters, so often straining or railing against circumstances of their own making, seem addicted to this process of self-reinvention through a kind of unmaking. Thanks for the great read!

    • Thanks very much! Yes, I agree about Roth’s polyphony, and also about how it can be difficult to respond to his books individually; his work sometimes seems like one vast organic thing to me. And your focus on the unmaking is a very important factor I didn’t emphasize enough: his characters are drawn to self-destruction, which is why I’ve never been persuaded by critics who dismiss Roth as merely writing about selfish men.

Comments are closed.