In 1969, Philip Roth published Portnoy's Complaint, a novel which would go on to receive accolades, notoriety, and critical and commercial success. Considered obscene, it nevertheless sold over three million copies in its first five years of publication. Roth, only in his early thirties, was rich enough that he was now able to write whatever he wanted whenever he wanted without the worry of financial restraints. Perhaps as a result of this freedom, the ‘70s was, for Roth, a decade of experimentation which saw the political satire Our Gang, which heavily criticized President Nixon, and the bizarre, Kafka-inspired novella The Breast, which had David Kepesh turn into a massive female breast. It was also responsible for the instigation of Roth's heavily introspective period, where he began to examine the struggle between the writer and his works, the writer and his readers, and the writer and the writer. The Library of America publication of Roth's three novels in the years 1973 - 1977 include The Great American Novel, My Life as a Man and The Professor of Desire.
The Great American Novel is a satire, and a celebration, of baseball - that greatest of all American pastimes. The novel concerns the now-forgotten Patriot League, the third national baseball league that operated up until the end of the Second World War, when it was found the league was infested with Communists. This novel is Roth at his most fanciful, his most playful, his most exotic. It is undisciplined in a way not often seen in his other novels. The novel is full of puns, wordplay, references to literature, jokes - both subtle and obvious - and more. There is a character named John Baal, and his grandfather's name is Base, as an example. The Great American Novel is overwhelming for people who are not familiar with baseball, because the allusions and references to players and the statistics and terminology used comprise a majority of the text. For baseball enthusiasts, this novel is tremendous, but for those who do not understand the game or do not care for the game, there is little here beyond the jokes to keep the reader interested.
My Life as a Man introduces a famous Roth character, Nathan Zuckerman. Yet it is not the Nathan Zuckerman who would go on to feature in nine novels, from the great American Pastoral to the slim The Prague Orgy. Rather, he is a creation of Peter Tarnopol, a struggling writer going through a very difficult phase of his life. This novel is split into three sections, the first two being short stories featuring Zuckerman. The third and longest by far is Tarnopol's, who has written the Zuckerman stories to attempt to understand his own romantic predicaments. Tarnopol's life runs a close parallel to Philip Roth’s, with Tarnopol's nightmare marriage to Maureen mimicking Roth's own disaster with Margaret Martinson. Tarnopol is witty, creative, intelligent, and utterly, utterly lost. The novel jumps back and forth between Tarnopol's marriage to Maureen and his subsequent divorce and new girlfriend, Susan. He is obsessed with the woman who has, he believes, destroyed him in all the ways that matter. He laments the death of the confident, successful young man that he was, the man who could write, who could charm, who could hold his head high, now, bouncing between Susan, an astonishingly submissive woman who lives, it seems, to serve Tarnopol, and his massive feelings of guilt surrounding his marriage and divorce.
For all that Roth is criticized - or praised - for writing consistently about himself, book after book, it is with Peter Tarnopol that Roth has shed the most layers of fiction. Ordinarily Roth covers his own life with addendums, digressions, distractions and additions until the novel that remains is inspired by, not a mirror image of, his life. Not so with Tarnopol. Perhaps because of this, Roth is able to write of Tarnopol's breakdown and rebuilding of self with such relentless accuracy. He spares us no details, from the horrible, pathetic negative sides of himself, to the jubilation and hope that come from being free of his wife. Tarnopol does not come across as poorly as Maureen, but he is clearly a flawed, disturbing personality. And yet, the charm and intelligence remain, which drives the story forward. There is a sense that once the dirt and muck is wiped away from Tarnopol's life he will return to a - heavily modified, certainly - shining version of his younger self, wiser now, older now, less cocky but just as appealing. This is the longest and perhaps best of the three novels.
The Professor of Desire covers a lot of similar territory to My Life as a Man, and in that respect it pales somewhat against the larger magnificence of the second book of the three. Taken completely independently, surely this novel would have managed to stand on its own, yet immediately following My Life as a Man only hurts the text. We go over another disastrous marriage, another breakdown, another psychiatrist, another rebuilding, which all comes across as rather samey. When the novel veers away from this well-worn territory, it does so in a way that is engaging.
Ignoring the difficulties of David Kepesh's - who was last seen in Roth's novella The Breast - marriage to Helen, The Professor of Desire offers a sad, sympathetic portrayal of Kepesh's father, who has recently lost his wife to cancer. Abe Kepesh follows Roth's standard portrayal of the strong father, the emotional father, the father who believes in getting things right and cannot understand when others fail to do so.
Near the end of the novel, Kepesh travels to Prague with his partner, Claire, to see where Kafka grew up. They visit his grave, and David even visits the prostitute who was rumored to serve Kafka during his short life of astonishing creativity. These adventures follow the heavily literary theme that pervades The Great American Novel with its jokes and laughter, and My Life as a Man with its reverence for the written word.
There are no overt thematic links between the three works. The last two novels are linked in that their plots are remarkably similar, but that is all. Instead, it is the appreciation, examination and perhaps even obsession with literature that carries the works as a whole. Roth has always used the discussion of literature as a way of highlighting the aspects of his own work, but these three novels rise above even that. Without literature, it seems, these characters would be nothing because they are literature. David Kepesh and Peter Tarnopol, when confronted with something that does not conform to the rigorous motifs of literature, are completely dumbfounded, unable to do anything more than watch as their lives are reduced to rubble. And yet, of course, it is literature that saves them. Roth went on to write novels and regain his sanity and confidence, and so too did Kepesh and Tarnopol.
Roth's novels between 1973 and 1977 are solid works of art by a literary master who was not yet a master of his craft. The Great American Novel shows a writer trying his hand at whatever appeals and doing it well, while the last two novels display a talent coming to grips with the themes and obsessions that he knows. Roth went on to develop these interests with a surety of hand and a confidence of art that is perhaps unrivalled by any other American author, which makes these novels interesting doubly - once because they show talent in gestation, and twice because they remain strong, consistent and coherent works of art.