Decorated with a Legion of Honour, showered with French awards, American writer Philip Roth, who died Wednesday, was the object of great admiration in French literary circles. It was a love that he had trouble understanding.
Barely eight months before his death Wednesday, when Philip Roth heard he was receiving yet another French addition to his long list of honours, the American literary icon appeared delighted, but surprised. “I’m forever the guy who misses the Nobel, but here I am in the French pantheon,” he noted.
Roth was reacting to the news that his complete works – translated into French – had just been published in the hallowed Pléiade series by France’s prestigious Éditions Gallimard.
In an uncompromisingly literary — and secular — society, a Pléiade honor has been likened to getting as close to the intellectual gods as humanly possible. But when his friend, French literary journalist, Josyane Savigneau, visited Roth in his Manhattan apartment with a copy of the edition just days after it appeared on bookshelves across France, the octogenarian writer was still trying to grasp the import of the latest accolade.
Roth wanted to know how many 20th century writers had their “Pléiades” and if they had made the grade during their lifetimes.
“Yes, many more than we would imagine, but not foreigners,” recounted Savigneau in a lengthy tribute published by French Vanity Fair Wednesday.
“Among the living, am I the only one?” he asked.
“No, there’s also Vargas Llosa,” Savigneau replied, referring to Peruvian literary giant Mario Vargas Llosa.
“He would have liked to have been the only one,” Savigneau wryly noted.
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‘Never lived in France’
The Pléiades distinction came just four years after Roth received the French Legion of Honour at a formal ceremony in the French Consulate in New York, located on the Upper East Side, with a spectacular view of Central Park.
At the medal presentation ceremony in September 2013, then French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius celebrated Roth’s long and special relationship to France.
But the love affair between Roth and France made little sense to James McAuley, Paris correspondent for The Washington Post, as he tried to decipher the reasons for Roth’s popularity in France.
“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,” was McAuley’s opening salvo in an October 2017 piece, aptly titled, “Philip Roth is France’s newest superstar. Why?”
While the Nobel Prize eluded him, France showered him with awards and honours, McAuley said in an interview with FRANCE 24. “He was put in the Pléiades here in France and his reputation, I think, is sterling here in Europe in ways that are quite surprising for an American reader like myself because of course for us he seems such a kind of national product and engaged in themes that are universal of course but also decidedly American.”
“It’s very interesting to see the ways he is beloved overseas even if he never got the Nobel Prize,” McAuley added.
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Stepping out of his US milieu
Born in Newark, New Jersey, to a family of Ashkenazi Jews, Roth excelled at portraying the dark moods of his native USA. His great themes, as Roth’s biographer, Claudia Roth Pierpont, noted in the New Yorker, included “the Jewish family, sex, American ideals, the betrayal of American ideals, political zealotry, personal identity,” and “the human body (usually male) in its strength, its frailty, and its often ridiculous need”.
The US – and the insular world of the Newark of his birth in particular — was his milieu, and if he ventured beyond, it was especially to explore Eastern Europe. He traveled regularly to Prague and formed friendships with Eastern European writers such as Milan Kundera, Danilo Kis, Jiri Weil and Witold Gombrowicz. He even arranged — during the 1970s, when the Soviet regime took control of Prague — a system of financial smuggling to help Czech writers by collecting money from his US colleagues and redistributing the funds undercover.
Apart from a few conferences and dedications, especially in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence, Roth was not particularly connected to France.
As McAuley noted, “Perhaps the only thing that links him,” to France, was “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.”
Jewish identity and anti-Semitism
While his Jewishness was central to Roth’s writing, the American writer’s Jewish identity had little resonance for French readers, according to a number of French literary experts.
“The French really don’t know what to make of the Jewish aspect of books such as ‘Operation Shylock’ or ‘The Counterlife,’” French novelist Marc Weitzmann told The Post.
Equally discomforting and baffling, according to Weitzmann, was Roth’s complex handling of anti-Semitism. “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,” said Weitzmann.
‘In France, I am sanctified’
But then again, there were many elements of Roth’s life and work that are deeply appealing – and completely comprehensible – to the French. “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,” listed The Post.
Like many Europeans, French readers revere Roth. In 2002, ‘The Human Stain’ received the Médicis Etranger prize for a non-French book and sold a whopping 300,000 copies in France, versus a grand total of 50,000 book sales in the US. “In France, I am sanctified,” Roth told Savigneau.
Whether it was the Legion of Honour, the Médicis Etranger or a Pléiade collection, Roth always appreciated the honours France bestowed on him and appeared to bask in the Gallic pomp and ceremony accompanying the accolades.
The love affair between Roth and Gallimard dates back to 1962, when the leading French publishing house translated “Goodbye, Columbus” three years after its US publication. In 1970, “Portnoy’s Complaint” received “early recognition of a certain section of the intelligentsia in France, it was defended by people who counted”, said Philippe Jaworski, professor of American literature at the University Paris-Diderot and coordinator of the Pléiade edition, in an interview with AFP.
Antoine Gallimard, head of the publishing house created by his grandfather, Gaston, attempted to decode the French infatuation with Roth for The Post: “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,” he noted. “In this respect, each new Roth book was a surprise a real renewal. I envy the readers who do not yet know Philip Roth.”