How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Food Fun in Chicago

Because of my Russian heritage, when I’m in Chicago I like to eat at Russian Tea Time near the Art Institute. I’ve never been served a bad meal there, and having lunch or dinner, scraps of my parents’ conversations in Russian come back. The enjoyable present makes for a warm connection to my past, and I feel my late mother’s presence very strongly because she was a wonderful cook and used to make her own borscht.

But this past weekend I felt like changing things up. I’ve had several book tours across Germany and in Vienna where I became very fond of the food, the wine, and the beer. So Berghoff seemed a natural choice. It’s been in business for a century.

The wood paneling and stencils on the wall felt familiar even though the clientele was multi-national. I’d eaten many a schnitzel on my book tours so I wanted to see how their Wiener Schnitzel compared. Served with spaetzel and creamed spinach, it was delicious, and so was the German Riesling. The apple strudel, though, was a bit too sweet and looked deconstructed.

There was a band playing blues in the bar, but I didn’t mind the commotion because I was reflecting on how my life had changed so dramatically after I found a distant cousin by marriage in Magdeburg, where my mother had been a slave laborer in a munitions factory. Germany had always felt taboo to me until that discovery, and I’ve been there five times now, visits recorded in my memoir/travelogue My Germany.

For breakfast I picked Le Pain Quotidien on Michigan Avenue and that also sparked great reminiscences. My tasty avocado toast with smoked salmon seemed very American, but the coffee came in a little pitcher and I got a bowl as opposed to a mug. It brought back more pleasant memories, this time of research trips I’d done in both the French and Flemish speaking parts of Belgium. The coffee was smooth and strong, the staff friendly.

I had planned lunch at a trattoria but got the days confused and it was closed, so I found myself drawn ineluctably to the nearby Russian Tea Time where I had two specialties I’d never tried before.  The excellent mushroom barley soup was tomato-based and filled with vegetables, while the duck strudel (yes!) was terrific and unusual.  I had two glasses of a sweet red from the Republic of Georgia and wished my mother could have been alive to dine with me there.

Food and writing often go together for me, and this trip gave me ideas for fiction and much more. I was alone for most of my time in Chicago, and that can sometimes make me miss being home, but memories and new enjoyments were great company.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.  He’ll be teaching an online memoir writing workshop this summer at http://writewithoutborders.com/workshops/