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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Counterlife

Philip Roth

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To purchase The Counterlife

Title: The Counterlife
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986
Length: 371 pages
Availability: The Counterlife - US
in: Novels and Other Narratives - US
The Counterlife - UK
The Counterlife - Canada
La contrevie - France
Gegenleben - Deutschland
La controvita - Italia
La contravida - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

A- : debate-heavy, but never less than engaging

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic A+ 2/1987 Martin Amis
Literary Review . 3/1987 David Sexton
London Rev. of Books A 5/3/1987 Julian Barnes
The LA Times . 11/1/1987 Richard Eder
Le Monde . 26/5/1989 Michel Braudeau
The New Republic . 2/2/1987 Robert Alter
The NY Times . 29/12/1986 C. Lehmann-Haupt
The NY Times Book Rev. A 4/1/1987 William H. Gass
Sunday Times . 22/1/1987 Bernard Levin
The Times A+ 5/3/1987 Peter Tinniswood
The Washington Post A 3/1/1987 S.Schoenbaum
World Lit. Today . Fall/1987 Rita D. Jacobs

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Philip Roth’s new novel is so formi­dably good, and so perversely sur­prising, that it prompts a question: How did he get here ? How did he wind up with this ? (...) It is, for instance, a rare addition to the corpus of success­ful -- one could almost say readable -- post-modernist fiction. (...) The book unites in the theme of Is­rael, but loosely, not too schematically, not too teachahly, (...) Like Israel, he exhausts you, he unset­tles you, he galvanizes your responses. In this book (wonderfully sharp, worryingly tense) he is an electrifier." - Martin Amis, The Atlantic

  • "Philip Roth’s new novel is marvellously rich, boisterously serious, dense, fizzing and formally audacious. More than with most novels, to review it is to betray it. (...) As the novel increasingly begins to feel like layers of trapdoors, some of which turn out to be trampolines, the reader, falling and bouncing, hangs on to Maria (...) The Counterlife is an extraordinarily well-defended novel. It out-thinks and second-guesses you all the time. (...) There are more rich folds and cunning corners in this stunning novel, which perhaps sounds more schematic and less ‘lifed’ in summary than it is to read (.....) The final thing that needs to be said about The Counterlife -- since we tend to take this quality for granted -- is that it’s fucking funny. The phrase is used advisedly. Roth isn’t urbanely witty, or chucklingly ironic, or wry and dry: he’s just ... fucking funny." - Julian Barnes, London Review of Books

  • "In fact -- and you may ask: With such criticism, who needs praise ? -- Roth is so good in his particular themes and set-pieces that we may object to their being used as tiles in his more abstract and capricious now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t mosaic." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "All this may make The Counterlife sound like the later John Barth, or like Nabokov, with more realistic plausibility than the former and less pyrotechnic ingenuity than the latter. What is remarkable is that in being Roth's first self-reflexive novel, it is also his first Jewish novel. (...) This concentration of ideas is so intense that it leads Roth into the one entirely implausible episode of the novel." - Robert Alter, The New Republic

  • "Apparently not yet recovered from the shock of having his earlier novels, especially Portnoy's Complaint, taken literally by the American reading public, Mr. Roth is determined to prove in as many ways as possible that autobiographical fiction, no matter how seemingly personal, is not the same thing as confession. (...) By the time we have finished The Counterlife, we have begun to wonder if Mr. Roth has anything to write about except his fear of being misjudged as an artist. Like Pirandello's mad King Henry IV, he becomes the king of a court of illusions. We respect the tricky epistemology. And go hungering for something more substantial." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

  • "The Counterlife, it seems to me, constitutes a fulfillment of tendencies, a successful integration of themes, and the final working through of obsessions that have previously troubled if not marred his work. I hope it felt, as Mr. Roth wrote it, like a triumph, because that is certainly how it reads to me. The style is a triumph too. It is no longer a style at war with itself, as Mr. Roth's sometimes used to be, its cleverness undercutting its own emotions, its satire thinning a subject already sliced. (...) This is not the ordinary Aristotelian narrative that readers are accustomed to reading or that I am accustomed to writing. It isn't that it lacks a beginning, middle and ending; there are too many beginnings, middles and endings. It is a book where you never get to the bottom of things -- rather than concluding with all the questions answered, at the end everything is suddenly open to question. Because one's original reading is always being challenged and the book progressively undermines its own fictional assumptions, the reader is constantly cannibalizing his own reactions. In many ways it's everything that people don't want in a novel." - William H. Gass, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Through Mr Roth's raucous prose, through his book's shifting geography and time, through the couplings and separations of his characters, through the brooding presence of history that stands watch over the world that The Counterlife conjures up, above all through the tricks the author detonates, the hunted quarry is self-understanding; eternally elusive, it is still uncaught at the end, and the echo of the huntsmen's horns says only: Now you see it, now you don't." - Bernard Levin, Sunday Times

  • "This is the most daunting and complex Philip Roth to date. It is also one of his finest: indeed it is a breath-taking tour deforce of wit, wisdom, ingenuity, and sharply-honed malice. (...) The narrative switches, the stunning shocks and surprises, and the comedy veering from the robust to the mordant give the book a richness of texture, which demands the closest of concentration, but yields a constant bounty of pleasure and intellectual satisfaction. As always the characterization and dialogue are masterful. (...) It is magnificent." - Peter Tinniswood, The Times

  • "At its heart, The Counterlife celebrates the artist shamelessly exploiting experience to re-create his life through his art, just as Joyce, Proust, and (much less profoundly) Thomas Wolfe exploited theirs. If it does so with great complexity, the title of Roth's new novel is anything but evasive. (...) Roth's newest novel offers such a rich mix as to seduce us with its literary (and cinematic) allusions, eulogies, disputations, travel literature, melodrama and high comedy." - S.Schoenbaum, The Washington Post

  • "Roth is in fine form with his characteristic humor and his excellent ear for dialogue and the barbed quip. (...) The structure of the novel adds to its delight and depth." - Rita D. Jacobs, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Counterlife is yet another of Philip Roth's novels that features his alter ego/stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, but it's not quite the sort of chronicle of episodes of his life that the other Zuckerman works are. We do again get chapters from his life -- but there is more than one version presented here; the novel's five parts are not a neat progression but rather present some different paths, with different premises. In the fourth part, brother Henry finds a box on recently deceased Nathan's desk marked 'Draft #2': "In it were several hundred pages of typewritten manuscript" -- and, as Henry goes through it, the chapter-titles and content-summaries match The Counterlife, down to previewing the final, not-yet-reached fifth section ("The last chapter, called "Christendom," appeared to be his dream of escape from all that").
       The first part, 'Basel', has Henry killed off: diagnosed with a heart ailment at age thirty-nine, Nathan's dentist brother -- who likes to sleep around -- is put on medication that renders him impotent. The sexless life devastates him and he chooses to undergo the heart operation that would allow him to stop taking the drugs -- despite the doctor's warnings about the risks. The risks are all too real, and Henry does not survivie the operation.
       In the fourth part, 'Gloucestershire', it is Nathan who had the heart ailment (and the impotence that comes with it), and Nathan who undergoes the operation and dies, while in the second part, 'Judea', we are presented with an alternative course of events to the first section, where Henry is operated on -- but successfully. The final part opens with Nathan just arrived in England, after visiting Henry in Israel, after a: "quiet flight up from Tel Aviv", while the middle section, 'Aloft' is set on that flight, which is, in that version, anything but uneventful.
       At one point in 'Gloucestershire' we are told about how Henry sees Nathan's books:

     Whenever he sat down to read one of the dutifully inscribed books that used to arrive in the mail just before publication, Henry would immediately begin to sketch in his head a kind of counterbook to redeem from distortion the lives that were recognizably, to him, Nathan's starting point
       The charge that Nathan relies on real people and events in his fiction is one that Henry is far from alone in making. Even as the version of events Henry finds described in 'Draft #2' don't correspond to the reality he knows (and to his image of himself), he recognizes a great deal of Nathan, and reality, in it. Nathan's notorious bestseller Carnovsky -- the Portnoy's Complaint stand-in in the Zuckerman universe --, his break-through success but also albatross, comes up repeatedly and Henry notes angrily:
There's his eulogy, shmuck: Carnovsky wasn't fiction, it was never fiction -- the fiction and the man were one !
       Identity is one of the major concerns of the novel -- especially Jewish identity; "The poor bastard had Jew on the brain", as (one version of) Henry says about his brother. As a fan (and fanatic) tells Nathan: "You'd make a great Jew", but, although Nathan certainly obsesses about Judaism and Jewishness, there's a great deal that separates him from the faith. One of the interesting thought-/literary-experiments Roth/Nathan carries out here is in 'Judea', where Henry, after being operated on successfully -- but succumbing to a dreadful depression afterwards -- and despite never having been any more observant or 'Jewish' than Nathan, makes aliyah, abandoning his wife and three children and settling in Israel. (In the later alternate version of events, in 'Gloucestershire', when Henry reads what his here-deceased brother wrote, he's baffled what Nathan has him do, as someone: "who had never gone to Israel or had any desire to visit the place, a Jew who didn't think twice about Israel or being a Jew".)
       Nathan falls in love with Maria, who becomes (in some of these alternate timelines ...) his fourth wife -- yet again a shiksa, not a nice Jewish girl ... --, and she also sees a great deal of reality, and of him, in his books; she believes she understands who he is from them: "No, no, I've read your books", she insists, as if that revealed him to her. Nathan generally does not like people reading too much (reality) into his fiction -- how people continue to take Carnovsky, in particular, so seriously and personally continues to be an annoyance -- but plays along with Maria's concerns about her being a much too unadventurous pale English beauty who is unlikely to satisfy what he really wants and needs: when she asks him why he wants to settle down with and marry her he tells her:
I've decided to give up the artificial fiction of being myself for the genuine, satisfying falseness of being somebody else.
       (Yeah, that'll work .....)
       Maria also comes across and reads 'Draft #2' in 'Gloucestershire' -- and notes how his: "obsessive reinvention of the real never stopped". She's unsure how to consider what Nathan has made of it:
     I've never lived with a novelist, you know. On first reading I took it all rather literally, as a bad critic would take it -- I took it as People magazine would take it.
       She discusses the experience of reading 'Christendom' as well -- and also before the reader has gotten to it ... -- and the confusion she feels:
I began to wonder which was real, the woman in the book or the one I was pretending to be upstairs. Neither of them was particularly "me." I was acting just as much upstairs; I was not myself just as much as Maria in the book was not myself. Perhaps she was. I began not to know which was true and which was not
       Beyond these basic issues of identity and fiction, Roth is particularly focused on Jewish identity -- inescapable for Nathan, even as he can not see himself as part of the various forms of Jewish community he encounters. Marriage to Maria entails a move to England, where he encounters an anti-Semitism unfamiliar to him from the United States, while in Israel he remains a different kind of outsider, even as his brother wholeheartedly gives himself to the Jewish state.
       Much of the novel takes the form of debate and argument, a variety of positions staked out and argued for and against; as in American-style debating-society contests, Roth re-positions some of the participants -- notably in the counterlives of Nathan and Henry that are on offer --, examining the questions from different perspectives. Nathan's fiction -- from Carnovsky to 'Draft #2' -- plays a prominent role, but there are also several significant sections in epistolary form, long letters setting out arguments or explanation, making for a different kind of debate than the rapid-fire back and forth of much of the dialogue.
       It makes for an argumentative novel, but Roth is not tiresomely didactic; allowing for different outcomes and life-paths as he does here is a clever way of considering a large variety of positions. As almost always with Roth, it can all feel like a bit much, but The Counterlife is never less than interesting and Roth certainly keeps readers on their toes here, in a good way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 April 2024

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The Counterlife: Reviews: Philip Roth: Other books by Philip Roth under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2024 the complete review

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