Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics


Philip Roth's "Indignation"


The Montreal Review, May, 2009


Philip Roth, Caricature


In 1997, Philip Roth won Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Gold Medal in Fiction. Roth is the only living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definite edition by the Library of America.


Usually we choose to read a book because of somebody's suggestion or because of its cover. Do we pick out a book because of its title? Perhaps.

"Indignation," one Philip Roth's recent books has no magnificent cover, nor a luring title. On the cover there are a few lines and fields in muted jolly colors crossed diagonally by black bold letters: "Indignation."

In an interview Roth said that the book is autobiographical. The sophomore Marcus, the main character in "Indignation," lives at the time when Roth was a college student in the 1950s -- the time when the United States was in Korea, waging its first bloody conflict after the Second World War.

When I read, a few years ago, Roth's first novel,"The Ghost Writer" (the beginning of the popular Nathan Zuckerman trilogy), I was surprised and lured by its candidness and realism. "The Ghost writer" was a deep psychological tale about young, old, and writers, uncovering the unpleasant realities, egoism and everyday life of the artist. With Zuckerman's trilogy Roth assured his a place among the best American writers and the qualities of Indignation would not be a surprise for the old admirers of his prose.

"Indignation" is a short book, the size of "The Ghost Writer," and it has the same psychological depth like all of Roth's books. The language is pouring free in Camus's stylistic monologue. The novel can be called, if we use an outdated word, "existential." The similarities between the young Nathan Zuckerman and Marcus Messner are numerous as their differences are. Both personages are good, clever boys with a promising future, both of them are uncomfortable with their fathers, both -- in love. But their end is different - we find Natan still alive in "Exit Ghost" (also published recently), Marcus is forever lost in the battlefields of Korea...

Marcus is a magnificent character, much more positive than Zuckerman. I think that he is even one of the best literary characters ever written. Charles Simic from the New York Review of Books called him "The Nicest Boy in the World". He is the young man, entering the life with a pure heart, ideals and beliefs that would be tested by a cold, unwelcoming world. We do not learn something new from his story, and this is not Roth's goal. But we are overwhelmed with sympaty, because each of us, the grown-ups, was Marcus at one or another point of his or her life. Roth shows that reality can be cruel, pityless, often ending not as we would like. When I finish the book, I knew - I love this boy... and I hate the world.

There is some pessimism in the late Roth, which is as deep as his ability of psychological analysis. "Indignation" is a book about the American family, obsessed with fears, hopes, and ideals (the "family," we may speculate, can be a metaphor of America). It is a novel about the youngsters sent to die overseas, it is about the deadly hypocrisy of our society, and it is a fair critique. It's like Roth wants to say, without mercy: you are lost; your generation is doomed like every generation before yours was; the justice always is triumphant, but never in your own life.

Yet the book is not only darkness, there are many bright spots, humor and absorbing plot.

Roth is a master of language and narrative.


More reviews:

"Nasty, Brutish, and Short" by Christopher Hitchens

"Indignation" by Yvonne Zipp

"Indignation" by John Banville

Interview: The story of my lives

"From Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral, Philip Roth's jostling alter egos have provided the literary world with some of the great masterpieces of the past half-century. Here, as he celebrates his 75th birthday, the novelist talks to Robert McCrum about losing friends, living alone and why the next book will be his last..." continue>>> 



Submissions Guide
Letters to the Editor
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry | links | newsletter
The Montréal Review © 2009 - 2013 T.S. Tsonchev Publishing & Design, Canada. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about | contact us | copyright | user agreement | privacy policy