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The Counterlife [Hardcover]

Philip Roth
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Mar 1987

The Counterlife is about people enacting their dreams of renewal and escape, some of them going so far as to risk their lives to alter seemingly irreversible destinies. Wherever they may find themselves, the characters of The Counterlife are tempted unceasingly by the prospect of an alternative existence that can reverse their fate.

Illuminating these lives in transition and guiding us through the book's evocative landscapes, familiar and foreign, is the mind of the novelist Nathan Zuckerman. His is the sceptical, enveloping intelligence that calculates the price that's paid in the struggle to change personal fortune and reshape history, whether in a dentist's office in suburban New Jersey, or in a tradition-bound English Village in Gloucestershire, or in a church in London's West End, or in a tiny desert settlement in Israel's occupied West Bank.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; First Edition edition (5 Mar 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224028715
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224028714
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14.2 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 761,709 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

In 1997, Philip Roth won the 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. He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians' Prize for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004". Recently Roth received PEN's two most prestigious prizes: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. Roth is the only living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America.

Product Description


"Roth is a comic genius... In this book (wonderfully sharp, worryingly intense) he is an electrifier" (Martin Amis Atlantic)

"Magnificent...splendid... I hope The Counterlife felt, as Mr. Roth wrote it, like a triumph, because that is certainly how it reads to me" (William Gass New York Times Book Review) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

'No other writer combines such a surface of colloquial relaxation with such a dense load of mediating intelligence - Roth has never written more scrupulously or, in spots, more lovingly' John Updike, New Yorker --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
3.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "We are all each other's authors" 2 Jun 2009
'The Counterlife' doesn't really 'fit in' to the Roth canon in the same way that a lot of his books do, which is probably one of the reasons it ranks among his best. But let's try...

"Kicking off with a slice of doomed sexual adventure that recalls the abrupt, majestic realism of 'The Human Stain', the novel ends up nearer the manic playful energy of 'Operation Shylock', with a dollop of the character-study astuteness of 'Sabbath's Theatre' thrown in. Oh, and don't forget the cunningness of 'Deception'.

It's odd- as dense as it undoubtedly is, it can also serve as a good all-round introduction to Roth's work."

Confused? I'll try a less referential approach:

"The real genius of 'The Counterlife' lies in its subversive rendering of fiction as biography. 'Operation Shylock', a later novel, takes the idea of the double and takes it to the limit of comic absurdity, whereas 'The Counterlife' multiplies itself indefinately, ending up as an anarchic mess that refuses to be pinned down, that refuses to 'tell it straight'. Yet, somehow, it holds together. It works.

However, this is not a novel for those seeking a linear plot line with stable character and tidy storylines. This is a frustrating novel, a maddening novel. A novel that demands you take it seriously- then laughs at you for doing so. Which isn't to say its without pathos, or richly-drawn characters, or that it simply careers from extreme to extreme. Its playfulness is the consequence of its sense of frustration at the insufficiency of a simple, linear series of events. And the novel's wariness of 'truth' masks a structure as clinical and precise as the operation that becomes its core event.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Counterlife 8 Sep 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Jewish story from a Jew's point of view. Hard to begin but once you're in you're taken by the story.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Roth 3 Oct 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book, Roth still writes interesting fiction after all these years, if you like him you will like this
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2 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've read and loved many Philip Roth books, The Human Stain, American Pastoral etc. But this book was disappointing because it was so confusing and "clever". As you read you are never sure if you are reading the invented story or a brother about another brother or the confessions of one brother to another, or lies lies lies.

Which means that, in the end, you don't care what happens.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  37 reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Roth in transition 16 Aug 2005
By jonsj - Published on
The Counterlife is one of Roth's most unusual and experimental novels, and finds Roth in transition from the spare, elegant books of the Zuckerman Bound trilogy to the more expansive Zuckerman novels of his recent, acclaimed "America" trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain).

In The Counterlife we get the full range of Roth--from the moving but wickedly funny first part Basel, where Nathan Zuckerman narrates the events leading to his brother Henry's death and subsequent funeral, to the second section Judea, where Nathan goes to Israel to try to lure Henry (restored to life and now part of a militant Zionist group) back home to the States, to a later section where Nathan has died, and an estranged Henry attends his funeral, to the final sections with Nathan in England, dealing with anti-Semitism and his wife's family in a brilliant bit of social comedy.

Plot sounds confusing, right? Yet The Counterlife is not a wildly post-modern novel, but a fairly straightforward read. Not all parts of the book work as effectively as the others, and the book is less finished than some of Roth's other work, but there are stretches here that contain some of the best writing Roth has ever done. This is a book deeply concerned with questions of identity and free will--more specifically about the many lives we create for ourselves and the way we often form these lives by reacting with or against other people's conceptions of us.

It's a remarkably thought-provoking and absorbing novel; if I would withhold it from the very top tier of Roth's achievements it's only because it lacks the cohesion and concentration of his best work. Still, a deeply rewarding book, and a must-read for Roth fans.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Philip Roth's The Counterlife - A Quest for Identity 30 Nov 1998
By A Customer - Published on
Philip Roth is one of the most highly acclaimed Jewish-American writers of our time, and The Counterlife confirms his skill as a craftsman and a philosopher on Jewish matters. Roth creates perfect environments for the scrutiny of a subject one frequently encounters in his work: The intellectual secular Jewish male's search for and affirmation of his identity.
This theme is woven into each of the novel's five chapters, which are authored in first-person narrative by the fictional writer Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman defines identity by weighing secularity against religious fervor, masculinity against femininity, potency against impotency, and Jewish awareness against anti-Semitism.
While the novel is set in Zuckerman's fictional world, the chapters each tell separate stories. The situations Zuckerman creates vary, and thus three forms of Jewish identity between which he seems to be caught are examined. Zuckerman experiences the identities of the secular son of traditional Jewish parents, of being a militant Jew's brother, and of the son-in-law grappling with his mother-in-law's anti-Semitism which causes the failure of yet another attempt at family life.
Similar themes can be identified in Roth's other works, such as Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint. However, the post-modern structure of The Counterlife allows for their juxtaposition within one novel, thereby offering the reader a spectrum of the protagonist's issues of identity.
Roth's prose is explicit, witty, and even funny, making the novel a truely enjoyable and engaging read. In the interest of authenticity, he does not recoil from using obscenities. He mocks Jewish-American militancy and pseudo-religiosity by the creation of Ben-Joseph, the author of the "Five Books of Jimmy," who really misses baseball in Israel and later hijacks an El Al plane for hopeless ends.
Nevertheless, Roth does not lose sight of the danger inherent in this militancy. Zuckerman finds his brother's carrying a gun alarming. He detects a loss of "Henry's [his brother's] Henriness," and wonders whether Henry has "developed, postoperatively, a taste for the ersatz in life".
A well-rounded novel, and certainly a must for those interested in Jewish-American writing.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Roth's "Variations On a Theme" 17 Nov 2009
By William J. Fickling - Published on
This is the best novel I have read by Philip Roth (so far). It is unlike anything I have read by him before, or by many others, for that matter. When I finished it, I was reminded of a number of musical compositions called "Variations On a Theme By xxxxx), in which a composer takes a theme by another composer and then composes several variations on that theme. Here, however, the original theme is by Roth himself, so that Roth is writing variations on his own theme.

I don't like people who write reviews with spoilers, so I won't do that here, in that I won't reveal any crucial plot elements. However, I don't believe it would ruin any prospective reader's enjoyment to reveal the book's basic structure. The book is divided into 5 sections. In the first, a major event occurs to one of the characters. In the second, the tape is rewound and that same character's life takes another course. In the third and, in my opinion, the most expendable part of the book, which follows directly from the second section, an unsettling event happens to one of the other main characters. In the fourth, the tape is rewound once again and the same thing that happened to one of the characters in the first section happens to one of the other characters. The fifth section follows directly from the second without the events in the third section having happened. Moreover, in this section one of the characters becomes aware that she is a character in a novel and begins talking back to the author.

Confused? I wouldn't blame you if you were. However, the book does come together with remarkable coherence at the end because it deals with several universal human themes. I think all human beings have "what ifs?" in their lives. Haven't all of us wondered at time what our lives would have been like if such and such hadn't happened. Roth shows us several different scenarios as to how things might have turned out for his characters. Another major theme is Jewish identity: how does a Jew fit into a society where he is a minority and perhaps an outsider? Or, does he reject that society and go to Israel, where Jews run the show? How does a gentile who is in no way anti-Semitic manage a relationship with a Jew she loves but who is also full of anger at the history of anti-Semitism? Finally, what is real and what isn't? What is the difference between fiction and reality? This is not an original theme, to be sure, but rather handles it with exceptional skill and finesse.

Finally, I must comment on Roth's prose style. Roth writes the clearest and most lucid prose of any modern American writer, with the possible exception of John Updike. Reading Roth is nearly effortless. What may be difficult and may cause the reader to pause are the ideas he discusses, but never the prose style. I cannot recommend this book highly enough as a riveting and talented read.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "An Australia for Jews" - a sad core amidst fine satire 5 April 2003
By A Customer - Published on
This is a funny, satirical literary novel about the clownish mid-life crisis of a typical suburban Jewish New Jersey dentist - yes, it's Roth country! But at it's heart, in the Israel section of the book, the farce suddenly dies away: I found the sad, powerful tale of the character "Shuki" unexpectedly moving: Shuki, one of the original European settlers of Israel, who enthusiastically built Israel and fought in the front line through all the troubles, is now an exhausted, world-weary man. He sees all the talented Jews of the world settling in places like the USA, Canada, Britain and France, whereas forty years of unrelenting war have turned Israel (he says) into "an Australia for Jews," a place where the first rate don't emigrate to anymore, only the most hopeless come now, those without the skills or talent to get them into the First World, who must experience a day to day tension so profound it's like a recreation of the pogroms of Russia. Roth's stunning departure from the farcical aspects of his story and Shuki's blunt assessments hit the reader like a succession of boxer's blows, the reader lulled previously by all the fine satire and good story telling. Luckily, the farce returns quickly, and we're off for more crazy adventures with the suburban New Jersey dentist and his writer brother, but this is a unexpectedly a very powerful book, and though it came out a few years ago it is, of course, especially moving right now in these troubled times.
Don't miss Roth's other novels if you like this one. I also recommend Dawn Powell's *The Golden Spur*, Simon Raven's *Alms For Oblivion* series, Sandor Marai's *Embers*, the poetry of Philip Larkin and Paul Theroux's *Kowloon Tong*. And all of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Roth's Best Novels 27 April 2011
By Ethan Cooper - Published on
THE COUNTERLIFE begins with a short chapter entitled "Basel". In this, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman imagines the adulterous mindset and experiences of his brother Henry, a successful dentist and father of three, who chooses to undergo risky heart bypass surgery rather than take medication that leaves him impotent. The surgery kills Henry and his wife, who knows of his infidelities, falsely eulogizes her dead husband at his funeral, claiming that Henry underwent surgery to restore their precious physical relationship. In this fine novel, this is the first apparent counterlife that Roth concocts, which he defines, in reference to Israel, as constructing "one's own anti-myth..."

This narrative strategy--develop an alternative story from the apparent facts--produces some fascinating and deep thinking from Roth in THE COUNTERLIFE. For example in "Judea", this novel's second chapter, Henry undergoes the same heart surgery, lives, and then experiences severe depression, which he manages through aliyah to Israel. There Henry, an assimilated American Jew before his surgery, lives in a settlement in the territories, where he becomes a follower of a charismatic and apocalyptic settler, who another character calls a "psychopath alienated profoundly from the country's common sense." In "Judea", Nathan, also an assimilated Jew, travels to Israel to discuss the wisdom of aliyah with his brother. Roth manages the subsequent clash of viewpoints with great subtlety and eloquence, with a diverse selection of Jews contributing depth or background to their discussion. "Judea", in other words, presents the counterlife to "Basel", where horny and unfaithful Henry basically loses his life for oral sex.

Another illustration: In chapter four, "Gloucestershire", it is Nathan who has heart disease, uses Beta-blockers, and is impotent. Nonetheless, he is determined to father a child with Maria, a brilliant and much younger upper-crust Brit. As a result, this Nathan decides to have risky heart surgery, which kills him. Then Henry, a dentist and professional's professional, illicitly enters his deceased brother's apartment, where he is determined to extirpate from his Nathan's notes all references to his single marital indiscretion. This Henry shares some qualities with the Henry in "Basel"--namely, an adulterous past. And he shares qualities with the Henry in "Judea", who is resentful of his renowned brother. But in "Gloucestershire", Henry is positioned to express the fullness of his remorse and his anger. And he offers yet another counterlife, where Roth examines how the novelist's need to enrich life in narrative can engender misunderstanding and rage in others.

In THE COUNTERLIFE, Roth is an author of disputation. Instead of managing the content of his narrative to a few profound truths, he allows each of his characters to make an eloquent and irrefutable argument. This produces a book with both great richness and intense and unresolved disagreement. In the final chapter, "Christendom", this creates problems for Maria and Nathan, who in a counterlife, marry. But this also allows Maria to make comments on Nathan's character that certainly apply to the author Philip Roth. These include:

o "You and I argue, and the twentieth-century history comes looming up, and at its most infernal. I feel pressed on every side, and it takes the stuffing out of me--but for you, it's your métier, really.

o "You actually like to take things hard. You can't weave your stories otherwise."

Of course, I don't mean to convey that THE COUNTERLIFE is only debate and friction. In addition, there is some truly great descriptive writing, which shows Roth can capture the appearance of a character or the feel of a place whenever he wants. Here's Roth describing Lippman, a settler and fanatic: "Because of his injury, Lippman walked as though intending with each step to take wing and fly at your head--then the torso slowly sank into the imperfect leg and he looked like a man who was melting. I thought of a circus tent about to cave in after the center pole was withdrawn. I waited for the thud, but there he was advancing... his face had the sardonic mobility that comes of peering nobly down upon self-deceiving mankind from the high elevation of Hard Truth." His description of the house in Chiswick is also wonderful.

I'm no expert. But near the start of "Christendom", isn't the sly Roth using this talent to channel Jane Austen?

Highly recommended.
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