Derek Parker Royal, executive director of the journal Philip Roth Studies, and Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization, praised American Jewish novelist Philip Roth’s lifetime of literary work at an event March 13 that celebrated the writer’s 80th birthday March 19.

The PJC and the English department made the event a true birthday party, with a cake and a rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the Georgetown Chimes. Roth, who splits his time between New York and Connecticut, was not in attendance.

Royal and Berlinerblau focused their discussion on trying to understand who Roth is as a person. Scholars are often challenged to fully understand Roth because the author is very private.

“There is like an electrified fence perimeter and a moat with crocodiles around the castle ‘Philip Roth,’”Berlinerblau said. “If one wants to get there and figure out who he is, it’s extraordinarily difficult.”

Roth is known for incorporating his life into his books and for using alter egos in his writing, such as the character Nathan Zuckerman and even a character named Philip Roth. Royal cautioned against taking these characters to be autobiographical and reminded the audience that they are fictional.

“I think if we rely on his fiction as a way into him as a man, him as a writer in his life, it’s impossible because, as any writer does, they take the seeds of the lived experience and their lives go into their writing,” he said. “It’s not just imagining — it’s experience as well.”

According to Royal, Roth has said not to look at his books autobiographically, even though his characters seem to resemble the author so closely.

“It’s like he begs us to look for his life in his fiction while at the same time saying, ‘Don’t do it,’” Royal said. “He’s playing a little bit of Jewish mischief, and I think that, Jewish or otherwise, he is a mischief-maker, and he does like to put on a variety of masks, a variety of veneers, facades and he likes to play around.”

Berlinerblau is currently working on a book about Roth’s fiction. He’s studied Roth’s drafts, which are housed in the Library of Congress.

“I admire many things about Philip Roth, many things, but it’s just the work ethic,” Berlinerblau said. “Is that is there any writer that is more committed to the craft? The five, the six, the seven hours every single day for what must be 50-something years.”

Zoe Lillian (COL ’13) took Berlinerblau’s class on Roth in fall 2011 and served as a teaching assistant the next semester.

“I thought it was wonderful,” she said. “It was really incredible having professor Parker Royal come, especially because I feel like every single person who has been in Jacques [Berlinerblau’s] class has cited him, so its really exciting to have him talking to us. And it was a really interesting conversation to have.”

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