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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Philip Roth and the struggle of modern fiction Knowles, Jack Francis


“Philip Roth and The Struggle of Modern Fiction” examines the work of Philip Roth in the context of postwar modernism, tracing evolutions in Roth’s shifting approach to literary form across the broad arc of his career. Scholarship on Roth has expanded in both range and complexity over recent years, propelled in large part by the critical esteem surrounding his major fiction of the 1990s. But comprehensive studies of Roth’s development rarely stray beyond certain prominent subjects, homing in on the author’s complicated meditations on Jewish identity, a perceived predilection for postmodern experimentation, and, more recently, his meditations on the powerful claims of the American nation. This study argues that a preoccupation with the efficacies of fiction—probing its epistemological purchase, questioning its autonomy, and examining the shaping force of its contexts of production and circulation—roots each of Roth’s major phases and drives various innovations in his approach. This imaginative scrutiny is continually registered in the restless intertextual antagonisms that suspend Roth’s work—engagements and conversations that stretch beyond the injunctions of identity and the tugging inner gravity of the national culture. Tracing Roth’s sustained dialogue with the labile legacies of literary modernism, the following readings explore the range of ways in which the novels actively contest other literary texts, historicizing these encounters in the process. This dissertation complicates the established picture of Roth’s early work and emergence, recovering a writer heavily invested in weighing prominent interpretive claims circulating in the intellectual culture—debates powerfully incubated by the institutional history of the postwar university. It also explores Roth’s continual imbrication in the shifting cultural dynamics of the Cold War, focusing on the crucial importance of the novelist’s work surrounding the Penguin series “Writers from the Other Europe” to the evolving historical and political complexity of his own writing. The following analysis shows how Roth’s major novels of the 1990s not only emerge out of these formative contexts and transnational tensions but also reflect the renewed significance of the author’s negotiations with various modernist textual precedents to his ongoing struggle with fictional form.

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