At first sight, Swede Levov is an unlikely protagonist for Philip Roth’s new novel. Ever since Alexander Portnoy’s celebrated complaint of 1969 ‘put the id back into yid’, Roth has specialised in transgressors – discontented trashers of Jewish, American and Jewish-American decencies. And this speciality reached a high point with his last novel, Sabbath’s Theater, when he came roaring back to his best, after a period in the wilderness of endless self-reference.
Micky Sabbath was as fiercely amoral a character as even Roth has created, railing against ‘the sheer fucking depravity’ of fidelity and good behaviour. ‘If Yahweh wanted me to be calm,’ he says, ‘he would have made me a goy.’ Sabbath rules out suicide only on the grounds that ‘everything he hated was here’.
And now, there’s Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede because of his blue eyes and blond hair.. Admittedly, like many a Roth protagonist before him, he’s a third-generation Newark Jew, educated at Weequahic High School, who comes to adulthood as the Second World War ends. Unlike his predecessors, though, he strives