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Philip Roth: a generation's defining voice

By Hillel Italie, Associated Press  |  Posted May 23rd, 2018 @ 12:26pm


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NEW YORK (AP) — In the self-imposed retirement of his final years, Philip Roth remained curious and removed from the world he had shocked and had shocked him in return.

He praised younger authors such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Teju Cole, and confided that he had read "Born to Run," the memoir by another New Jersey giant, Bruce Springsteen. He followed with horror the rise of Donald Trump and found himself reliving the imagined horrors of his novel "The Plot Against America," in which the country succumbs to the fascist reign of President Charles Lindbergh.

But Roth, who died Tuesday at age 85, was also a voice — a defining one — of a generation nearing its end. He was among the last major writers raised without television, who ignored social media and believed in engaging readers through his work alone and not the alleged charms or virtues of his private self. He was safely outside Holden Caulfield's fantasy that a favorite author could be "a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." He didn't celebrate romantic love or military heroism or even consider the chance for heavenly justice.

The meaning of life, he once said, paraphrasing his idol Franz Kafka, is that it stops.

"Life's most disturbing intensity is death," he wrote in his novel "Everyman," published in 2006.

Best known for works ranging from the wild and ribald "Portnoy's Complaint" to the elegiac "American Pastoral," Roth was among the greatest writers never to win the Nobel Prize. And he died, with dark and comic timing, in the year that the prize committee called off the award as it contended with a #MeToo scandal. He also died just minutes after the book world had concluded the annual Pen America gala in Manhattan and on the eve of another literary tradition — Wednesday's annual induction ceremony at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which voted Roth in more than 40 years ago.

"No other writer has meant as much to me," Jeffrey Eugenides, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a new academy inductee, wrote in an email Wednesday to The Associated Press. "No other American writer's work have I read so obsessively, year after year."

Roth's novels were often narratives of lust, mortality, fate and Jewish assimilation. He identified himself as an American writer, not a Jewish one, but for Roth, the American experience and the Jewish experience were often the same. While predecessors such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud wrote of the Jews' painful adjustment from immigrant life, Roth's characters represented the next generation. Their first language was English, and they spoke without accents. They observed no rituals and belonged to no synagogues. The American dream, or nightmare, was to become "a Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness." The reality, more often, was to be regarded as a Jew among gentiles and a gentile among Jews.

He was a fierce satirist and uncompromising realist, committed to the narration of "life, in all its shameless impurity." Feminists, Jews and one ex-wife attacked him in print, and sometimes in person. Women in his books were at times little more than objects of desire and rage and The Village Voice once put his picture on its cover, condemning him as a misogynist. A panel moderator berated him for his comic portrayals of Jews, asking Roth if he would have written the same books in Nazi Germany. Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem called "Portnoy's Complaint" the "book for which all anti-Semites have been praying." When Roth won the Man Booker International Prize in 2011, a judge resigned, alleging the author suffered from terminal solipsism and went "on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book." In "Sabbath's Theater," Roth imagines the inscription for his title character's headstone: "Sodomist, Abuser of Women, Destroyer of Morals."

Roth's wars also originated from within. He survived a burst appendix in the late 1960s and near-suicidal depression in 1987. For all the humor in his work — and, friends would say, in his private life — jacket photos usually highlighted the author's tense, dark-eyed glare. In 2012, he announced that he had stopped writing fiction and would instead dedicate himself to helping biographer Blake Bailey complete his life story, one he openly wished would not come out while he was alive. By 2015, he had retired from public life altogether.

Roth began his career in rebellion against the conformity of the 1950s and ended it in defense of the security of the 1940s; he was never warmer than when writing about his childhood, or more sorrowful, and enraged, than when narrating the betrayal of innocence lost.

Acclaim and controversy were inseparable. His debut collection, published in 1959, was "Goodbye, Columbus," featuring a love (and lust) title story about a working-class Jew and his wealthier girlfriend. It brought the writer a National Book Award and some extra-literary criticism. The aunt of the main character, Neil Klugman, is a meddling worrywart, and the upper-middle-class relatives of Neil's girlfriend are satirized as shallow materialists. Roth believed he was simply writing about people he knew, but some Jews saw him as a traitor, subjecting his brethren to ridicule before the gentile world. A rabbi accused him of distorting the lives of Orthodox Jews. At a writers conference in the early 1960s, he was relentlessly accused of creating stories that affirmed the worst Nazi stereotypes.

But Roth insisted writing should express, not sanitize. After two relatively tame novels, "Letting Go" and "When She was Good," he abandoned his good manners with "Portnoy's Complaint," his ode to blasphemy against the "unholy trinity of "father, mother and Jewish son." Published in 1969, a great year for rebellion, it was an event, a birth, a summation, Roth's triumph over "the awesome graduate school authority of Henry James," as if history's lid had blown open and out erupted a generation of Jewish guilt and desire.

As narrated by Alexander Portnoy, from a psychiatrist's couch, Roth's novel satirized the dull expectations heaped upon "nice Jewish boys" and immortalized the most ribald manifestations of sexual obsession. His manic tour of one man's onanistic adventures led Jacqueline Susann to comment that "Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn't want to shake hands with him." Although "Portnoy's Complaint" was banned in Australia and attacked by Scholem and others, many critics welcomed the novel as a declaration of creative freedom. "Portnoy's Complaint" sold millions, making Roth wealthy, and, more important, famous. The writer, an observer by nature, was now observed. He was an item in gossip columns, a name debated at parties. Strangers called out to him in the streets. Roth would remember hailing a taxi and, seeing that the driver's last name was Portnoy, commiserating over the book's notoriety.

With Roth finding himself asked whether he really was Portnoy, several of his post-Portnoy novels amounted to a dare: is it fact of fiction? In "The Anatomy Lesson," ''The Counterlife" and other novels, the featured character is a Jewish writer from New Jersey named Nathan Zuckerman. He is a man of similar age to Roth who just happened to have written a "dirty" best seller, "Carnovsky," and is lectured by friends and family for putting their lives into his books.

In the 1990s, he reconnected with the larger world and culture of his native country. "American Pastoral" narrated a decent man's decline from high school sports star to victim of the '60s and the "indigenous American berserk." In "The Human Stain," he raged against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over his affair with a White House intern. "The fantasy of purity is appalling. It's insane," he wrote. Near the end of his writing life, Roth was increasingly preoccupied with history and its sucker punch, how ordinary people were defeated by events beyond their control, like the Jews in "The Plot Against America" or the college student in "Indignation" who dies in the Korean War.

"The most beautiful word in the English language," Roth wrote, "'In-dig-na-tion!'"

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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