Philip Roth (1933-2018)

The writer died yesterday at the age of 85. I have not read most of the works of this prolific author but I did enjoy the ones that I read, such as Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang, The Plot Against America, and The Breast. For some reason, I never got around to reading the series of novels that featured the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman, an omission that I should rectify.

Roth was clearly a gifted and wildly imaginative writer, bitingly funny, who was showered with all manner of awards and prizes though not the Nobel. Once you started one of his books, you were effortlessly carried right through to the end. But the end was itself sometimes bumpy. My experience of his books was to thoroughly enjoy them but wish the ending were different, though I had no idea what a proper ending should be like. The exception was Portnoy’s Complaint, which had a beautiful ending.

Roth was able to easily blend politics and social commentary into his novels. For those of us who lived through the Nixon era, his biting satire Our Gang was riotously funny though again with a weak ending. I was often surprised by the number of well-read and politically savvy people of my generation who had never heard of this book. His book The Plot Against America was an alternative history in which a Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. It presented a chilling scenario of how flimsy are the democratic institutions that supposedly protect us from the election of a fascist president.

Although many of Roth’s characters reflected the American Jewish experience, he was not religious himself, an attitude that he says reflected the times in which he grew up where maintaining a tribal identity was not considered important

From his earliest work, Roth’s Jewish readers were uneasy with his ironic view of Jewish life. Roth delighted in every nuance and absurdity of Jewish life in the US, but his defiantly secular sensibility was without piety or reverence. When asked about his religious beliefs in 2006, Roth told the radio interviewer Terry Gross that he had “no taste for delusion” nor any need for spiritual consolation. The Jewish community saw Roth as a wisenheimer – a sharp-tongued young man who had turned his back upon the religion of his fathers.

Heavyweight critics agreed. Robert Alter saw an element of “uncontrolled rage” against women and Jewish parents in Roth’s early books. Irving Howe argued that Roth lacked Tolstoyan amplitude because his books came out of a “thin personal culture”. Alfred Kazin wrote that Roth seemingly had escaped from his Jewishness altogether.

Repeatedly denying self-hatred or any wish to reject his Jewishness, he wrote: “I have never really tried, through my work or directly in my life, to sever all that binds me to the world I came out of.” But his “really” carried more than a hint of reservation in the midst of an uncomfortable profession of faith. “I was brought up in a Jewish neighbourhood,” he remarked, “and never saw a skullcap, a beard, sidelocks – ever, ever, ever – because the mission was to live here, not there. There was no there. If you asked your grandmother where she came from, she’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it. I forgot already.’”

Roth faced charges of misogyny in his writings, and it was an issue that was debated intensely all during his life.

These questions began to reach academic circles as early as 1976, when literary scholar Mary Allen argued that Roth had an “enormous rage and disappointment with womankind”. This was echoed over 30 years later when Vivian Gornick (herself one of the first critics to attack Roth’s misogyny) wrote that “for Philip Roth, women are monstrous”. This criticism stemmed from Roth’s depictions of volatile marriages and an emphasis on visceral male sexuality in his fiction, most notably in 1969’s infamous novel Portnoy’s Complaint. The book reviewer George Stade offered a common critique in his argument that Roth’s women were either “vicious and alluring” or “virtuous and boring”.

But Roth had an admirable attitude towards death as seen in his recent comments on it.

In an interview conducted by email with the New York Times in January, Roth approached his encroaching mortality with a cheerful spirit, describing ageing as “easing ever deeper daily into the redoubtable Valley of the Shadow”.

“I’m very pleased that I’m still alive. Moreover, when this happens, as it has, week after week and month after month since I began drawing Social Security, it produces the illusion that this thing is just never going to end, though of course I know that it can stop on a dime. It’s something like playing a game, day in and day out, a high-stakes game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning,” he wrote. “We will see how long my luck holds out.”

It is an attitude with which I heartily concur.

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