Philip Roth, 1933 - 2018
The literary titan who shocked and wowed America
For Philip Roth, writing was a compulsion. The author recalled how after completing one book, he tried to relieve his restlessness by walking from his Manhattan apartment to the nearby American Museum of Natural History. He quickly decided he was wasting his time—“What am I supposed to do,” he said he thought, “look at a whale all day?”—and immediately returned home to start work on his next novel. One of the most acclaimed writers of his generation, Roth produced 31 books in 60 years, exploring themes including male sexuality, Jewish identity, American power, and mortality. His work often sparked controversy: Goodbye, Columbus, his first book, prompted accusations he was a self-hating Jew; Portnoy’s Complaint, about a Jewish teenager so consumed by lust that at one point he masturbates into a piece of liver, led one rabbi to complain that the novel was more harmful to Judaism than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “[John] Updike and [Saul] Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now,” Roth said. “I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.”
Roth was born to an insurance salesman father and a secretary mother in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Newark, N.J., where he would set many of his books, said the Los Angeles Times. Roth studied English first at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and then at the University of Chicago, where he returned to teach after an injury-shortened stint in the Army. Goodbye, Columbus, a 1959 story collection, propelled Roth to “national prominence” and enabled him to stop teaching. But its merciless portrayal of Jewish-American life sparked fierce criticism that Roth was promoting harmful stereotypes.
The writer’s literary star seemed to dim in the early 1960s, said The Times (U.K.). His first two novels made little impact, and he endured a bitter four-year marriage to a woman who he claimed had tricked him into wedding her by pretending she was pregnant. Then came Portnoy’s Complaint. Featuring numerous scenes of masturbation, the obscenely funny 1969 book took the U.S. by storm, selling nearly half a million copies. The novelist Jacqueline Susann famously quipped that while Roth was a terrific writer, “I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.” Portnoy proved a “hard act to follow.” The Breast (1972) and its sequel, The Professor of Desire (1977), suggested Roth had become enslaved “by sex as a subject for fiction.”
Roth “returned to form” with 1979’s The Ghost Writer, said the Financial Times. Centered on his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, it was the first in a series of books that Roth called “hypothetical autobiographies.” He relished blurring the line between reality and fiction—his second wife, the British actress and writer Claire Bloom, was horrified when she read a draft of his 1990 novel, Deception, in which a promiscuous writer named Philip lives with a dowdy, pampered, middle-aged actress named Claire. Bloom insisted Roth rename the character; the couple divorced five years later. In 1997 came American Pastoral, Roth’s Pulitzer-winning novel about a successful businessman whose daughter becomes a terrorist. That book together with I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) formed what Roth called his “American trilogy.” In The Plot Against America (2004), he imagined a history in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in 1940.
Rather than slowing down when he reached his 70s, Roth adopted “a relentless book-a-year pace,” said The New York Times. His last works, starting with Everyman in 2006, examine “the ravages of age and mortality itself.” Although he never won the Nobel Prize, Roth picked up “most of the other top honors,” including the Man Booker International Prize and two National Book Awards. He finally retired in 2010. On his computer, Roth stuck a Post-it note reading, “The struggle with writing is done.” ■