RIP PHILIP ROTH *19.03.33 †22.05.18
Philip Roth passed recently, shuffling from this mortal coil on 22, May, 2018. Roth’s books have been enshrined in the library of America. The unassuming monobrow silhouette of the American novelist, essayist, and short story writer straddled American literature for decades. His often dark comic narratives were populated with provocative characters that could irritate and delight.
For nearly five decades, he commented on the American psyche from the viewpoint of a Jewish man from New Jersey. His pieces analysed a chaotic Cold War America with a dark humour that won him a sackful of esteemed writing prizes. While the Beatles gave way to disco and the Stones stepped aside for hair metal, Philip Roth was really making people think, laugh and squirm.
Roth resisted being labelled a Jewish-American writer, insisting he was simply an American writer. However, the semi-autobiographical personalities in his books testify otherwise. His male protagonists explore Jewish existence in America, including how masculinity and femininity play their part, as well as antisemitism. Roth once said “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life, is my life”.
A PROLIFIC WRITER
Philip Roth wrote over 30 books. Even people who aren’t fans of his, or fans of reading in general, will have heard of his third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. An uncompromising story about lust, the book launched him into literary stardom and global recognition. But that was 1969. Decades later, Roth had a resurgence. Beginning in his late sixties, he had an outpouring of creative work. An astonishing book per year. Not always an American classic, but always fiercely insightful, intelligent, and thought-provoking. At the age of seventy two, his characters began to rage against old age, with male protagonists still ravaged by the drive of male sexuality and their confusion about women. Roth’s alter egos explored many emotional and libidinous states of mind.
His female characters may leave the contemporary intelligent PHD grrrrl’s from New Jersey scratching their heads. And many of the stereotypes that populate his novels have frustrated the contemporary feminist. Some even comment that he just didn’t understand women at all. There are some very confronting lines and dialogues in his work. Are they artifice, diary, or sarcastic and ironic provocation? Was he honestly wearing his heart on his sleeve or acting as an agent provocateur? That was the beauty it seems. Sometimes, it was just so darn hard to tell. He certainly deliberately provoked rabbis, who would speak out publicly, creating his desired infamy—the way Zuckerberg thumbed his nose at Harvard and made the faculty make him famous.
A LITERARY GIANT
Roth was a preeminent figure of global literature. As one of the big three, he, Saul Bellow, and John Updike held dominion over American literature during those tumultuous post-war decades up until Vietnam. His well-visited narrator Nathan Zuckerman appears in seven novels, providing the commentary for the life of a fictional novelist that mirrored Roth’s own. Then, with a personality change, the narrator becomes David Kapesh, who appears in another three books. Always the same themes used to intelligent devastation—irritating people with endearing characters, the blurring of fiction, reality, and perhaps diary.
It is always a sad thing when brilliant creativity is snuffed out, whether untimely or due to complicated physical problems. In Roth’s case, it was congestive heart failure. He left an oeuvre that spans the decades and includes numerous classics. With a collection of engaging stories including Goodbye Columbus, and in the time preceding his death, I Married A Communist, Roth received many awards over his writing career including the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle award, and the Franz Kafka Prize.
Philip Roth simultaneously delved deep into personal experience and tapped pure fantasy to flesh out his decades of writing. Most endearingly, he was said to be an erudite wit that could have been a world-famous stand-up comedian if writing had failed. His literary prowess was often vulgar, sometimes transcendent, but always engaging and controversial. Philip Roth will be sadly missed by fans, and late-comers to his work will be left wanting more.