When Philip Roth died a few weeks ago, on Tuesday May 22, just three days after turning 85, he was undoubtedly the most celebrated American writer alive. And yet, he had retired. What sort of dysfunctional, contradictory notion is that of a retired writer? Can we even conceive of a great writer who no longer writes? Wherein lies their greatness? And what does he or she do all day, then? Because that’s the thing with writers, surely: they’ve never done an honest day’s work in their lives, but they can’t just switch off from one moment to the other and stop being what they are. There’s no weekend for writers, no summer holiday or Memorial Day break—a writer’s life is measured in just two seasons, writing time and reading time. So we can safely assume that at the end of his life Roth, who’d publicly announced he’d stopped writing, was only reading—which is a different way of writing, anyway.
Over the course of a career that spanned six full decades, and spilled over on both ends, Roth was awarded practically every prize under the literary firmament. Starting with his debut collection of short stories, Goodbye Columbus (1959), which earned him the National Book Award, Roth remained a major literary figure throughout his career, especially once he began developing his series of Zuckerman novels towards the end of the 1970s. The first of those, The Ghost Writer (1979), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, as were Operation Shylock in 1994 and Sabbath’s Theater in 1996. In 1997 he was finally allowed to take the prestigious award home for what is often cited as his opus magnum, American Pastoral, later adapted to the big screen by Ewan McGregor in his inauspicious debut as a film director.
By then, Roth had already pocketed two National Book Critics Circle Awards (for The Counterlife in 1986 and Patrimony in 1991), another National Book Award (for Sabbath’s Theater in 1995), a PEN/Faulkner Award (for Operation Shylock in 1994)—and that was just the beginning of it. A recipient of the National Medal of Art in 1998, Roth elevated his status with practically every book in the new millennium, to the point where all major international institutions honored him: the Man Booker International was given to him in 2011, the Prince of Asturias in 2012, even the French government made him a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 2013. Everyone, except for the Swedish Academy of course.
Roth is often described as the chronicler of Jewish America, the Hebrew response, in a way, to John Updike’s WASP world. While not completely unjustified—there is no more exhaustive look into the collective phobias and aspirations of a community than the one to which Roth subjects his Jewish heritage in Portnoy’s Complaint—this limited line of analysis inevitably falls short of appreciating Roth’s scope as a writer (not to mention his natural talent as an observer).
For instance, the short novel or novella Goodbye, Columbus takes place exclusively in the context of suburban New Jersey, in the narrow corridor and unbridgeable chasm that separates Newark from Short Hills. Narrated from the perspective of Neil Klugman, a 23-year-old librarian from Newark, Goodbye, Columbus toes the line of social disparity as he embarks on a summertime affair with Brenda, a rich heiress from Short Hills. Subtle, persuasive, and almost painfully beautiful, the novel manages to recreate the intensity and the uncertainty surrounding this doomed relationship, while building the profile of the two protagonists through Neil’s perspective. The end of the summer inevitably brings the end of the affair, but even if the denouement is telegraphed long before it comes, even if the story moves too quickly past its climax, Roth achieves the impossible by making the reader understand that the sympathetic narrator proves to be everything Brenda feared he might be: fickle, egoistic and, ultimately, nasty. Because in the end Goodbye, Columbus is not about social class or juvenile love, it’s about human nature—the subject matter that governed Roth’s lifelong enquiry.
And yet the trait that most clearly stands out in Roth’s writing is the beauty with which he is capable of making his point—and here too he is perhaps fortuitously if also inescapably linked to John Updike. There is a mesmeric rhythm to his prose, a conscious yet effortless sophistication in the way he structures his sentences, in the way he weaves them into paragraphs, which turns the reading experience into a soft glide rather than an emphatic march. Consequently, even Roth’s least accomplished works can be a joy to read—at least a part of the way.
This exceptional quality gives him license to embark on daring narrative experiments with various degrees of success. For instance, in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) he builds the story of Alexander Portnoy from a psychoanalyst’s couch, as it were, allowing his first-person narrator to flip from past to present liberally, thus destroying linearity, activating subconscious connections, endowing the text with the anxiety, the hysteria, and the emotional instability of a mental patient. Needless to say, this renders the novel rather daunting—and yet it remains alluring, almost addictively so.
A radically different yet similarly courageous strategy is at the center of The Plot Against America (2004), a novel which re-imagines the past as it might have been had the USA sided with Germany during the Second World War. Deeply influenced by the stance adopted by the Bush administration after 9/11, Roth builds an alternative version of the past which in many ways resonated with the worrying rhetoric of intolerance and righteousness that was so prevalent in America at the time—and, disturbingly, is prevalent again. The Plot Against America might well be fraught with alarmism and even paranoia—although some might say it was prophetic instead—but even if it is we’re compelled to indulge the author in his dystopian revelry for one reason, and one reason only: his style.
At his best Roth isn’t just intelligent, thought-provoking and amusing—he’s actually irresistible. It’s this uncanny quality which in the early days of this decade turned him into the most discernible face in world literature by (almost) unanimous decision. Which is why for many years people joked about what Philip Roth would be doing on the day of the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature when he’d get a call from his agent informing him that he hadn’t won it. And yet, the issue became such a hot topic of discussion—certainly after the Bob Dylan fiasco—it’s almost as if he’d won it anyway, without the Swedish Academy’s consent. In the end Philip Roth might have got the final laugh—again.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday June 9, 2018.