Obituary: Philip Roth
American writer who drew hostility and acclaim but was hailed as a genius for his comic novel, Portnoy's Complaint
Philip Roth, who died last Tuesday aged 85, became one of America's most famous writers on the publication of his novel Portnoy's Complaint (1969), which saw him hailed as a comic genius and denounced as a Jewish anti-Semite. Although his subsequent work secured him a place in the roll of his country's greatest novelists, there were many who persisted in seeing him as little more than literature's dirtiest old man.
The vice Roth lashed most often in his fiction was self-deception, whether practised by an individual or America as a whole. He demonstrated how the reluctance of Jewish families to talk about sex led to the secret, guilt-plagued fumblings behind locked bathroom doors that were described in such hair-raising detail by the teenage narrator of Portnoy's Complaint, a book the critic Anatole Broyard called "a sort of Moby-Dick of masturbation".
Roth, high-minded and intensely serious, was never comfortable with the way journalists gigglingly hailed Portnoy as a symptom of the new permissiveness that had also engendered such works as Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (1966), which at one point vied with Portnoy for top place on American bestseller lists. When Ms Susann declared on television she would love to meet Roth but would not like to shake his hand, he could not see the funny side.
Roth could convey erotic pleasure brilliantly but also wrote repeatedly about the centrality of misogyny in sex, which inevitably led to charges of misogyny being levelled at the author as well as his characters. Those who made such charges were "numb to fiction", he said, but there was plenty of extra-textual evidence to support their views.
He lived for many years in London with the English actress Claire Bloom, and after they belatedly and unsuccessfully married, she published a memoir, Leaving a Doll's House (1996), that catalogued his infidelities and emotional cruelty. Roth then wrote a novel, I Married a Communist (1998), about a 1940s' radio performer whose reputation is ruined when he separates from his wife and she writes a memoir denouncing him; many reviewers who were ready to dismiss it as a petty piece of special pleading ended up admitting its brilliance.
His books hardly reflected a contented soul, and he was too much for many readers. In 2011 publisher Carmen Callil resigned from the judging panel of the Man Booker International Prize after it was awarded to Roth. When reading his work, she said, "it's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe".
But this intensity was what his admirers relished. "If ever a writer put paid to the notion that the best books are those you can't put down, it's Roth," wrote the novelist Howard Jacobson. "If you haven't wrestled with the angel and the devil and lost to both, you can't be said to have read him. The nakedness of the encounter is part of what makes him the greatest novelist alive."
He remained a divisive figure and, like Graham Greene before him, was famous in his final years for nothing so much as his annual failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which preoccupied journalists far more than anything to do with the actual winners. There were reports of annual visits to his agent's office on the day the prize was to be announced, inevitably followed by the journey home with acceptance speech unused. "I wonder if I had called Portnoy's Complaint 'The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism', if I would thereby have earned the favour of the Swedish Academy," he said.
Philip Milton Roth was born on March 19, 1933, in Newark, New Jersey, to Herman Roth and his wife Bess (nee Finkel). After school he attended the Newark extension of Rutgers University, before transferring to Bucknell University to escape what he called the "provincialism" of Newark and discover other parts of America.
While at Bucknell his first short stories appeared in the literary magazine he edited, and after earning a BA in English in 1954 he went to the University of Chicago for his MA. After brief army service, ended by a back injury, he returned to the University of Chicago, teaching a full schedule while working towards a doctorate (a goal he later abandoned).
Roth established early his habit of attracting controversy. His first book Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a collection of stories, won him the National Book Award at 26, but one story, Defender of the Faith, was called anti-Semitic by some. It featured a work-shy Jewish soldier who justifies disobeying orders by invoking the Holocaust and pointing out what happens to Jews who allow themselves to be "pushed around".
Like most of his fiction, much of Goodbye, Columbus was set in the unremarkable suburbs of Newark. Writing about his younger self in the third person years later, he noted his early work sprang from contradictory feelings about the Jewish community: "The desire to repudiate and the desire to cling, a sense of allegiance and the need to rebel, the alluring dream of escaping into the challenging unknown and the counter-dream of holding fast to the familiar. Altogether unwittingly, he had activated the ambivalence that was to stimulate his imagination for years to come and establish the grounds for that necessary struggle from which his - no, my - fiction would spring".
This struggle received unforgettable expression in his fourth book, Portnoy's Complaint, which exemplified a new generation's frankness about sex and the guilt they felt in uttering it. It took the form of a monologue delivered by Alexander Portnoy to his therapist ("let's put the id back in yid") as he recalled his teenage years spent finding refuge in onanism from his overbearing mother's interest in his bowel movements. ("'Alex, I don't want you to flush the toilet,' says my mother sternly. 'I want to see what you've done in there'.") The exclamatory, conspiratorial style was very different from Roth's two previous novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), and indeed anything else in contemporary fiction, more reminiscent of a comedian such as Lenny Bruce. Parts of it were so graphic the Australian government banned it for five years, and many American libraries refused to stock it. Portnoy's 'succes de scandale' also led to unwelcome press scrutiny of his family and personal life, and fresh accusations of caricaturing Jews.
"The charges were several," Roth recalled in an interview with The Washington Post in 1983. "And in defence of my accusers, it was only the lunatic fringe who said I was anti-Semitic. The stronger case was that I was lending fuel to the fires of anti-Semites... I don't think it's a matter of a right position or a wrong position. It's two right positions colliding."
After Portnoy, Roth's place in the vanguard of American novelists seemed assured, yet even his most fervent admirers sometimes complained a writer of such prodigious gifts seemed to do so little to engage with the real world. He taught at universities such as Chicago, Iowa and Princeton, and often his work read too much like the novels one would expect an academic to write: ludic, satirical, self-referential, and too detached from everyday experience.
Roth continued to impress with novels such as The Breast (1972), an enjoyable Kafka-esque jeu d'esprit about a Jewish literature professor who undergoes a Metamorphosis-style transformation into a giant mammary gland; and The Ghost Writer (1979), which introduced a recurring character, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, whose career mirrored Roth's own. But reviews hinted at disappointment an author so brilliant was not stretching himself. Calling My Life as a Man (1974) as "a miraculous mess of a novel", Martin Amis, in the New Statesman, told Roth there are "people in the world other than middle-class Jewish professors of English literature".
In the 1980s, Roth seemed at first to be content to carry on mining his own past for subject matter in two more Zuckerman novels, Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983). Having plundered his family life for Portnoy, he then explored the effect of that work on his relationship with his family in Zuckerman Unbound. The story of Portnoy's publication and reception is not so much mirrored as transcribed in the reception given to Zuckerman's novel Carnovsky, and when Zuckerman's brother says to him: "You selfish bastard... You can't believe that what you write about people has real consequences", the reader senses Roth's gaze being applied to himself as pitilessly as it is to others.
In 1985 the three Zuckerman novels were republished in an omnibus volume, Zuckerman Bound, judged by many critics to be a classic of navel-gazing.
But the edition also contained a new novella, The Prague Orgy, which hinted at a new direction. Roth's fascination with Kafka had led him to make frequent visits to Czechoslovakia, and from 1974 to 1989 he was general editor of Penguin's series Writers from the Other Europe, which publicised the work of eastern European writers and helped introduce American audiences to, among others, Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima. "When I was first in Czechoslovakia, it occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters," he reflected, "while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters."
In The Prague Orgy he dramatised some of these writers' experiences through Zuckerman's eyes. Writing in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised the novella for displaying "a new range and density of ambition".
Roth's ambition did grow, and in his 60s he became a virtual recluse, focusing attention on a run of novels that turned out to be masterpieces. Sabbath's Theater (1995), about a satyromaniacal puppeteer, was hailed by many as the best novel of the 1990s, and won the National Book Award for fiction. It was followed by three novels featuring Zuckerman, now firmly established as chronicler from the sidelines of lives symptomatic of some aspect of America. These were I Married a Communist as well as American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000).
This extraordinary burst of creativity culminated in The Plot Against America (2004), in which Roth, using his young self and his own family as the main characters, imagined what would have happened to Jews in an America in which the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh had beaten FDR in the 1940 election.
At last Roth had succeeded in bringing his ability to convey the texture of ordinary life to bear on a wider focus of interest; as Christopher Hitchens put it: "In novels like I Married a Communist and The Plot Against America, he sought to mesh the 'micro' - most usually the familiar world of Jewish angst in New Jersey - with the 'macro': the successive spasms of alarm and disorder that have punctuated modern American history". In doing so, Roth, on the brink of old age, leapfrogged more widely admired contemporaries to take a place in the front rank of world novelists.
In his final decade of productivity, he produced a number of short novels, which received mixed reviews: Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007, the last Zuckerman novel), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009) and Nemesis (2010). Although at the beginning of the new millennium he vowed to write until he died, in 2012 he announced he had retired.
He was a costive essayist compared with contemporaries Updike, Mailer and Vidal, but he did produce one invaluable collection, Reading Myself and Others (1976). He wrote particularly well about baseball, a lifelong passion which, he said, offered him "membership in a great secular nationalistic church from which nobody had ever seemed to suggest that Jews should be excluded".
Among his other non-fiction works were The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988), which many judged to be less self-revelatory than some of his novels, and Patrimony (1991), a brilliant account of the life and death of his father, in which he allowed readers some glimpses of the heart he kept locked behind a formidably cool facade.
Roth projected an intimidating image - Alan Bennett thought the jacket photograph on one of his books was "as stern and ungiving as a self-portrait by Rembrandt" - but friends attested he was amiable and funny in private.
Philip Roth married, in 1959, Margaret Martinson, from whom he separated in 1963. She died in a car crash in 1968, which had a lasting impact on Roth and his work. In 1990 he married Claire Bloom after many years together; they separated in 1994 and their divorce was said to have been so acrimonious he bombarded her with faxes demanding the return of every penny he had spent on her.
In the 1960s Roth stated that the greatest challenge an American novelist faced was "to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents". Commenting on the incumbent president earlier this year, however, he observed: "How naive I was in 1960 to think that I was an American living in preposterous times! How quaint!"