Philip Roth, the prize-winning novelist and fearless narrator of sex, death, assimilation and fate, from the comic madness of “Portnoy’s Complaint” to the elegiac lyricism of “American Pastoral,” died Tuesday night at age 85.
Roth’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie, said that the author died in a New York City hospital of congestive heart failure.
Author of more than 25 books, Roth was a fierce satirist and uncompromising realist, confronting readers in a bold, direct style that scorned false sentiment or hopes for heavenly reward. He was an atheist who swore allegiance to earthly imagination, whether devising pornographic functions for raw liver or indulging romantic fantasies about Anne Frank. In “The Plot Against America,” published in 2004, he placed his own family under the anti-Semitic reign of President Charles Lindbergh. In 2010, in “Nemesis,” he subjected his native New Jersey to a polio epidemic.
He was among the greatest writers never to win the Nobel Prize. But he received virtually every other literary honor, including two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle prizes and, in 1998, the Pulitzer for “American Pastoral.” He was in his 20s when he won his first award and awed critics and fellow writers by producing some of his most acclaimed novels in his 60s and 70s, including “The Human Stain” and “Sabbath’s Theater,” a savage narrative of lust and mortality he considered his finest work.
He identified himself as an American writer, not a Jewish one, but for Roth the American experience and the Jewish experience were often the same. While predecessors such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud wrote of the Jews’ painful adjustment from immigrant life, Roth’s characters represented the next generation. Their first language was English, and they spoke without accents. They observed no rituals and belonged to no synagogues. The American dream, or nightmare, was to become “a Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness.” The reality, more often, was to be regarded as a Jew among gentiles and a gentile among Jews.
In the novel “The Ghost Writer” he quoted one of his heroes, Franz Kafka: “We should only read those books that bite and sting us.” For his critics, his books were to be repelled like a swarm of bees.
Feminists, Jews and one ex-wife attacked him in print, and sometimes in person. Women in his books were at times little more than objects of desire and rage and The Village Voice once put his picture on its cover, condemning him as a misogynist. A panel moderator berated him for his comic portrayals of Jews, asking Roth if he would have written the same books in Nazi Germany. The Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem called “Portnoy’s Complaint” the “book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.” When Roth won the Man Booker International Prize, in 2011, a judge resigned, alleging that the author suffered from terminal solipsism and went “on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book.” In “Sabbath’s Theater,” Roth imagines the inscription for his title character’s headstone: “Sodomist, Abuser of Women, Destroyer of Morals.’’
Ex-wife Claire Bloom wrote a best-selling memoir, “Leaving a Doll’s House,” in which the actress remembered reading the manuscript of his novel “Deception.” With horror, she discovered his characters included a boring middle-aged wife named Claire, married to an adulterous writer named Philip. Bloom also described her ex-husband as cold, manipulative and unstable. (Although, alas, she still loved him). The book was published by Virago Press, whose founder, Carmen Callil, was the same judge who quit years later from the Booker committee.
Roth’s wars also originated from within. He survived a burst appendix in the late 1960s and near-suicidal depression in 1987. After the disappointing reaction to his 1993 novel, “Operation Shylock,” he fell again into severe depression and for years rarely communicated with the media. For all the humor in his work – and, friends would say, in private life – jacket photos usually highlighted the author’s tense, dark-eyed glare. In 2012, he announced that he had stopped writing fiction and would instead dedicate himself to helping biographer Blake Bailey complete his life story, one he openly wished would not come out while he was alive. By 2015, he had retired from public life altogether.
He never promised to be his readers’ friend; writing was its own reward, the narration of “life, in all its shameless impurity.” Until his abrupt retirement, Roth was a dedicated, prolific author who often published a book a year and was generous to writers from other countries.
Roth began his career in rebellion against the conformity of the 1950s and ended it in defense of the security of the 1940s; he was never warmer than when writing about his childhood, or more sorrowful, and enraged, than when narrating the shock of innocence lost.
Roth was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, a time and place he remembered lovingly in “The Facts,” “American Pastoral” and other works. The scolding, cartoonish parents of his novels were pure fiction. He adored his parents, especially his father, an insurance salesman to whom he paid tribute in the memoir “Patrimony.” Roth would describe his childhood as “intensely secure and protected,” at least at home. He was outgoing and brilliant and, tall and dark-haired, especially attractive to girls. In his teens he presumed he would become a lawyer, a most respectable profession in his family’s world.
But after a year at Newark College of Rutgers University, Roth emulated an early literary hero, James Joyce, and fled his hometown. He transferred to Bucknell College in Pennsylvania and only returned to Newark on paper. By his early 20s, Roth was writing fiction.
After receiving a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago, he began publishing stories in The Paris Review and elsewhere. Bellow was an early influence, as were Thomas Wolfe, Flaubert, Henry James and Kafka, whose picture Roth hung in his writing room.
Roth insisted writing should express, not sanitize. After two relatively tame novels, “Letting Go” and “When She was Good,” he abandoned his good manners with “Portnoy’s Complaint,” his ode to blasphemy against the “unholy trinity of “father, mother and Jewish son.” Published in 1969, a great year for rebellion, it was an event, a birth, a summation, Roth’s triumph over “the awesome graduate school authority of Henry James,” as if history’s lid had blown open and out erupted a generation of Jewish guilt and desire.
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