Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth / Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral author dies at 85

Philip Roth: Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral author dies at 85

Chronicler of American politics, Jewishness and male sexual desire was widely regarded as one of greatest novelists of the 20th century

Richard Lea
Wed 23 May 2018

‘The audience I’m writing for is me’ … Philip Roth, who has died aged 85. Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

The novelist Philip Roth, who explored America through the contradictions of his own character for more than six decades, died on Tuesday aged 85.
Roth’s career began in notoriety and ended in authority, as he grappled with questions of identity, authorship, morality and mortality in a series of novels that shaped the course of American letters in the second half of the 20th century. He refracted the complexities of his Jewish-American heritage in works such as Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America, which garnered both critical and commercial success, garlanding their creator with a dazzling succession of literary prizes.

Quick guide

The five Philip Roth novels you must read

Roth’s death was confirmed by his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who said the author died on Tuesday night of congestive heart failure. His biographer, Blake Bailey, said on Twitter that Roth died surrounded by friends.

Roth found success and controversy in equal measure with his first collection of short stories, Goodbye Columbus, published in 1959. In it, he followed the fortunes of middle-class Jewish Americans caught between the old ways and the new, negotiating the boundaries between assimilation and differentiation in suburbia. It was enough to win him a National Book Award, and to unleash a stream of condemnation from those who labelled him antisemitic, a “self-hating Jew”.
The publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 transformed him from enterprising young author to scandalous celebrity. An immediate bestseller, the wildly comic monologue charts the life of Alexander Portnoy as he pursues sexual release through ever more extreme erotic acts, held back only by the iron grip of his Jewish American upbringing. For some, the temptation to take this confessional novel as a novelised confession proved too great. Writing Portnoy was easy, he told the Guardian in 2004 – but he “also became the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and what I faced publicly was the trivialisation of everything”.

Philip Roth, revisiting near where he grew up in Newark, in 1968.
 Philip Roth pictured in 1968 revisiting Newark, his childhood home. Photograph: Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

His response to what his editor Aaron Ascher called “the nightmare of a smash hit” was to retreat into literary fiction, exploring the possibilities of the novel in books such as political satire Our Gang, and the Kafkaesque sexual fable, The Breast. Between 1972 and 1977, he travelled regularly to Czechoslovakia, making friends with blacklisted writers such as Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, and confronting the difference between what he called the “private ludicracy” of being a writer in the US and the “harsh ludicrousness of being a writer in eastern Europe” behind the Iron Curtain. He met the English actor Claire Bloom in 1975, and as she became almost a muse for Roth, he began to divide his time between London and New York.
Through alter egos Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh, Roth began to examine the connection between an author and his work, with Zuckerman, who first appeared in My Life as a Man, gradually becoming the author’s closest avatar. Born in the same year as Roth, to a Jewish couple living in New Jersey, the unforgiving, goatish Zuckerman also found notoriety with a feverish monologue recounting the energetic sex life of a Jewish American man. Through Zuckerman, Roth grappled with the problems of fame, literature and his Jewish identity in a sequence of five novels, from 1979’s The Ghost Writer to 1986’s The Counterlife, which bound the life of his fictional creation ever closer to that of his creator.
Roth treated critics who struggled to locate the boundary between life and fiction in his work with disdain, intoning “it’s all me ... nothing is me”. He rejected the description of his characters as alter egos, maintaining that “none of those things happened to me ... it’s imaginary”. The characterisation of his work as “autobiographical” or “confessional” he took almost as an insult to his abilities as a writer, suggesting to the French writer Alain Finkielkraut that to do so was “not only to falsify their suppositional nature but … to slight whatever artfulness leads some readers to think that they must be autobiographical”. For Roth, the acting out of a role was the fun part of a life spent constructing what he called a “half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life”.

Bloom and Roth, in 1990.
 Philip Roth with Claire Bloom in 1990. Photograph: Ian Cook/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

1990 marked the beginning of a new phase both in Roth’s fiction and his life, with his marriage to Bloom and the publication of Deception, a novel about a married writer called “Philip Roth” who conducts an affair with an Englishwoman. This provoked a crisis with Bloom, who declared in a memoir published in 1996 that she “no longer gave a damn whether these girlfriends were erotic fantasies”, and sent Roth into a depression. The couple were divorced four years later, and Roth retreated to pursue an ascetic existence away from the distractions of fame in a Connecticut farmhouse.
Working at a lectern in a summer house at the top of the garden, pacing backwards and forwards in search of the right phrase or word, Roth forged a series of powerful novels that confirmed his status as a titan of modern American literature. After winning the National Book Award for the second time in 1995 with Sabbath’s Theatre – a dirty old man’s outburst of rage in the face of death – Roth turned his gaze outwards, taking on the revolt against the Vietnam war with 1997’s Pulitzer prize-winning American Pastoral, McCarthyism in 1998’s I Married a Communist, the US culture wars in 2000’s The Human Stain, and fascism in 2004’s The Plot Against America. In each, Roth subjected his characters to the pressure of events, examining the effects of what he called the “historical fire at the centre and how the smoke from that fire reaches into your house”.

Ian McEwan on Philip Roth - the Guardian

Towards the end of his life, Roth returned to the personal, circling round mortality in 2006’s Everyman, and the final Zuckerman novel, 2007’s Exit Ghost. In the latter, the irrepressible satyr – now impotent and incontinent, but still bursting with sexual frustration – returns to New York for an operation on his bladder. There he meets a beautiful, big-breasted young Jewish woman, whose boyfriend is writing a biography of the writer visited by Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer, and has found a long-lost manuscript he believes is an autobiographical novel.

US president Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Roth in a 2011 ceremony.
 US president Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Roth in a 2011 ceremony. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Some critics were disappointed with this pre-emptive strike on future biographers, a return to what Adam Mars-Jones called Roth’s “narcissistic game-playing” of the 1970s – but Roth was unconcerned. “The audience I’m writing for is me,” he said in 2008, “and I’m so busy trying to figure the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I think of is: ‘What is X, Y or Z going to be thinking of it?’”
After the publication of his final novel – Nemesis, a 2010 exploration of God and guilt – Roth’s internal audience moved on. A year after he was presented with a National Humanities Medal by US president Barack Obama for his contribution to American letters, Roth announced in 2012 that Nemesis would be his last novel. He would enjoy a retirement spent swimming, watching baseball and reading, which he said had “taken the place of writing, and constitutes the major part, the stimulus, of my thinking life”.

In an interview conducted by email with the New York Times in January, Roth approached his encroaching mortality with a cheerful spirit, describing ageing as “easing ever deeper daily into the redoubtable Valley of the Shadow”.
“I’m very pleased that I’m still alive. Moreover, when this happens, as it has, week after week and month after month since I began drawing Social Security, it produces the illusion that this thing is just never going to end, though of course I know that it can stop on a dime. It’s something like playing a game, day in and day out, a high-stakes game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning,” he wrote. “We will see how long my luck holds out.”


Morre Philip Roth, gigante literario norte-americano, aos 85 anos

Roth, DeLillo, Adonis / Retour sur les loupés éternels du Nobel de littératureL’écrivain américain Philip Roth est mort à l’âge de 85 ans

Sono Philip Roth / Ubriaco di disperazione

The 100 best novels / No 86 / Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

The 100 best novels: No 86 – Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

This wickedly funny novel about a young Jewish American’s obsession with masturbation caused outrage on publication, but remains his most dazzling work

Robert McCrum
Monday 11 May 2015 09.00 BST

o 86 marks a milestone: it’s the first time in this series that we have listed a living writer. From this (1969) publication date, we shall now be addressing contemporary English and American literature, and many living writers. Inevitably, the choice will be correspondingly more difficult.
Portnoy’s Complaint is the novel that made Philip Roth an international literary celebrity, an iconic book that changed everything for the writer, pitching him headlong into a relentless world of banal public curiosity. After Portnoy, his working life became dominated by answering questions about the inter-relationship of fact and fiction in his writing. Roth’s response has been to take refuge in a variety of alter egos, notably Nathan Zuckerman. He will never again hold forth as brilliantly or as memorably as he does in this novel.
The context of Portnoy’s hilarious, ranting monologue is established on the closing page. “So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Alexander Portnoy lies on the couch. Dr Spielvogel sits behind, listening to a subject that is, says Roth, “so difficult to talk about and yet so near at hand”. In short, masturbation, and its corollary, satyromania.

To facilitate his solitary lust, Portnoy commands a far richer arsenal of sex aids than most horny young men: old socks, his sister’s underwear, a baseball glove and – notoriously – a slice of liver for the Portnoy family dinner.
This is a “talking cure” as Freud never envisaged it, a farcical monologue by – this is Roth again – “A lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, a tirade that would “put the id into yid”.
Alex is an archetypal Jewish-American son, coincidentally the same age as his creator, and a former “honour student” who’s now working in New York as a civil rights lawyer. His mother would have preferred him to become a doctor, marry and have children, but we are all too aware that her wishes will never be part of her son’s adult life.
Alex free associates for Spielvogel with a wild frenzy that some have suggested is owed to the standup comics of Roth’s youth, and perhaps near-contemporaries such as Lenny Bruce. Roth’s response has been to identify his main influence as “a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka”.

For all its avowed literary seriousness, this “wild blue shocker” (Life), a novel in the guise of a confession, was an immediate bestseller. Taken by hundreds of thousands of American readers as a confession in the guise of a novel, it placed its author inexorably centre stage in the minds of his audience. He’s been there ever since.

A note on the text 

I interviewed Roth in 2008, the year of his 75th birthday, for the publication ofIndignation. I recall that part of this interview, never used in the printed version, concerned his persistent frustration with his reputation as the author of a “shocking” novel that’s now nearly half a century old. Roth’s weary complaint was that some of his readers still haven’t got over his controversial and brilliantly comic exploration of sexual desire and frustration, especially as this might relate to a Jewish man’s mother.

The origins of the novel are the subject of dispute, and all explanations are vulnerable to Roth’s own mischievous taste for throwing literary hounds off the scent. There are many versions. Some derive from Roth himself, always an unreliable narrator, especially in his 1988 “novelist’s autobiography”, The Facts. More credibly, some can be attributed to his literary associates. For many years I was friends with one of his long-time editors, Aaron Asher, who never failed to regale his circle with entertaining tales of working with “Philip”.
When I met Roth at his home in upstate Connecticut, I suggested at one point that he might have unconsciously courted outrage with Portnoy’s Complaint. He disdained this line of inquiry. “I don’t have any sense of audience,” he said, “least of all when I’m writing. The audience I’m writing for is me, and I’m so busy trying to figure the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I think of is: ‘What is X, Y or Z going to be thinking of it?’”
The novel itself occupied Roth for much of the 1960s, the decade in which, to his great distress, his first wife, Margaret Martinson, was killed in a car crash (in 1968, five years after they had separated). It seems likely that the idea of Portnoy’s monologue derived from one of Roth’s hilarious dinner-party riffs (for which he is famous among his friends). He himself has often said he cannot identify any single experience from which Portnoy’s Complaint originated.
In early drafts it was “The Jewboy”; then a play (workshopped by Dustin Hoffman); then “Whacking Off”; then a long short story, “A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis”, and finally, with the appearance of his psychoanalyst, Portnoy’s Complaint. With a lurid yellow Paul Bacon cover it was published as such on 12 January 1969 by Random House in New York. The city’s literary community, especially the Jewish elements, were soon up in arms, and even the great critic Lionel Trilling was moved to enter the fray. Roth was unmoved. He took refuge in his writing, and has done so to this day (though he now says he has stopped writing fiction). As his character Peter Tarnopol in The Great American Novel puts it: “Literature got me into this, and literature is gonna have to get me out.”

Today, Philip Roth is 82, and working with Blake Bailey on an authorised biography, due for publication by the end of this decade. In 2014 Roth told the BBC that “One of the biggest tasks that has come to me is working with the biographer Blake Bailey and ever since then I have been in the employ of Blake Bailey.” Although Roth says that he does not expect to live long enough to see the biography’s completion, he has submitted vast amounts of newly written material for Bailey.
His biographer told the BBC: “He has supplied me with literally thousands of pages of typed notes that are addressed directly to me. He has turned over all his personal papers to me.” This personal archive is so extensive, says Bailey, that it will take him “years to excavate”.
We shall see.

Three more from Philip Roth

Sabbath’s Theater (1995); American Pastoral (1997); The Plot Against America(2004)