|Philip Roth, 1993|
Philip Roth: explorer of a golden age's dark corners
Roth’s work evokes the sense of endless opportunity postwar America seemed to promise
Thu 24 May 2018
he legend of Philip Roth had become so great, it was almost a shock to be reminded that he was, until Tuesday, still a living writer. He had become part of the Mount Rushmore of American letters, hailed by the New York Times as “the last of the great white males”, his place secure alongside Saul Bellow and John Updike, themselves both long gone, as one of the towering figures of 20th-century American literature.
He had won every accolade, bar the Nobel, and in 2005 the Library of America announced it would publish Roth’s works, lifting him into a pantheon that included the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman, only the third writer ever to receive that honour while still drawing breath. Roth was of such an elevated stature that in dying, he seemed to be joining his peers.
His death deprives America of one of the biggest literary names of the 20th century, but also of one of that era’s greatest chroniclers. Not that he would have made such a claim for himself. On the contrary, the seam he mined, he said, was his own life – reassembled, reimagined and variously disguised in meta-fictions in which the narrator might be a writer very much like Philip Roth or a writer called “Philip Roth”. As he put it, “Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.”
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to read Roth without experiencing the brimming confidence, exuberance and sense of endless opportunity that postwar America seemed to promise. Born in 1933, Roth was of a generation that came of age just as the US had won a world war, was flush with wealth and was number one on the planet. In his “American trilogy” – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain – written when he was well into his 60s, he explored the darker corners of that supposed golden age, when it seemed that to be born American was to have won the lottery of life.
His preoccupations were Jewishness and sex. From the start he worried away at every knot and twist of the Jewish experience. His first collection of short stories included one called The Conversion of the Jews, in which a Bar Mitzvah boy threatens to jump from the roof of the synagogue unless the rabbi can answer a question about Jesus and the virgin birth. Jewishness was an itch he could never fully scratch. He examined it all: Jewish self-loathing and shame in Portnoy’s Complaint; the polite, dinner-table antisemitism of the English chattering classes in The Counterlife; the complicated ambivalence diaspora Jews feel towards Israeli Jews in Operation Shylock.
Sex was just as ever present. Portnoy was the warning, a monologue of unfiltered, adolescent male lust, in which masturbating into a piece of liver stored in the family fridge was par for the course. Most of Roth’s protagonists were men powered by libido, often casting women as objects of pursuit rather than fully formed subjects with richly described interior lives. (One wonders if that played a part in the Nobel jury’s perennial rejections.)
For all that, Roth was preoccupied with the direction of the society he had charted. The impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the puritan prurience he believed had informed it, looms over The Human Stain. But the collision of, and the contest between, literature and real-world events vexed Roth.
In 1961, in Writing American Fiction, he lamented that “the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist”. Yet, at least once, Roth sprinted ahead of the actuality.
His 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, asked a what if? question. What if America had succumbed to fascism, seduced by a celebrity and media star in the form of the aviator Charles Lindbergh? The novel is a dark imagining of how Roth’s own family would have been gradually encircled by the menace of antisemitic nationalism, picturing who would have fought back and who would have collaborated. The book was powerful when it came out. But it gained new force in November 2016, when the US did indeed fall for an ultra-nationalist demagogue.