American literary giant mined his life for fiction

Novelist Philip Roth published 27 novels, two memoirs and several more story collections by the time he publicly retired from writing in 2012.
Novelist Philip Roth published 27 novels, two memoirs and several more story collections by the time he publicly retired from writing in 2012.PHOTO: REUTERS

Novelist Philip Roth's life-long themes included sex, mortality and being a Jew in the United States

WASHINGTON • Philip Roth, whose sexually scandalous comic novel Portnoy's Complaint brought him literary celebrity after its publication in 1969 and who was eventually hailed as one of the United States' greatest living authors for the blunt force and controlled fury of dozens of his later works, died on Tuesday at 85.

He had congestive heart failure, his friend Judith Thurman told The New York Times.

Roth was the last of the great white males: With Saul Bellow and John Updike, he towered over American letters in the second-half of the 20th century. Outliving both and borne aloft by an extraordinary second wind, Roth wrote more novels than either of them.

Roth's 1959 debut story collection, Goodbye, Columbus, earned him the first of two National Book Awards. He would go on to publish 27 novels, two memoirs and several more story collections by the time he publicly retired from writing in 2012. His life-long themes included sex and desire, health and mortality, and Jewishness and its obligations.

In his 60s, an age when many writers are winding down, his focus shifted to the nation and its discontents - from the rise of former US president Richard Nixon as a political figure in the early Cold War era to the scandal involving former US president Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky - in what became known as Roth's American Trilogy: American Pastoral (1997), I Married A Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000).

Starting with Everyman in 2006, when he was 73, he kept up a relentless one-book-a-year pace.

"Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now," Roth once said. "I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole."

Philip Milton Roth was born on March 19, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, to first-generation Americans - an insurance salesman and his wife. Roth earned a bachelor's degree at Buckle University and a master's degree in English from the University of Chicago.

He taught English at his alma mater while writing fiction. An early admirer was future Nobel laureate Bellow, who told an interviewer Roth's stories "showed a wonderful wit and great pace".

A regimen of psychoanalysis led to the neurosis-filled Portnoy's Complaint, the riotous tale of one young Jewish man's anxiety and excessive masturbation.

If Portnoy made Roth a household name, it also generated enduring jokes at his expense that likened him to the self-pleasuring title character. Novelist Jacqueline Susann remarked on The Tonight Show that Roth may be a terrific writer, "but I wouldn't want to shake hands with him".

Speaking of his father in The Facts, an autobiography, Roth said: "His repertoire has never been large: family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew. Somewhat like mine."

Roth's favourite vehicle for exploring this repertory was himself, or rather, one of several fictional alter egos he deployed as a go-between.

His second wife, English-born actress Claire Bloom, felt betrayed when she read a manuscript of Deception: A Novel (1990), a brutally frank anatomy of infidelity that featured characters named Philip and Claire.

Roth removed Bloom's name before publishing, but included an afterword with the figures arguing.

Nine of his novels are narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a novelist whose career closely parallels that of his creator. Three more are narrated by David Kepesh, an academic who shares some of Roth's preoccupations, women especially.

The protagonist of Operation Shylock is a character named Philip Roth, who is being impersonated by another character who has stolen Roth's identity.

"Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life," Roth said in a 1984 interview in The Paris Review. "There has to be some pleasure in this life and that's it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2018, with the headline 'American literary giant mined his life for fiction'. Print Edition | Subscribe