This is a post I first published a few years ago, but I’ve just added a postscript on Roth’s passing.
The big news on Twitter last Friday, at least on the Twitter feeds that I subscribe to, was the announcement that Philip Roth admitted to not having written anything in three years and announced that he was retiring from writing. This came as a shock, since Roth is a prolific writer with 37 books to his name, and a career that spans over 50 years. Roth, who is 78, could still have a great deal of material to mine as he ascends into old age. I can still see the picture of Samuel Beckett at 80 looking serious, if more than a bit worn out, with the fire still burning him. One does not think of old age as a barrier to the writer’s craft. I am troubled by Roth’s announcement of his retirement, at least in part because I never thought of writing as a “job” one retires from.
“To tell you the truth, I’m done,” Roth said in an interview with French magazine Les Inrocks (www.lesinrocks.com) last month. More shocking still is the fact that it has taken so long for the word of Roth’s retirement to leak. This is further proof that the United States does not view its writers with the same respect and honor that Europe does. Roth has won nearly every major literary prize imaginable, with the exception of the one that really matters: the Nobel Prize for Literature. Roth has long been considered the favorite to win that prize and return it to the American experience, but now this looks even more unlikely. He is the last among only a handful of mid to late twentieth century writers who emerged from the shadows of Hemingway’s lost generation. He is one of only a few of the American “giants” left on the literary scene.
Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933 and his work has primarily examined the Jewish-American experience. Much of his work describes and explores the sexual and sensual unrest of his characters as they navigate their way through the labyrinths of modern life in the United States. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus is a collection of short stories that won the National Book Award in 1960. However, his breakthrough book came in 1969 (the year I was born) with Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel I’ve never been able to get through.
This news begs the question: do we really need another Philip Roth novel? In the Les Inrocks piece Roth himself asks this questions and concludes that we do not. The last several novels Roth has published have been okay at best, often reading like they were written in haste. Yet, when Roth publishes a new novel it becomes an event and I run out to purchase it with the expectation that this one will be a return to form. Nevertheless, I am more than a little saddened by the fact that he may never again publish another novel. But it only occurs to me as I write this that I might not be as sorry to see Roth cease to publish as I am mourning an imminent end to a stage or movement in American literature. With Roth’s exit from the stage there are only a few giants left: Pynchon, McCarthy, Oates, Morrison, perhaps a few more.
Most of what I know of the Jewish-American experience comes from writers like Philip Roth. Even though I’m not Jewish, I did grow up in a Catholic Italian-American household, and there are a lot of similarities, staring with the crushing guilt placed upon us by our parents. In my limited experience I cannot help but think that a Catholic male’s relationship with is mother is a lot like that of a Jewish male’s. Roth opened a world for me that might have been otherwise closed, and for that I’m thankful.
I suspect that after this announcement Roth’s back catalogue will see a bump in sales, and that is a good thing, because when he’s good, he’s really good.
Postscript: May 22, 2018
The news came late last night that Philip Roth died in a Manhattan hospital of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. There are no words to describe the hole this puts in the world of letters, especially American literature. Roth is now ineligible to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a prize he should have won, but then so should have a lot of writers. Without having won Roth joins a perhaps more prestigious company of writers that includes James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, Elsa Morante, and Isak Dinesen, to name only a few. Roth won nearly every other literary prize, and his reputation as a giant of American letters is firmly established. Still, awarding the Nobel to someone like Bob Dylan over Roth is disappointing to say the least.
Roth’s writing was intense and sexually charged. He mapped out a twentieth century Jewishness that was a unique blend of old and new world, yet still regionally (New Jersey and New York) situated. Of all Roth’s books I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them, my favorite is The Ghost Writer, first published by FSG in 1979. It’s the first novel to feature Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. It’s a short novel and can be consumed in the course of an afternoon, but all of Roth’s themes are there.
The passing of Philip Roth should send us back to his oeuvre, in search of the meanings we found during our first readings, but also new meanings, new memories, especially in light of the #metoo movement. I suspect that many of Roth’s characters would come under fire for their bad behavior. Still, on the other side of life, which is where fiction resides, we can walk with these characters for a while, safe in knowing that they can only harm us in our waking dreams. I’m proud to have lived in the same period as Philip Roth, and although I never met him, I feel as if I’ve walked with him for miles.