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Philip Roth 1933 - 2018

Posted on 23rd May 2018 by Martha Greengrass

As we mark the sad news of the death of American literary giant, Philip Roth, we consider the influence of a writer whose work challenged, inspired, provoked and entertained generations of readers for more than half a century.

Philip Roth, who died yesterday, was a titan of post-war American literature. A writer of pronounced scope and artistry, who amused, challenged and provoked readers in equal measure. Often grouped alongside other ‘American greats’ such as Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and John Updike, Roth’s long and extraordinarily prolific career demonstrated a commitment, versatility and reinvention all his own. As Waterstones' Fiction Buyer Chris White comments, he was ‘engaged, passionate (often furious) and controversial’ but ‘whatever you thought about him he was impossible to ignore’. 

Roth's early career was defined - by his breakthrough novel Portnoy’s Complaint. An audacious, salacious, hilarious novel - framed as a narrative from a sexually-obsessed, mother-fixated Jewish bachelor to his psychiatrist – it sent shockwaves across Middle America, with the New York Times calling it ‘one of the dirtiest books ever published’. Nearly half a century on, it stands as a landmark interrogation of male Jewish identity and, as the Guardian writes, ‘a masterclass in how to get beneath the skin of sexuality'.

Many of Roth’s novels interrogate fragile masculinity, the heart lines of American selfhood and what it means to be a writer. These themes resonate through his acclaimed series based around his fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The subject of many of Roth’s middle-career novels, particularly his ‘Zuckerman Bound’ sequence, Zuckerman also provided the framework for an unexpected late bloom in Roth’s career. In his seventies, after a period of absence, Roth unexpectedly produced what is arguably some of his finest work. Often referred to as his ‘American trilogy’, the three novels, American Pastoral, The Human Stain and I Married a Communist, are daring, combative and unflinching, laying bare the hypocrisy and tension at the heart of America’s cultural identity. In particular his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral – a sweeping post-Vietnam war-era drama – remains a seminal work about the cost and legacy of the American Dream in the twentieth century. Praising the book, Howard Jacobsen calls it one of the best novels to exemplify his talent for exposing both light and dark. ‘If you haven’t wrestled with the angel and the devil and lost to both’, he writes, ‘you can’t be said to have read him.'

Though highly commended - he won almost every American literary prize including two National Book Awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize as well as the Man Booker International Prize – Roth’s career was not without controversy, with his work earning accusations of obscenity, misogyny and anti-Semitic self-hatred. Roth responded by asserting his refusal to avoid issues that cause readers disquiet. Quoting his own character, in his last interview with the BBC’s Alan Yentob, Roth comments, “I believe that we should read only those books that bite and sting us. If a book we're reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?" 

In recent years however, there has been renewed praise for Roth’s prescience and political acuity, with much of his fiction seeming ever-more relevant when held against America’s current climate. In particular, his alternative-history novel, The Plot Against America - which imagines the fallout of a Lindenbergh presidency - feels peculiarly prescient. Combining Roth’s trademark humour with a page-turner of a plot, it still has the power to shock and entertain. New readers, looking to understand the impact of his legacy, might well find it the perfect place to start.


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