Philip Roth, fearless and celebrated author, dies at 85
NEW YORK — Philip Roth, the prize-winning novelist and fearless narrator of sex, death, assimilation and fate, from the comic madness of “Portnoy’s Complaint” to the elegiac lyricism of “American Pastoral,” died Tuesday night at age 85.
Roth’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie, said the author died in a New York City hospital of congestive heart failure.
The author of more than 25 books, Roth was a fierce satirist and uncompromising realist, confronting readers in a bold, direct style that scorned false sentiment or hopes for heavenly reward. He was an atheist who swore allegiance to earthly imagination, whether devising pornographic functions for raw liver or indulging romantic fantasies about Anne Frank. In “The Plot Against America,” published in 2004, he placed his own family under the anti-Semitic reign of President Charles Lindbergh. In 2010, in “Nemesis,” he subjected his native New Jersey to a polio epidemic.
He was among the greatest writers never to win the Nobel Prize. But he received virtually every other literary honor, including two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle prizes and, in 1998, the Pulitzer for “American Pastoral.” He was in his 20s when he won his first award and awed critics and fellow writers by producing some of his most acclaimed novels in his 60s and 70s, including “The Human Stain” and “Sabbath’s Theater,” a savage narrative of lust and mortality he considered his finest work.
He identified himself as an American writer, not a Jewish one, but for Roth, the American experience and the Jewish experience were often the same. While predecessors such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud wrote of the Jews’ painful adjustment from immigrant life, Roth’s characters represented the next generation. Their first language was English, and they spoke without accents. They observed no rituals and belonged to no synagogues. The American dream, or nightmare, was to become “a Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness.” The reality, more often, was to be regarded as a Jew among gentiles and a gentile among Jews.
In the novel “The Ghost Writer,” he quoted one of his heroes, Franz Kafka: “We should only read those books that bite and sting us.” For his critics, his books were to be repelled like a swarm of bees.
Feminists, Jews and one ex-wife attacked him in print, and sometimes in person. Women in his books were at times little more than objects of desire and rage and The Village Voice once put his picture on its cover, condemning him as a misogynist. A panel moderator berated him for his comic portrayals of Jews, asking Roth if he would have written the same books in Nazi Germany. The Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem called “Portnoy’s Complaint” the “book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.” When Roth won the Man Booker International Prize in 2011, a judge resigned, alleging the author suffered from terminal solipsism and went “on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book.” In “Sabbath’s Theater,” Roth imagines the inscription for his title character’s headstone: “Sodomist, Abuser of Women, Destroyer of Morals.”
Ex-wife Claire Bloom wrote a best-selling memoir, “Leaving a Doll’s House,” in which the actress remembered reading the manuscript of his novel “Deception.” With horror, she discovered his characters included a boring middle-aged wife named Claire, married to an adulterous writer named Philip. Bloom also described her ex-husband as cold, manipulative and unstable. (Although, alas, she still loved him.) The book was published by Virago Press, whose founder, Carmen Callil, was the same judge who quit the Booker committee years later.
Roth’s wars also originated from within. He survived a burst appendix in the late 1960s and near-suicidal depression in 1987. After the disappointing reaction to his 1993 novel, “Operation Shylock,” he fell again into severe depression and for years rarely communicated with the media. For all the humor in his work — and, friends would say, in private life — jacket photos usually highlighted the author’s tense, dark-eyed glare. In 2012, he announced that he had stopped writing fiction and would instead dedicate himself to helping biographer Blake Bailey complete his life story, one he openly wished would not come out while he was alive. By 2015, he had retired from public life altogether.
He never promised to be his readers’ friend; writing was its own reward, the narration of “life, in all its shameless impurity.” Until his abrupt retirement, Roth was a dedicated, prolific author who often published a book a year and was generous to writers from other countries. For years, he edited the “Writers from the Other Europe” series, in which authors from Eastern Europe received exposure to American readers; Milan Kundera was among the beneficiaries. Roth also helped bring a wider readership to the acclaimed Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld.
Roth began his career in rebellion against the conformity of the 1950s and ended it in defense of the security of the 1940s; he was never warmer than when writing about his childhood, or more sorrowful, and enraged, than when narrating the shock of innocence lost.
Roth was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, a time and place he remembered lovingly in “The Facts,” ”American Pastoral” and other works. The scolding, cartoonish parents of his novels were pure fiction. He adored his parents, especially his father, an insurance salesman to whom he paid tribute in the memoir “Patrimony.” Roth would describe his childhood as “intensely secure and protected,” at least at home. He was outgoing and brilliant and tall and dark-haired, especially attractive to girls. In his teens he presumed he would become a lawyer, a most respectable profession in his family’s world.
But after a year at Newark College of Rutgers University, Roth emulated an early literary hero, James Joyce, and fled his hometown. He transferred to Bucknell College in Pennsylvania and only returned to Newark on paper. By his early 20s, Roth was writing fiction — at first casually, soon with primary passion, with Roth observing he could never really be happy unless working on a novel, inside the “fun house” of his imagination. “The unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most,” he wrote in the novel “Exit Ghost.”
After receiving a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago, he began publishing stories in The Paris Review and elsewhere. Bellow was an early influence, as were Thomas Wolfe, Flaubert, Henry James and Kafka, whose picture Roth hung in his writing room.
Acclaim and controversy were inseparable. A short story about Jews in the military, “Defender of the Faith,” introduced Roth to accusations of Jewish self-hatred. His debut collection, published in 1959, was “Goodbye, Columbus,” featuring a love (and lust) title story about a working-class Jew and his wealthier girlfriend. It brought the writer a National Book Award and some extra-literary criticism.
The aunt of the main character, Neil Klugman, is a meddling worrywart, and the upper-middle-class relatives of Neil’s girlfriend are satirized as shallow materialists. Roth believed he was simply writing about people he knew, but some Jews saw him as a traitor, subjecting his brethren to ridicule before the gentile world. A rabbi accused him of distorting the lives of Orthodox Jews. At a writers conference in the early 1960s, he was relentlessly accused of creating stories that affirmed the worst Nazi stereotypes.
But Roth insisted writing should express, not sanitize. After two relatively tame novels, “Letting Go” and “When She was Good,” he abandoned his good manners with “Portnoy’s Complaint,” his ode to blasphemy against the “unholy trinity of “father, mother and Jewish son.” Published in 1969, a great year for rebellion, it was an event, a birth, a summation, Roth’s triumph over “the awesome graduate school authority of Henry James,” as if history’s lid had blown open and out erupted a generation of Jewish guilt and desire.
As narrated by Alexander Portnoy, from a psychiatrist’s couch, Roth’s novel satirized the dull expectations heaped upon “nice Jewish boys” and immortalized the most ribald manifestations of sexual obsession. His manic tour of one man’s onanistic adventures led Jacqueline Susann to comment that “Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.” Although “Portnoy’s Complaint” was banned in Australia and attacked by Scholem and others, many critics welcomed the novel as a declaration of creative freedom. “Portnoy’s Complaint” sold millions, making Roth wealthy, and, more important, famous. The writer, an observer by nature, was now observed. He was an item in gossip columns, a name debated at parties. Strangers called out to him in the streets. Roth would remember hailing a taxi and, seeing that the driver’s last name was Portnoy, commiserating over the book’s notoriety.
In an Oval Office recording from November 1971, President Richard Nixon and White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman discussed the famous author, whom Nixon apparently confused with the pornographer Samuel Roth.
Haldeman: I never read “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but I understand it was a well written book but just sickeningly filthy.
Nixon: Roth is of course a Jew.
Haldeman: Oh, yes … He’s brilliant in a sick way.
Nixon: Oh, I know —
Haldeman: Everything he’s written has been sick …
With Roth finding himself asked whether he really was Portnoy, several of his post-Portnoy novels amounted to a dare: Is it fact of fiction? In “The Anatomy Lesson,” ”The Counterlife” and other novels, the featured character is a Jewish writer from New Jersey named Nathan Zuckerman. He is a man of similar age to Roth who just happened to have written a “dirty” best seller, “Carnovsky,” and is lectured by friends and family for putting their lives into his books.
“Operation Shylock” featured a middle-aged writer named Philip Roth, haunted by an impersonator in Israel who has a wild plan to lead the Jews back to Europe. In interviews, Roth claimed (not very convincingly) the story was true, lamenting that only when he wrote fiction did people think he was writing about his life.
Even when Roth wrote non-fiction, the game continued. At the end of his autobiography, “The Facts,” Roth included a disclaimer by Nathan Zuckerman himself, chastising his creator for a self-serving, inhibited piece of storytelling.
“As for characterization, you, Roth, are the least completely rendered of all your protagonists,” Zuckerman tells him.
In the 1990s, after splitting with Bloom and again living full time in the United States (he had been spending much of his time in England), Roth reconnected with the larger world and culture of his native country. “American Pastoral” narrated a decent man’s decline from high school sports star to victim of the ’60s and the “indigenous American berserk.” In “The Human Stain,” he raged against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over his affair with a White House intern. “The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane,” he wrote.
In recent years, Roth was increasingly preoccupied with history and its sucker punch, how ordinary people were defeated by events beyond their control, like the Jews in “The Plot Against America” or the college student in “Indignation” who dies in the Korean War. Mortality, “the inevitable onslaught that is the end of life,” became another subject, in “Everyman” and “The Humbling,” despairing chronicles as told by a non-believer.
Writing proved the author’s most enduring relationship. Roth, who married Bloom in 1990, had one previous wife. In 1959, he was married to the former Margaret Martinson Williams, a time remembered bitterly in “The Facts” and in his novel “My Life as a Man.” They were legally separated in 1963 and she died in a car crash five years later. There were no children from either marriage.
Roth’s non-literary life could be as strange, if not stranger than his fiction. In the mid-’90s, he split up with Bloom, whose acting roles included a part in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Roth then reportedly dated Mia Farrow, the ex-lover of Allen, who in another movie played a writer with the last name Roth.
Bloom turned her marriage into a memoir, and Roth turned her memoir into fiction. In the novel “I Married a Communist,” one character just happens to have been married to an actress who wrote a book about him after their divorce.
“How could she publish this book and not expect him to do something?” he asks. “Did she imagine this openly aggressive hothead was going to do nothing in response?”