If you asked me to name my favourite author, it wouldn’t be Philip Roth, although I may have read more of his novels than any other fiction writer I can think of, so perhaps he is. Alas, he will write no longer, as he has just passed away at 85, and it seems he had stopped writing anyway in 2012 although I hadn’t noticed but had to find out from his obituary. The obit is from the New York Times so is bound to miss almost everything of significance, but as I read Roth over the years, my most certain conviction is that he had drifted from the left to the right, or at least he ended up being able to describe the world not only as I saw it, but seems to have also undergone the same transformation. Let me just quote this:
In his 60s, an age when many writers are winding down, he produced an exceptional sequence of historical novels — “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain” and “I Married a Communist” — a product of his personal re-engagement with America and American themes.
I read all three as my own private possessions, but let me share with you, in particular, American Pastoral. A melancholy looking back at the madness of the 1960s (for which, I now find, he won the Pulitzer Prize). He also won the initial Franz Kafka Prize in 2001, which I would be more impressed with if the latest winner wasn’t Margaret Atwood. But this is the aim of the award which Roth fully deserved:
The criteria for winning the award include the artwork’s “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times.”
Close enough. More important, he was a great story teller who wrote about things that really matter in a way that helps you see what’s there.
MAYBE HE WAS NEVER ON THE LEFT: I just assumed it since he was from New York and all the right people seemed to like his work. But now I’ve come upon this: Philip Roth on Getting Kicked out of Prague, and this was in 1977.
From 1972 through 1977, I traveled to Prague every spring for a week or ten days to see a group of writers, journalists, historians, and professors there who were being persecuted by the Soviet-backed totalitarian Czech regime.
I was followed by a plainclothesman most of the time I was there and my hotel room was bugged, as was the room’s telephone. However, it was not until 1977, when I was leaving an art museum where I’d gone to see a ludicrous exhibition of Soviet socialist realism painting, that I was detained by the police. The incident was unsettling and the next day, heeding their suggestion, I left the country.
And stayed away until the Soviets themselves went away. Very impressive.
AND A BIT MORE: Titled Goodbye Colossus which seems to confirm my take was more general:
In 2006, the New York Times Book Review asked literary scholars, writers, and critics to name “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” The book that received the most votes was Beloved by Toni Morrison; but the author who received the most votes was Philip Roth—although the votes for his work were split amongst an astounding seven different novels.
Such objective metrics confirm what, for many, has long been a subjective reality: Philip Roth is the Beethoven of modern American literature. In my view, at least, there is Roth and then there is everybody else. Yes, we enjoy the brilliant Mozartean concertos of John Updike, but nothing quite does it like the Beethovian reverie of Roth. Nowhere else do we find the ferocious passion and pathos, the unfiltered bathos and manic wit, the unsparing humor and surprising compassion, and the relentless, propulsive, vitalistic force of life as we find it in Roth’s fiction. His may not be the literary art of, say, Thomas Mann, but it feels animated as if by the life-force itself. If we read (as Harold Bloom has written) “in search of more life,” when we arrive at Roth, we have found it.