Philip Roth: ‘the great American novelist of our postwar world’

Colm Tóibín pays tribute to great author who was a ferocious critic of Donald Trump but a close friend of Edna O’Brien

The then US president Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Philip Roth at the White House in March 2011. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The then US president Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Philip Roth at the White House in March 2011. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

 

“If I’m not an American, I’m nothing,” the writer Philip Roth once said. Roth, one of the giants of American literature, passed away on Tuesday night in a Manhattan hospital, surrounded by close friends. He was 85.

As America woke to the news yesterday, tributes poured in for a man who strode across the second half of the 20th century like a literary colossus.

“He had a great comic gift and a sense of adventure,” said Colm Tóibín. “He was serious about what he did. He was also brave and wrote the books he wanted to write. He had a sort of second life as a writer with Sabbath's Theatre (1995) and American Pastoral (1997).  In person, he was funny and almost boyish.

“A few years ago, I went one cold January night to Zankel Hall, the small, intimate space for chamber music under Carnegie Hall in New York, to hear the first three Bartok quartets. A man directly behind me tapped me on the shoulder rather fiercely before the music started. When I looked behind, I saw Philip Roth, whom I knew from these small chamber concerts as much as from literary events. He grinned at me. He was like a kid on a night out. He whispered: I hope you are going to be quiet. I assured him I would be. He grinned again. It was like a conspiracy. He loved chamber music.

“He was elegant, a good literary stylist who had enormous influence on American life as well as American writing. He was funny and good company. He had a long and productive life as a writer, from Goodbye Columbus in 1959 to Nemesis in 2010. He is one of the few living writers whose work has been published by the Library of America. He was a towering presence in American letters.”

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, not far from New York City, in 1933, Roth emerged as a significant literary figure in 1959 with the publication of his first book Goodbye Columbus¸ a collection of short stories that won the National Book Award. But it was his risqué, comic novel Portnoy’s Complaint, published a decade later, that was to propel him to fame and infamy. With its graphic, some would say obscene, reflection on sex and guilt, it scandalised the literary world, and many in the Jewish establishment. Roth would later admit that the reaction to the book unnerved him.

As his literary career developed, so did his themes, as Roth’s reflections on Jewish and male identity broadened out to encompass American national identity.

This period culminated with his so-called American Trilogy – American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000), novels that explored the complexities and disappointments of postwar US identity. In later years, perhaps with an eye to his own death, novels like Everyman (2006) explored themes of death, mortality and forgiveness, picking up on his earlier autobiographical work about his father, Patrimony (1991).

One of Roth’s closest literary friends was Irish writer Edna O’Brien. Roth interviewed her in the ’80s as O’Brien’s reputation was growing, and wrote a foreword to her collection of short stories, A Fanatic Heart , in 1987.

He once described O’Brien as the most gifted woman writing in English.

“The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece,” he wrote of her 2013 novel The Little Red Chairs, perhaps mindful of the powerful artistic achievement of another writer who was producing work well into her 80s.

Speaking at Roth’s 80th birthday celebrations in Newark in 2013, O’Brien introduced her long-time friend and literary peer: “Feared and revered, plagiarised, envied, hermit and jester, lover and hater, foolish but formidable, too adorable for words, a very great friend, and undoubtedly, one of Yeats’s Olympians,” she said. She joked that perhaps she had been the model for his character Caesara O’Shea, an alluring Irish woman, in his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound.

As for Roth’s own experience with Ireland, in 1991 fellow novelist William Styron recalled a trip to Dublin with Roth. At a ceremony to mark Roth’s receipt of the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honour for Literature, Styron recalled how both men had found themselves in Dublin for a day. While their plan had been to hire a car and drive around the countryside, there were no rental cars available, and they were forced to spend the day in the city. Despite their plans for a “Joycean trek with roles reversed, Philip playing a Jewish Stephen Dedalus, I a lapsed Presbyterian Leopold Bloom, ” in Styron’s words, the day went from one failed tourist excursion to another – Trinity College library was hidden by hideous scaffolding, the Guinness brewery was closed when they arrived and the Liffey was filled with mud and garbage.

They ended the day playing pinball machines. But despite their “aimless search for something” this “pathetic odyssey” ended up being “one of the truly memorable days of my life,” said Styron.

As the news of Roth’s death was confirmed, many shared their memories of him. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates said there was “much more to Philip than furious rebellion…at heart he was a true moralist”.

Screenwriter David Simon, who is working on an adaptation of Roth’s novel The Plot Against America and met the author recently to discuss the project, described him as “the great American novelist of our postwar world”. Many now read the 2004 novel as a prophecy of sorts, predicting what was to come in US politics.

Significantly, in some of his rare public comments since retiring from writing in 2012, Roth shared his views on Donald Trump. Trump was a “con-artist” he told the New Yorker last year – “ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English”.

He repeated the sentiment in an interview with the New York Times earlier this year. The president, he said, was “devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac”.

It is perhaps not surprising then that, despite actively tweeting yesterday, there were no words from the US president to mark the passing of one of the nation’s literary greats and a writer who captured the soul of America.

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