Philip Roth

I’m sure most of you know that I have been a reader of Philip Roth’s books for nearly four decades. I’ve read his entire fiction output (except some of his very early short stories that are not in print any longer), some works several times, and one (The Ghost Writer) more than thirty times I’ve estimated. He died on Tuesday at the age of 85, and I think it’s appropriate I make some mention of him on this humble blog.

Philip Roth is my favorite writer. (I consider Iris Murdoch to be my favorite novelist. There is a difference, I think.) With Roth’s fiction, especially the novels of his middle period, I get the sense that every word, every bit of punctuation, is exactly right. There are some sentences that I will pause after reading, reading them again because they strike with such power. He was not my introduction to Jewish literature in the U.S. (that would be Chaim Potok) but Roth did show me how the U.S. Jewish identity could be looked at in a different way. I always found his characters credible, with realistic motivations as well as self-destructive tendencies. (Even when his characters were often thinly veiled versions of himself, sometimes named Philip Roth!)

But I was never a fan of the man himself. It was always all about the work for me. I know he’d been defined as a misogynist and a self-hating Jew, but I won’t pause on those judgments. In fact, when I read the biography of him called Roth Unbound, I found myself not wanting to know about his personal life and how it informed his fiction.

You may know that he stopped writing fiction some years back. (Many people did not believe it when he announced this and are expecting posthumous novels now. I doubt it.) As with many of his statements about his works, I’ve heard him say various things about his cessation. Most recently it seems that he acknowledged that he had written himself out and that he was past his best years. That aligns with what I’d found in reading his later works. He seemed to have lost his subject, or rather, was stuck with his subject — his past — and couldn’t stay contemporary. (His last novel was about the polio epidemic of the 1950s.) And I think he tipped his hand with his late novel The Humbling. It is the story of a renown actor who has lost his talent. I think Roth was acknowledging in his fiction that he was slipping as well. (The critics were not kind to the novel, not regarding the story but regarding its execution. It was derided as “thinly imagined” for Roth.)

I will continue to re-read his novels but all things must pass.

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One Comment on “Philip Roth”

  1. pete29anderson Says:

    Sorry about your “loss”, Paul, and thanks for the recommendations. I generally read older books, and so the only prominent author who has died in the midst of my fandom was Kent Haruf, though I had only been reading him for ten years when he passed away – your relationship with Roth obviously went much further back.

    Potok was my introduction to Jewish American fiction, too – “The Chosen” in high school.


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