Novelist Philip Roth, who died at the age of 85 last week, was considered a giant of American letters. But his pop-icon stature belies the provocative force and originality of his work, writes Vineet Gill.
“When you admire a writer you become curious,” says Nathan Zukerman, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer. “You look for his secret, the clues to his puzzle.” What was the secret to Roth’s literary success and his worldwide celebrity? I am puzzled by this question. In the American culture industry, it’s the peculiar fate of the outcast to be appropriated by the mainstream—to be packaged and mass-marketed as a bad-boy maverick. Did Roth fall victim to this approach?
From the standpoint of pop sensibilities, Roth was indeed damaged goods. He delved into unsettling themes—sexuality and mortality—and often wrote in a contentious vein (he was, for instance, a master of the rant). The world of some of his best-known novels (Sabbath’s Theatre in particular) is unforgivingly dark. There’s comedy in Roth but never any comic relief. As with Kafka, the humour in Roth’s work is inseparable from the writer’s basic ideological cynicism: only the most embarrassing bits, the most hopeless situations, are funny.
On political questions Roth tended to alienate whole communities, beginning with his own. After the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969—a coming-of-age novel about a Jewish-American boy who gives himself over to onanism with a religious fervour—Roth was attacked by his Jewish compatriots for being disrespectful and crass. The Hebrew scholar Gershom Scholem went even further, comparing Portnoy’s Complaint to Protocols of the Elders of Zion— a toxic Jew-hating propaganda—and calling it “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying”. Roth later wrote that he had to relocate in order to fend off such personal attacks: “My overnight notoriety as a sexual freak had become difficult to evade in Manhattan…”
His literary affiliations were no less controversial. The series of books he edited through the ’70s and ’80s—entitled Writers From the Other Europe, which featured barely-known literary voices from behind the Iron Curtain—made an aesthetic as well as a political statement, against American triumphalism. Roth’s championing of writers like Primo Levi, Bruno Schulz and Milan Kundera among others was inspired as much by genuine respect for their works as by a sympathetic awareness of their lived reality.
“Ivan Klíma was my principal reality instructor,” Roth once wrote, remembering his time with Klíma in 1970s Soviet-governed Prague. “He drove me around to the street-corner kiosks where writers sold cigarettes, to the public buildings where they mopped the floors, to the construction sites where they were laying bricks, and out of the city to the municipal waterworks where they slogged about in overalls and boots, a wrench in one pocket and a book in the other.”
These writers needed support and their predicament had much to teach the complacent Westerner. High aesthetic standards, Roth realised through his experience in Europe, were not quite enough to judge literature; one required high ethical standards as well. Contrasting Eastern Europe’s forbidding literary milieu with the total, mindless permissiveness that constituted American culture, Roth wrote, “There nothing goes and everything matters; here everything goes and nothing matters.”
Censorship and violence are two time-honoured means to marginalise writers in any society. But in a culture where everything goes and nothing matters, literature can be killed in a thousand different ways. Writers can be bought and sold, made and unmade by corporate money; their voices can be drowned out in a din of mass-media noise; they can be made to dance to the tune of award juries and tastemakers authorised to herald the next big masterpiece. Even literary fame, as Roth understood, has its pitfalls: it can burn a writer out early in his career; or it can make him too conscious of how he’s being seen and how he’s being read.
Roth himself seemed unaffected by fame, keeping, as best he could, the literary establishment at arm’s length. His name would appear sparingly in leading journals and newspapers, usually alongside some pro-forma interview or op-ed to coincide with the launch of a new book. And he was never quite as comfortable in the role of the smooth-talking TV intellectual as, say, his contemporary John Updike was.
If Roth was ill at ease with the hollow rewards of writerly fame, he remained, throughout his life, equally suspicious of the writer’s trade. What is it that writers create our world can’t do without? Roth kept coming back to this question in his Zukerman novels, where writing became his principal subject. Young Nathan of The Ghost Writer, a hopeful dreamer who gets the opportunity to meet his literary mentor, is already jaded by the time of The Anatomy Lesson, the third novel of the series, published in 1983. Nathan is now dreaming of “breaking out” of his artistic shell. He wants to quit writing and try his hand instead at something socially useful, like medicine. “Mailer ran for Mayor of New York,” says Zuckerman. “Kafka talked about becoming a waiter in a Tel Aviv café. I want to be a doctor. The dream of breaking out isn’t rare. It happens to the most hardened writers. The work draws on you and draws on you and you begin to wonder how much of you there is to draw on. Some turn to the bottle, others the shotgun…”
When Roth announced his retirement from writing in 2012, I was somewhat disappointed but I wasn’t at all surprised. I had seen the clues—“the clues to his puzzle”—in his work before, I had sensed the anxiety. A writer who’d poured his whole life into his books was bound to reach the point where he begins to wonder how much more life he has left in him. In Roth’s case, as we now know, there was nothing much left after his 31st and final book, Nemesis, was published in 2010.
On May 22, the news of his death was followed by the inevitable tributes and obituaries in every forum imaginable. Social media added more noise to the post-mortem buzz. People bemoaned the fact that Roth had never been awarded the richly-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature. Our greatest writer! Larger than life! Such was the overall tone. In the popular imagination, then, Roth was somehow transformed into the kind of anodyne icon who is liked by everyone and is hated only on the grounds of his immense popularity. But that’s not the Philip Roth I remember.