Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, was one of my most favourite writers. I believe he was also one of the greatest fiction writers, not just of his generation, but in the last five decades.
Roth’s literary career was of great longevity. His first book, a novella (Goodbye Columbus), was published in 1959. His last novel, Nemesis, came out in 2010. He was also a writer of astonishing fecundity. Over a period of five decades, Roth published more than thirty novels.
When Roth declared in 2012 that Nemesis would be his last novel, I had mixed emotions. As a great admirer of Roth and his prose style, I did not want him to stop. At the same time Nemesis had not exactly blown off my socks, and Humbling, the novel which came out a year before Nemesis, had left me feeling underwhelmed. We discussed Nemesis a few years ago, in our book-club. It turned out that I was the odd person out; everyone else loved it. Those, who, like me, had read several of Roth’s earlier novels, felt that Nemesis was up there with the very best of Roth novels.
Roth created several protagonists in his novels, the most famous of whom was Alexander Portnoy, the priapic, Jewish, American who can’t stop wanking (and can’t stop talking about it). Portnoy’s Complaint is one of the funniest novels I have read. The novel brought fame and notoriety to its author in equal measures. Over the years, Portnoy’s Complaint has deservedly taken its place in the pantheon of the great novels of the twentieth century.
Nathan Zukerman is another of Roth’s famous creation. Zukerman features in several of Roth’s novels, though not in all as the main protagonist, I think. The last of the Zukerman novels, Exit Ghost, came out in 2006 (which I have not read). The first three Zukerman novels: Ghost Writer, Zukerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, along with the epilogue (The Prague Orgy) were published in one volume (Zukerman Bound). These are some of my very favourite novels. The novels have, like many of Roth’s other novels, autobiographical elements, which, over the years, generated enthusiastic speculations about the extent to which Nathan Zukerman is an alter-ego of Roth (in Zukerman Unbound, for example, Nathan Zukerman achieves spectacular fame following a publication of a sexually explicit coming-of-age novel—not dissimilar to Roth—the fictional novel of Zukerman and its style being a departure from his (Zukerman’s) earlier, Jamesian style (I don’t think Roth can ever be accused of imitating the prose-style of Henry James, or, for that matter, any other novelists. Roth had a style of his own, which influenced other novelists).
Operation Shylock was the first Philip Roth novel I read. The novel totally blew me away. I had not read anything like it before. The narrator of Operation Shylock is ‘Philip Roth’. The fictional Philip Roth is in Israel, attending the trial of a notorious war criminal called John Demjanjuk. (John Demjanjuk, born Ivan Demjanjuk, is one of the several real-life charcaters which populate the novel. Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian born soldier in the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War and was also a POW of Germany.After the Second World War he emigrated to America, in the 1950s. Demjanjuk was deported to Israel in the 1980s to face the charges of war crimes when several holocaust survivors identified him as the notorious ‘Ivan the terrible’ in the Treblinka Extermination Camp the Nazis built in Poland. He was initially convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was overturned by the Israeli supreme court which decided that there were reasonable doubts as to whether John Demjanjuk was indeed the notorious ‘Ivan the terrible’ in Treblinka. New evidence emerged in 2001 that Demjanjuk might have worked as a guard in another concentration camp in Germany. He was eventually deported to Germany from America; tried; found guilty of war crimes; and sentenced to five years in prison (he was 92 at the time). Demjanjuk was granted appeal against his conviction, and died, a free and innocent man in the eyes of the law, while the appeal was still pending). Operation Shylock follows the first trial of Demjanjuk, in Israel in the 1980s, covered, in the novel, by the fictional Philip Roth. While in Israel, the fictional Philip Roth, to his initial astonishment which soon turns into horror, comes across an imposter, who has the same facial features as Philip Roth (the fictional Philip Roth), and—you will have guessed it—is also called Philip Roth. So, there are two Philip Roths in the novel; one ‘real’ and the other an imposter, who is planning to steal the identity of the ‘real’ Philip Roth. Operation Shylock, which has the backdrop of the Demjajnjuk trial and the First Intifada, narrates the battle of wits between the two Philip Roths, as the imposter tries to destroy the ‘real’ Philip Roth (that is the other fictional Philip Roth in the novel) and spread the counter-Zionist ideology, is an extraordinary novel. It is very difficult to sperate the real from the fictional in this novel, the full title of which is Operation Shylock: A Confession. You might say that it is a bit narcissistic to create not one but two alter egos in one novel. John Updike apparently wrote in a sardonic review of Operation Shylock that readers should read the novel if they were interested in Philip Roth (Martin Amis levelled a similar charge while reviewing a Zukerman novel). I can say without hesitation that I wasn’t. Until I read Operation Shylock, which got me greatly interested in Philip Roth, and I went on to read several more.
‘Philip Roth’ appears in a few other novels, the last of which, I think, is the 2004 The Plot Against America. The Plot Against America is narrated by the child Philip Roth (though I can’t now remember if the narrator identifies himself as Philip Roth). The novel narrates an alternative history of America spanning the Second World War period. Franklin D Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 general election by Charles Lindbergh, who, in real life espoused non-intervention in the European war and was a member of the America First Committee (AFC) which was a non-interventionist pressure group (dissolved after the attack on Pearl Harbour). As was typical of the novels Roth wrote during this phase of his career, The Plot Against America novel is bereft of humour, and, relentlessly bleak and grim.
The Plot Against America was also the last of the Roth novels which greatly impressed me. Starting in 2006, Roth produced a novel a year, a total of four novels ending with Nemesis. These four novels are frequently described as Nemesis novels—presumably because they have the common theme of end and degradation. I was not hugely impressed by them and would not call them as Roth’s major novels. Indignation, which tells the story of a young Jewish man who is drafted in the Korean war in the 1950s and dies, was probably the best, and Humbling the least impressive.
Sabbath’s Theatre, Roth’s 1995 novel, is, for me, his last funny novel, the story of Mickey Sabbath, an out-of-work puppeteer and a penchant for whores, which shows no signs of moderating with the advancing years. It is also his last novel which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. The novel had everything I had come to expect of a Philip Roth novel: coruscating wit, erudition and prurience. The novel was dirtier than the whole stack of Carry On films. Mickey Sabbath, without doubt, is a memorable creation. Sabbath’s Theatre is grotesque and unputdownable. It won the National Book award and was a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.
Roth won the Pulitzer for the first time for his next novel, American Pastoral, considered by many to be a great novel. The novel is narrated by Nathan Zukerman, but Zukerman is not the protagonist of the novel. The protagonist is Seymour Levov, a successful Jewish businessman (all the protagonists of Roth’s novels are Jewish, though not all successful). With this novel began a period in Roth’s career, which is often described as his second wind. He was in his sixties, a time in life which, for many artists, is the beginning of declining creative powers. But not for Roth. Starting with American Pastoral, he published ten novels over the next decade. American Pastoral and the novels that followed also marked a departure of sorts in Roth’s prose style. Gone was the humour which made his earlier novels such a delight to read. Roth had a great comic gift. It is difficult to say whether it deserted him or whether he chose not to use it any longer (I read a few obituaries of Roth, but no one commented on it). Roth had a very bitter divorce from his second wife, the British actress Claire Bloom, in 1995 (she wrote a memoir, Leaving A Doll’s House, of her disastrous marriage to Roth, in which, needless to say, Bloom did not have many kind words to say about Roth). One wonders whether these bitter experiences had anything to do with the interminable bleakness and despair that seemed to pervade Roth’s later novels. American Pastoral was followed by I Married A Communist, another acclaimed novel narrated by Nathan Zukerman, this time about Ira Ringold. Viewed along with American Pastoral and Human Stain (which came out after it), I Married A Communist is often considered as one of the trilogy in which Roth depicted post Second World War history of Jewish men (majority of Roth’s novels have male protagonists) in America, particularly in New Jersey and Newark, with the backdrop of socio-political changes taking place in that country. When I first read American Pastoral, the story of the tragic life of Seymour Levov, destroyed by the folly of his daughter, who sets off a bomb in 1968 to protest the Vietnam war (and, later in the novel, becomes a Jain, a little-known religion in India, often mistaken to be a sect of Hinduism), I did not really know what to make of it. I could see that it was a remarkable book, with the riveting backdrop of the social upheaval in America in the 1960s and 1970s. But I did not like it. This was also the first Roth book I had read in which humour was completely absent. I Married A Communist confirmed for me, sadly, what I had suspected when I’d read American Pastoral: Roth was taking a long hiatus from humour, prurience and libidinousness (he did not return to it till the end). I liked I Married A Communist more than American Pastoral and the slightly unconvincing The Human Stain. Some reviewers said that Eva Frame, the wife of Ira Ringold in I Married A Communist, was a barely disguised (and not very flattering) portrait of Clair Bloom from whom Roth was divorced a few years earlier. If that were the case, then Roth’s portrait of his ex-wife was, all said and done, sympathetic, I thought (although Eva Frame destroys Ira Ringold).
When Roth was awarded the International Man Booker Prize in 2011, in a display of arresting churlishness, mean-spiritedness, and petty-mindedness, Carmen Callil, the founder of the Virago Press and one of the judges on the panel, resigned in protest (she disagreed vehemently with the choice of Philip Roth, but was overruled by the other two judges on the panel), and, on the day the award was announced, wrote a dyspeptic article in The Guardian, in which she animadverted Roth’s fiction. Roth, she put it to the readers of The Guardian, wrote only about himself. Or something to that effect. Callil was not the first one to level this accusation at Roth. Many of Roth’s novels, particularly the early ones are autobiographical. Indeed, Zukerman Bound was described by Martin Amis, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as an autobiographical novel about an autobiographical novel. Outside of the personal experiences, Roth mainly wrote about post Second World War Jewish men in America, tormented by several matters including but not limited to their libidos. That is as may be. To me, Roth wrote brilliantly. He was a master at creating a kind of quiet hysteria which sucked the reader in. Afterwards (as in Humbling and Nemesis) the reader might wonder ‘was that it?’ or ‘what was all the fuss about?’. But not while they were reading the novel. Even when, to my disappointment, the humour went AWOL from Roth’s novels, with very few exceptions, I never found his novels less than riveting.
Philip Roth won many prestigious literary awards in his career, but not the Nobel. I have no doubt in my mind that Roth was overlooked (as was John Updike, whom I rate slightly lower than Roth) because of the anti-American bias in the Nobel committee for more than a decade, beginning in the 1990s. For more than twenty-five years, during this period, not a single American author was awarded the Nobel, while European writers and poets, who were not known outside of their buildings, struck lucky.
Philip Roth was a great writer. A literary giant. His novels brought joy to my life. In her article in The Guardian in 2011, Carmen Callil predicted that no one would read Philip Roth in forty years. I think Callil could not be more wrong. Fifty years from now Roth would still be read and his work would continue to enthral future generations of readers.