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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Kaddish for Philip Roth

I was taken aback upon learning of the death of Philip Roth at age 85. The death of an octogenarian is not a tragedy, but he was my favorite writer, and though he had retired, it still made me feel good to have him on the planet. His last interview, with The New Yorker, was about his novel The Plot Against America, and how prescient it was about Donald Trump, and he said: "I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” We needed him.

By my count, I have read 23 of Roth's books. A few of his early novels remain unread by me, and I hope to get around to them. Of course I haven't read any of them recently, but some remain vivid in my memory. I have read Portnoy's Complaint three times (and it may be due for another read). Roth was chagrined that it was his most famous book, but it made him famous and quite an impression on America, since it is a testament to onanism. “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off – the sticky evidence is everywhere!” After using a piece of liver to satisfy his sexual urges, Portnoy reveals: “So. Now you know the worst thing I have ever done. I fucked my own family's dinner.”

His next phase was the Zuckerman trilogy: The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, and Zuckerman Unbound. I really loved The Anatomy Lesson, when Zuckerman has something of a breakdown and poses as a pornographer. Whether Zuckerman was an alter-ego of Roth can be debated (he is a writer who became famous for writing a dirty book), but he often blurred the line between reality and fiction, especially with The Facts (was it a novel or a memoir), The Counterlife, and Operation: Shylock.

In his sixties, he ascended the Mount Olympus of American letters with his American trilogy: American Pastoral (which won the Pulitzer Prize), I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. The latter was the story of a college professor who is black but passes for white falsely accused of being a racist. He followed that with Sabbath's Theater, which won the National Book Award.

His last few books seemed to be concerned with death, a natural response to aging. In Exit Ghost he presumably kills of Zuckerman, while Everyman begins and ends in a cemetery, The Dying Animal has an older professor dating a much younger woman, The Humbling deals with an actor who has lost his talent, Indignation is about a young man killed in the Korean War, and Nemesis, his last book, is about the polio epidemic.

Some are not fans of Roth because they perceive him as a misogynist, which was also a charge leveled against him by his wife, Claire Bloom. There aren't a lot of sympathetic women in his books--I can't think of one offhand, except for the mothers. Certainly this argument can't be dismissed--in Portnoy's Complaint the major female character is called The Monkey and can barely read and write. But to be fair, this may be the attitude of his male characters, like Zuckerman, David Kepesh (in The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal), and Mickey Sabbath. They're all sexually crazed pigs. They may be funny or interesting, but they're pigs.

After Portnoy's Complaint I would rank The Counterlife, The Plot Against America, and The Anatomy Lesson as my favorite of his works, but I liked them all. I must admit I started reading Letting Go, his first full-length novel, but never made it through.

Some of his books have been made into films, but none really captured the essence of his work. Most of his books have a narrator and we hear their thoughts, which never works well on film. Goodbye, Columbus, based on his first work, is probably the best. I've never seen the film version of Portnoy's Complaint (I don't believe it's on any platform). The Human Stain and Indignation are both okay. I have moved American Pastoral and The Humbling up in my Netflix queue.

So long, Philip. We have the texts. That's all we can ask for.

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