One might as well come out and say it: The death of Philip Roth marks, in its way, the end of a cultural era as definitively as the death of Pablo Picasso did in 1973.
Roth, who died Tuesday evening at 85, was the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists — the others included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow — who helped define American experience in the second half of the 20th century.
Updike had more sheer talent, Bellow more moxie. But it became increasingly apparent in the late stage of Roth’s career — as he turned on the afterburners, writing 11 novels, several of them masterpieces, between 1995 and 2010 — that he was leaving his cohort behind.
When one considers the dimensions of Roth’s late streak, it’s hard not to recall a moment in “The Human Stain,” his 2000 novel, in which his longtime fictional stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, goes to Tanglewood one Saturday morning to hear an open rehearsal.
Music has replaced sex as the great pleasure of the aging Zuckerman’s life. As he listens to a “sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew” play the piano, he reports: “When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air.”
Roth did a similar kind of crushing and revealing. His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence (in his case, Jewish-American existence), as if tending meat over a fire, than any writer of his time.
He was a born spellbinder, a man guided by voices. “I’m an ecouteur — an audiophiliac. I’m a talk fetishist,” says the protagonist of his 1990 novel “Deception.” Roth was a kind of roiling ecouteur as well.
He became famous as a young man because of the scandal that surrounded his fourth book, “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), in which he put his pent-up hero on a psychiatrist’s couch and allowed him to blissfully rant.
Alexander Portnoy confessed most famously the amorous attention he paid to a piece of raw liver, “bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and, believe it or not, violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.”
There was so much onanism in the novel (“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off — the sticky evidence is everywhere!”) that the writer Jacqueline Susann said on “The Tonight Show” that she’d love to meet Roth but did not want to shake his hand.
Roth, who never won the Nobel Prize many predicted for him, once said, “I wonder if I had called ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ ‘The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,’ if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.”
Below the humane comedy that filled much of Roth’s work, and the sense of a longing to both transcend and embrace his lower-middle-class Jewish origins (Roth grew up in Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood), he wrote with enormous insight about bedrock things like one’s relationship with one’s mother and father.
Zuckerman, his alter ego, referred to his mother in “The Anatomy Lesson” (1983), in a typically poised phrase, as “a breast, then a lap, then a fading voice calling after him, ‘Be careful.’”
About such women’s husbands, he wrote in “American Pastoral” (1997):
“Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.”
“American Pastoral,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, may be the most realized of Roth’s novels. Among other things, the ability he displays in it to write about children, while having had none of his own, is nothing short of mind-shaking.
For certain other readers, his greatest novel may be the vastly darker “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995), about an aging and priapic ex-puppeteer. Lust and shame were the driving forces behind much of Roth’s fiction. In sex, too, talk was central to appeal. Roth wrote about the joys of both “phonetic seduction” and “a finely calibrated relative clause.”
Roth has his perceptive feminist critics. Lionel Shriver told an interviewer that his female characters “are not nearly as filled out as his male ones; sometimes his women amount to little more than bodies or, when ex-wives, walking mistakes.”
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote: “The novels are prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many indecencies.” Vivian Gornick was more forceful: “If in Bellow misogyny was like seeping bile, in Roth it was lava pouring forth from a volcano.”
In an interview earlier this year with Charles McGrath in The New York Times, Roth replied that he had tried to be uncompromising in his portraits of “a small coterie of unsettled men,” even when “these have not been in harmony with the portrayal that a masculine public-relations campaign — if there were such a thing — might prefer.”
The best book on this novelist — its title is “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” (2013) — was composed by a woman, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation). It’s a sensitive, probing and uncommonly wise volume that will send you back into Roth’s work with fresh eyes and wits.
Pierpont processes and never easily explains away the dark impulses of a man who once wrote, “For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence.”
After sex, mortality was perhaps Roth’s great subject. “Old age isn’t a battle,” he wrote in “Everyman” (2006). “Old age is a massacre.” He wasn’t afraid of what his obituarists might say of him. But he was aware that they would unearth some of the harsher notices of his work and pluck quotes from them. You could hear his comic tone as he told Pierpont, “Even in death, you get a bad review!”
Roth’s output was protean, too wide, too deep and too fervent to truly capture in an appraisal of this length, composed overnight after learning of his death late the previous evening.
But grief is not too strong a word to use to capture my emotions, and those of many others who kept pace with his work.
This archwizard’s books continue to be here. None are bad. The best still eat into the mind like acid.
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