A daring explorer of self-esteem is remembered by Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman
Robert McCrum:’ His late prose has the dictation, lilt and simplicity of greatness’
When I interviewed Philip Roth in 2008, its first year of his 75 th birthday, at his pastoral home in upstate Connecticut, there appeared to be principally three things on his head: outliving his peers and challengers; the ongoing fuss about the Nobel committee( would they/ wouldn’t they ?) and Portnoy’s Complaint .
As Roth, who died last week, at persons under the age of 85- just a few days after another master of American prose, Tom Wolfe– slips into the literary pantheon, those first two frets have become irrelevant or trivial, but that exasperation with the gift of Portnoy was prescient. This “shocking” novel is now more than 60 years old, but some readers still haven’t got over his brilliant, comic journey of a young man’s forestalled sex drive, especially as it might be applied to an Jewish-American boy’s mother. A romance in the semblance of a creed, it was taken by numerous American readers as a admission in the guise of a fiction: Portnoy became an immediate bestseller and a succes fou .
Let us not forget, in honouring Roth’s exit, that to facilitate his solitary passion, Portnoy requires a much richer arsenal of sexuality assistances than most horny young men: old-fashioned socks, his sister’s underwear, a baseball glove and- notoriously- a slice of liver for the Portnoy family dinner. This is the” talking medicine” Freud never envisaged, a psychotic speech, to paraphrase its author, by” a lust-ridden, mother-addicted, young Jewish bachelor”, a ludicrous tirade that would apply” the id back in yid “. Perhaps exclusively Harold Pinter, to whom, as a young man, Roth bore some resemblance, could have framed such a memorable and outrageous line.
Philip Milton Roth was born into a family of second-generation American Jews from Newark, New Jersey,” before pantyhose and frozen foods”, he liked to say, in 1933. His mothers were devoted to their son.” To be at all ,” he writes of his mother and papa in his autobiography,” is to be her Philip[ and] my record still takes its invent from beginning as his Roth .”
He came of age in Eisenhower’s America, growing up in the suburbiums, across the Hudson, temporarily kept separate from the glittering temptations of Manhattan, but part of a generation of young Americans, also including William Styron, John Updike and Saul Bellow, who wanted to re-examine and regenerate their society in the aftermath of the second world war, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Roth’s seniors- Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut- had already shown the style in their vivaciou takeover of the American novel. Roth, very, would set about this duty through his volumes, erupting on to the surprisingly genteel American literary incident with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959.
From his precocious beginnings, Roth learned to endure the kind of attention that might have led even “the worlds largest” dedicated headline-hog into distracted solipsism: a lingering grumble of low-grade hostility, the envious its further consideration of literary minnows and, after Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969, incessant jokes about” wham off “. How quaint his literary misdemeanors seem today. From many points of view, Roth’s profession epitomised the humorist Peter de Vries’s observation about American characters that” one dreams of the goddess Fame- and winds up with the bitch Publicity “.
Some commentators still chide him for his insouciance towards assembly, and his assaults on the American dream. Had he, I wondered, where reference is filled, ever unconsciously courted cruelty?” I don’t have any appreciation of gathering ,” he replied,” least of all when I’m writing. The audience I’m writing for is me, and I’m so busy trying to figure the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I must be considered is:’ What is X, Y, or Z going to be thinking of it ?'” There, in a sentence, is the genuine Roth: neurotic, obsessive, contemptuous and self-centred. The only thing that’s missing is the outrageous fun( parody, fantasy, wits and riffs) that attended any speech with the writer when he was in the mood, and on a roll.