A daring explorer of pride is recollected by Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman
Robert McCrum:’ His late prose has the dominate, lilt and simplicity of greatness’
When I interviewed Philip Roth in 2008, the year of his 75 th birthday, at his pastoral home in upstate Connecticut, there appeared to be mainly three things on his intellect: outliving his contemporaries and contenders; the ongoing fuss about the Nobel committee( would they/ wouldn’t they ?) and Portnoy’s Complaint .
As Roth, who died last week, at the age of 85- just a few days after another master of American prose, Tom Wolfe– flies into the literary pantheon, those first two annoys have become irrelevant or trivial, but that exasperation with the gift of Portnoy was prescient. This “shocking” fiction is now more than 60 years old, but some readers still haven’t got over his brilliant, comic expedition of a young man’s frustrated sex drive, especially as it might be applied to an Jewish-American boy’s mother. A novel in the semblance of a admission, it was taken by numerous American readers as a revelation in the semblance of a novel: 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 dominates a far richer arsenal of copulation 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 saw, a manic sermon, to quote its scribe, by” a lust-ridden, mother-addicted, young Jewish bachelor”, a farcical denunciation that would employ” the id back in yid “. Perhaps exclusively Harold Pinter, to whom, as a young man, Roth bore some similarity, 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 history still takes its rotate from beginning as his Roth .”
He came of age in Eisenhower’s America, growing up in the neighbourhoods, across the Hudson, temporarily separated from the glittering lures 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 revamp 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 practice in their spunky merger of the American novel. Roth, extremely, would set about this task through his works, erupting on to the astonishingly 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 resentful scrutiny of literary minnows and, after Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969, incessant jokes about” whacking off “. How quaint his literary misdemeanors seem today. From many points of view, Roth’s busines epitomised the humorist Peter de Vries’s observation about American words that” one dreams of the goddess Fame- and gales up with the bitch Publicity “.
Some critics still lecture him for his insouciance towards gathering, and his assaults on the American dream. Had he, I wondered, where reference is converged, ever unconsciously courted anger?” I don’t have any appreciation of gathering ,” he replied,” least of all when I’m writing. The gathering 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 think of is:’ What is X, Y, or Z going to be thinking of it ?'” There, in a convict, is the authentic Roth: neurotic, obsessive, contemptuous and self-centred. The only thing that’s missing is the outrageous witticism( parody, fantasy, satires and riffs) that attended any conversation with the writer when he was in the mood, and on a roll.