A daring explorer of self-esteem is remembered by Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman
Robert McCrum:’ His late prose has the authority, pattern and clarity 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 appears to be principally three things on his brain: 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 persons below the age of 85- only a few daylights after another master of American prose, Tom Wolfe– slips into the literary pantheon, those first two obsess have become irrelevant or trivial, but that annoyance with the bequest 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 relate to an Jewish-American boy’s mother. A romance in the semblance of a confession, the information was taken a number of many American readers as a admission in the semblance 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 joy, Portnoy dominates a far richer arsenal of fornication expedites than most horny young men: old socks, his sister’s underwear, a baseball glove and- notoriously- a slice of liver for the Portnoy family dinner. This is the” talking medication” Freud never saw, a manic monologue, to paraphrase its writer, by” a lust-ridden, mother-addicted, young Jewish bachelor”, a slapstick denunciation that they are able to set” the id back in yid “. Perhaps only Harold Pinter, to whom, as a young man, Roth accepted some similarity, could have framed such a memorable and abominable line.
Philip Milton Roth was born into their own families of second-generation American Jews from Newark, New Jersey,” before pantyhose and frozen foods”, he liked to say, in 1933. His parents were devoted to their son.” To be at all ,” he writes of his mother and father in his autobiography,” must therefore be her Philip[ and] my history still takes its spin from beginning as his Roth .”
He came of age in Eisenhower’s America, growing up in the suburb, across the Hudson, temporarily separated from the flashing 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 replace 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 previously been indicated the style in their feisty takeover of the American novel. Roth, too, would set about this enterprise through his notebooks, erupting on to the amazingly genteel American literary panorama 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 murmuring of low-grade resentment, the resentful its further consideration of literary minnows and, after Portnoy’s Complaint were launched in 1969, ceaseless jokes about” whamming off “. How quaint his literary misdemeanors seem today. From many points of view, Roth’s career epitomised the humorist Peter de Vries’s observation about American characters that” one dream of the goddess Fame- and winds up with the bitch Publicity “.
Some pundits still criticize him for his insouciance towards convention, and his assaults on the American daydream. Had he, I wondered, when we met, ever unconsciously courted resentment?” I don’t have any feel of audience ,” he replied,” least of all when I’m writing. The audience I’m writing for is me, and I’m so busy trying to chassis the damn thing out, and having so much disturb, that the last thing I think of is:’ What is X, Y, or Z going to be thinking of it ?'” There, in a sentence, is the authentic Roth: neurotic, obsessive, disdainful and self-centred. The only thing that’s missing is the unconscionable mood( mimicry, fantasize, parodies and riffs) that accompanied any conversation with the writer when he was in the mood, and on a roll.