A daring explorer of self-esteem is remembered by Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman
Robert McCrum:’ His late prose has the command, 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 seemed to be mainly three events on his knowledge: 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– moves into the literary pantheon, those first two worries have become irrelevant or trivial, but that frustration with the legacy 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 journey of a young man’s frustrated sex drive, especially as it might relate to an Jewish-American boy’s mother. A novel in the semblance of a acknowledgment, it was taken by many 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 masteries a much richer arsenal of sex assistants 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 remedy” Freud never saw, a psychotic speech, to repeat its scribe, by” a lust-ridden, mother-addicted, young Jewish bachelor-at-arms”, a laughable harangue that would make” the id back in yid “. Perhaps exclusively Harold Pinter, to whom, as a young man, Roth bore some similarity, has been possible to framed such a memorable and shocking 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 leader in his autobiography,” is to be her Philip[ and] my biography still takes its twirl from beginning as his Roth .”
He came of age in Eisenhower’s America, grown up in the suburbiums, across the Hudson, temporarily separated from the glittering desires 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 revitalize their society in the aftermath of the second world war, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Roth’s elderlies- Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut- had already shown the channel in their spunky takeover of the American novel. Roth, too, would set about this task through his volumes, exploding on to the amazingly genteel American literary background 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 persistent grumble of low-grade hostility, the spiteful scrutiny of literary minnows and, after Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969, ceaseless jokes about” beating off “. How quaint his literary misdemeanors seem today. From many points of view, Roth’s job epitomised the humorist Peter de Vries’s observation about American characters that” one nightmares of the goddess Fame- and airs up with the bastard Publicity “.
Some reviewers still chide him for his insouciance towards agreement, and his assaults on the American dream. Had he, I wondered, when we satisfied, ever unconsciously courted outrage?” 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 stuff out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I should be considered 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 scandalous witticism( impersonation, fantasy, wits and riffs) that attended any communication with the writer when he was in the mood, and on a roll.