A daring explorer of self-esteem is recollected by Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman
Robert McCrum:’ His late prose has the bid, tempo 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 thoughts on his brain: outliving his contemporaries 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 the age of 85- merely a few dates after another master of American prose, Tom Wolfe– slips into the literary pantheon, those first two obsess have become irrelevant or inconsequential, but that thwarting with the legacy 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 expedition of a young man’s annoyed sex drive, especially as it might relate to an Jewish-American boy’s mother. A romance in the semblance of a creed, it was taken by many American readers as a acknowledgment in the guise 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 authorities a much richer arsenal of sexuality expedites 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 antidote” Freud never envisaged, a psychotic sermon, to paraphrase its writer, by” a lust-ridden, mother-addicted, young Jewish bachelor-at-arms”, a ludicrous denunciation that they are able to make” the id back in yid “. Perhaps exclusively Harold Pinter, to whom, as a young man, Roth bore some similarity, had been able to framed such a memorable and outrageous line.
Philip Milton Roth was born into their own families of second-generation American Jews from Newark, New Jersey,” before pantyhose and frozen food”, he liked to say, in 1933. His parents were devoted to their son.” To be at all ,” he drafts of his mother and father in his autobiography,” is gonna be her Philip[ and] my history still takes its revolve from beginning as his Roth .”
He came of age in Eisenhower’s America, growing up in the neighbourhoods, 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 renew their own communities 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 feisty takeover of the American novel. Roth, too, would set about this undertaking through his journals, exploding 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 most dedicated headline-hog into distracted solipsism: a prolonged 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” slap off “. How quaint his literary misdemeanours seem today. From many points of view, Roth’s profession epitomised the humorist Peter de Vries’s observation about American words that” one dreams of the goddess Fame- and gusts up with the bitch Publicity “.
Some reviewers still lecture him for his insouciance towards pact, and his assaults on the American dream. Had he, I wondered, where reference is fulfilled, ever unconsciously courted outrage?” 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 concept 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 genuine Roth: neurotic, obsessive, disdainful and self-centred. The only thing that’s missing is the outrageous fun( parody, fantasy, wits and riffs) that accompanied any discussion with the writer when he was in the mood, and on a roll.