A daring explorer of ego is remembered by Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman
Robert McCrum:’ His late prose has the dominate, tempo 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 appeared to be mainly three things on his subconsciou: 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– slips into the literary pantheon, those first two concerns have become irrelevant or trivial, but that resentment 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 exploration of a young man’s forestalled sex drive, especially as it might relate to an Jewish-American boy’s mother. A romance in the guise of a acknowledgment, it was taken by many American readers as a acknowledgment 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 passion, Portnoy dictations a much richer arsenal of copulation succours than most horny young men: old-time 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 sermon, to quote its scribe, by” a lust-ridden, mother-addicted, young Jewish bachelor”, a ludicrous tirade that would apply” the id back in yid “. Perhaps simply Harold Pinter, to whom, as a young man, Roth bore some resemblance, have had an opportunity to 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 food”, he liked to say, in 1933. His mothers were devoted to their son.” To be at all ,” he writes of his mother and father-god in his autobiography,” is to be her Philip[ and] my record still takes its rotate 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 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 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 room in their vivaciou merger of the American novel. Roth, extremely, would set about this assignment through his books, abounding on to the surprisingly 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 grumble of low-grade hostility, the spiteful scrutiny of literary minnows and, after Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969, ceaseless jokes about” hit off “. How quaint his literary misdemeanours seem today. From many points of view, Roth’s career epitomised the humorist Peter de Vries’s observation about American characters that” one dreams of the goddess Fame- and airs up with the bitch Publicity “.
Some critics still lecture him for his insouciance towards pattern, and his assaults on the American dream. Had he, I wondered, where reference is gratified, ever unconsciously courted scandalize?” I don’t have any gumption 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 sentence, is the authentic Roth: neurotic, obsessive, disdainful and self-centred. The only thing that’s missing is the outrageous humor( mimicry, fantasy, parodies and riffs) that attended any dialogue with the writer when he was in the mood, and on a roll.