Jewishness, lust and American life can and have been used to describe the themes that Philp Roth, who died on Wednesday at 85, explored in his astounding body of work. They say everything and nothing, though, about the depth and breadth of one of the 20th century’s great novelists.
Lust is indeed at the core of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), arguably Roth’s most well-known novel. But Alexander Portnoy’s unadulterated slavery to his libido — everything from his ethical universe to his family is subsumed in it — tells a secret truth, one that is essential to any understanding of the perils of masculinity. In Roth’s later work, desire becomes a vehicle. Through it, he takes us to the depths of America’s pathologies — race and class (The Human Stain) — infirmity (Everyman), and even death.
But what makes Roth truly great is the ability to begin from the self, his own context, and squeeze through prose that rises to a feverish pitch, the story of a country, its politics and the cleavages that define it. The line between reality and fiction is often blurred in his work. Roth or his thinly-veiled alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, begin stories from Newark, New Jersey, and Jewish childhoods, and take the reader, whether in Bombay or Bulandshahar, Daman or Delhi, into journeys through the horrors of McCarthyism (I Married a Communist), the precariousness of democracy (The Plot Against America) or, as in American Pastoral, things as personal and grand as politics, family and the scars of a society whose values are morphing.
Or even explore identity through more ethereal realms, as in Operation Shylock, where the near-magical schizophrenia of Philip Roth, the writer, mirrors the politics of Jewishness and Israel. Roth epitomises the paradigm of the writer of visceral fiction, someone who, as PG Wodehouse said, “went deep down into life without caring a damn”. It is no secret that he wanted to win the Nobel Prize for literature. It is even less of a secret that he deserved it. But then, sometimes omission only confirms greatness.