There Were Many Philip Roths

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Photo: Richard Drew/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The story goes that over lunch he was telling his friend at the University of Chicago Richard Stern what he got up to last summer and that became Goodbye, Columbus. Roth told a story that as a graduate student he found the first sentences of his first nineteen novels written on a stray piece of paper he found late one night in a cafeteria. (It was a fiction.) Retirement did not suit Philip Roth. What was the most prolific writer of his age doing not writing? In a late reading he described one of his heroes, Mickey Sabbath, this way:

His refractory way of living—unable and unwilling to hide anything and, with his raging, satirizing nature, mocking everything, living beyond the limits of discretion and taste and blaspheming against the decent—this refractory way of living is his uniquely Sabbathian response to a place where nothing keeps its promise and everything is perishable. A life of unalterable contention is the best preparation he knows for death. In his incompatibility he finds truth.

As sterile as it sounds, “incompatibility” may have been Roth’s great theme. His most famous novel, after all, was told in the form of a confession to an analyst. That novel was a breakthrough for the culture in terms of the frankness of its sexual subject matter but also a breakthrough in style for Roth: “prose that has the spontaneity and ease of spoken language at the same time that it is solidly grounded on the page, weighted with the irony, precision, and ambiguity associated with a more traditional written rhetoric.” He admitted it wasn’t an original idea, but he spent his life perfecting it.

Every great writer repeats himself and every great writer goes through phases. With Roth there were so many phases it’s hard to count. There was the early period as the enfant terrible angering the Jewish establishment, by leaking the news of the American Jew’s human fallibility. There was the blockbuster phase of Portnoy’s Complaint and its aftermath when his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman roamed uptown blocks in flight of his own fame. Roth was a man of multiple alter egos. Besides Zuckerman, the relatively mild-mannered Newark native and author of Carnovsky, there was David Kepesh, the calculating and unhindered hedonist who found himself in one book transformed into a man-sized breast in Roth’s ’70s turn on Kafka. The 1980s saw Roth’s confessional narratives take a postmodern turn in novels like The Counterlife, then a memoirist’s zag in his beautiful 1991 book about his dying father, Patrimony, before he embarked on the historical trilogy — American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain — that attempted a summation of postwar America for the 1990s. After the counterfactual blast of the Lindbergh-governed fascist U.S. in The Plot Against America, he settled into a self-consciously late style in a series of slim volumes modeled on the late works of Joseph Conrad that alternately contemplated the scourges of old age and took a morbid look back on youth. In 2010, he published his last novel, Nemesis, about the polio epidemic in Newark in the 1950s. It wasn’t his best. How could it be?

It’s ever tempting to think of Roth as a product of his time, to attribute his success to a keen instinct for the turn in sexual mores of the late ’60s; or to see him, with Susan Sontag, as the last comer of the New York Intellectuals; or, along with Norman Mailer and John Updike, as the last of the Great Male Narcissists, in David Foster Wallace’s phrase. Roth’s talent bloomed across six decades and has become part of the foundation of an ongoing literature. That he was male, that he was a Jew — in his own mind these were accidents. The essence he sought was American, and its nature was struggle, a struggle first of all, as he wrote in 1961, against a nationwide reality that was day by day threatening to outdo any one writer’s powers: “the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Most of the examples he names, besides Roy Cohn and Dwight Eisenhower, are lost to time, which will never be true of Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, Amy Bellette, or Mickey Sabbath.

Toward the end, Roth took to making pessimistic remarks about the vitality of the American novel, as if he wanted it to die with him. But it won’t. He gave the novel too much life and left too many inheritors. We remember the slab of liver and the sex, but Roth probably contemplated death more than any writer after Tolstoy. At one point, Mickey Sabbath, ankle-deep in mud, contemplates taking his own life: “And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”

*A version of this article appears in the May 28, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Many Philip Roths