“I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” (Deception)
Philip Roth has not won the Nobel Prize. But it seems like he’s won everything else. And if the Nobel Committee were to realize that there are countries outside of Europe (hell, outside of Sweden – nine Swedes have now won the Nobel Prize in Literature – I know it’s your country, but that’s ridiculous), they would look at Roth again. He has written award winning books, award winning short stories, he has written on the art of writing and on his contemporaries. He has helped to build the knowledge of European Literature in the United States, being the editor of Writers from the Other Europe Series from Penguin that brought, among others, Milan Kundera to the forefront in the States. With John Updike and Saul Bellow now gone, he is the last of that breed, those writers who were obsessed with sex, obsessed with life, who gave us great novels that were cultural as well as literary milestones.
He is one of my favorites. You might not want to shake his hand, or even know him. But you should definitely read him.
“He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.” (Sabbath’s Theater)
There used to be a small little used bookstore in Forest Grove called Chapter II. It was everything you could hope for in college, when you’re branching out and looking for new things to read. One day, looking through their Literature section (they had Lit separated from Fiction), I found two paperbacks that I had heard of but not read. One was Ragtime and the other was Portnoy’s Complaint. I read Ragtime first, because I had seen the film. I really enjoyed it, and over the next couple of years read several other Doctorow novels. But Portnoy’s Complaint, well, I just couldn’t stop laughing. Before too long, I had other Roth books. Within a year, I had read all of his books up through The Counterlife. When I started working at Powell’s, I started buying his First Editions. Since 2001, I have been getting them the day they come out. A few years ago, I had to run an errand at Houghton Mifflin. On the wall there, near the entrance, was the National Book Award that Roth won for Goodbye Columbus, over 50 years ago now.
Roth is the leader of this generation of writers, the best of the lot that includes Bellow, Vonnegut, Updike and Morrison. Over 50 years he has been working now. We never got that kind of production from the great writers of the 20’s and 30’s. Between Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe, not a one of them was even alive 40 years after their first book was published. But Roth continues to write and they continue to be worth reading.
- Pulitzer Prize:
- American Pastoral
- National Book Award
- Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories
- Sabbath’s Theater
- PEN / Faulkner Award:
- Operation Shylock
- The Human Stain
- National Book Critics Circle Award:
- The Counterlife
That doesn’t include how many other times he’s been in contention for those awards. He’s been a Pulitzer Finalist three times (The Ghost Writer, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater), a National Book Award Finalist four times (My Life as a Man, The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, The Counterlife) and a National Book Critics Circle Finalist five times (The Professor of Desire, The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, American Pastoral, The Plot Against America). He appeared on the Modern Library List, 2 books on the All-TIME list, 6 on the New York Times Best Book of the last 25 years list and 3 in my Top 100 (6 if you did my original, English Language only list).
“You must not forget anything.” (Patrimony)
- Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories
- The book that made Philip Roth a big name at the age of 26. One very good novella with five short stories. Three of them (“The Conversion of the Jews”, “The Defender of the Faith” and “Eli the Fanatic) instantly earned him his reputation as both a self-hating Jew and as one of the most talented writers in American Literature. It won the National Book Award.
- Letting Go
- A good first novel. But it is a bit too long and lacks the sense of humor that Roth had shown in the first book. It was helped by the fact that he already had made a name for himself before it was ever published.
- When She Was Good
- A bit more of the humor that he had shown already, though a very bleak look at a disastrous relationship. Both the first two good novels are good, but nothing in them prepares you for the onslaught to come.
- Portnoy’s Complaint
- The book that instantly made him a household name. The Modern Library ranked it one of the best novels of the century, as did I. It is certainly one of the funniest books ever written and one of the best examples of literary humor, combining a deft and smart style with gut-breaking laughs.
- Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends)
- In some ways, this is even funnier than Portnoy’s Complaint. This was the first book that I read after Portnoy and it really cemented how much I enjoyed reading Roth. What’s so amazing about this book is not how deftly it satirizes Nixon and his entire administration, especially Agnew (his original comment on the “nattering nabobs of negativism” that made him an alliterative nightmare is skewered here, building up to “Far from fear, what I felt was a filarious frostification at the far-reaching fistula into which fate had feductively fastinguished me.”). What’s really amazing is the kind of dirty tricks that Roth attributes to Nixon and his men – in a novel published a year before Watergate.
- The Breast
- The Kapesh books are a weaker echo of the Zuckerman novels, even if The Breast, the first Kapesh book, emerged from Roth’s pen before Zuckerman did. This is one of his weakest novels, a short little joke that always makes me think of the runaway breast in Woody Allen’s film.
- The Great American Novel
- A vastly under-rated novel. It contains a great deal of humor and a considerable love of baseball and both must be appreciated to enjoy this. It shows an echo of the alternate history that Roth will write 30 years later in The Plot Against America. It contains one of his best scenes, where Smitty (the narrator) and Hemingway are on a boat with some Vassar undergraduates and they argue about the Great American Novel. When Hemingway gets mad and starts screaming and punching, Smitty tells him “Who would want to kill himself over a novel?” Hemingway replies “What then? A whale? A woman?” Then comes the great moment, the scarred young co-ed looking up at him and replying “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” Much of my story “After the Flood”, which I began two days later, stems from that one moment in the book.
- My Life as a Man
- One of the few remaining Roth books that I don’t have a first edition of. One of his most autobiographical books (by his own admission). It has the first appearance of Nathan Zuckerman, though it is doubtful whether this is the same character who is in the later books.
- Reading Myself and Others
- His first work of non-fiction. One of Roth’s hallmarks is that he pays attention to literature around him, not just himself. This book collects some self-reflective pieces as well as some literary reviews. Possibly the book of his you are least likely to find in a bookshop.
- The Professor of Desire
- The second of the Kapesh books, it is also the longest and the most fully realized. It is his most distinctly erotic book since Portnoy’s Complaint. With the return to Kapesh and eroticism, it pre-figures the themes of the upcoming Zuckerman books.
- The Ghost Writer
- His best novel. The brilliant beginning of the Zuckerman books, establishing the young Nathan, with hints of the man that he would become. A finalist for a number of major awards, though it didn’t win any. The book that made me realize he wasn’t just hilarious – he was brilliant.
- Zuckerman Unbound
- The middle book in the original Zuckerman trilogy. It suffers in that same way that middle books often do, but is still compelling.
- The Anatomy Lesson
- “When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around, other women must do.” That’s the opening line and it deftly seems to combine Portnoy with Zuckerman and brings a solid conclusion to the original trilogy.
- Zuckerman Bound
- The release of this book officially cemented the Zuckerman books as one longer work. A one book release of The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, together with The Prague Orgy, an epilogue.
- The Prague Orgy
- A novella that was originally created for Zuckerman Bound and never released on its own in the States. I have a British Penguin paperback.
- The Counterlife
- A brilliant post-modern book in which his characters take on lives for themselves. At the conclusion, Zuckerman is told “Dear Nathan, I’m leaving. I’ve left. I’m leaving you and I’m leaving the book.” One of his funniest books, and it goes places that are completely unexpected.
- The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography
- A bizarre take on an autobiography, perhaps the only way it could be done by a man so often accused of giving us his life in his fiction. It begins with a letter to his creation, Nathan Zuckerman, and ends with Zuckerman’s response, with a life packed in between.
- Patrimony: A True Story
- The story of his father’s last year. A haunting story, right down to its last line.
- A short novel, a kind of joke about autobiographical confession, in response to the critics who claimed he was making things up in his previous two books, the memoirs. Not one of his best books, but contains one of his best lines, one which I have taken to heart and which is the epigraph to this whole piece.
- Operation Shylock: A Confession
- This seems at first like an autobiographical book. But at the end, it is confirmed that it’s a novel, that all of it, no matter that the main character is named Philip Roth, is complete fiction. This blending across the lines won him the first of three PEN/Faulkner Awards.
- Sabbath’s Theater
- At once a devastatingly angry book and one of his funniest. With possibly the most sex since Portnoy’s Complaint, this book seemed specifically designed to embrace all the criticism of Roth – that he was too angry, that he was a self-hating Jew, that he obsessed too much on sex, and to wrap them all together and say, the hell with it, I can do all that and be brilliant. He was right. It won the National Book Award.
- American Pastoral
- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the first book of the second Zuckerman trilogy. In the second trilogy, Zuckerman, rather than the protagonist, is instead the reporter, passing on stories of those he have known and the changes in America in the last half century. This first part focuses on a family that Zuckerman knew in New Jersey and what they went through in the ever-turbulent Sixties.
- I Married A Communist
- His most overtly political book since Our Gang, at once one of his funniest and one of his angriest novels. This look back at the Communist witch hunts would presage the look farther book in The Plot Against America.
- The Human Stain
- A brilliant meditation on several subjects at once. It is a book full of anger, but it is not Nathan Zuckerman’s anger that fuels the novel. It is also a story of the political correctness that has come to rule the world, whether it be dealing with race or sex. It is also a novel on loss and on what the changes in America have done to so many of us. It is a fitting ending to the second Zuckerman Trilogy, The American Trilogy, especially with that final, beautiful, poetic line: “Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.”
- The Dying Animal
- A short novel, a herald of what would become a theme in the decade. The final Kapesh book, and like all of them, not nearly as good as his other books.
- Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work
- Roth discusses writing with several other writers, some of whom were in the Writers from the Other Europe Series that Roth was the General Editor of.
- The Plot Against America
- His first full length novel in four years (and his last to date). A political novel and an alternative history that looks at the other side of the Nazi menace – the fear at home and what might have come to be. This book made it clear, after a gap of a few years that Roth was not going gentle into that good night.
- The first of a series of short novels. It is also the first novel in a decade which isn’t part of another series. Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. A short meditative look at one man’s life, or every man’s life.
- Exit Ghost
- “You depart while others, amazingly enough, stay behind to continue doing what they’ve always done – and, upon returning, you are surprised and momentarily thrilled to see that they are still there, and, too, reassured by there being somebody who is spending his whole life in the same little place and who has no desire to go.” So much of what has gone in the life of Nathan Zuckerman is perfectly encapsulated here, when he returns to New York, and finds himself also returning to a character from The Ghost Writer. A perfect final ending for the Zuckerman books.
- A book of unbelievable anger (even for Roth). But also a tragic book, that looks back at his anger, not necessarily thinking that anger lead to wisdom. The story of a very smart (perhaps too smart for his own good) young man at fictional Winesburg College (I love that, of course) during the Korean War.
- The Humbling
- His weakest book in years, but one which actually prompted me to write a letter to the New York Times Book Review (see below).
- With the publication of Nemesis, the short novels that he had written over the previous several years were grouped together on the author page as Nemeses: Short Novels (this includes Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis; Exit Ghost, which is a Zuckerman book, is not listed among them, though it is also a short novel). This novel goes back to New Jersey, to a time when Polio raged in the summer. For a writer who is so identified with being Jewish, the theme of a guilt, the primary focus here, isn’t touched on that much by Roth.
There are also the Library of America books. The Library of America has been putting out his complete works in their wonderful volumes, only the second living author to be afforded that honor. Though I have only managed to get one of them so far (they are $40 a pop, and I do own everything in them already), there have been seven volumes so far:
- Novels and Stories 1959 – 1962
- Novels 1967 – 1972
- Novels 1973 – 1977
- Zuckerman Bound, A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979 – 1985
- Novels and Other Narratives 1986 – 1991
- Novels 1993 – 1995
- The American Trilogy 1997 – 2000
He is still here. He is still writing. A rather negative review of his book The Humbling, a couple of years ago, prompted me to write the following to the “New York Times Book Review”: “What bitter irony that David Foster Wallace should have chosen to attack John Updike and Philip Roth as narcissists. There is the first mistake of attempting to conflate what they wrote with who they were, attributing their characters’ traits upon the author’s personalities. Yet, was there any author whose writing, so wrapped up in the importance of itself, ever more narcissistic in style than Wallace’s, unless it be his contemporaries, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safron Foer? What’s more, Wallace chose to end his life, tragically, with suicide, the ultimate narcissistic act that thinks only of oneself while leaving everyone else to deal with their grief. The other mistake is misjudging the obsession with sex as narcissism, when it is more a desperate reach for life. Roth is still alive, still writing, still reaching for life, much like Updike did until the end. Sadly, Wallace could not have only taken a lesson from them, but also one from Rabbit Angstrom or Nathan Zuckerman, who, most of all, lived.”
“Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” (Portnoy’s Complaint)