The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Philip Roth, the Herald of Lust and Clever Playfulness

Last week, Philip Roth (1933-2018), one of the best known American novelists, passed away at the age of 85. At times controversial, highly influential, he was the last living writer of the American triumvirate of the second half of the 20th century, which also includes Saul Bellow and John Updike. His output and dedication to writing are truly admirable.

Roth won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1959 for his first novella Goodbye, Columbus. The work caused the first accusations of anti-Semitism. It is often speculated that the obscene and comical Portnoy's Complaint (1969), Roth's most famous novel, was his defiant reaction to the early Jewish critics. Philip Roth produced over 30 novels during a career that covered half a century. Many of his stories were adapted for film, most notably Portnoy's Complaint (1972), The Human Stain (2003) and American Pastoral (2016).

Roth's most famous character is Nathan Zuckerman, an alter ego writer, who appears in nine of his novels. Roth explores the meta-fictional concerns of the relationship between the author and his work through this multi-dimensional persona. The British Indian author Salman Rushdie used Zuckerman as a character in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) about an alternate universe in which literary alter-egos and their novel become real.

In 1990, Roth married his longtime companion, English actress Claire Bloom, and moved to England. That was his second marriage. Four years later, the couple separated, and in 1996 Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll's House, describing her marriage to Roth in much detail. The writer refused to utter a single word about his relationship to Bloom for the rest of his life, but many critics agree that his novel I Married a Communist (1996) represents his reaction to the actress's accusations.

Roth published his last novel in 2010, and died of congestive heart failure on May 22, 2018 at a Manhattan hospital.

Roth's two main subjects are (male) sexuality and identity, both individual and collective. Starting with his first creation, he explored the themes of lust, adultery and later sexual impotence. Roth's novels are highly autobiographical, and his relationship with many members of his family, including his brother and parents, sharply deteriorated after they recognised themselves in Roth's characters.

Philip Roth also closely examines what it means to be Jewish in the modern American society. Albeit an atheist, he understands the importance of collective identity, and subjects all aspects of Jewish religion and ethnicity in a multicultural and materialist environment to fictional scrutiny.

Roth's verbal facility, inventiveness and cynical humour make his oeuvre cerebrally compelling. His hedonism, wealthy imagination and intellectual potency recall Vladimir Nabokov, another 20th-century literary giant. Nevertheless, his life free of suffering and compassion, and his cultural and spiritual detachment, deny his novels the profoundness of the truly eminent works of art.

Svetozar Postic

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