In his novels Philip Roth was capable of creating savagely comic scenes, often around sexual encounters, or non-encounters as practised by Portnoy, one of his most famous creations.
But there are not many funny stories about Roth’s own life. An exception dates from the period when he moved to live in London with his then-wife the actress Claire Bloom. Roth was encouraged to set up a lunch with Harold Pinter, a British literary lion of matching prowess. The bon vivant playwright was greatly disappointed when the “great local restaurant” Roth claimed to have discovered turned out to be a branch of the Spud-u-Like chain of jacket potato diners.
Whether the tale is true or not it captures much about Roth – he was a man for who the work was what counted, not the trappings of fame. Life was to be experienced to the full, high low and privately and then fed into the art. When Roth felt his talents were failing a few years ago, he announced his retirement and disappeared quietly into the New England countryside. Few other great artists have been so self-effacing. Except perhaps for Pynchon and Salinger, North American authors of a similar vintage,who sought personal obscurity even more fervently so the work could stand alone.
Roth’s books made enough noise on their own. Roth was a literary star from the moment his first novella Goodbye Columbus won the US National Book Award in 1959. The themes which would preoccupy him for the rest of his career were all present as trace elements. Still in his twenties he cut straight to the universal themes which pre-occupy all great novelists: tensions between races, classes and sexes and the ambiguity, uncertainty and contradiction which besets each one of us.
Roth drew on his own experience growing up in a Jewish family in post Second World War Newark, New Jersey. He could describe people and their encounters with extraordinary precision – seldom flinching from the painful or embarrassing – but from the particular he worked out to identify aspects of the common human condition.
While many admired and enjoyed his artistry, Roth also recruited a growing number of critics. In particular the sexual obsessions of his priapic heroes led to accusations of misogyny. Misanthropy – a dislike of the entire human species – might be a fairer charge as he half admitted in the titles of some of his later books such as The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, Everyman, Indignation and Nemesis.
Neither charge makes Roth’s insights invalid or belies his skill in expressing them. But it does perhaps explain why he was never honoured with the Nobel Prize, unlike his fellow spud eater Harold Pinter. The Nobel Committee were said to have a permanent block in place against his name. When he was awarded an International Booker Prize, the literary Virago Carmen Callil resigned from the judges’ panel.
For me, his greatest book is The Counterlife, an intricately constructed novel dealing, among other matters, with a middle aged East Coast American Jew’s feelings about the state of Israel. Along with I Married A Communist, American Pastoral and the Plot against America, it exemplifies Roth’s deft and subtle understanding of political feelings as well as the personal.
Philip Roth the man has slipped away aged 85. We still have his books. That’s what mattered to him and what should matter to us.