Dan A O’Brien writes: Philip Roth (1933-2018), the colossus of American literature who died on May 22nd, was no stranger to death. Along with sex, it propelled his creative process over fifty years and thirty books. Though Roth will always be remembered for his love scenes, from the summer romance that launched his career with 1959’s Goodbye, Columbus to the scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) which propelled him headlong into American popular culture, it is his graveyard scenes that today linger in the mind. In his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound Roth’s long serving alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman attends his father’s funeral, where he is confronted with the radical change wrought by age on the great Jewish men of his childhood: “the pitiful sight of those old family friends, looking down into the slot where they must be deposited, thirty, sixty, ninety days hence ‑ the kibitzing giants out of his earliest memories, so frail now, some of them, that despite healthy suntans, you could have pushed them in with his father and they could not have crawled out”. This is classic Roth, with all the inflated sentimentality of childhood nostalgia burst by the grotesque image of pushing elderly neighbours into an open grave.
This affecting moment was so deftly rendered that when the literary critic (and later friend) Hermione Lee interviewed Roth for the Paris Review in 1984, she assumed that he had drawn on his own father’s death, to which the novelist replied: “the best person to ask about the autobiographical relevance of the climactic death of the father in Zuckerman Unbound is my own father, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I’ll give you his phone number.” As Roth later said in mock exasperation: “If all these subtle readers can see in my work is my biography, then they are simply numb to fiction ‑ numb to impersonation, to ventriloquism, to irony, numb to the thousand observations of human life on which a book is built, numb to all the delicate devices by which novels create the illusion of a reality more like the real than our own.” Yet in truth Roth’s fiction always danced provocatively between art and life, and his great power as a writer lay in this forged confusion.
In 1989, the real world caught up with Roth’s imagination when his indomitable insurance agent father Herman, the embodiment of all that was ordinary and extraordinary in twentieth century Jewish-American life, died aged eighty-nine. From this experience, Roth wrote Patrimony, a book at once tender and transgressive, which tracks the last year of Herman’s life as his body begins to fail. Most movingly of all, the book sees Roth clean his father’s soiled body after he becomes incontinent; this moment is also the book’s most troubling, as the son promises his father, “I won’t tell anyone”, even while this indignity is revealed to the reader. As Roth reflects at the close, the “unseemliness of [his] profession” demands an unerring eye. For him, life too is unseemly, and ignoring its darker elements out of a false sense of decorum is to unforgivably diminish it. This does not prevent Roth himself from giving way to sentiment at his father’s funeral, when he refuses to allow the body to be buried in a suit:
“He’s not going to the office” … He should be buried in a shroud, I said, thinking that was how his parents had been buried and how Jews were buried traditionally. But as I said it I wondered if a shroud was any less senseless ‑ he wasn’t Orthodox and his sons weren’t religious at all ‑ and if it wasn’t pretentiously literary and a little hysterically sanctimonious as well …. But as nobody opposed me and I hadn’t the audacity to say, “bury him naked”, we used the shroud of our ancestors to clothe his corpse.
Roth’s great friend Edna O’Brien described Patrimony as “raw and searing” and cited it as an inspiration for her own memoir, Country Girl (2012). In a 1984 interview, Roth asked O’Brien why her fiction returns with such frequency to her past: “not all writers feast on their childhood as much as you have”. Considering Roth’s own repeated excavation of his youth, the question is laced at once with irony and genuinely curiosity. Like O’Brien, he is enchanted by the past and how it determines our present. Yet looking back can also be an escape from facing forward, and ultimately towards death.
Nowhere in Roth’s fiction is death more pervasive than in his ferocious novel of lust and decrepitude Sabbath’s Theatre (1994). Here the eponymous Sabbath, a ruined, aged, suicidal puppeteer, wanders through a Jewish cemetery looking for his family’s (and his own) final resting place, with eyes drifting from one epitaph to another: “Beloved husband and father Jacob. Beloved husband, father, and grandfather Samuel. Beloved husband and father Joseph … My beloved wife our dear mother Lena. Our dear father Marcus. On and on and on. Nobody beloved gets out alive.” At a relative’s house, Sabbath finds the final effects of his brother, Morty, from whose Pacific wartime death he has never recovered. Then, with farcical pathos, Sabbath dons Morty’s American flag and God Save America yarmulke, before making his way to the grave of his dead lover, where, in memory of their trysts, he urinates on the soil. This image captures all of Roth’s great themes: America, Jewish life, death, desire, and a relentless attack on what he elsewhere describes as the “fantasy of purity”. Sabbath’s Theatre takes its epigraph from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Every third thought will be my grave”. This late play, in which the sorcerer Prospero relinquishes his magic, has been read as Shakespeare’s own renunciation of his art: “I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.” It is fitting then that Roth choose to speak of Sabbath’s Theater’s graveyard scenes at his own retirement celebrations in his home town of Newark in 2013:
where love is great and loss real … there the guile disappears. Then even Sabbath, corpulent, cunning, imprudent, arthritic, defeated, unpardonable Mickey Sabbath … hurled perpetually from levity to gravity, from repugnance to melancholia, from mania to buffoonery … a kiln of antagonism, and like so much of flawed humanity, unable ever to tear free of himself, this very same Sabbath is carried off by extremes of misery … 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 [unique]… response to a place where nothing keeps its promise and everything is perishable.
Roth once said of his fellow writers Saul Bellow and John Updike, “[they] hold their flashlights out into the world, [and] reveal the world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.” Throughout his fiction, there is no hole that Roth digs better than a grave, no instance more likely to bring forth his spilling, cacophonous sentences, his extraordinary eye for the nailing detail, and his meticulous passion for what he terms “the blizzard of specific data” that provides fiction with its lifeblood.
Roth’s most enduring achievement will remain his American trilogy, American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000) ‑ perhaps inspired by Edna O’Brien’s own 1990s Irish trilogy. Roth’s novels tackle the upheaval of the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, and the legacy of race in America. All three books see their protagonists’ lives blown apart by the death and destruction of the twentieth century, or what Zuckerman terms “the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral … the indigenous American berserk”. O’Brien would later describe Roth’s triptych and its creation:
Tearing himself loose from any worshipping family or friends, from marriage, and from what he once called the moral propriety of his earlier work, he went underground. There he wrote … some great books. There was still the ebullience that he likes, the precision that he insists on, the occasional blasphemy, and something else deeper, a gravity, a Greek gravity ‑ the artist’s dissection of fate and hope in a world, our world, gone berserk.
Before the 1990s, Roth was long dismissed by critics as a Jewish author obsessed with himself; after the trilogy, he was celebrated as an American author concerned with his country. In reality, throughout his oeuvre his investigation of sexuality and self sometimes obscured but never negated his exploration of history and nation.
In The Dying Animal (2001), Roth’s novella of desire and decay, the narrator David Kepesh reflects on the flimsy bulwarks humans construct against death’s unrelenting onslaught:
The loveliest fairy tale of childhood is that everything happens in order. Your grandparents go long before your parents, and your parents go long before you. If you’re lucky it can work out that way, people aging and dying in order, so that at the funeral you ease your pain by thinking that the person had a long life. It hardly makes extinction less monstrous, that thought, but it’s the trick that we use to keep the metronomic illusion intact and the time torture at bay.
Like the Imperial Japan of Roth’s childhood, death too can launch surprise attacks on unsuspecting foes. The body is susceptible to the blows of time and the merciless illogic of history. Yet The Dying Animal does not, as the Yeatsian title suggests, see the mind as merely lashed to the mast of a sinking ship. For Roth, far from being simply “a tattered coat upon a stick” the body is inseparable from and equal to the mind. This is borne out by the book’s epigraph, taken from his 1984 interview of O’Brien: “The body contains the life story just as much as the brain”.
In 2004 Roth published the alternate historical novel The Plot Against America, a reimagining of his own 1940s childhood that sees President Franklin D Roosevelt, the hero of lower middle class liberal Jews like Roth’s family, defeated by the aviator and antisemite Charles Lindbergh. Though read then as a roman à clé for the Bush years, the novel has been more recently reread as a prophecy of the Trump administration, and will soon gain an even greater cultural immortality by being transformed into a miniseries by David Simon of The Wire fame. Though Roth had often fictionalised his parents’ deaths, here he dreamed them back into life as they battle to protect their children from the regime’s incremental, insidious, assaults on the civil liberties of Jews and other “undesirable” minorities. His moving portrait is at once a eulogy for his parents and their stoic generation and a warning for generations to come: “Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History’, harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”
In his seventies, Roth followed The Plot with a series of novellas, their pared back state reflecting what critic James Wood, sees as evidence of the late style of writers like Roth and O’Brien: “a certain impatience with formal or generic proprieties; a wild, dark humor; a fearlessness in assertion and argument; a tonic haste in storytelling, so that the usual ground-clearing and pacing and evidentiary process gets accelerated or discarded altogether, as if it were (as it so often can be) mere narrative palaver that is stopping us from talking about what really matters”. Everyman (2006) is so stripped of anything extraneous that the protagonist does not even have a name, yet this seeming poverty of detail is, paradoxically, one of the book’s deep riches, granting it universal application and poetic brevity.
After his brother’s funeral this unnamed Everyman watches as the gravedigger marks out a plot and explains his trade: “it’s got to be flat enough to lay a bed on it … you’ve got this hole, six foot deep, and it’s got to be right for the sake of the family and right for the sake of the dead”. John Banville, otherwise ambivalent about the book, said of this scene: “[it] is so deft, and this figure of friendly Death is described with such a mixture of lightness and sombre gravity, that the narrative draws to a close in an atmosphere that is almost Shakespearean in its magical softness and mysterious simplicity”. One of Roth’s great skills is his attentiveness to his characters’ trades, be it glove-maker, butcher, or gravedigger. For Roth, work makes the man, and for him writing was work. O’Brien recalls visits to his home in Connecticut, when he would “come in from his studio around six o’clock, like a labourer who had done his stint”. His books were painstakingly dug out from his own psyche, filled by his audacious imagination, and shaped by his exacting precision. He was nothing if not a craftsman.
Roth’s final book, Nemesis (2010), written in his seventy-seventh year, returns once more to alternative realities. At the height of the Second World War, a polio epidemic strikes Newark. For all its historical specificity, the book is most concerned with universal themes: the terror of unforeseeable death, the fear of outsiders and the chaos of contingency. On this soaring note he retired, though his promised biography from Blake Bailey apparently contains so much of Roth’s notes, queries, denials, rebuttals, and questions that it may be prove to be his final book ‑not unlike his autobiography, The Facts (1988), in which the dry narrative-proper is bookended by letters from Zuckerman warning Roth not to publish: “With autobiography, there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented. It’s probably the most manipulative of all literary forms.” Roth once wrote: “words generally only spoil things”, an extraordinary statement from someone who devoted his life to literature. Yet he was right: words have the power not only to enlighten, embolden, and move us, but also to bewilder, manipulate and deceive. His written work, full of missing chapters, lost diaries, and disappearing narrators, attests, ironically, to the potency of silence. Few better recognised the limits of language, for few ever pushed language so close to its limits.
It is difficult to imagine Roth, whose work so bursts with life, now lying inert under the soil of Bard College Cemetery. It seems impossible to visualise that explosive intellect, expansive curiosity, profound empathy and seething desire stilled and silenced. Yet of course we do not have to, for Roth has already done it for us. In his most daring novel, The Counterlife (1985), the middle-aged Zuckerman lives a range of different lives ‑ one of which ends in death. At Zuckerman’s funeral his estranged brother Henry discovers the deceased writer has secretly written his own eulogy: “the fiction and the man were one! Calling it fiction was the biggest fiction of all!” Henry recalls hearing Zuckerman being asked as a young author whether he wrote in quest of immortality:
If you’re from New Jersey … and you write thirty books, and you win the Nobel Prize, and you live to be white-haired and ninety-five, it’s highly unlikely but not impossible that after your death they’ll decide to name a rest stop for you on the Jersey Turnpike. And so, long after you’re gone, you may indeed be remembered, but mostly by small children, in the backs of cars, when they lean forward and tell their parents, “Stop, please, stop at Zuckerman ‑I have to make a pee.” For a New Jersey novelist that’s as much immortality as it’s realistic to hope for.
Roth did not reach ninety-five, nor did he receive the Nobel Prize, but he did in the end write thirty books, and these are his self-written elegy, his living testament. Bailey has said that as an atheist Roth wanted no Jewish ceremony at his funeral (cured perhaps by his lapse at his father’s burial). Yet, full of sly comedy and contradictions, Roth also wished to buried amongst Jews, so that, according to Blake, “he has someone to talk to”. Roth will live on, not in some afterlife or as a motorway rest stop, but in his body of work, the minds of his readers, and the conversations of his friends.