Philip Roth, the great American novelist, died last night in a hospital in Manhattan of congestive heart failure. He was eighty-five.
The New York Times writes:
In the course of a very long career, Mr. Roth took on many guises ‑ mainly versions of himself ‑ in the exploration of what it means to be an American, a Jew, a writer, a man. He was a champion of Eastern European novelists like Ivan Klima and Bruno Schulz, and also a passionate student of American history and the American vernacular. And more than just about any other writer of his time he was tireless in his exploration of male sexuality. His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.
Mr. Roth was the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers ‑ Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others — who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century. Outliving both and borne aloft by an extraordinary second wind, Mr. Roth wrote more novels than either of them. In 2005 he became only the third living writer (after Bellow and Eudora Welty) to have his books enshrined in the Library of America.
Roth decided to stop writing in 2010 after the publication of Nemesis, and announced the decision two years later. In an interview this year he said that his retirement was determined by the fact that he was “no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration”. He devoted his final years to reading, mostly history, seeing friends, going to concerts and communicating with his appointed biographer, Blake Bailey.
In a review of the novel Indignation (2008) in the Dublin Review of Books, Kevin Stevens wrote that “[a]cross a half century of writing that has produced twenty-nine books – satire, fantasy, memoir, masterworks of American realism – anger has consistently been subject, theme, tone, stance, and rhetorical device for Roth and his driven characters and unreliable narrators”.
Why all the rancour? Well, like Swift and Twain, Roth is aesthetically propelled by anger; it supplies the energy needed for the massive, self-imposed task of dissecting, novel after novel, the suffocating paradoxes of twentieth-century America. And like Lenny Bruce, Roth in his early work used rant as a way of exercising his vitality and crafting an obscenity-fuelled response to a bland, hypocritical national environment. As he’s matured, however, his anger has grown more complex, manipulated as carefully as the shifting voices and points of view that help make his prolific body of fiction both deeply tragic and rich in comic expression. Sex, death, and American history are the subjects of his late period, relentlessly ravelled and unravelled, presented with willful ambiguity in a variety of dazzling narrative modes, marked by extended passages of highly articulate rage, and expressed in language of huge power and range.