Philip Roth (1933-2018)

The death was announced earlier this week of the American novelist Philip Roth. Like Tom Wolfe, who died the preceding week, much of his early work was written in the comic, satirical tradition of Evelyn Waugh. So far, however, no obituarist has made much of this connection (or, for that matter, even discussed whether there can be said to be one). I can attest to being hugely entertained by the comic elements in Roth’s early works. In these, such as Goodbye, Columbus, he satirized the community and people he knew best, the Jews living in Newark, NJ. He followed the same trajectory as John Updike who also began by writing  satirically about his Protestant family and their community in Shillington, PA. In recognition of their similarities, Updike later did Roth the honor of parodizing his life and works in the Bech stories.

Roth, like Waugh, also experienced marital problems which, according to an article in the Daily Maverick (a Johannesburg, South African online newspaper), Roth reflected in his writing:

Roth was also known for his written-about feuds with a former wife, Claire Bloom (her memoirs versus his use of a character in his writing who was a lightly disguised version of her),… In his eight and a half decades, before he “retired” from writing some five years earlier at a widely attended public event, Roth completed dozens of novels, as well as short stories, novellas, essays and other bits of critical commentary and writing. While many readers have their favourites from the Rothian ouvre, four books have stood out for me as special peaks from among his vast output – Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Plot Against America and The Human Stain.

His first wife also comes in for her share of attention in the early novels. One of these. Letting Go (1962), could be added to the recommended reading list. It was his second book and first full-length novel . It may now seem dated but, for all that, is an excellent follow up to Goodbye, Columbus as well as a humorous and insightful commentary on the 1950s merging into student life in the early 1960s from one who was directly experiencing those times.

The Daily Maverick also places Roth in another tradition shared with Waugh: the great  writer who fails to score a Nobel Prize. The article (by J Brooks Spector) notes that:

Roth’s failure to be recognised earlier for his vast body of extraordinary work poking hard at the human condition becomes even clearer as Roth has joined the company, just for starters, of such deceased writers as Leo Tolstoy, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell – not to mention fellow American John Updike.

It seems unlikely that Waugh ever felt much disappointment at being passed over for a Nobel Prize. Indeed, he was probably more disappointed at failing to receive a knighthood than a Nobel.

Mark Lawson, who has an article on the occasion of Roth’s death in the New Statesman and who had once interviewed Roth, thought that his best writing came towards the end of his life, rather than that reflected in the earlier comic works:

The comic tone of the previous books was increasingly shadowed by tragedy, and reached the destination entirely in a trilogy published during the second Clinton administration. Zuckerman remains as a narrator or catalyst, but the main stories are those of others: “Swede” Levov, a businessman, in American Pastoral (1997); a radio star, Ira Ringold, in I Married A Communist (1998); and a college professor, Coleman Silk, in The Human Stain (2000), the last of which is, for my dollar, Roth’s best novel.

Perhaps Lawson has got it right, and clearly the success and celebrity of Portnoy’s Complaint rather embarassed Roth and caused him to change directions. Waugh experienced much the same phenomenon after the success of Brideshead Revisited. Although its notoriety was different in kind and intensity from that attending Roth’s novel, Brideshead nevertheless became popular for the wrong reason from Waugh’s perspective. Waugh’s last fictional works in Sword of Honour and Pinfold clearly showed he was moving in a new direction and, had he lived as long as Roth, might well have produced his best work toward the end. Indeed, there are those who consider these late novels to be Waugh’s best work. And it should also be remembered that even in his darker works, Waugh’s humor also makes its appearance.

UPDATE (27 May 2018): A few comments were added or edited.

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