Philip Roth: A literary life in seven stages

Marco Green
May 23, 2018

Decades later, he was the grand old man of American letters and many - perhaps including Roth himself - could not understand why he had not been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the 1970s, Roth began writing about his alter ego, a writer named Nathan Zuckerman.

Roth was one of the great male writers of post-war America, along with Saul Bellow and John Updike.

Philip Roth was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, where many of his books were set. His parents were first-generation Americans who had immigrated from Eastern Europe. He received his Masters in English Literature from the University of Chicago in 1955; around the same time he published his first work, in the Chicago Review.

Roth grew up in Newark, the site of many of his books.

He was denounced for the unflattering portraits of some of the Jewish characters and accused of being a "self-hating Jew". In addition to a Pulitzer for fiction writing, he won other top literary honors, including National Book Awards and PEN/Faulkner Awards.

Roth's best-known work, Portnoy's Complaint, is a humorous and sexually explicit psychoanalytical monologue of "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor".

It was amusing, explicit and for the time shockingly frank. There were attempts to ban the book in Australia and some U.S. states, but it became a best-seller. The book featured several notorious masturbation scenes and a narrator who declared he wanted to "put the id back in yid".

His biographer, Blake Bailey, said the author died surrounded by "lifelong friends who loved him dearly", adding he was "a darling man and our greatest living writer". Zuckerman's resemblance to the author prompted some speculation that these books were semi-autobiographical, though Roth swatted away those assertions when asked.

Philip Roth, one of the most prolific and celebrated writers of his generation, died Tuesday. Roth followed it with The Humbling, which came out the following year, and closed the curtains on this series of shorts-and his career-with Nemesis, about the 50s polio epidemic-in 2010.

Roth was married twice - to Margaret Martinson from 1959 to 1963, and to his long-time partner Claire Bloom from 1990 to 1994. She had persuaded him for a time to live in London, a city where he felt out of place.

In Sabbath's Theater, Roth imagines the inscription for his title character's headstone: "Sodomist, Abuser of Women, Destroyer of Morals".

Roth retired from writing in 2012, but by no means fell into obscurity-indeed, his seemingly prescient imaginations of American politics only gained traction with the advent of Donald Trump's administration, particularly his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, which tells the story of aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh's victory against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential elections.

He knew when to quit as a writer, too.

"It's hard to give up something you've been doing for 55 years, which has been at the center of your life, where you spend sometimes six, eight, 10 hours a day", he said. He made the decision after he reread all his books.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

Discuss This Article

FOLLOW OUR NEWSPAPER