Philip Roth, 1933-2018
Philip Roth, 1933-2018

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The author of Portnoy's Complaint, Sabbath's Theater, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and 25 other novels, has died. The NY Times reported the cause was congestive heart failure. He was 85.

He won every award but the Nobel. He retired when his gift was exhausted. He correctly identified the self as both the central subject and defining syndrome of post-war American life. Like Joyce with Dublin, he never abandoned Newark as his center of gravity. And he called a Trump presidency 12 years before anyone even imagined such a nightmare would ever be plausible.

He could only have lived when he lived. His fiction, like his Jewish identity, arose directly and specifically from the prosperity of post-WWII America, and the dramatic confrontations by groups who were excluded from that prosperity that followed.

He died at the right time, too, when the acknowledgment of moral complexity in human interaction (and more to the point the exploration of it in artistic representations of human interaction) has not yet been erased, only devalued by a culture that has lost its patience for ambiguity, contradiction, and mischief.

He was frequently pilloried (and just as often defended) for perceived misogyny in his work, and by extension, himself. Even the most ardent partisan of his novels would admit that the undeniable strain of pre-feminist prerogatives in many of his protagonists made for some murky passages in his recurring treatment of sexual obsession. It's easy to imagine his death as an occasion for this legitimate asterisk to swell to such a size that it eclipses the larger work that surrounds and subsumes it.

But even if his legacy survives its own memorial period, who knows what, if any, 20th century fiction will endure another generation—or be endured by one? Better the man who labored for 30 years after the runaway success of Portnoy's Complaint to prove (with the gravitas of American Pastoral) that he wasn't just a dirty book writer should die without having to see his art form reduced to the cultural stature of opera.

The Times obituary, in which Charles McGrath calls Roth "the last of the great white males... who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century," quotes the author on the difference between his work and that of his chief rivals:

“Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.”

A couple other Roth lines—both from his darkest and greatest book, Sabbath's Theater—came immediately to my mind:

"We are immoderate because grief is immoderate, all the hundreds and thousands of kinds of grief."


"More disastrous entanglement in everything. For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinee idol, but say what you will about me, it's been a real human life!"

Winner of the National Book Award, 1995.
Winner of the National Book Award, 1995.

And lastly, as a counter-example to his own exemplary life as a diligent producer of powerful writing, this description of Mickey Sabbath, Roth's superegoless alter-id—the decaying embodiment of the born creator who allowed the million exigencies and excuses of normal life to prevent him from creating anything. Roth constructed his adult life, from college onward until retirement, more than 60 years, around the necessity of his work, which yielded some of the finest prose ever written. "Finest" feels ridiculous, but what can you say?

Imagine living to 85 and realizing you'd let everything else get in the way.

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"Wifeless, mistressless, penniless, vocationless, homeless... And now, to top things off, on the run. If he weren't too old to go back to sea, if his fingers weren't crippled, if Morty had lived and Nikki hadn't been insane, or he hadn't been—if there weren't war, lunacy, perversity, sickness, imbecility, suicide, and death, chances were he'd be in a lot better shape. He'd paid the full price for art, only he hadn't made any. He'd suffered all the old fashioned artistic sufferings—isolation, poverty, despair, mental and physical obstruction—and nobody knew or cared. And though nobody knowing or caring was another form of artistic suffering, in his case it had no artistic meaning. He was just someone who had grown ugly, old, and embittered, one of billions."

But there will never, ever be another Philip Roth.