Friday, May 25, 2018

The 100 best novels / No 22 / The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)

The 100 best novels: No 22 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)

Inspired by the author's fury at the corrupt state of England, and dismissed by critics at the time, The Way We Live Now is recognised as Trollope's masterpiece 

Robert McCrum
Mon 17 Feb 2014

Anthony Trollope is the epitome of the 19th-century English writer, indefatigable, popular and tightly wired-in to his society, a monument of productivity. In the course of his 67 years, Trollope published more than 40 novels including two series (the Barchester Chronicles and the Pallisers) that anchored him in the public mind as the model of the Victorian literary man.
His peers were less complimentary. To Henry James, he was "a novelist who hunted the fox". After the disastrous publication of his An Autobiography, his reputation became damaged by his ruthless attitude towards his art (so many words per day; his characters clinically subordinated to the needs of his narrative, and so on). Trollope's facility was held against him, and so was his popularity with a middle-class reading public. However, if there is one Trollope novel, written in a white heat during 1873, that rescues him from accusations of shallow commerciality, and puts him in the premier league, it must be The Way We Live Now.
The novel, fuelled by indignation, began as a satire. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He was appalled, he wrote later, by "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places… so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable."
Anthony Trollope wrote more than 40 novels but The Way We Live Now surpasses them all. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch

At first, what he called "the Carbury novel" was to be focused on Lady Carbury, a coquettish fortysomething operator "false from head to foot" on the brink of a shameful literary career. Here, Trollope's portrait owes something to his redoubtable mother, Frances Trollope, the bestselling author of Domestic Manners of the Americans. But once he introduced the character of Augustus Melmotte, one of English fiction's most memorable monsters, all literary equilibrium was lost. Perhaps because Trollope was now untethered from a lifetime of careful plotting, and scrupulous narration, he was able to plunge deeper into his subject unencumbered by the restraints of literary technique. The Way We Live Now has a raw and edgy vitality (fading towards the end) that's often missing in Trollope's more routine novels.
Melmotte, based on some scandalous financiers of the 1870s, is a figure we have come to know only too well: arrogant, ruthless, corrupt and so unfeasibly rich he believes he can buy anything, including political influence. In painting this character, Trollope's satirical fury is at full stretch. Melmotte is a "horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian". How often, in the 1980s and 90s – Robert Maxwell comes to mind – have we not seen such characters in contemporary English life ?

Melmotte's story, which occupies the heart of The Way We Live Now is the tale of a railway fraud, mad speculation and, finally, the bursting of the bubble in a crash that utterly disgraces the deluded interloper. This is hardly the moment to reveal Melmotte's fate, which must be implicit in his corruption. Suffice to say that, once he has left the scene, a more familiar cast of bounders and rogues takes over: Lady Carbury and her feckless son Felix, whose contemptible ambition is "to marry an heiress"; Hamilton Fisker, Melmotte's crooked partner; "Dolly" Longstaffe, the pointless clubman; Mrs Hurtle, the social climbing American, plus an entertaining galère of literary types (Trollope has fun here) from Broune and Booker (yes!), Yeld, Barham and Alf, any one of whom could step into British literary prize management today, no questions asked.
One of my favourites in this series, The Way We Live Now is a wonderful, melodramatic tale-of-the-times, by a master of his craft. It begins in satire and finally resolves into entertaining social comedy. As a savage commentary on mid-Victorian England by a marvellously addictive writer steeped in every aspect of an extraordinary society, it could hardly be bettered. No wonder the first reviews were atrocious.

A note on the text

Trollope, professional to his fingertips, often kept a calendar for the composition of his fiction. Before starting The Way We Live Now he made the following, slightly chilly, calculation: "Carbury novel. 20 numbers. 64 pages each number. 260 words each page. 40 pages a week. To be completed in 32 weeks."
But he was wrong. The "Carbury novel", begun in May 1873, took just 29 weeks, and ran to about 425,000 words. Incredibly, Trollope also polished off another work of fiction (Harry Heathcote of Gangoil) simultaneously. Meanwhile, the publishers Chapman & Hall had already made a contract with Trollope (an outright sale for £3,000) for The Way We Live Now, securing serialisation as well as volume rights. But the heyday of magazine publication was over. The novel did badly in serial form, from February 1874 to September 1875. A two-volume edition was published in July 1875, pre-empting the last stages of the serialisation. The reviews were poor. Trollope himself rather defensively wrote in An Autobiography: "I by no means look on the book as one of my failures; nor was it taken as a failure by the public." The Way We Live Now would not be recognised as the masterpiece it is until the 1940s. Now it is seen as his greatest achievement.

Other Anthony Trollope titles

The Warden (1855); Barchester Towers (1857); Can You Forgive Her? (1865).

Thursday, May 24, 2018

‘Savagely funny and bitingly honest’ / 14 writers on their favourite Philip Roth novels

Philip Roth with second wife, Claire Bloom

‘Savagely funny and bitingly honest’ – 14 writers on their favourite Philip Roth novels

One of America’s greatest novelists, Philip Roth died this week, aged 85. From 1959’s Goodbye, Columbus to 2010’s Nemesis, 14 acclaimed writers including William Boyd, David Baddiel, Linda Grant and Joyce Carol Oates pick their favourite work.
Wed 23 May 2018

Emma Brockes on Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

I fell in love with Neil Klugman, forerunner to Portnoy and hero of Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth’s first novel, in my early 20s – 40 years after the novel was written. Descriptions of Roth’s writing often err towards violence; he is savagely funny, bitingly honest, filled with rage and thwarted desire. But although his first novel rehearses all the themes he would spend 60 years mining – sexual vanity, lower-middle-class consciousness (“for an instant Brenda reminded me of the pug-nosed little bastards from Montclair”), the crushing weight of family and, of course, American Jewish identity – what I loved about his first novel was its tenderness.
Goodbye, Columbus is steeped in the nostalgia only available to a 26-year-old man writing of himself in his earlier 20s, a greater psychological leap perhaps than between decades as they pass in later life. Neil is smart, inadequate, needy, competitive. He longs for Brenda and fears her rejection, tempering his desire with pre-emptive attack. All the things one recognises and does.
My mother told me that the first time she read Portnoy’s Complaint she wept and, at the time, I couldn’t understand why. It’s not a sad novel. But, of course, as I got older I understood. One cries not because it is sad but because it is true, and no matter how funny he is, reading Roth always leaves one a little devastated.
I picked up Goodbye, Columbus this morning and went back to Aunt Gladys, one of the most put-upon women in fiction, who didn’t serve pepper in her household because she had heard it was not absorbed by the body, and – the perfect Rothian line, wry, affectionate, with a nod to the infinite – “it was disturbing to Aunt Gladys to think that anything she served might pass through a gullet, stomach and bowel just for the pleasure of the trip”. How we’ll miss him.
Emma Brockes is a novelist and Guardian columnist

James Schamus on Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

Philip Roth was more than capable of the kind of formal patterning and closure that preoccupied the work of Henry James, with whom he now stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the American literary firmament. So yes, one can always choose a singular favourite – mine is the early story Goodbye, Columbus, though I know the capacious greatness of American Pastoral probably warrants favourite status. But celebrating a single Roth piece poses its own challenges, in that his life’s work was a kind of never-ending battle against the idea that the great work of fiction was anything but, well, work – work as action, creation; work not as noun but as verb; work as glorious as the glove-making so lovingly described in Pastoral, and as ludicrous as the fevered toil of imagination that subtends the masturbatory repetitions of Portnoy’s Complaint. Factual human beings are fiction workers – it’s the only way they can make actual sense of themselves and the people around them, by, as Roth put it in Pastoral, always “getting them wrong” – and Roth was to be among the most dedicated of all wrong-getters, his life’s work thus paradoxically a fight against the formal closure that gave shape to the many masterpieces he wrote. Hence the spillage of self, of characters real and imagined, of characters really imagining and of selves fictionally enacting, from work to work to work. So, here, Philip Roth, is to a job well done.
James Schamus is a film-maker who directed an adaptation of Indignation in 2016

Peter Bradshaw on Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

I read it when I was about 18 – an off-piste literary choice in my sobersided studenty world. I had been earnestly dealing with the Cambridge English Faculty reading list and picked up Portnoy having frowned my way through George Eliot’s Romola. The bravura monologue of Alex Portnoy wasn’t just the most outrageously, continuously funny thing I had ever read; it was the nearest thing a novel has come to making me feel very drunk.
And this world-famously Jewish book spoke intensely to my timid home counties Wasp inexperience because, with magnificent candour, it crashed into the one and only subject – which Casanova, talking about sex, called the “subject of subjects” – jerking off. The description of everyone in the audience, young and old, wanking at a burlesque show, including an old man masturbating into his hat (“Ven der putz shteht! Ven der putz shteht! Into the hat that he wears on his head!”) was just mind-boggling. A vision of hell that was also insanely funny. Then there is his agonised epiphany at understanding the word longing in his thwarted desire for a blonde “shikse”. (Was I, a Wasp reader, entitled to admit I shared that stricken swoon of yearning? Only it was a Jewish girl I was in love with.) Portnoy’s Complaint had me in a cross between a chokehold and a tender embrace: this is what a great book does.
Peter Bradshaw is the Guardian’s film critic

William Boyd on Zuckerman Unbound (1981)

Looking back at Philip Roth’s long bibliography, I realise I’m a true fan of early- and middle-Roth. I read everything that appeared from Goodbye, Columbus (I was led to Roth by the excellent film) but then kind of fell by the wayside in the mid 1980s with The Counterlife. As with Anthony Burgess and John Updike, Roth’s astonishing prolixity exhausted even his most loyal readers.

But I always loved the Zuckerman novels, in which “Nathan Zuckerman” leads a parallel existence to that of his creator. Zuckerman Unbound (1981) is the second in the sequence, following The Ghost Writer, and provides a terrifying analysis of what it must have been like for Roth to deal with the overwhelming fame and hysterical contumely that Portnoy’s Complaint provoked, as well as looking at the famous Quiz Show scandals of the 1950s. Zuckerman’s “obscene” novel is called Carnovsky, but the disguise is flimsy. Zuckerman is Roth by any other name, despite the author’s regular denials and prevarications.
Maybe, in the end, the Zuckerman novels are novels for writers, or for readers who dream of being writers. They are very funny and very true and they join a rich genre of writers’ alter ego novels. Anthony Burgess’s Enderby, Updike’s Bech, Fernando Pessoa’s Bernardo Soares, Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams, Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose and so on – the list is surprisingly long. One of the secret joys of writing fictionally is writing about yourself through the lens of fiction. Not every writer does it, but I bet you every writer yearns to. And Roth did it, possibly more thoroughly than anyone else – hence the enduring allure of the Zuckerman novels. Is this what Roth really felt and did – or is it a fiction? Zuckerman remains endlessly tantalising.

William Boyd is a novelist and screenwriter

David Baddiel on Sabbath’s Theater (1995)

Philip Roth is not my favourite writer; that would be John Updike. However, sometimes, on the back of Updike’s – and many other literary giants – books, one reads the word “funny”. In fact, often the words “hilarious”, “rip-roaring”, “hysterical”. This is never true. The only writer in the entire canon of very, very high literature – I’m talking should’ve-got-the-Nobel-prize high - who is properly funny, laugh-out-loud funny, Peep Show funny, is Philip Roth.
As such my choice should perhaps be Portnoy’s Complaint, his most stand-uppy comic rant, which is gut-bustingly funny, even if you might never eat liver again. However – and not just because someone else will already have chosen that – I’m going for Sabbath’s Theater, his crazed outpouring on behalf of addled puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, an old man in mainly sexual mourning for his mistress Drenka, which could anyway be titled Portnoy’s Still Complaining But Now With Added Mortality. It has the same turbocharged furious-with-life comic energy as Portnoy, but a three-decades-older Roth has no choice now but to mix in, with his usual obsessions of sex and Jewishness, death: and as such it becomes – even as we watch, appalled, as Mickey masturbates on Drenka’s grave - his raging-against-the-dying-of-the-light masterpiece.
David Baddiel is a writer and comedian

Hadley Freeman on American Pastoral (1997)

American Pastoral bagged the Pulitzer – at last – for Philip Roth, but it is not, I suspect, his best-loved book with readers. Aside from his usual alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, the characters themselves aren’t as memorable as in, say, Portnoy’s Complaint, or even Sabbath’s Theater, which Roth wrote two years earlier. And yet, of all his books, American Pastoral probably lays the strongest claim that Roth was the great novelist of modern America.
Zuckerman, who is now living somewhere in the countryside, his body decaying in front of him, remembers a friend from high school, Seymour Levov, known as “the Swede”, who seemed to have everything: perfect body, perfect soul, perfect family. But then the Swede’s life is shattered when his daughter, Merry, literally blows up all of her father’s dreams, by setting off a bomb during the Vietnam protests and killing someone. The postwar generation has rejected all that their parents built for them, and while Roth uses the Levov families as symbols for America’s turmoil, they are far more subtly realised than that. And in a terrible way, now that school shootings – almost invariably done by young people – are an all-too-common occurrence in America, the bafflement the Swede feels about Merry seems all too relevant. “You wanted Miss America? Well, you’ve got her, with a vengeance, she’s your daughter!” the Swede’s brother famously shouts at him. In today’s America, more divided and gun-strewn than ever, it’s a line that still chills.
Hadley Freeman is an author and Guardian columnist

Hannah Beckerman on American Pastoral (1997)

By the time I read American Pastoral I was a 22-year-old diehard Roth fan. But no book of his that I had read previously – not the black humour of Portnoy’s Complaint, nor the blistering rage of Sabbath’s Theater – had prepared me for this raw and visceral dismantling of the American dream. With Seymour “Swede” Levov – legendary high school baseball player and inheritor of his father’s profitable glove factory – Roth presents us with the classic all-American hero, before unpicking his life, stitch by painful stitch. Swede’s relationship with his teenage daughter, Merry – once the apple of his eye, now an anti-Vietnam revolutionary who detonates Swede’s comfortable life – is undoubtedly one of the most powerful portrayals of father-daughter relationships anywhere in literature. But this is Roth, and his lens is never satisfied looking in a single direction. Through the downfall of Swede Levov, Roth portrays the effects of the grand narratives of history on the individual, and questions our notions of identity, family, ambition, nostalgia and love. Muscular and impassioned, American Pastoral oscillates seamlessly between rage and regret, all in Roth’s incisive, fearless prose. It is not just Roth’s best book: it is one of the finest American novels of the 20th century.
Hannah Beckerman is a novelist, journalist and producer of the BBC documentary Philip Roth’s America.

Xan Brooks on I Married a Communist (1998)

Great novels hit you differently each time you revisit them, but a second reading of I Married a Communist felt like being flattened by a steamroller. For decades I had cast this as the brawling bantamweight of Roth’s American trilogy; bookended by the more polished American Pastoral and The Human Stain, and bent out of shape by the author’s personal animus towards ex-wife Claire Bloom (thinly veiled as Eve Frame, a self-loathing Jewish actor). These days, I think it may well be his best.

I Married a Communist charts the rise and fall of Ira Ringold, a leftist radio star who finds himself broken on the wheel of the 1950s red scare. Fuelled by righteous fury, it’s one of the great political novels of our age; a card-carrying Shakespearean tragedy with New Jersey dirt beneath its fingernails. And while the tale is primarily set during the McCarthy era, it tellingly bows out with a nightmarish account of Nixon’s 1994 funeral in which all the old monsters have been remade as respected elder statesmen. “And had Ira been alive to hear them, he would have gone nuts all over again at the world getting everything wrong.”
Xan Brooks is a novelist and journalist

Arifa Akbar on The Human Stain (2000)

I read The Human Stain when it was published in 2000. I was in a book club comprised of gender studies academics, gay women, women of colour. No men allowed. We had been reading bell hooks, Jamaica Kincaid and along came Philip Roth. I expected it to be savaged. I expected to do the savaging, having never read Roth before, precisely because of his much-disputed misogyny.
Then I read it, this tender, shocking and incendiary story on the failure of the American dream refracted through the prism of race, blackness and the alleged racism of Coleman Silk, a 71-year-old classics professor who embarks on an affair with a cleaner half his age, as if by way of consolation.
Here we go, I thought, and raised an eyebrow when she danced for this priapic old fool. But The Human Stain is much more than that single scene. Here was a Jewish American writer, taking on black American masculinity, filling it with its legacy of oppression, the perniciousness of the internalised white gaze, the “shame” that Silk feels that leads him to his lifetime’s masquerade. In less masterful hands, it could have read as dreadful appropriation.
I have re-read it since and it feels just as contemporary, like all great works of literature. It sums up so much about desire and ageing, but also institutionalised racism, the dangers of political correctness and colourism that we are increasingly talking about again.
Yes, we spoke of that dancing scene at our book club, but forgave it. There is something profoundly honest in the sexual dynamic between The Human Stain’s lovers. Roth caught male desire so viscerally and entwined it within the nexus of vulnerability, fear and the fragile male ego. I read the other Nathan Zuckerman novels afterwards and realised that you don’t go to Roth to explore female desire, but you read him for so much else.
Arifa Akbar is a critic and journalist

Jonathan Freedland on The Plot Against America (2004)

Rarely can a four-word note scribbled in the margin have born such precious fruit. In the early 2000s, Roth read an account of the Republican convention of 1940, where there had been talk of drafting in a celebrity non-politician – the superstar aviator and avowed isolationist Charles Lindbergh – to be the party’s presidential nominee. “What if they had?” Roth asked himself. The result was The Plot Against America, a novel that imagined Lindbergh in the White House, ousting Franklin Roosevelt by promising to keep the US out of the European war with Hitler and to put “America First”.
The result is a polite and gradual slide into an authentic American fascism, as observed by the narrator “Philip Roth”, then a nine-year-old boy who watches as his suburban Jewish New Jersey family is shattered by an upending of everything they believed they could take for granted about their country.
The book is riveting – perhaps the closest Roth wrote to a page-turning political thriller – but also haunting. Long after I read it, I can still feel the anguish of the Roth family as they travel as tourists to Washington, DC and feel the chill of their fellow citizens; eventually they are turned away from the hotel where they had booked a room, clearly – if not explicitly – because they are Jews. Like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, the America of this novel stays in the mind because of the plausible, bureaucratic detail. Philip’s older brother is packed off to Kentucky under a programme known as Homestead 42, run by “the Office of American Absorption”, whose mission is to smooth off the Jews’ supposed rough edges, so that they might dissolve into the American mainstream, or perhaps disappear altogether.
It is not a perfect novel. The final stretch becomes tangled in a rush of frenetic speculations and imaginings. But it has an enduring power, which helps explain why the election of Donald Trump – who has often repeated, without irony or even apparent awareness, the slogan “America First” – had readers turning back to The Plot Against America, to reflect on how a celebrity president blessed with a mastery of the modern media might turn on a marginalised minority to cement his bond with the American heartland. Nearly 70 years after Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Roth insisted that it could – and he detailed precisely how it would feel if it did.
Jonathan Freedland is an author and a Guardian columnist

Roth in New York City.
 Roth in New York City. Photograph: Orjan F. Ellingvag#51SY ED/Getty Images

Linda Grant on Nemesis (2010)

After Philip Roth published The Plot Against America in 2004 and came to the end of the great sequence of long, state-of-the-USA novels beginning with Sabbath’s Theater, which were his brilliant, late, but not last period, he published a number of short novels that felt like a coda to the main body of work. They centred round the ageing, dying male, the declining libido, old age all alone. Then, with a final surprising flick of his fingers, he wrote Nemesis, returning to his youth in postwar Jewish Newark where it all starts. He uncovered one last story, the forgotten epidemic of polio that affected mainly children and young adults and whose malevolent transmission was the subject of conspiracy theories, a population blaming, as ever, the Jews.
It is the story of aspiring heroes and their moral failure, the lifelong consequences of striving to do the right thing and disastrously doing something so wrong you become trapped in a carapace of guilt. With his protagonist Bucky Cantor, Roth encapsulates his fascination with the heroic generation of Jewish kids destined for great things, and the ones who failed. Though I’ve read all of Roth, it’s the novel I’m most likely to recommend to absolute beginners to his work. It’s him in miniature, yet perfectly whole.
Linda Grant is a novelist

Alex Ross Perry on The Professor of Desire (1977)

I discovered the novels of Philip Roth as I have most literature during my 15 years in New York: on the subway. The experience of pouring over the sexual nuance of The Professor of Desire while surrounded by children and the elderly created a perplexing dichotomy between brown paper bag smut and totemic American fiction. This was both transformative and inspiring, illuminating for me the possibility of couching perversion, sexuality, anger and humour into a piece of work rightly perceived as serious and intellectual. Each transgressive element became less shocking as I made my way through Roth’s novels on F trains and Q trains, the feelings of shock replaced with the intended understanding of what these “amoral” acts said about the characters and the novels they inhabited.
I’m not sure if I would call The Professor of Desire my favorite of Roth’s novels (an honor I generally bestow upon Sabbath’s Theater, which I have learned seems to be the low key favourite of those in the know) but it was certainly the first to announce itself to me as massively influential. The Kepesh books introduced me to a view of improper, quasi-abusive relationships within academia that gave me the professor character in my film The Color Wheel.
When I began writing The Color Wheel in 2010, Roth was my north star. I intended to reverse engineer a narrative with the same youthful arrogance flaunting sexual taboos that excited, then inspired, me in his work. Depicting the story of an incestuous sibling relationship, but presenting it in the guise of a black and white independent art film, felt like a genuine way to honor the work of this titan; those books bound in the finest jacket design the twentieth century had to offer, elegantly concealing without so much as a hint the delightful perversions contained within.
Alex Ross Perry is an actor and filmmaker

Amy Rigby on The Ghost Writer

I refuse to accept the assertion that misogyny in Philip Roth’s novels makes it impossible for a woman to find herself in his characters. I want to - have a right to - identify with the great man or the schmuck.
I started reading The Ghost Writer looking for a road map to a stunning middle-career but found myself in a house of mirrors. The 46-year-old author looks back at himself as an accomplished beginner who visits an older giant of letters. Parents, wives, lovers - even Anne Frank - weigh in. It’s funny and moving and compact.
I picked it up again today, touched that anyone would ask for my thoughts on this genius whose work ethic and output made his greatness undeniable, whether you believe in him or not, and found this passage contained in Judge Wapter’s letter to young Nathan Zuckerman, who recounts it to us with such scorn and hope I couldn’t help but feel like a schmuck myself, or at least a poser: “I would like to think that if and when the day should dawn that you receive your invitation to Stockholm to accept a Nobel Prize, we will have had some small share in awakening your conscience to the responsibilities of your calling.’” You really were robbed, Phil.
Amy Rigby is a singer and songwriter. Her songs include From Philip Roth to R Zimmerman

Joyce Carol Oates on Roth’s legacy

Philip Roth was a slightly older contemporary of mine. We had come of age in more or less the same repressive 50s era in America – formalist, ironic, “Jamesian”, a time of literary indirection and understatement, above all impersonality – as the high priest TS Eliot had preached: “Poetry is an escape from personality.”
Boldly, brilliantly, at times furiously, and with an unsparing sense of the ridiculous, Philip repudiated all that. He did revere Kafka – but Lenny Bruce as well. (In fact, the essential Roth is just that anomaly: Kafka riotously interpreted by Bruce.) But there was much more to Philip than furious rebellion. For at heart he was a true moralist, fired to root out hypocrisy and mendacity in public life as well as private. Few saw The Plot Against America as actual prophecy, but here we are. He will abide.
Joyce Carol Oates is a novelist

Philip Roth / Explorer of a golden age's dark corners

Philip Roth, 1993

Philip Roth: explorer of a golden age's dark corners

Roth’s work evokes the sense of endless opportunity postwar America seemed to promise

Jonathan Freeland
Thu 24 May 2018

he legend of Philip Roth had become so great, it was almost a shock to be reminded that he was, until Tuesday, still a living writer. He had become part of the Mount Rushmore of American letters, hailed by the New York Times as “the last of the great white males”, his place secure alongside Saul Bellow and John Updike, themselves both long gone, as one of the towering figures of 20th-century American literature.

He had won every accolade, bar the Nobel, and in 2005 the Library of America announced it would publish Roth’s works, lifting him into a pantheon that included the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman, only the third writer ever to receive that honour while still drawing breath. Roth was of such an elevated stature that in dying, he seemed to be joining his peers.

His death deprives America of one of the biggest literary names of the 20th century, but also of one of that era’s greatest chroniclers. Not that he would have made such a claim for himself. On the contrary, the seam he mined, he said, was his own life – reassembled, reimagined and variously disguised in meta-fictions in which the narrator might be a writer very much like Philip Roth or a writer called “Philip Roth”. As he put it, “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.”
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to read Roth without experiencing the brimming confidence, exuberance and sense of endless opportunity that postwar America seemed to promise. Born in 1933, Roth was of a generation that came of age just as the US had won a world war, was flush with wealth and was number one on the planet. In his “American trilogy” – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain – written when he was well into his 60s, he explored the darker corners of that supposed golden age, when it seemed that to be born American was to have won the lottery of life.

His preoccupations were Jewishness and sex. From the start he worried away at every knot and twist of the Jewish experience. His first collection of short stories included one called The Conversion of the Jews, in which a Bar Mitzvah boy threatens to jump from the roof of the synagogue unless the rabbi can answer a question about Jesus and the virgin birth. Jewishness was an itch he could never fully scratch. He examined it all: Jewish self-loathing and shame in Portnoy’s Complaint; the polite, dinner-table antisemitism of the English chattering classes in The Counterlife; the complicated ambivalence diaspora Jews feel towards Israeli Jews in Operation Shylock.
Sex was just as ever present. Portnoy was the warning, a monologue of unfiltered, adolescent male lust, in which masturbating into a piece of liver stored in the family fridge was par for the course. Most of Roth’s protagonists were men powered by libido, often casting women as objects of pursuit rather than fully formed subjects with richly described interior lives. (One wonders if that played a part in the Nobel jury’s perennial rejections.)
For all that, Roth was preoccupied with the direction of the society he had charted. The impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the puritan prurience he believed had informed it, looms over The Human Stain. But the collision of, and the contest between, literature and real-world events vexed Roth.
In 1961, in Writing American Fiction, he lamented that “the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist”. Yet, at least once, Roth sprinted ahead of the actuality.
His 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, asked a what if? question. What if America had succumbed to fascism, seduced by a celebrity and media star in the form of the aviator Charles Lindbergh? The novel is a dark imagining of how Roth’s own family would have been gradually encircled by the menace of antisemitic nationalism, picturing who would have fought back and who would have collaborated. The book was powerful when it came out. But it gained new force in November 2016, when the US did indeed fall for an ultra-nationalist demagogue.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth / Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral author dies at 85

Philip Roth: Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral author dies at 85

Chronicler of American politics, Jewishness and male sexual desire was widely regarded as one of greatest novelists of the 20th century

Richard Lea
Wed 23 May 2018

‘The audience I’m writing for is me’ … Philip Roth, who has died aged 85. Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

The novelist Philip Roth, who explored America through the contradictions of his own character for more than six decades, died on Tuesday aged 85.
Roth’s career began in notoriety and ended in authority, as he grappled with questions of identity, authorship, morality and mortality in a series of novels that shaped the course of American letters in the second half of the 20th century. He refracted the complexities of his Jewish-American heritage in works such as Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America, which garnered both critical and commercial success, garlanding their creator with a dazzling succession of literary prizes.

Quick guide

The five Philip Roth novels you must read

Roth’s death was confirmed by his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who said the author died on Tuesday night of congestive heart failure. His biographer, Blake Bailey, said on Twitter that Roth died surrounded by friends.

Roth found success and controversy in equal measure with his first collection of short stories, Goodbye Columbus, published in 1959. In it, he followed the fortunes of middle-class Jewish Americans caught between the old ways and the new, negotiating the boundaries between assimilation and differentiation in suburbia. It was enough to win him a National Book Award, and to unleash a stream of condemnation from those who labelled him antisemitic, a “self-hating Jew”.
The publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 transformed him from enterprising young author to scandalous celebrity. An immediate bestseller, the wildly comic monologue charts the life of Alexander Portnoy as he pursues sexual release through ever more extreme erotic acts, held back only by the iron grip of his Jewish American upbringing. For some, the temptation to take this confessional novel as a novelised confession proved too great. Writing Portnoy was easy, he told the Guardian in 2004 – but he “also became the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and what I faced publicly was the trivialisation of everything”.

Philip Roth, revisiting near where he grew up in Newark, in 1968.
 Philip Roth pictured in 1968 revisiting Newark, his childhood home. Photograph: Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

His response to what his editor Aaron Ascher called “the nightmare of a smash hit” was to retreat into literary fiction, exploring the possibilities of the novel in books such as political satire Our Gang, and the Kafkaesque sexual fable, The Breast. Between 1972 and 1977, he travelled regularly to Czechoslovakia, making friends with blacklisted writers such as Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, and confronting the difference between what he called the “private ludicracy” of being a writer in the US and the “harsh ludicrousness of being a writer in eastern Europe” behind the Iron Curtain. He met the English actor Claire Bloom in 1975, and as she became almost a muse for Roth, he began to divide his time between London and New York.
Through alter egos Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh, Roth began to examine the connection between an author and his work, with Zuckerman, who first appeared in My Life as a Man, gradually becoming the author’s closest avatar. Born in the same year as Roth, to a Jewish couple living in New Jersey, the unforgiving, goatish Zuckerman also found notoriety with a feverish monologue recounting the energetic sex life of a Jewish American man. Through Zuckerman, Roth grappled with the problems of fame, literature and his Jewish identity in a sequence of five novels, from 1979’s The Ghost Writer to 1986’s The Counterlife, which bound the life of his fictional creation ever closer to that of his creator.

Roth treated critics who struggled to locate the boundary between life and fiction in his work with disdain, intoning “it’s all me ... nothing is me”. He rejected the description of his characters as alter egos, maintaining that “none of those things happened to me ... it’s imaginary”. The characterisation of his work as “autobiographical” or “confessional” he took almost as an insult to his abilities as a writer, suggesting to the French writer Alain Finkielkraut that to do so was “not only to falsify their suppositional nature but … to slight whatever artfulness leads some readers to think that they must be autobiographical”. For Roth, the acting out of a role was the fun part of a life spent constructing what he called a “half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life”.

Bloom and Roth, in 1990.
 Philip Roth with Claire Bloom in 1990. Photograph: Ian Cook/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

1990 marked the beginning of a new phase both in Roth’s fiction and his life, with his marriage to Bloom and the publication of Deception, a novel about a married writer called “Philip Roth” who conducts an affair with an Englishwoman. This provoked a crisis with Bloom, who declared in a memoir published in 1996 that she “no longer gave a damn whether these girlfriends were erotic fantasies”, and sent Roth into a depression. The couple were divorced four years later, and Roth retreated to pursue an ascetic existence away from the distractions of fame in a Connecticut farmhouse.
Working at a lectern in a summer house at the top of the garden, pacing backwards and forwards in search of the right phrase or word, Roth forged a series of powerful novels that confirmed his status as a titan of modern American literature. After winning the National Book Award for the second time in 1995 with Sabbath’s Theatre – a dirty old man’s outburst of rage in the face of death – Roth turned his gaze outwards, taking on the revolt against the Vietnam war with 1997’s Pulitzer prize-winning American Pastoral, McCarthyism in 1998’s I Married a Communist, the US culture wars in 2000’s The Human Stain, and fascism in 2004’s The Plot Against America. In each, Roth subjected his characters to the pressure of events, examining the effects of what he called the “historical fire at the centre and how the smoke from that fire reaches into your house”.

Ian McEwan on Philip Roth - the Guardian,
Towards the end of his life, Roth returned to the personal, circling round mortality in 2006’s Everyman, and the final Zuckerman novel, 2007’s Exit Ghost. In the latter, the irrepressible satyr – now impotent and incontinent, but still bursting with sexual frustration – returns to New York for an operation on his bladder. There he meets a beautiful, big-breasted young Jewish woman, whose boyfriend is writing a biography of the writer visited by Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer, and has found a long-lost manuscript he believes is an autobiographical novel.

US president Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Roth in a 2011 ceremony.
 US president Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Roth in a 2011 ceremony. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Some critics were disappointed with this pre-emptive strike on future biographers, a return to what Adam Mars-Jones called Roth’s “narcissistic game-playing” of the 1970s – but Roth was unconcerned. “The audience I’m writing for is me,” he said in 2008, “and I’m so busy trying to figure the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I think of is: ‘What is X, Y or Z going to be thinking of it?’”
After the publication of his final novel – Nemesis, a 2010 exploration of God and guilt – Roth’s internal audience moved on. A year after he was presented with a National Humanities Medal by US president Barack Obama for his contribution to American letters, Roth announced in 2012 that Nemesis would be his last novel. He would enjoy a retirement spent swimming, watching baseball and reading, which he said had “taken the place of writing, and constitutes the major part, the stimulus, of my thinking life”.

In an interview conducted by email with the New York Times in January, Roth approached his encroaching mortality with a cheerful spirit, describing ageing as “easing ever deeper daily into the redoubtable Valley of the Shadow”.
“I’m very pleased that I’m still alive. Moreover, when this happens, as it has, week after week and month after month since I began drawing Social Security, it produces the illusion that this thing is just never going to end, though of course I know that it can stop on a dime. It’s something like playing a game, day in and day out, a high-stakes game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning,” he wrote. “We will see how long my luck holds out.”


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