It’s just as well there will be no Nobel Prize in literature this year. Philip Roth is dead.
The Nobel judges passed over America’s most formidable novelist for decades even as he published one classic after another, from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Plot Against America.” As thundering obituaries have noted around the world, Roth won every other honor a writer could win, sometimes — in the case of the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award — two or three times.
If he cared about the Swedes’ snub, he didn’t show it. In 2005, on a tour of the newly christened Philip Roth Plaza in New Jersey, he said, “Newark is my Stockholm.”
But more than honors, Roth, who died Tuesday at the age of 85, had readers, generations of them, the result of his prodigious skill and extraordinary productivity. He survived Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, and his work will probably outlive theirs, too. That his output was uneven is no mark against him. He worked long enough and fearlessly enough to produce a few misses among the masterpieces. (Look away from “The Breast,” for instance.) Funnier than John Updike, angrier than Don DeLillo, Roth was a master of the comic novel, the historical novel, the political novel, the philosophical novel. And he made it much harder to eat liver.
In many ways, he anticipated the great currents of our age — smartly, unapologetically, sometimes furiously.
Long before we all started arguing about identity politics, Roth bristled at the suggestion his Jewish background should in any way delimit the nature of his fiction. In 1959, when the New Yorker published “Defender of the Faith,” about a Jewish sergeant in the U.S. Army, Roth was denounced for betraying his people, for being a self-hating Jew. One offended reader — speaking for many others — wrote to him: “You have done as much harm as all the organized anti-Semitic organizations have done to make people believe that all Jews are cheats, liars, connivers.”
Roth would give no quarter to such claims nor to the implication that an artist carries some extra-moral burden to defend the public image of his ethnic identity. In a brilliant essay called “Writing About Jews” published in Commentary in 1963, he decried the public-relations concerns of his critics: “Looking at fiction as they do — in terms of ‘approval’ and ‘disapproval’ of Jews, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ attitudes toward Jewish life — they are likely not to see what it is that the story is really about.” And what every great story is really always about is a particular character. “He is not meant to represent The Jew, or Jewry,” Roth wrote, “nor does the story indicate that it is the writer’s intention that he be so understood by the reader.”
Yet, here we are, more than half a century later, and that Golem of the Thought Police is still lumbering across the Twittersphere, trying to tell us who can write about whom and how they must be portrayed. That pressure is the central theme of “The Human Stain,” a novel anchored to a specific political moment — the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal — but shockingly current. The plot revolves around a college professor accused of using a racial slur, an offense we’re still adjudicating today. If “The Human Stain” is one of the greatest academic satires ever written, it’s also a profound study of American rage, which has only grown more pervasive and blinding since the novel appeared almost 20 years ago.
Roth never took to social media, but in a way he was the creator of America’s most complex avatar. His recurring character, the famous novelist Nathan Zuckerman, gave him a chance to play with his persona long before Facebook enabled the rest of us to manipulate public versions of ourselves. As he once told the Paris Review, “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it.” Zuckerman was a persona that allowed Roth to critique and participate in the ever-widening divisions of his life and ours. In “The Counterlife,” during a trip to Israel, Zuckerman says, “I wasn’t exactly a stranger to disputation, but never in my life had I felt so enclosed by a world so contentious, where the argument is enormous and constant and everything turns out to be pro or con, positions taken, positions argued, and everything italicized by indignation and rage.”
More than 30 years later, that sentence sounds like an apt description of this morning’s cable TV. Ironically, though, for spine-chilling prophecy, nothing Roth wrote comes close to one of his novels that looks backward at our history. “The Plot Against America” blends details of his own childhood with events from the 1930s and ’40s. The story imagines the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940. In sympathy with a foreign power, Lindbergh fans the flames of America’s xenophobia, demonizes an “alien” minority group and systematically dismantles the civil structure of the United States, all to protect us.
That felt scary when “The Plot Against America” was published in 2004. It feels downright terrifying now.
What more do we want from our greatest novelists than to rouse us, unsettle us, get us talking about the most important issues of the day?
In 2000, Roth told the New Yorker’s David Remnick, “I don’t believe in death, I don’t experience the time as limited.”
At least we still have his remarkable novels, short stories and essays. Reading them again now, as we mourn the loss of Roth, we can experience anew his ferocious independence, his buoyant wit and especially his determination to illuminate the tragicomedy of human existence.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.