Philip Roth - 1933-2018

Started by Chris L, May 24, 2018, 12:29 am

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Chris L

I've been wanting to write about Philip Roth since I heard last night that he'd died, but I'm finding it hard to do so. His books meant so much to me when I was in my 20s, starting in college when I picked up a copy of Letting Go in a drugstore and read the opening chapters while standing next to the book rack. Although I'd always known, since I learned how to read, that I'd wanted to be a writer, it was Roth who opened my eyes to what a writer could be -- literary without being arch, observational without being coy, serious without being pompous, brutally honest, and oh-so-stylishly deft, able to weave together long and eloquent sentences without making them impenetrable or pretentious. (Oddly, one of the first things he talks about in Letting Go is the main character's discovery of Henry James, who had impenetrable sentences down to a science.)

I didn't finish Letting Go right away -- it's a long book -- but read the novella Goodbye Columbus instead. (I also had my mother's copy of Portnoy's Complaint, but couldn't seem to find the motivation to read more than a few chapters until after I'd become a full Roth fanatic.) I read each of his novels as they came out -- My Life As a Man, The Breast, The Professor of Desire and finally went all the way, as it were, with Portnoy. The only one of his early books that I never finished was When She Was Good, which seemed dry and passionless compared to the rest.

I would find other writers over the next few years who filled the same void in my previous reading habits that Roth had plugged himself into -- John Fowles, Richard Wright, even one of Roth's early influences, Theodore Dreiser. But it was Roth I kept coming back to until sometime in the mid 80s, when my reading habits began to wane and Roth's output went into a brief lull.

Now that I'm older -- much older -- maybe I'll find myself warming to Roth's later, more deeply serious writing. The only book by the mature Roth I've read is The Human Stain, which I liked but didn't love. But I may be old enough now to appreciate how Roth wrote in old age (much of which was younger than I am now). I just loaded a dozen or so of his novels onto my Kindle.

I'd say that I miss him, but he retired eight years ago and he left more books than I'll finish in my remaining lifetime. I miss the idea of him, of his presence in the world, and the joy that I found in a writer who wrote about characters who I recognized instantly as real even though many of them came from a milieu -- middle-class New Jersey Jewish society -- that I didn't know. I'd say that the world is poorer without him, but it's really much richer for having had him.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?


I have read a little Roth, and always intend to read more.  Maybe this will give me a kick up the backside!

An English teacher I work with is married to probably the pre-eminent Roth scholar in the UK, Professor David Brauner.  He always speaks so highly and eloquently of his love for Roth.
Self indulgence is better than no indulgence!

Chris L

Thanks for the links, @Leighton. I've been doing a lot of reading about Roth since he died and it's not only bringing back memories of what I loved about his writing but adding new insights. Glad to have another essay to add to the pile.

You might try Goodbye Columbus, by the way -- the novella, not necessarily the collection of stories that comes in the same book. It's a quick read, published when he was 24, and already shows his wit and ability to make concise observations. Also, it's entertaining and highly readable.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?