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Philip Roth dies at 85; novelist both probed and skewered Jewish American culture

Philip Roth dies at 85; novelist both probed and skewered Jewish American culture
Author Philip Roth in 2010. (Nancy Crampton)

Author Philip Roth, who tackled self-perception, sexual freedom, his own Jewish identity and the conflict between modern and traditional morals through novels that he once described as "hypothetical autobiographies," has died. He was 85.

Roth was one of America's preeminent 20th century novelists in a career that began in the 1950s and continued up until nearly the end of his life, resulting in more than 30 novels and short-story collections over seven decades. His work persistently blurred the lines between fiction and memoir, and often left readers both smitten and outraged, particularly in his portrayal of Jewish American life in stories drawn from his boyhood in the predominately Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, N.J.

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At the time his novel "Nemesis" was released in late 2010, Roth was still writing eight hours a day. However, two years later he said in an interview with French magazine Les Inrocks that after re-reading his novels at age 74 he concluded he was finished.

"I wanted to see whether I had wasted my time writing," he said in the interview. "After that, I decided that I was done with fiction. I no longer want to read, to write, I don't even want to talk about it anymore.... It's enough."

In addition to his novels, Roth spent 15 years editing the "Writers from the Other Europe" series of books for Penguin; conducted a series of interviews with such fellow writers as Primo Levi, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Edna O'Brien that was published in 2001 as "Shop Talk"; and was an active member of PEN, the international organization supporting writers and fighting censorship.

He began writing fiction while working on a master's degree in English at the University of Chicago, and he published his first short story, "The Day It Snowed," in a 1955 issue of the Chicago Review. The next year he began work on a doctorate, but he quit just weeks into the program, deciding to become a writer instead.

Roth's first book, "Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories," came out in 1959, propelling him to national prominence and the first of his two National Book Awards. The titular novella explored the cultural divide between working-class Neil Klugman and the beautiful Brenda Patemkin, whose upper-middle-class life of consumption and privilege Roth lampooned unmercifully, drawing early rumbles that he was a self-hating Jew.

After several years of personal and creative crisis, which sent Roth to the psychoanalyst's couch, he reached an unparalleled level of infamy in 1969 with "Portnoy's Complaint," a graphically ribald first-person story of a sex-obsessed young Jewish man confessing his sordid and comedic encounters (and self-gratification) to his psychoanalyst. Roth once described the novel as a "hyper-realistic farce," and some critics reveled in the satire; others saw it as sophomoric and anti-Semitic.

Roth saw the novel as "a book about brutality," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2006.

"It's brutal in its language, it's brutal in its observations and it's about the emotional brutality of family," Roth said. "For me, the most telling scene, even at the time of the writing, is the one in which he talks about the battle between his cousin and his uncle over the cousin dating a gentile girl. The father goes to the girl, or he calls her — I forget the circumstances — and he pays her money to leave the son alone.... And then the son, who's a strong kid, has a fight with his father in the basement, and the father pins him to the floor and beats him. That was the guts of the book. The conflict, the elemental conflict, grows out of a real history. And so does the rest of it."

Readers made "Portnoy's Complaint" a bestseller, and the income from the book, combined with the movie rights to "Goodbye, Columbus," gave Roth the financial freedom to quit his teaching job at the University of Pennsylvania and devote himself to writing full time.

Roth continued to both probe and skewer Jewish American culture in what New York magazine called a "career-long obsession with the unruliness of human life." Over the years Roth produced some books that were deemed second-rate by critics, but he also created a long line of highly praised novels, including many in the nine-book Zuckerman series centering on his literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

"With the Zuckerman books, I was interested in several things," Roth said in the Times interview. "One was what it was to be an artist…. The theme — not that I explicitly stated it — was the unforeseen consequences of this vocation. And the high-mindedness that generally goes into taking it on in the first place. And the education in the uses to which the world puts it. It was that comedy I wanted to write."

In the view of Times book critic David Ulin, Roth reached his full stride in his 60s, beginning with "Operation Shylock: A Confession" in 1993, followed by "Sabbath's Theater" (1995, and Roth's second National Book Award winner); the American Trilogy of "American Pastoral" (1997, winner of the Pulitzer Prize), "I Married a Communist" (1998) and "The Human Stain" (2000); and capped by "The Plot Against America" (2004), in which Roth envisioned Charles Lindbergh besting FDR in the 1940 presidential election and, instead of leading the United States into a fight with the Nazis, opting to make them allies.

Roth said in a 2011 interview with Benjamin Taylor that he tended to write in response to whatever work he had just finished. "Sabbath's Theater" centered on the grotesquely mean Mickey Sabbath, which led Roth to build his next novel, "American Pastoral," around a more decent and likable character, Swede Levov, whose life is knocked off track by the tumult of the 1960s.

"What may happen is that when you finish, certainly, a long book, that you stage a rebellion against that book, and write a different kind of book," Roth said.

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As Roth aged, so did his protagonists in a late-career series of short novels that New Yorker editor and Roth's friend David Remnick described as "death-soaked," with Roth bringing his characters — and himself — to the brink of their own mortality in 2007's "Everyman." The novel arose, Roth said at the time, from his realization that his own "fairy-tale narrative" of the arc of life had warped. He said people expect their grandparents to die, and then parents, followed by this refusal to acknowledge personal mortality — until friends, age peers, begin dropping.

"That," Roth said, "was more devastating, strangely, than my parents dying, because it's not in the fairy tale. Your friends? How could they die? You went to college with these people. How can we be burying so and so? How can he be dead? How can we be at her funeral? It's devastating. And that was the instigating incident."

As in most of Roth's later works, history — both personal and cultural — weighs heavily. "Why?" Roth said. "Because I had gotten to be 50 or 60 years old, I think, and I could now look back on the time of life with a historical perspective. You can't do that when you're young."

Roth begins the first-person "Everyman" at the unnamed narrator's burial in a cemetery co-founded by the character's grandfather in a bucolic field that had become "the butt end of the airport and what you're hearing from a few miles away is the steady din of the New Jersey Turnpike," his daughter tells the mourners.

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There was, Roth continues in the narrator's voice, "up and down the state that day five hundred funerals like his … no more or less interesting than any of the others. But then it's the commonness that's most wrenching, the registering once more of the fact of death that overwhelms everything…. Of course, as when anyone dies, though many were grief-stricken, others remained unperturbed, or found themselves relieved, or, for reasons good or bad, were genuinely pleased."

That sense of dark comedy — often scatological and intentionally provocative — infused Roth's work as he embraced the absurdity of life, as in this scene from "The Human Stain," in which Zuckerman argues at the Tanglewood music festival with character Coleman Silk, a disgraced classics professor who will soon be dead.

"I couldn't stop myself," Silk says. "The stupendous decimation that is death sweeping us all away. Orchestra, audience, conductor, technicians, swallows, wrens — think of the numbers for Tanglewood alone between now and the year 4000. Then multiply that times everything. The ceaseless perishing. What an idea! What maniac conceived it?"

These later novels, Remnick wrote in a 2000 New Yorker profile of Roth, reflected the aging of the author. "His voice is still charged, an endlessly pliable instrument of comedy and impersonation, but that voice has also darkened, its comedy is deeper, the story it tells is more tragic and painful. You find yourself laughing loudest just at the moment when the abyss widens."

Not everyone got the joke. "I'm not sure Philip always realizes that he is being outrageous," author Saul Bellow, a strong influence on Roth, said in the same New Yorker article. "He feels a writer should provoke — and he should, if that is the way he is inclined — but he can't expect to evade the results of this provocation. Philip is a radical. He feels he should treat the bizarre as if it were perfectly normal."

Philip Milton Roth was born March 18, 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression that forced his father's Newark shoe store into bankruptcy. Herman Roth, the son of Jewish immigrants, then went to work as a salesman for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., despite, according to some reports, open anti-Semitism by his bosses. As a young boy, Philip Roth lived in an apartment on Summit Avenue (they later moved) with his father, his mother Bess, and his brother, Sandy, five years his elder.

Critic Joan Acocella, writing in 2004 about "The Plot Against America" for the New Yorker, reported that Roth had said in earlier interviews he never felt the sting of anti-Semitism directly, yet he was "surrounded from birth" with the notion of Jews "as an object of ridicule, disgust, scorn, contempt, derision, of every heinous form of persecution and brutality." Those conflicting senses of safety and persecution would come to define many of his characters, and the specter of anti-Semitism — the revelations of the Holocaust came during his formative years — courses through his novels.

Roth graduated from high school in 1950 and spent a year at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, then entered Bucknell University in bucolic central Pennsylvania. He thrived academically, and graduated magna cum laude in 1954 with a bachelor's degree in English, which he followed up a year later with a master's in English from the University of Chicago.

After a stint in the Army, Roth returned to the University of Chicago, where he quickly dropped out of its doctoral program, but continued to teach as he worked on his writing. He met Margaret Martinson, whom he married in 1959 after, in his version of the relationship, she used someone else's urine sample to persuade him she was pregnant. They separated in 1963 and she died in a car crash in 1968, an event that deeply affected Roth's work.

Roth married the British actress Claire Bloom, his longtime companion, in 1990, but the couple divorced five years later. Bloom detailed the marriage in her 1996 memoir, "Leaving a Doll's House," in which she said, among other unflattering things, that Roth forced her 18-year-old daughter from their home because her conversation bored him.

Roth, in the eyes of many critics, returned the favor by patterning the character Eve Frame in "I Married a Communist" after Bloom, painting Frame as a social-climbing radio star whose McCarthy-era memoir of her broken marriage to protagonist Ira Ringold destroys his life.

How much of Roth's work was autobiographical and how much was fiction is hard to assess — even for Roth. In 1988, he published "The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography," a memoir that began with a letter from Roth asking his Zuckerman character's opinion of the book; it ends with Zuckerman's reply that Roth shouldn't publish it and instead get back to writing about Zuckerman.

In "Patrimony," Roth stayed on the truth side of the line as he wrote about his father's slow death from a brain tumor, a book that won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991, but then returned to fiction with "Operation Shylock: A Confession," the first in what became a remarkable stretch of creative success.

Roth was America's most-decorated author, and even a partial list of his citations is lengthy. The only major award that eluded him was the Nobel Prize.

Roth twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he was a finalist two other times for both awards. Roth also won three annual PEN/Faulkner Awards for specific works, the biennial PEN/Nabokov Award for a body of work, and, in 2007, the inaugural PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

After being twice nominated for the biennial Man Booker International Prize (2005 and 2007), which "highlights one writer's overall contribution to fiction on the world stage," Roth won in 2011. Yet even that accolade came weighted with controversy. One of the award jurors, Carmen Callil, quit after the announcement, dismissing Roth as unworthy because he "goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book."

At times during his lengthy career, the criticisms stung, but as Roth aged he became philosophical about the work, and the reception.

"I don't know yet what this will all add up to, and it no longer matters, because there's no stopping," he told the New Yorker. "And this stuff is not going to matter anyway, as we know. So there's no sense even contemplating it, you know? All you want to do is the obvious. Just get it right, and the rest is the human comedy: the evaluations, the lists, the crappy articles, the insults, the praise."

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Twitter: @smartelle

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