"Just like those who are incurably ill, the aged know everything about their dying except exactly when." -- Philip Roth
Philip Milton Roth (born March 19, 1933) is an American novelist. He gained fame with the 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus, an irreverent and humorous portrait of Jewish-American life that earned him a National Book Award, and became a major celebrity with the publication, in 1969, of the controversial Portnoy's Complaint, the humorous psychoanalytical monologue of "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor," filled with "intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language."
Roth has since become one of the most honored authors of his generation: his books have twice been awarded the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle award, and three times the PEN/Faulkner Award. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral, which featured his best known character, Nathan Zuckerman, the subject of many other of Roth's novels. His 2001 novel The Human Stain, another Zuckerman novel, was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. His fiction, set frequently in Newark, New Jersey, is known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, for its "supple, ingenious style," and for its provocative explorations of Jewish and American identity.
"A Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple.""A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy until they die!""Fear tends to manifest itself much more quickly than greed, so volatile markets tend to be on the downside. In up markets, volatility tends to gradually decline.""History... is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.""Is an intelligent human being likely to be much more than a large-scale manufacturer of misunderstanding?""Obviously the facts are never just coming at you but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience. Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.""Should you protect profits? Yes. But run for the hills? No.""The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.""Unless one is inordinately fond of subordination, one is always at war.""When you publish a book, it's the world's book. The world edits it."
Philip Roth grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, as the second child of first-generation American parents, Jews of Galician descent, and graduated from Newark's Weequahic High School in 1950. Roth attended Bucknell University, earning a degree in English. He then pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. in English literature and worked briefly as an instructor in the university's writing program. Roth then taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and Princeton University. He continued his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught comparative literature before retiring from teaching in 1991.
While at Chicago, Roth met the novelist Saul Bellow, as well as Margaret Martinson, who became his first wife. Their separation in 1963, along with Martinson's death in a car crash in 1968, left a lasting mark on Roth's literary output. Specifically, Martinson was the inspiration for female characters in several of Roth's novels, including Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good, and Maureen Tarnopol in My Life As a Man. Between the end of his studies and the publication of his first book in 1959, Roth served two years in the United States Army and then wrote short fiction and criticism for various magazines, including movie reviews for The New Republic. Events in Roth's personal life have occasionally been the subject of media scrutiny. According to his pseudo-confessional novel Operation Shylock (1993), Roth suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1980s. In 1990, he married his long-time companion, English actress Claire Bloom. In 1994 they separated, and in 1996 Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll's House, which described the couple's marriage in detail, much of which was unflattering to Roth. Certain aspects of I Married a Communist have been regarded by critics as veiled rebuttals to accusations put forth in Bloom's memoir.
Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a novella and five short stories, won the National Book Award in 1960, and afterwards he published two novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good. However, it was not until the publication of his third novel, Portnoy's Complaint, in 1969 that Roth enjoyed widespread commercial and critical success. During the 1970s Roth experimented in various modes, from the political satire Our Gang to the Kafkaesque The Breast. By the end of the decade Roth had created his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In a series of highly self-referential novels and novellas that followed between 1979 and 1986, Zuckerman appeared as either the main character or an interlocutor.
Sabbath's Theater (1995) has perhaps Roth's most lecherous protagonist, Mickey Sabbath, a disgraced former puppeteer. In complete contrast, the first volume of Roth's second Zuckerman trilogy, 1997's American Pastoral, focuses on the life of virtuous Newark athletics star Swede Levov and the tragedy that befalls him when his teenage daughter transforms into a domestic terrorist during the late 1960s. I Married a Communist (1998) focuses on the McCarthy era. The Human Stain examines identity politics in 1990s America. The Dying Animal (2001) is a short novel about eros and death that revisits literary professor David Kepesh, protagonist of two 1970s works, The Breast and The Professor of Desire. In The Plot Against America (2004), Roth imagines an alternate American history in which Charles Lindbergh, aviator hero and isolationist, is elected U.S. president in 1940, and the U.S. negotiates an understanding with Hitler's Nazi Germany and embarks on its own program of anti-Semitism.
Roth's novel Everyman, a meditation on illness, aging, desire, and death, was published in May 2006. For Everyman Roth won his third PEN/Faulkner Award, making him the only person so honored. Exit Ghost, which again features Nathan Zuckerman, was released in October 2007. According to the book's publisher, it is the last Zuckerman novel. Indignation, Roth's 29th book, was published on September 16, 2008. Set in 1951, during the Korean War, it follows Marcus Messner's departure from Newark to Ohio's Winesburg College, where he begins his sophomore year. In 2009, Roth's 30th book The Humbling was published, which told the story of the last performances of Simon Axler, a celebrated stage actor. Roth’s 31st book, Nemesis, was published on October 5, 2010. According to the book's notes, Nemesis is the final in a series of four "short novels," which also included Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling.
In October 2009, during an interview with Tina Brown of The Daily Beast website to promote The Humbling, Roth considered the future of literature and its place in society, stating his belief that within 25 years the reading of novels will be regarded as a "cultic" activity:
I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it's going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range... To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by ... it's hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities[.]
When asked his opinion on the emergence of digital books and e-books as possibly replacing printed copy, Roth was equally as negative and downbeat about the prospect:
The book can't compete with the screen. It couldn't compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn't compete with the television screen, and it can't compete with the computer screen... Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn't measure up.
This interview is not the first time that Roth has expressed pessimism over the future of the novel and its significance in recent years. Talking to the Observer's Robert McCrum in 2001, he said that "I'm not good at finding 'encouraging' features in American culture. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here."
Much of Roth's fiction revolves around semi-autobiographical themes, while self-consciously and playfully addressing the perils of establishing connections between the author Philip Roth and his fictional lives and voices, including narrators and protagonists such as David Kepesh and Nathan Zuckerman or even the character "Philip Roth", of which there are two in Operation Shylock. In Roth's fiction, the question of authorship is intertwined with the theme of the idealistic, secular Jewish-American son who attempts to distance himself from Jewish customs and traditions, and from what he perceives as the at times suffocating influence of parents, rabbis, and other community leaders. Jewish sons such as most infamously Alexander Portnoy and later Nathan Zuckerman rebel by denouncing Judaism, while at the same time remaining attached to a sense of Jewish identity. Roth's fiction has been described by critics as pervaded by "a kind of alienation that is enlivened and exacerbated by what binds it".
Roth's first work, Goodbye, Columbus, for his irreverent humor of the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, was controversial among reviewers, which were highly polarized in their judgments; a reviewer criticized it as infused with a sense of self-loathing. In response, Roth, in his 1963 essay "Writing About Jews" (collected in Reading Myself and Others), maintained that he wanted to explore the conflict between the call to Jewish solidarity and his desire to be free to question the values and morals of middle-class Jewish-Americans uncertain of their identities in an era of cultural assimilation and upward social mobility:
The cry "Watch out for the goyim!" at times seems more the expression of an unconscious wish than of a warning: Oh that they were out there, so that we could be together here! A rumor of persecution, a taste of exile, might even bring with it the old world of feelings and habits — something to replace the new world of social accessibility and moral indifference, the world which tempts all our promiscuous instincts, and where one cannot always figure out what a Jew is that a Christian is not.
In Roth's fiction, the exploration of "promiscuous instincts" within the context of Jewish-American lives, mainly from a male viewpoint, plays an important role. In the words of critic Hermione Lee:
Philip Roth's fiction strains to shed the burden of Jewish traditions and proscriptions. The liberated Jewish consciousness, let loose into the disintegration of the American Dream, finds itself deracinated and homeless. American society and politics, by the late sixties, are a grotesque travesty of what Jewish immigrants had traveled towards: liberty, peace, security, a decent liberal democracy.
While Roth's fiction has strong autobiographical influences, it has also incorporated social commentary and political satire, most obviously in Our Gang and Operation Shylock. Since the 1990s, Roth's fiction has often combined autobiographical elements with retrospective dramatizations of postwar American life. Roth has described American Pastoral and the two following novels as a loosely connected "American trilogy". All these novels deal with aspects of the postwar era against the backdrop of the nostalgically remembered Jewish-American childhood of Nathan Zuckerman, in which the experience of life on the American home front during the Second World War features prominently.
In much of Roth's fiction, the 1940s, comprising Roth's and Zuckerman's childhood, mark a high point of American idealism and social cohesion. A more satirical treatment of the patriotism and idealism of the war years is evident in Roth's more comic novels, such as Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater. In The Plot Against America, the alternate history of the war years dramatizes the prevalence of anti-Semitism and racism in America during the war years, despite the promotion of increasingly influential anti-racist ideals in wartime. Nonetheless, the 1940s, and the New Deal era of the 1930s that preceded it, are portrayed in much of Roth's recent fiction as a heroic phase in American history. A sense of frustration with social and political developments in the US since the 1940s is palpable in the American trilogy and Exit Ghost, but had already been present in Roth's earlier works that contained political and social satire, such as Our Gang and The Great American Novel. Writing about the latter novel, Hermione Lee points to the sense disillusionment with "the American Dream" in Roth's fiction: "The mythic words on which Roth's generation was brought up ... winning, patriotism, gamesmanship ... are desanctified; greed, fear, racism, and political ambition are disclosed as the motive forces behind the 'all-American ideals'."
Two of Roth's works of fiction have won the National Book Award; two others were finalists. Two have won National Book Critics Circle awards; again, another two were finalists. He has also won three PEN/Faulkner Awards (Operation Shylock,The Human Stain, and Everyman) and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. In 2001, The Human Stain was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists still at work, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. His 2004 novel The Plot Against America won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2005 as well as the Society of American Historians’ James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction. Roth was also awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year, an award Roth has received twice. WH Smith Award He was honored in his hometown in October 2005 when then-mayor Sharpe James presided over the unveiling of a street sign in Roth's name on the corner of Summit and Keer Avenues where Roth lived for much of his childhood, a setting prominent in The Plot Against America. A plaque on the house where the Roths lived was also unveiled. In May 2006, he was given the PEN/Nabokov Award, and in 2007 he was awarded the PEN/Faulkner award for Everyman, making him the award's only three-time winner. In April 2007, he was chosen as the recipient of the first PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
The May 21, 2006 issue of The New York Times Book Review announced the results of a letter that was sent to what the publication described as "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.'" Six of Roth's novels were in the 22 selected: American Pastoral,The Counterlife,Operation Shylock,Sabbath's Theater,The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. The accompanying essay, written by critic A.O. Scott, stated, "If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, [Roth] would have won."
Four of Philip Roth's novels and short stories have been made into films: Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy's Complaint; The Human Stain; and The Dying Animal which was made into the movie Elegy.