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Talk about the perfect retirement gift. Less than a year ago, Philip Roth declared that his career as a novelist was over: “I’m free,” he told the New York Times last November. It was a career marked by every kind of honor—a Pulitzer, two National Book Awards, the Man Booker International Prize, and inclusion in the Library of America. For years there has been a readerly consensus that Roth was the most important American fiction writer of his generation. Yet when his 80th birthday was celebrated earlier this year, there was a palpable sense that the public events and adulatory articles were a substitute for the one honor that never came—the Nobel Prize. But now, at last, we can dispense with the annual ritual of complaining that Roth—and American writing in general—was snubbed.
It’s true that in some ways Roth is an unlikely kind of laureate. Alfred Nobel’s will directs that the Prize in Literature be given to the writer “who shall have produced … the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” but Roth has never been what you would call an idealist. On the contrary, starting with Goodbye, Columbus, his 1959 debut, he has been a satirist, a wild comedian, a virtuoso of outrage—especially sexual outrage. The one Roth scene everyone remembers is Alexander Portnoy, the neurotic hero of his 1969 bestseller Portnoy’s Complaint, masturbating into the liver his family is supposed to eat for dinner. Almost 30 years later, Roth created the manic puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, who, in the opening scene of Sabbath’s Theater, is found masturbating on the grave of his dead lover.
To some, Roth’s succession of sex-obsessed male protagonists—whether they are named Portnoy, or Nathan Zuckerman, or David Kepesh, or even Philip Roth—seemed like a sign of limited scope, if not of outright misogyny. And it is true that Roth is not the kind of writer one turns to for a wide variety of three-dimensional characters, or for fictional realism in general. Instead, what powers Roth’s writing is its voice—that wildly discoursing voice, sarcastic and pathetic and angry and terrified, which has become one of the most recognizable in American literature. Roth’s characters do not converse, they deliver tirades and make outraged speeches. Portnoy is one long monologue; The Counterlife, which may ultimately be remembered as his best book, is almost operatic in structure, a series of arias in which each character has a chance to declaim on center stage.
Roth learned this style in part from Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the viciously anti-Semitic French novelist, whom he named as a major influence—“Céline is my Proust,” he once declared. The irony is that, in Roth’s hands, it became the vehicle for expressing a particularly Jewish complex of feelings—the guilt, irritability, and appetite that Roth saw at the heart of the American Jewish experience. Indeed, while the Nobel Prize has gone to several Jewish writers—most recently the English playwright Harold Pinter—Roth is the most Jewish Jewish writer to win it since Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978. Virtually every one of Roth’s novels deals with Jewish characters, and his satirical portraits of the American Jewish bourgeoisie have done as much to shape the world’s views of Jews as the films of Woody Allen.
Roth’s inquest into American Jewish life began with Goodbye, Columbus. The title novella deals with the romance between Neil Klugman, a working-class boy from Newark, and Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy girl from the New Jersey suburbs, and it lays bare the tensions and strivings of American Jewish assimilation with merciless insight. Other stories in the book, such as “The Conversion of the Jews” and “Eli, the Fanatic,” unearth the contradictions of American Jewish faith—loyal to Judaism, yet anxious not to be identified with it too closely. Later Roth novels, especially The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, extended this intimate diagnosis of American Jewish ambivalence, especially with regard to the State of Israel. Naturally, the public revelation of what many Jews wanted to keep private gave rise to intense criticism of Roth—which he then unapologetically drew on when inventing the career of Nathan Zuckerman, his writerly alter ego, in The Ghost Writer.
The last major phase of Roth’s career began with American Pastoral, in 1997 and saw him turn back with sentimental nostalgia to the Newark of his childhood. The rebel in Roth has always been in tension with the good son, and in works like The Plot Against America—a dark historical fantasy in which anti-Semitism triumphs in 1940s America—the good son, the “defender of the faith,” began to win out. These books are now some of Roth’s most popular and helped to elevate him from enfant terrible to national treasure. But the most valuable thing about Philip Roth remains his perversity—the perverse integrity that allowed him to defy conventional standards of decency in his quest for truth as he saw it. In that sense, our newest Nobel laureate has always been an idealist.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.