In 2011 Philip Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement. In the lead-up to an intimate celebratory dinner that he was due to attend with Roth in New York, Rick Gekoski, chairman of the judges, asked around to see if there was anything he shouldn’t raise in conversation with the thin-skinned and easily irritated novelist. The answer was the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Nobel has become for Roth, who turns 80 on March 19, what the second world war was for Basil Fawlty: the great unmentionable. No one who knows him would doubt that this brilliant, proud, ultra-competitive and astoundingly self-absorbed writer wants to win the prize that no American novelist has won since Toni Morrison in 1993, and which his friend and mentor Saul Bellow won, at the age of 61, in 1976.
In a BBC interview in 2007, Roth, who lives alone in rural Connecticut but also keeps a flat in Manhattan, loftily dismissed prizes as “childish”. And yet the biographical note on every book he has published over recent years is little more than an inventory of prizes: “In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House ... ”
He has won everything worth winning, it seems, except the Big One, about which he must not be asked.
Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, the second son of a lower-middle-class Jewish family. He attended Bucknell and Chicago universities. As a writer, he first came to prominence in the early 1960s, a time of heightened ambition and profile for the American novel. His early influences included Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer and, of course, Bellow, who had found a new way of writing about the tumultuous challenges of American modernity in a voice uniquely his own. For Roth, as for the likes of Bellow and Norman Mailer, writing was a kind of heroic activity, an art of public engagement and performance.
“When success happens to an English writer,” Martin Amis wrote in the early 1980s in an essay on Kurt Vonnegut, “he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life.”
Roth’s life changed, irreversibly, with the publication of his third novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Wildly comic and wilfully outrageous, it made him famous and it made him rich. It also made him many enemies, especially in Jewish America – he was accused of self-hatred – and among social conservatives, who were appalled by the novel’s sexual explicitness and indecency (Portnoy is a furious masturbator), by its exuberant excesses and irreverence. This, after all, was the late 1960s and Roth was a man of his times, thrilled by the possibilities opening up around him.
Alexander Portnoy is a clever, disturbed young fellow and he’s sickened by his own American reality. He is in open revolt against the conventions and expectations of his petit bourgeois Jewish family. His mother swaddles him in love and he dislikes his father. What shocked readers most about Portnoy, Roth said in 2005, was not the sex, but “the revelation of brutality – brutality of feeling, brutality of attitude, brutality of anger. ‘You say all this takes place in a Jewish family?’ That’s what was shocking.”
Portnoy was the precursor to and archetype of all the Roth men who were to follow, from Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional alter-ego, and David Kepesh to Mickey Sabbath, the anti-hero of Sabbath’s Theater (1995), which is generally considered to be one of his three best novels. (The others are 1986’s The Counterlife and 1997’s American Pastoral.)
Roth Man, as Amis once called him, is sex-obsessed, narcissistic, garrulous, often raging. He knows no bounds. He is wary of commitment. He relentlessly asserts his individuality. But he is also isolated and often deeply, hilariously confused – many of Roth’s novels are existential comedies of misunderstanding.
In The Ghost Writer (1979), the first of the Zuckerman novels, Nathan is staying at the house of his literary hero, an aged and reclusive writer named EI Lonoff. An attractive young literary groupie is also staying in the house. Zuckerman convinces himself that she’s having an affair with the married Lonoff and, absurdly, that she is none other than Anne Frank.
Roth Man understands, indeed insists, that in our singularity and isolation we are mysteries ultimately even to ourselves, and that life can be a kind of black farce – Kepesh, in the late novella The Dying Animal (2001), speaks of the “stupidity of being oneself”, of the “unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all”.
To Roth, for whom sex and death are inextricably linked, women can seem unknowable. There is very little romantic love in his fiction. He writes very well about the love between a parent and a child – especially in Patrimony (1991), American Pastoral and Indignation (2008) – or between siblings, but seldom, if ever, between a man and a woman, a husband and a wife. For Roth, marriage is a kind of cage in which couples are locked in mutual recrimination and loathing.
“Did Roth hate women?” asks the Russian-American novelist Keith Gessen, as part of a caucus organised by New York magazine to mark the author’s 80th birthday. He suggests that a man who spends so much of his time thinking about having sex with women cannot possibly hate them: misogyny is the accusation most often and most damagingly made against Roth. “Still,” Gessen continues, “it might be said that Roth is slightly less useful in a world that is slightly more equal than the world he knew; where men and women do not stand on opposite sides of the question of sex but arranged, together, sometimes helplessly, against it; where sex is less of a battlefield and more of a tragedy.”
Roth has been married twice and has no children. His second marriage, to the English actress Claire Bloom, ended notably unhappily. Roth fictionalised aspects of his life with Bloom and this wounded her. In 1996, she published a memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, in which she denounced her former husband, accusing him of misogyny and adultery. She wrote of his “deep and irrepressible rage: anger at being trapped in marriage; fear of giving up autonomy; and a profound distrust of the sexual power of women”.
Roth himself has said: “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life.” He is fascinated by doubleness and deception, hence all those metafictional tricks he plays and the alter-egos through whom he speaks. They invariably share much of his own early biography – the Newark boyhood, the conflicted Jewish identity, the troubles with women – as well as his preferences and prejudices. Several of his novels feature characters named Philip Roth – the best of them being Operation Shylock (1993), set partly in Israel and exploring the period when Roth was recovering from depression and a breakdown after heart surgery. He simultaneously asserts the veracity of the stories he tells while seeking to undermine them by drawing attention to their artificiality. Roth’s strategy is one of complete disclosure interwoven with complete disavowal. He’s only too happy to show the strings from which his creations dangle.
In November last year, Roth declared that he would write no more novels. “I’m done,” he said. Can it really be that this most prolific and prodigiously gifted novelist, this writer who, after his divorce from Bloom and retreat to rural Connecticut, began publishing a series of masterpieces in his sixties and seventies, will write no more? There has, I think, been nothing comparable to his late flourishing in the history of Anglo-American letters. It is difficult to accept that this has now come to an end, when as recently as 2010 Roth published one of his most poignant and tender novels, Nemesis, set during a polio epidemic in wartime Newark.
Many of the novels of Roth’s late period are preoccupied with illness and death, as is Nemesis. The scabrous comedy and laughter disappeared from his work around the time of Sabbath’s Theater. The old rage was replaced by something approaching resignation. Even Zuckerman withdrew from centre stage and became, in Roth’s great political-historical trilogy comprising American Pastoral, I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000), the narrator no longer of his own, but of other people’s stories, a benign facilitator.
In Exit Ghost (2007), a belated follow-up to The Ghost Writer, an ageing and sick Zuckerman (he now wears nappies because of incontinence following prostate surgery) encounters a cocky, smart-talking literary academic in Central Park. The young man is described, in a jewelled phrase, as being “savage with health, and armed to the teeth with time”.
Philip Roth knows he is running out of time. He speaks now of the end – certainly of the end of his writing life. He ought to have won the Nobel Prize long ago, but perhaps his work is simply too American for the august Swedes of the Nobel committee, who have grumbled about the parochialism of the American novel, of how it looks inward rather than out to the rest of the world. That is nonsense, of course. The greatest living American writers – Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and, preeminently, Roth – are universalists who in radiant prose ask, again and again: what does it mean to be human and how should we act in a world that is as mysterious as it is indifferent to our fate?
At the end of The Tempest, as he prepares to take his leave, Prospero, a magician of words, hints that “the story of my life” is ending, and now “Every third thought shall be my grave”. Roth has told the story of his life many times and in many different ways, and now he is done.
“At the end of his life,” Roth said in an interview last year, “the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.” We can ask no more.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman