Novelists rarely retire in the formal sense, and tend not to stage news conferences when they do. Philip Roth, the celebrated chronicler of Jewish and American life who died in Manhattan on Tuesday at age 85, took a different approach six years ago when he let it be known through the press that he had quit writing fiction — after more than 50 years of near-constant scribbling.
He had nothing more to say, he contended, and was happy to put the struggle of writing behind him. He envied the “gush of prose” he attributed to two of his rivals, John Updike and Saul Bellow, but lamented his own writing process as a grueling “fight for my fluency” that dragged on sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, until the novel reached the finish line.
It seems doubtful that writing came easily for Mr. Updike or Mr. Bellow, and it could well be that the smoldering and hard-edge style he sought was simply more difficult to come by. Those Rothian sentences can be felt slamming across the page like tennis aces or marching forward in a phalanx, giving the reader no refuge from the argument the author is making.
The force of Mr. Roth’s writing, even before it was fully formed, amplified the sting when he satirized Jewish middle-class life in his first short story collection, “Goodbye, Columbus,” and in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — which brought gales of condemnation from Jewish critics, including Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, who judged the young Mr. Roth incapable of writing about Jews except “as hysterics.”
When Jewish thinkers and the religious establishment attacked him for stereotyping Jews, Mr. Roth dismissed the charge as analogous to complaining that Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the character at the heart of “Crime and Punishment,” was not a “typical” student. He resented this form of criticism all his life, but also understood that there was no such thing as bad publicity — as long as the critics spelled your name correctly.
Mr. Roth’s great theme centered on the struggle to resist the often stultifying pressures of ethnic identity. He pursued that theme through fictional alter egos like the ubiquitous Nathan Zuckerman, a writer whose experiences were strikingly similar to his own. This device, in which he wrote of himself or someone impersonating him, was technically accomplished but far too insular. He let air into his work during the 1990s through his book “Patrimony” — a rich portrait of his father — and especially through the novel “American Pastoral,” which depicts an American family falling to pieces during the 1960s after a teenage daughter joins the antiwar movement and plants a bomb that kills someone.
The struggle to escape ethnically based constraints takes its most interesting form in his 2000 novel “The Human Stain.” It centers on a light-skinned college professor who severs ties to his visibly black family to present himself as a white Jewish academic. The book stands apart in the Roth oeuvre for many reasons, not least for its accurate portrayal of the grief suffered by African-Americans who continue to live as black after sons, daughters, siblings and even parents have cut familial ties and disappeared into whiteness.
Many of us who read the novel when it first appeared thought instantly of The New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard — once an officemate of mine — who was born black in the early 20th century and rightly understood that he needed to present himself as white to rise in the literary world and escape being labeled a mere Negro critic. Mr. Roth insisted that his book had nothing to do with the Broyard story and proceeded to breathe fire from the pages of The New Yorker when the online encyclopedia Wikipedia suggested otherwise. Take a look at those sentences, thundering across the page, one after another, like an advancing line of earth movers.
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