Remembering Philip Roth

Philip Roth died today.

I was, fittingly, at a bookstore when I found out.  I was searching for the 11 or so books on the Miles Franklin longlist, and when I checked my phone to make sure I had the right spelling for one of the authors, a New York Times alert came up – Philip Roth had died.  He was 85.

Philip Roth, whose novels about Jewish life, sex and death made him one of America’s greatest novelists, dies at 85.

Philip Roth was my first deep literary love.  His writing affected me greatly in my twenties, and for a very long time after that I read him assiduously, returning again and again in particular to the works I considered his greatest – The Human Stain – American Pastoral – The Plot Against America – Sabbath’s Theatre.  There was a time when I had his writing on permanent rotation alongside John Updike and Saul Bellow, reading first one, and then the next, and then the last, again and again in a constant cycle of (what I considered) their four best books.  I wanted to absorb everything they could teach me.  I was wrong – there were other writers I needed to discover yet – but at the time they all meant everything.

And now the last of them is dead, and I am a good deal more shaken up than I expected.

2006 – 2009 was the period in my life when I read his works the most.  I was 24 to 27, and I suppose that is a fine age to discover his writing.  I was young, angry, brash, intelligent, and I wanted to be a writer.  Of course his work appealed to me.  I was sexual and sexually active, and proud of my masculinity, and this, again, is something which would draw a young man to Roth’s work.  He explored all of this so well, with such rage, such passion.  And he was funny.

Some numbers:

  • In 2006 I read 16 of his books (all including rereads)
  • In 2007 I read 19
  • In 2008 I read 13
  • In 2009 I read 7

And then I read nothing until 2012, then nothing until 2015, then nothing until, likely, tonight.  The incandescence of his influence was from 2006 – 2008, with a small tail in 2009.  I read him and I read him and I read him.  Over and over.

As I became older, I gained a distaste toward his obsession with sex.  This happened also with Updike, a writer for whom I hold little affection for beyond his Rabbit books, though not so much for Bellow, although he was just as randy as the others.  The sex I could do without, but the power and the force of his writing remained appealing and attractive even as I went further and further away from American history and American writers.

I remember keenly the passage in American Pastoral where the process for making a glove is detailed enthusiastically, fascinatingly, juxtaposed neatly with the dread of knowing that the protagonist’s daughter had killed someone with a bomb and then disappeared.  I remember the orgasmic energy of Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint.  I remember gleefully commingling the narrators from My Life as a ManThe CounterlifeThe Ghost Writer, and Zuckerman Unbound with Roth himself, and hoping one day to mix myself with my literature as much as I could.  It was all so new to me, and though I would say that the Continental writers I love now have explored these concepts further and better, Roth was the first.  My first.

I remember reading American Pastoral, The Human Stain and Sabbath’s Theatre and believing that he had written everything, that every aspect of human life had been encapsulated in those three weeks. I was wrong, of course, but at the time he had revealed universes.  I daydreamed about receiving a letter from him to say that he had read my first (unpublished) novel, and that he liked what I was trying to do.  That never happened, of course, but I liked to imagine that one day it might.

And now one day it won’t.  And I haven’t wanted it to, not really, for almost a decade now.  I had forgotten I even ever wished for this until today, and now I am sad that it is an impossibility.

I’m going to raise a glass to Roth tonight, and I will definitely crack open one of his books.  Right now, I want to read everything, from his earliest to his last, but I suspect this feeling will fade as the pages turn.  I’m a different reader now, and he has remained the same writer.

I appreciate that this post is a lot about me and not much about him.  In a lot of ways, I feel as though he helped form the man I was in my twenties, so I have to write about myself with this.  He had little to do with who I am now, and that isn’t my way of saying that I am better now, though I hope I am.  I’m sad, sadder than I thought I would be, and at times I stand outside of myself and shake my head – how could I be this affected?  You haven’t thought about Roth for years!  Calm yourself, man!

But I won’t, not yet.  I’ll let myself be sad.  And I’ll read him tonight, and I’ll remember.

Goodbye, Roth.

 

 

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