Philip Roth, Novelist Who Plumbed Jewish America, Dies at 85

(Bloomberg) -- Philip Roth, who charted post-World War II America in self-referential literary novels with themes of sex, politics and secular Judaism, has died. He was 85.

He died Tuesday night at a hospital in Manhattan, according to the New York Times, citing Judith Thurman, a close friend. The cause was congestive heart failure. He lived in Manhattan and Connecticut.

Roth burst into national consciousness in 1969 with “Portnoy’s Complaint,” a satiric psychoanalyst’s couch monologue set in Newark, New Jersey, Roth’s own hometown. Landing amid the cultural upheavals of 1969, the novel’s brew of sexual confession, moral agony and dirty language helped make it a bestseller.

“Roth had found his subject,” the novelist Martin Amis wrote in an article in the New York Times Book Review in 2013, “which is to say he had found himself.”

Also in 1969, Roth’s first book, “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) was made into a movie. The author, already a winner of the National Book Award, became a celebrity.

Nathan Zuckerman

Roth went on to publish at least 27 novels and novellas, some of them featuring a novelist named “Philip Roth” and others featuring an autobiographical stand-in called Nathan Zuckerman. Roth took the conceit so far that he insisted in an interview with the New York Times in 1993 that he actually had been an agent of Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, as depicted in “Operation Shylock” (1993).

Critics were dubious that he had spied for a living. Elsewhere Roth spoke of his life in more prosaic terms: “Basically sitting in a chair writing books. It’s not very eventful.” After his flirtation with celebrity he moved to rural Connecticut, where he lived alone for many years after his divorce from the actress Claire Bloom in 1994.

Living in isolation Roth scored some of his most successful novels including a trilogy “American Pastoral” (1997), which earned him a Pulitzer Prize, “I Married a Communist” (1998), and “The Human Stain” (2000), books set against the backdrops of Vietnam, the McCarthy Era, and the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal.

Shoe Store

Philip Milton Roth was born on March 19, 1933, in Newark, according to the “Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography.” He was the son of Herman Roth and the former Bess Finkel. His father had a shoe store that folded in the Depression and later sold insurance.

He lived in a Jewish neighborhood though the family was not religious. Roth attended Newark schools, studied at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, and graduated from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

He received a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1955 and briefly studied English there as a doctoral student. He taught writing at Chicago, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Hunter College in New York.

Because it depicted secular Jews, much of Roth’s early work, especially “Portnoy’s Complaint,” was interpreted by some as an attack on traditional Judaism. The prominent scholar Gershom Scholem wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Portnoy “is the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.”

Their Foibles

Several Jewish mothers, interviewed in 1969 by the New York Times, also complained about Roth’s depiction of their foibles.

But Portnoy in particular became a popular as well as critical triumph, hailed as “something very much like a masterpiece” in Saturday Review and “one of the funniest” books ever written (as well as “one of the dirtiest”) in the New Yorker.

In a 2009 interview with the Daily Beast, Roth described the book as “a youthful indiscretion.” Sex scenes in Roth’s novels remained lurid throughout his career though he never found another prop quite as memorable as the piece of raw liver intended for dinner that Portnoy borrowed from the family refrigerator.

For a half century beginning in 1959, Roth averaged more than a book every two years, plus reviews, short stories and essays. His work grew in critical estimation to the point where, with increasing frequency in the new century, an annual flurry of essays appeared lamenting the fact that he had not yet been awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.

Mordant Remark

Roth himself contributed to the genre with a mordant remark in a 2014 New York Times interview: “I wonder if I had called ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ ‘The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,’ if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.”

When in 2006 the New York Times polled several hundred artists, critics and editors to name the best novel of the past quarter century, the judges who favored works by Roth split their votes among seven books, including “American Pastoral” “The Counterlife” (1986) and “Operation Shylock.” “If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction over the past 25 years, he would have won,” according to the article.

Roth’s books garnered the National Book Award twice and the National Book Critics Circle twice. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal at a 2011 ceremony in the White House.

Roth, who announced his retirement in 2010, said he had recently reread all his novels “to see whether I’d wasted my time.” His answer, he said, was once spoken by his childhood hero, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.”

Roth married twice, in the 1950s to Margaret Martinson and in 1990 to Claire Bloom.

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