PHILIP ROTH, NOVELIST
Philip Roth died yesterday.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Roth was never enraptured by Hollywood's siren call to sunshine and moola. He was a novelist. While his first major prize was a National Book Award for his collection of short stories, Goodbye Columbus, he spent his adult life writing novels - thirty of them.
Given such a large body of work, appraisals must occupy more space than this eulogy. Instead, I'd like to put Roth in context for you. As one interviewer told him after Roth had retired from writing, the book he will be known for is Portnoy's Complaint (Roth's third novel)- and that interviewer was right; most obituaries include its title in the headline, as in the BBC's Portnoy's Complaint author dies aged 85.
Portnoy's Complaint was published in 1969. The novel is a long monologue by the title character to his shrink. Portnoy is a mother-dominated young Jewish-American who is obsessed with sex and masturbates frequently.
In 1969, sex was still a taboo subject in the media. TV was restricted to the three major networks plus PBS, public television. The most popular and award-winning show in 1969 was Marcus Welby, MD starring the father from Father Knows Best, Robert Young. It was a medical show on the order of an older Dr. Kildare. Dr. Welby never treated venereal disease and the scourge of AIDS was more than a decade away. In fact, the 'sex' on the show was confined to showing Welby's young partner (played by James Brolin) smiling at an especially attractive female patient. In movies, Midnight Cowboy was all the rage, but for its mere suggestion of male prostitution, it was given an X rating. To this day, it is the only X-rated movie to win a Best Picture Oscar. I Am Curious Yellow, a Swedish film with nudity and sex scenes had come out in 1967 but was confined to 'art houses.' American movies rarely dealt with sex but that started to change in 1969 with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, a movie whose iconic poster suggest it is about wife (or husband) - swapping but that never happens.
Portnoy hit the book stores with a blast. It was the Fifty Shades of its day with one big difference - Portnoy was written by a National Book Award winner and would later be named one of the 100 best books of the century.
I was a teen when I read Portnoy. Back then, when I became interested in an author, I read all of his or her works. At that time, Roth had only two other novels published, Letting Go and When She Was Good. Neither impressed me but even so when Roth's latest novel, The Great American Novel, came out in 1973, I read it. Again, I was not impressed. Today, these novels are considered his worse. So it goes.
And so it took me almost thirty years before I gave Roth another try - yeah, I have trouble 'letting go.' The book that took me back to Roth was The Human Stain. They made a movie from the book (Roth's books have been turned into films seven times), and while it's a good movie, it does not come close to capturing the complex musings on the nature of the human condition that Roth reveals through his multi-layered characters.
I have yet to complete my Roth journey. Every year I try a new novel of his. Many must be grouped together and there are few that do not reference other Roth novels. So, it is important to read the novels in conjunction with Roth's other novels about the same character. With 30 novels, there is a lot to read.
Great novelists are a dying breed. The new TV of our streaming age with series running for several seasons has taken over much of what novelist use to do - tell us a long story with engaging characters that can delve into the human condition and tell us something about ourselves. Roth did that by giving us a vivid picture of the second half of the 20th century, its concerns, its people, its humanity. Of course, being Jewish, Roth wrote about that, but only in the way that Faulkner uses the American South to act as a microscope through which he enables us to see into the inner world of being human.
And in the end, that was Roth's subject, what it means to be a human being in our times.