Philip Roth died on Tuesday night at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 85. According to The Times’s obituary, he “was the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers — Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others — who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century.” If you’ve never read Mr. Roth’s novels, here’s a starter kit.
“Philip Roth’s third novel and fourth book, ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ takes the form of a marathon pre-psychoanalytic monologue — perhaps four or five of those preliminary sessions (strung end to end) in which the patient describes what’s bothering him and sketches in his history, while the analyst listens silently,” our reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, wrote. “Portnoy’s problem? Being a Jew he is a victim. Of what? Well, that is the novel, so the answer depends on how you read it. It is told in a narrative that is a dictionary of Jewish jokes, and which, because of Roth’s prodigious mastery of a literary Jewish idiom, adds up to probably the best Jewish joke ever told — bizarre, exaggerated, visceral, profane and wildly funny.”
The first novel-length portrait of Roth’s indelible alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is “one of Philip Roth’s best short fictions,” exhibiting bursts of “exceptional virtuosity,” wrote our reviewer, Robert Towers, adding that the “rich promise of its style and inventiveness is in part betrayed by miscalculations of tone and structure, by a cleverness that sometimes bites its own tail.”
Roth “has gotten religion,” our reviewer, George Stade, wrote. “I don’t mean that he has become a believer — his condition is not as serious as that, not yet it isn’t. I mean that his new novel is an act of contrition.”
According to Robert Kiely, our reviewer, in “The Anatomy Lesson,” “Roth explores the mind of an author who is the personification of chronic irritation as artistic stance.”
In “American Pastoral,” Roth “does away with — or nearly does away with — these narcissistic pyrotechnics to tackle the very subjects he once spurned as unmanageable: namely, what happened to America in the decades between World War II and Vietnam, between the complacencies of the ’50s and the confusions of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Michiko Kakutani wrote.
This novel is set in “the early 1950s, an era of witch hunt and blacklist,” wrote our reviewer, Robert Kelly, and “draws strength from that terrible time, a time that perhaps was our Trojan War, when we first learned, as a people, to give way to brutality, innuendo and deceit.”
“At first glance ‘The Human Stain’ might seem to be a story about political correctness and 1990s puritanism,” Michiko Kakutani wrote. “There are lots of gratuitous allusions to President Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and one of the novel’s central plot lines involves accusations of racism and misogyny made against the hero, Coleman Silk. We are told that the elderly Silk, a distinguished professor of classics, has resigned from his post at a small New England college after being accused by black students of using inappropriate language in class. We also learn that he has been pilloried by campus feminists for having an affair with a college janitor, an illiterate 34-year-old woman who has a history of being victimized by men.”