Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth's death marks the birth of a new era
Literature will no longer be dominated by straight white men only.
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On the last day of college, at IIT Kharagpur, we stood with our bags packed at the hostel gate. The white-hot April sun reminded us that it was, in fact, 48 degrees — heat sloughed off the metalled roads and slow-cooked our chappal-clad heels. I was happy, because college hadn’t really been a feel-good affair for me. And then, out of the blue, melancholia hit and I found myself fighting back tears. Why did I feel this way? Why was I suddenly pining for a place that had given me more grief than anything else?
Then I remembered the concluding lines of Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theater: “And he couldn't do it. (...) How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”
And just like that, I understood.
Roth, who passed away earlier today at 85, was one of the leading writers of his generation, a prolific, challenging, robust artisan of ideas. And I say “artisan” because that’s the kind of texture Roth’s sentences achieved: the hard-earned perfection of hands that do the same thing over and over again, for decades.
There is no doubt that there is a certain sameness to Roth’s women. Photo: Westsider Books & Westsider Records
Through a long and distinguished career, he wrote some of the most memorable novels of the 20th century, and was recognised by his contemporaries as a stylist without peer.
Sabbath’s Theater, published in 1995, was his longest novel and, in my opinion, one of his masterpieces. Through the debaucheries of Mickey Sabbath, an ageing, arthritic puppeteer and drama coach, Roth crafted a stunning meditation on mortality, desire, the love/sex binary and much else besides. Sabbath is, in many ways, the quintessential Roth character: oversexed, obsessed with the flesh, self-flagellant to a fault, blessed with unforgettable one-liners.
American Pastoral, the novel that won Roth the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998, is likely to outlast most of its siblings. This is because of its subject matter: through the tragic life of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, the reader is thrown headfirst into the zeitgeist of ‘60s United States. Social and cultural upheaval was in the air, Vietnam loomed large over the political landscape, and America was split down the middle, with the old guard on one side and a younger, more radical populace on the other. This was also perhaps the most popular of his Nathan Zuckerman novels (Zuckerman was a writerly stand-in for Roth himself).
The Plot Against America and The Human Stain are two novels that should be read by anyone interested in (or aghast at) the current political landscape. The former is an exercise in alternative or made-up history: it imagines a world where Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940 US presidential elections — and promptly rolls out a pro-Nazi policy set. In today’s post-Trump, post-Brexit world, the word Nazi is thrown around rather cheaply, it has to be said. But Roth’s novel shows us just how quickly and effortlessly fascism can rise around us. A supremely entertaining cautionary tale.
And yet, and yet, one cannot end a Roth obituary with unqualified praise. Photo: Reuters
The latter, one of my personal favourite novels of all time, is the story of Coleman Silk, an apparently Jewish professor who is accused of racism by two African-American students. I won’t reveal the novel’s crucial plot conceit here — but (spoiler alert) suffice it to say that you will look at the Rachel Dolezal affair in a very nuanced way after reading this book.
And yet, and yet, one cannot end a Roth obituary with unqualified praise. Since at least the late ’80s, Roth was regularly accused of misogyny in his works. There is no doubt that some of Roth’s sex scenes were uncomfortably male-gaze dominated and were, all too often, between a young, attractive woman and a much older man. Roth fans will tell you that in most of these scenes, the queasiness we feel while reading these scenes is part of the point — that Roth is not glamorising these stereotypically “sleazy old men”. There is no doubt that there is a certain sameness to Roth’s women. Roth fans will tell you that Paul Auster has written the same male character with at least seven different avatars.
Because of these divisive factors, Roth reviews were seldom middle-ground affairs. One either loved a Roth book to death or one shredded it to bits. James Wood, for instance, hailed Sabbath’s Theater as a modern-day masterpiece. Michiko Kakutani, on the other hand, declared it to be poor man’s version of Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s great ’60s novel of sexual dysfunction.
The late David Foster Wallace dubbed Roth as part of a group of American “literary phallocrats”, alongside John Updike and Norman Mailer (despite the fact that Wallace himself was not nearly as distant from these “phallocrats” as he thought himself to be, both personally and professionally). Updike and Mailer are no more. Tom Wolfe, another iconic “phallocrat”, died earlier this week. Now, Roth has bid adieu. It certainly does feel like the end of something.
While I will re-read Roth’s books in the days and weeks ahead, I do hope that the “end-of-an-era” missives being written around the world recognise one thing: That this may be the beginning of a new era, one where the world of literature will no longer be dominated by straight white men only.