Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth - 1933 - 2018

2 giants in 2 weeks, in their mid-to-late 80's. I don't write obituaries for everyone, but I try to write them when I think I can speak properly to their import. In the case of Tom Wolfe, I wasn't familiar enough with his oeuvre to say anything of substance. The New York Times Book Review podcast briefly addressed his passing and while I had intended to do Bonfire of the Vanities and maybe The Right Stuff (one day), their comments seemed to indicate that Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is his seminal work. So maybe that will have to come first. 

Wolfe will be remembered for "New Journalism." What will Roth be remembered for? Not winning the Nobel Prize. He was a Nobel Prize-level writer. I think he will be remembered for demarcating the line between toxic masculinity and horniness. Among other things.

Recently, there was a very scandalous book published that apparently details an affair with a fictional stand-in for Roth. The author admitted that she did, in fact, have an affair with Roth, and not all that long ago. Roth was also recently in the New York Times for an e-mail exchange checking up on him, after all the #metoo revelations, to get his take on the finer points of male desire. He had been retired from his occupation as a novelist over the past several years. 

I read Everyman over 10 years ago now, and that seemed to be his comment on retirement. Indignation still came after (as did The Humbling and Nemesis). American Pastoral was the best. I still haven't read everything. 

Here I've only written about American Pastoral and The Professor of Desire. Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint should be re-read. Both are essential. People have said The Plot Against America is prescient and/or prophetic. I want to read that and Sabbath's Theater.

It's hard to do better than Roth. That is the only thing of substance I can say here, and I'm not even sure that qualifies as substance. 

We wrote about Salinger eight years ago. Salinger was silent for years. He practically hadn't published anything since Roth had first published. They were 14 years apart in age. I consider them equals. They're two of the best 20th century American writers to have lived. Surely there are many great writers that nobody knew about. They both relayed truths rarely spoken, yet often felt. 

Roth's prolific career is a work of art on its own, and this writer is not so deeply familiar with it that an authoritative tone may be struck. Suffice to say, this entire site is filled with instances of exhortations to read so-and-so and while I do truly try to be careful not to overwhelm the casual reader, everybody knows that Roth was a true modern master (in the same way that I know Bellow was, though I haven't read him). He's in the Pantheon. Our world is rapidly evolving and one expects a similar change in the way we consume literature, as well as our expectations of how we expect to be transported by it. So maybe there will be a new literature, and Roth is a relic from a bygone era. History has shown that writers will be remembered if their words can stand up to eternity. Roth is not Plato and he will likely not be referenced by Westworld-types of entertainment 2,000 years from now. Roth may not even be Hemingway. I see many parallels with Vonnegut in terms of output and cultural relevance. Vonnegut was not seriously rumored to win the Nobel. Both were zany, though Vonnegut was zanier. People will inevitably compare him to Wolfe if only for their sense of timing. They were true writers. They made their living off writing their books. Roth was popular, but never commercial. One hopes that writers such as him may still exist and prosper.