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How Philip Roth's Writing Transcended The Narrow Confines Of A Culture

May 23, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 9:52 pm
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One of the greats of American literature has died. Philip Roth shocked the world with "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969. And during his career, he won pretty much every literary award - the Pulitzer, the National Book Award twice, the International Man Booker, every award except the Nobel. Roth used his hometown of Newark, N.J., and his Jewish heritage as fodder for his novels. But his ideas and themes transcend the narrow confines of any one culture. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Philip Roth was a hero to the writer Nathan Englander, and no one was more surprised than Englander when Roth became not just a mentor but a friend.

NATHAN ENGLANDER: He was really loving and teasy (ph) and avuncular and supportive.

NEARY: Englander often tells the story of finding "Portnoy's Complaint" as a teenager. It was hidden by some other books in his mother's nightstand. He had never heard of the book or the author, but the discovery changed his life.

ENGLANDER: I was, you know, this kid in this world that felt like it wasn't for me with a lot of questions and looking for, you know, answers everywhere and then to find just randomly, like, this person who was going to really tackle them head-on in the most shocking and smart and funny and deep and philosophical manner.

NEARY: "Portnoy's Complaint" came out in 1969, 10 years after Roth's first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," won the National Book Award. New Yorker writer David Remnick says people were shocked by "Portnoy's Complaint" and still talk about it as if it were only about sex. But he says it's about so much more.

DAVID REMNICK: That book was about freedom, the rage, the messiness, the disorder, the intellect, the love, the chaos, in one human screwed-up psyche. That's what that book was about. It was a book about liberating a voice, and that - it was at that point when Philip Roth became free, absolutely free as a writer.

NEARY: Roth wrote more than 30 books over his career, many of them focusing on Jewish life and culture. But, says Remnick, he objected to being called a Jewish writer.

REMNICK: In his work and in private, Jews and Jewishness and Jewish culture and Jewish history was never far from his lips or from his mind. What he did not want to be is pigeonholed. He was somebody who grew up in America and saw himself first and foremost as an American writer.

NEARY: Roth grew up during World War II, and Claudia Roth Pierpont - no relation - the author of "Roth Unbound," says that gave him a strong belief in America as a moral force in the world. And she says it shaped him in another powerful way.

CLAUDIA ROTH PIERPONT: Something that is talked about less but I think it runs from the beginning of his work to the end and is very much present in "Portnoy" as a strong undercurrent is his awareness of what it meant that he was born in '33 in New Jersey and not in Europe where his grandparents came from, that he was constantly aware and constantly making a contrast throughout his work in terms of childhoods, in terms of what would have happened.

NEARY: Perhaps that idea plays out most obviously in "The Plot Against America" in which Roth imagines that a fascist government led by Charles Lindbergh has taken control of the country. Roth discussed the book in an interview on WHYY'S Fresh Air in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PHILIP ROTH: I realized imaginatively something had not happened but that was feared, which is, what would happen if such people came to power in America? What would happen to us? So I tried to imagine what would happen to us. The us I imagined was my own family.

NEARY: Because Roth often used his hometown as a setting for his novels and cast a very Philip Roth-like character as the narrator of a number of his books, many readers assumed his work was largely autobiographical, says Pierpont.

PIERPONT: His books are so much about voice. They're about this voice in your ear. I think that's why so many people confuse his first-person narrators with the author. It sounds like he has to be telling his own story. And so people believed he was Alexander Portnoy, and people believed he is Nathan Zuckerman.

NEARY: Pierpont says Roth found his voice through careful listening.

PIERPONT: His art is very much an art of the ear. He's not a landscape painter in his works. He's not long on description. It's about people, how they think, how they talk. And if you knew him, you were listened to in a way that was almost startling. You were listened to so, so deeply.

NEARY: Philip Roth was remarkably productive late into his 60s and 70s, but around the age of 80, he did something few writers do. He stopped writing. This man of a prodigious work ethic, says David Remnick, finally was able to relax.

REMNICK: And he reread his books from front to back from "Goodbye, Columbus" to "Nemesis." And when he thought about his achievement, he quoted the great prizefighter Joe Louis, and he said, I did the best with what I had.

NEARY: That best, Remnick believes, will stand the test of time and place him among the greatest. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.