Philip Roth’s early books were set in the quiet neighbourhood of Newark where he grew up, where his family had to bear the burden of infamy thanks to the publication of his first collection of stories Goodbye, Columbus in 1959. But my journey with Roth began in my mid-twenties with Portnoy’s Complaint, and like novelist Hari Kunzru wrote, I was “too young to have been shocked by” its contents.
Published in 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint – the pièce de résistance of his career – is a searing yet comical monologue of a profoundly neurotic young Jewish man struggling with his own inferiority, Oedipal and sexual fetish complexes. Not surprisingly it shocked many when it released, which the New Yorker even hailed as “one of the dirtiest books ever published”. It’s an outrageous piece of work without a doubt, but thankfully much of its “outrageousness” has been assuaged by time and what remains is a daringly original and unafraid voice of a literary artist at the peak of his powers.
Arguably the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 20th century, between Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Nemesis (2010) – his 31st book – Roth published 25 other novels and four books of nonfiction, and he won three PEN/Faulkner Awards, two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, two WH Smith Literary Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, the PEN/Nabokov Award, the Franz Kafka Award, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2010 National Humanities Medal, which was given to him by then US President Barack Obama. For those who are influenced by awards and only order books when the annual Man Booker shortlist is announced every year, this is the time to make a quick stop at your local bookstore and splurge.
The novelist of estrangement
Roth was a modern novelist in every sense of the word, who embraced his surroundings and what’s contemporary without hesitation. His exquisite late 1990s novel The Human Stain, where every page wriggles with little riffs and sallies, was set in 1998 with the infamous Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal playing out in the background. The rich and multilayered plot revolved around a disgraced dean and classics professor at a small local college who enters into an affair with one of the college’s janitors, a woman much younger than him, setting in motion a frenzied chain of events. The parallels weren’t too hard to draw. His books always found a way to leave bookstore shelves and enter sociopolitical consciousness without trying too hard.
Roth has often been criticised for writing prose which lacks drama, but very few writers have been able to capture urban ennui and alienation the way he has over the years. Many of us are leading tiring, chaotic lives enmeshed in a tangle of phone screens and constant deadlines. This is a life we have chosen, but also one which has been expected of us. Hence even though it can be argued that some of this estrangement is self-inflicted, we were never really in control of our destinies. And Roth captures this sentiment stunningly in one of his most controversial works The Breast, in which Professor David Kepesh wakes up one morning and finds that he has been transformed into a 155-pound female breast.
An unabashed tip of the hat to Kafka, the book has Kepesh wondering at one point whether his condition is a result of his liaison with fiction. “I’m grasping at straws – and I know how whimsical it seems in the circumstances. But I thought, ‘I got it from fiction.’ The books I have been teaching – they put the idea in my head. I’m thinking of my European Literature course. Teaching Gogol and Kafka every year – teaching ‘The Noise’ and ‘Metamorphosis.’” So consumed is Roth’s character, and perhaps Roth himself too, is in his belletristic universe that he fails to find another reason to blame.
Sex and mortality
That explains why since his separation from actor Claire Bloom, Roth spent several years living alone. The 2000 The New Yorker profile of Roth quotes him thus: “I live alone, there’s no one else to be responsible for or to, or to spend time with. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day.” Doesn’t this sound familiar?
Writer Gary Shteyngart wrote that Roth showed him how writers needn’t be “this formal, hectoring creature. You could be warm, honest, real.” And it’s this warmth, this deliberate lack of seriousness his work radiates, which separated him from many of his contemporaries. Many of Roth’s protagonists also hint towards the fact that Roth’s hypochondria was not merely a part of his fictional world – which is perhaps why he so effortlessly managed to produce fiction which was able to find a connection between sex and mortality.
But at the same time Roth has also been blamed for seeing women merely as sex objects in his writing. There’s a particularly disturbing passage at the end of The Breast where he writes: “I will make hundreds of thousands of dollars – and then I will have girls, twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls, three, four, and five at a time, naked and giggling, and all on my nipple at once.” Of course, when quoted out of context, any sentence can be misconstrued. But in the wake of the #metoo movement and whatever has transpired around us since then, Roth’s inability to avoid objectification of an entire gender cannot be ignored.
In an opinion piece in The New York Times by writer Lisa Scottoline from 2014, which I only read now, Scottoline tells the story of how during the ’70s when she was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania, Philip Roth went to teach two seminars there. It’s a delightful article where she talks about the constant state of confusion – edgy and athirst at the same time – in which she spent those days just to have been able to be in the same room as Roth. She mentions how even though she had dreams of becoming a writer she lacked the self-confidence, and how Roth was always serious, polite but succinct with them during their entire term, maintaining a premeditated distance between the students and him.
While it may have disappointed some of the students at the time, Scottoline reasons that “By withholding his own personality, thoughts and opinions, he forced us back in our own personalities, thoughts and opinions”. This, she claims, helped her discover her own style and paved the way for the writing career that was to follow.
The day after Roth died, when I left work, I was searching frantically for a cab so I could reach home and work on this piece. Unfortunately in the part of Uttar Pradesh where my office is, it’s easier said than done. In a moment of exasperation I ended up booking an Uber motorcycle to take me to the nearest metro station, and realised my mistake the moment I got on it – as it was one of the hottest days of the summer so far. The rider who picked me up had his face wrapped in a scarf with only his eyes showing to keep his face safe from the howling gust of the Noida wind, preventing him from talking. And even though those were difficult twenty minutes for me physically, it gave me that rare moment of dissociation to think about what I had just written.
As I was getting off, I thought that if this was a regular taxi I would have been tempted to make conversation with the driver, as I often habitually do. That momentary miscalculation probably helped me piece together the material I had in my head slightly better. It reminded me of Scottoline’s article. Shivam, my rider, whose face I didn’t see, reminded me of Roth. And that’s what writing and writers should do. Good writing must seep into our skin through its cracks, but good writers must leave us alone.