I was sad to hear the news that Philip Roth had died on May 22nd, the very day I accepted my new position here at Northshire Bookstore as the new events manager, but he had had a full career and, amazingly, retired from writing fiction in 2012. A perennial candidate for the Nobel, every year I wondered whether that would be the year he won. I have not read his work extensively, but was deeply impressed by the books I know.
I first read Roth in a modern Jewish fiction seminar in graduate school. It was Sabbath’s Theater, his 1995 novel about an aging puppeteer. In the encomia since his death, this novel is widely considered his masterpiece, and it was one of my very favorite books I encountered in graduate school. Roth weaves disparate sources together—an autobiographical thread of an aging man coming to terms with his still deranging lust, the historical figure Sabbatai Zevi who in the 17th century claimed he was the Jewish messiah before forced conversion to Islam, and the life of Roth’s friend the Anglo-Jewish painter R.B. Kitaj. It was a great introduction to Roth’s work.
Years later I returned to Roth and read his 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral. Another powerful work, this time using his semi-autobiographical character Nathan Zuckerman to narrate the life of Swede Levov, whose daughter, an anti-Vietnam war terrorist, bombs a local post office and “transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.” It is another harrowing masterpiece.
Roth left us with a complete career and a vast series of major American novels. There are books and books of his to read from the early work of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, through to his later fiction. I have just started reading The Plot Against America, and it looks to be another triumph.