Philip Roth was the Jewish man of letters who reinvented the alphabet of literary fiction, all the while disclaiming that he was even a Jewish writer.
With a body of work so prodigious, amassing an astounding 32 titles, nearly all of which were novels, spanning over six decades, his Rothian career commands the same kind of towering respect in the literary world as does the Ruthian legacy in baseball — which, as America’s pastime, is an apt analogy. Roth, who died Tuesday in New York at 85, was a home-run hitter with Gold Glove comedic legerdemain. His sentence-making capacity was both pyrotechnic and protean. And despite his personal protest, he is the gold standard against which all Jewish writers will forever be measured. Without sentiment or sanctimony, he transformed the immigrants of an earlier generation of Jews into full-fledged Yankees.
Indeed, Roth’s novels represent an autopsy of his two great passions: America and Jews.
During the latter part of his career, novels such as “The Plot Against America,” “I Married a Communist,” “The Human Stain” and “American Pastoral” were deep investigations into the soul of America during several tumultuous decades of social upheaval in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, his earlier work, “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” and later “Sabbath’s Theater,” depicted Jews in ways no rabbi of that or any other era would ever approve. Many, in fact, pounded from their pulpits, rejecting this brashly irreverent and sexually deviant young novelist who improbably found a libidinous use for kosher meat. If excommunication was possible, Roth would have gone the way of Spinoza, except that Roth’s cardinal sin had little to do with God and everything to do with a predisposition for all things treif — mercilessly mocking his own people and worshipping shiksa goddesses as if they were actual deities.
If Franz Kafka is the rabbi of all Jewish fiction writers, Philip Roth is arguably the secular king — for writers everywhere. He managed to produce a literary resume that captured both the existential nuance of the American century and the contours of Jewish male lust and neurosis. No wonder all of Roth’s books are enshrined in the Library of America.
He was a writer with a rock star trajectory and a bad boy persona that began in the 1950s and astoundingly went through several acts — exploring the self-possession and excesses of youth, the anomie of a begrudging middle-age and the decay and wretchedness of impending death. Many of his novels featured the voice and observational powers of celebrated novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who served as a stand-in for Roth himself. It is through Zuckerman that Roth experimented with postmodern invention, whether in reimagining the resurrection of Anne Frank in “The Ghost Writer,” to the blurring of boundaries between the real and imagined self in “The Counterlife.”
And for a literary man, Roth was never above politics, whether in his own country, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or through his championing of the careers of Primo Levi, Milan Kundera and Bruno Schulz, among others, in his “Writers from the Other Europe” series.
But politics was sometimes beneath his greatness. A short list candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature for decades, Roth had been repeatedly overlooked in favor of far lesser lights. This may have finally been his year, but the award was cancelled due to a sexual misconduct scandal within the Swedish Academy. Roth died three weeks after this announcement, as if he could wait no longer for the Academy to finally give him his due.
And, then, of course, there was the long shadow that he cast for Jewish writers in the United States, where he was more elusive than J.D. Salinger and arguably even more eccentric than chess master Bobby Fisher.
With Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud both living on West 79th Street, and Isaac Bashevis Singer on West 86th, it is a true wonder that there was any room on the Upper West Side for the many Jewish writers who were influenced by these masters but who might have suffered from writers’ block from having far too many giants on the same block.
In the early 1990s, I was a Wall Street lawyer about to embark on a new career as a novelist. I was working on my first book. Philip Roth was apparently working on “Operation Shylock,” a novel in which a character named Philip Roth was being impersonated by another character, the overlapping alter egos for which the actual Roth became famous.
Walking along West 79th Street I saw Roth leave his building on Amsterdam Avenue. We passed each other, and I said, “Excuse me, you’re Philip Roth, right?” He stared at me, sensing a sucker, a mere prop for a later dress rehearsal upon his return to his typewriter, and replied, “No, I’m not Philip Roth, but everyone says I look like that son-of-a-bitch.”
He stood there, having his way with me, essentially taking batting practice with someone who so desperately wished to join his league. I must have looked befuddled. After all, I knew what Philip Roth looked like. I owned many book jackets that traced the ways in which he had aged. The man who was writing about a Philip Roth impersonator was now performing a live act on Amsterdam Avenue.
I finally said, “Well, maybe that’s because you are Philip Roth.”
He shrugged and walked on, a Jewish wizard, a literary mystic, oddly incognito, on his way toward Zabar’s.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist and the author of “The Golems of Gotham,” “Second Hand Smoke,” “Elijah Visible” and, most recently, “How Sweet It Is!”