Philip Roth: An ascetic chronicler of America's post-war excesses

Satirists may be loved by their readers, but the objects of their caustic wit often howl with rage. We have yet to see how biting the movie version of Philip Roth's The Human Stain, which will be screened at the Venice Film Festival tomorrow, proves to be; but the novel on which it is based is trademark Roth. Set during the year in which Monica Lewinsky's affair with Bill Clinton dominated the news, and roused "the persecuting spirit of the nation" (Roth's phrase, quoting Nathaniel Hawthorne), The Human Stain is drenched with a contempt for the self-righteous puritanism the narrator, Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, decries.

Roth has always been good at identifying the spirit of the age, and then running a skewer through it. The 1960s are remembered as the decade of sexual liberation, but it took the publication, in 1969, of Roth's first best-selling novel, Portnoy's Complaint, for the mainstream reading public to discover what had been happening to cultural restraint.

Roth's frank account of childhood masturbation and sexual predation could not have been published in any previous era; it took the Sixties to make it possible. Yes, Henry Miller and Frank Harris had preceded Roth - but neither had ever been "mainstream" bestsellers. They had been published by small imprints, at least originally, and their works were hard to find. Portnoy was in every bookstore, was reviewed in every newspaper, and headed the hardback bestseller lists.

But what was Roth's own attitude to the decade whose artistic licence had enabled him to write with such apparent freedom? It is interesting to note that this well-brought-up boy, from a genteel lower-middle-class neighbourhood in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, had not long before been rather prissy himself. The critic Norman Podhoretz recalls that in 1957, Roth had complained to a mutual friend that "he disapproved of how foul-mouthed I was" after they met at the offices of Commentary magazine. "Of course," adds Podhoretz, "as things turned out, in this respect, I could not have held a candle, or even a matchstick, to the future author of Portnoy's Complaint."

Roth was already no stranger to controversy. His literary debut, a collection of short stories which he published at the age of 26, was a close-to-the-bone look at the shallow, materialist values of the Jewish immigrant milieu in which he had grown up. Although the work was greeted with near universal praise by reviewers, and won the prestigious National Book Award for 1959, the Jews about whom the book was written felt betrayed and angry.

As one observer has written, "All they could see was a cruel eye relentlessly being cast on them and theirs, with no other purpose than to sneer and mock and defame." Roth's reply - and he has received this sort of criticism all his writing life - was to say, "It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in, that in many instances they haven't been bitten at all."

Roth's credo is stated explicitly by one of the characters, Faunia Farley, in The Human Stain - and it should be interesting to see how Nicole Kidman delivers these words on screen: "We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen - there's no other way to be here... That's why all cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It's insane."

Tracing the outlines of those stains is not only Roth's preoccupation in his novels, it also forms his justification for the most famous personal event in his life: his messy break-up, after 16 years of living together and marriage, with the English actress Claire Bloom. They spent 12 of those years in London, where they were sought-after guests on the north London dinner-party circuit. Both are verbally gifted, and is said that they could put everyone in stitches with their two-part spontaneous performances.

One dinner guest remembers that Roth was "compelling, with burning black eyes; he would concentrate fully on you, and be quick to engage your comments with an intense emotional reaction. Electric". One thing he was feeling intense about was anti-Semitism, the British variant. In his judgement, the difference could be defined as follows: "Here, Claire is English in spite of being Jewish, but I'm American because I'm Jewish." The point seems to be that America is a country of immigrants, so there can't be the same kind of exclusion from the mainstream as exists in England.

Despite all these conversational gifts, however, Roth infuriated my informant, on behalf of Claire, by putting his hand on her thigh while all this intense conversation was going on.

It wasn't long before Claire discovered the manuscript of a novel that Roth was writing, which featured a character named Claire, married to the narrator, Philip, whom he described as "his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife... an actress by profession... her name is Claire".

Roth then tried to persuade her he was writing fiction, and she just didn't get it. More of those imaginary teeth sinking in. In the end, Claire Bloom got her own side of the story out, in her book Leaving a Doll's House. In John Updike's description: "As the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, she shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unravelled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalisation, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive." Roth replied to Updike's précis with the suggestion that Updike should have written "alleges" rather than "shows him to have been", and in fact friends of Roth's say they don't recognise him in her account, and that he has been very hurt by the way, in his own words, "over the years ... Miss Bloom's characterisation of me has been taken at face value". Talk about a human stain. Here are two people who have left an indelible imprint on one another.

In fact, although Roth was initially charmed by England he soon came to hate what he took to be its stifling manners. ("Did you ever notice," he would ask, "how many times people say 'thank you' when they are in a shop?") On his return to New York, he was exhilarated by the passionate way people would argue and gesticulate; it took him two or three years to calm down and return to his Connecticut rural fastness.

For all Roth's biting commentary on American life and the shortcomings of Jewish life in the States and in Israel, he particularly disliked the left-wing pieties he found among British writers, with their reflexive and unknowing anti-Americanism, and their comprehensive dismissal of Israel. Like so many expatriates, he found that his own way of criticising his country contained a fondness for it that was essential to him.

Readers of what is described as Roth's political trilogy - American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain - are struck first by the sheer passion of these books. No one could write with such anger about a country he didn't love very much indeed.

The question of how much Roth is the subject of his own books has never been easy to answer: Roth himself in interviews draws a distinct line between fiction and autobiography, but then he writes books chock full of personal experience and ex cathedra opinions he's known to voice. There are at least some differences, however, that one can detect. For example, the passionate all-consuming figures that dominate his book are a far cry from the spartan, monkish writer who spends most of his time closeted in a small cell with a pen, a pad of paper and an Anglepoise lamp. In his personal habits he reminds one of his biographers, Hermione Lee, of a character in his novel, The Ghost Writer, who eats half an egg for breakfast, as more than that would be too much.

One would expect Roth to be funny in person, and he is, with a Lenny Bruce-like ability to expand on a riff (or in Yiddish, a shpritz) to the point of comic genius. Hermione Lee says that "he makes people laugh more than any person in the entire world". In fact, one complaint voiced about his novels is that all the characters have the hyper-articulateness of their creator. Just look back at that quote given to Faunia Farley: who talks like that? Although Roth's novels are said to be in the realist genre, they are more than that. They are vivid evocations of what it is to be alive and conscious at certain times and certain places, but not in words the characters themselves could ever be found to utter. In this, if in little else, Roth is more Faulkner than Updike.

John Updike, with his Rabbit tetralogy, is the obvious point of comparison for Roth, although there are certainly interesting points of similarity and difference with his other great near contemporaries - Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and Bernard Malamud. What makes Updike interesting is that alone among these novelists, he is not Jewish and for the most part he portrays an explicitly Christian world, one that contains plenty of churches and clerics.

Yet, for all that, the work of both writers proves that there is still much truth in that old rule: in fiction the particular becomes the universal. For all their differences in psychology (Updike strikes me as essentially optimistic and benevolent; Roth pessimistic and misanthropic) and method (Updike's characters seem more independent of their creator), the rootedness of these writers works in their world and their intelligent appreciation of it redeems the writers' craft.

In The Human Stain, Nathan Zuckerman relates a Clinton- related dream he had during the summer of 1998: it was "of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend: A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE". One can't help suggesting that it would be appropriate if there were a sign affixed over the door of the writer's shack in Connecticut, where Philip Roth has spent much of the past 10 years, bearing the legend: A WRITER LIVES HERE.

LIFE STORY

Born

19 March 1933, Newark, New Jersey, to Herman Roth and Bess Finkle Roth.

Family

Married to Margaret Martinson in 1959; marriage ended with her death in 1968. Second marrage to Claire Bloom, actress; divorced in 1994. No children.

Education

Bucknell University, BA in English, 1954; University of Chicago, MA in English, 1955.

Teaching career

University of Chicago (1956-58), University of Iowa (1960-62), Princeton University (1962-64), University of Pennsylvania (1965-78), Hunter College, 1988-92).

Literary career

Selected fiction: Goodbye Columbus (1959), Portnoy's Complaint (1969), My Life as a Man (1974), Zuckerman Unbound (1985), Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993), Sabbath's Theatre (1995), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000)

Honours

National Book Critics Circle Award (1991); PEN/Faulkner Award (1993), National Book Award (1995); Pulitzer Prize (1998) National Medal of Arts (1998).

He says

"Everything revolts me."

They say

"What James Joyce did for Dublin, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Philip Roth has done for Newark."- Bill Clinton, former president of the US

"The cruellest thing anyone can do with Portnoy's Complaint is to read it twice." - Irving Howe, literary critic

Comments