Dylan Jones: Discovering Philip Roth

'Roth has written masterpieces at an age when most authors can't string two sentences together'


One of the joys of discovering someone relatively late in the day is knowing that you can now immerse yourself in their back catalogue. Imagine only discovering The Beatles in your forties. Or Martin Scorsese. Or Frank Zappa. For me, 2006 will always be the year of Philip Roth, for that very reason. I'd read Portnoy's Complaint as a teenager, and then read Our Gang (the Nixon allegory) in my early thirties. But until last year the Roth oeuvre was as familiar to me as the Fields of Nephilim (the band, not the people).

In an odd sort of a way, I feel perfectly OK about this, as Roth has really only come into his own in the later stages of his career, and far from "doing" a Martin Amis or an Orson Welles, has produced his masterpieces at an age when most authors are wondering why they can no longer string two sentences together. Yes, of course he wrote several masterpieces in his middle youth (the Zuckerman books in particular), but it's as an old man that he's flourished.

For me, Roth is the king of male solipsism, an epic hypochondriac who has analysed and catalogued the American male Jewish experience like no other. Bigger than Updike, more productive than Heller, Pynchon or Wolfe, and less hysterical than Mailer, Roth is the colossus of contemporary American fiction.

So far this year, I have read The Breast, The Great American Novel, Shop Talk, The Prague Orgy, Patrimony, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Plot Against America and Everyman. I remember reading John Irving when I was younger, and thinking that - at his best - he had the ability to describe just how fragile life is, and the best American 20th-century novelists have all, at some time in their careers, had the same knack.

Last year's Everyman, essentially a study of approaching death, distilled this art further. While not having the fireside manner of Patrimony (a great book), Everyman feels grand - it is grand - while also reading as though Roth knocked it off in a few afternoons (and that isn't a criticism by the way).

So I have a big year ahead of me, a year that's going to be filled with the likes of Sabbath's Theatre, The Human Stain and My Life as a Man.

And, to balance the books, and to show that I haven't lost the common touch, I think I'm going to explore the work of Jean Michel Jarre. I gather his third album is quite special.

Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ

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