Philip Roth died yesterday at the age of 85 from congestive heart failure. And … what else can be written about Philip Roth that hasn’t already been written? Or that Roth himself hasn’t written? Self-exploration—starring America, Newark, Jewishness, and sex—drove the plot of many of Roth’s novels, most notably Portnoy’s Complaint, where the title character uses just about anything one can imagine as a masturbation tool. (Portnoy has nothing on “American Pie.”)
Roth was from Newark, NJ, a city that influenced his personality and his writing. In “American Pastoral,” Roth laments the Newark that once was and now is:
“On the east side of the street, the dark old factories—Civil War factories, foundries, brassworks, heavy-industrial plants blackened from the chimneys pumping smoke for a hundred years—were windowless now, the sunlight sealed out with brick and mortar, their exits and entrances plugged with cinderblock. These were the factories where people had lost fingers and arms and got their feet crushed and their faces scalded, where children once labored in the heat and the cold, the nineteenth-century factories that churned up people and churned out goods and now were unpierceable, airtight tombs. It was Newark that was entombed there, a city that was not going to stir again. The pyramids of Newark: as huge and dark and hideously impermeable as a great dynasty’s burial edifice has every historical right to be.”
Roth was married twice, most notably to the actress Claire Bloom, who chronicled their tempestuous relationship in “Leaving a Doll’s House: A Memoir.” It did not shine a great light on Roth, and in many ways he fought against his portrayal in her book for the rest of his life, going so far as to write “I Married a Communist,” which was reportedly about Bloom.
Roth won just about every top literary honor except the Nobel Prize— two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Man Booker International Prize—before retiring in 2010. According to The New York Times’ obituary, “A Post-it note on his computer said, ‘The struggle with writing is done.’”