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Roth, Philip

(US, 1933– )

Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey. His work has developed from satirical outrages and Kafka-like fantasies to the fictionalizing of post-war American history. He is both a popular and serious novelist, whose consistent themes are Jewishness and masculinity. Roth's debut collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), proved controversial, portraying conflicts around traditional values within Jewish families, as in ‘Eli, the Fanatic’, and their accommodation to mainstream America. Portnoy's Complaint (1969) was an international best-seller, and it remains one of the funniest books of its era. It takes the form of Alex Portnoy's fantasies, jokes, and confessions to a psychiatrist about compulsive masturbation and later sexual addictions, originating in his Jewish family life. The comic energy of the satire is still fresh even though its explicitness now seems rather tame. The Professor of Desire (1977) signalled a greater seriousness, as Professor David Kepesh travels to Prague in search of Kafka's grave, meets writers living under Communism, and contemplates his Jewish roots. Roth has also written a series of novels featuring a successful author, Nathan Zuckerman, at various stages of his life. In The Ghost Writer (1979), he stays the night at the home of his mentor E. I. Lonoff, and fantasizes that the student he meets there is the surviving Anne Frank. I Married a Communist (1998) is an absorbing novel about personal and political betrayal, set in the McCarthyite era of blacklisting. It finds Zuckerman as a 65 year old, listening to his former teacher tell the full story of activist Ira Ringold's life and death. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral (1997), one of Roth's most brilliant and gripping novels, goes back to the 1960s and places its well-meaning Jewish hero, ‘Swede’ Lvov, at the very centre of everything that was most violent, berserk, and alarming in the politics and society of the time. Also recommended is his 2001 novella The Dying Animal.

In The Human Stain (2000) Nathan Zuckerman writes up the story of a light-skinned black professor who has pretended, all his adult life, to be Jewish. Writing at the height of his powers, Roth explores attitudes to race, and, via the story of one fascinatingly complex character, examines the values and morality of 1990s’ America.

Saul Bellow, Mordecai Richler, John Updike  JS/JR

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Pa-Sc)