Roth in retrospect

Through five tumultuous decades, America met its match in Philip Roth

Philip Roth told French magazine Les Inrockuptibles in his "retirement" interview published in early October, "I don't know anything anymore about America today. I watch it on TV. But I don't live there." He wasn't saying America had, finally, defeated his imagination. It was time, rather, for his imagination to disengage from a subject that had long become the territory of another generation.

Fifty-two years earlier, delivering a speech (later collected as an essay) at Stanford in 1960, Roth made this pronouncement, which subsequently acquired legendary status: "...the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality... The actuality is continually outdoing our talents..."

Roth's America were the post-war decades. Till Saul Bellow's death in 2005, there was at least one American writer alive bigger than him (No, Norman Mailer or John Updike didn't make the grade). Nobody had taken post-war America a decade at a time, identified with such precision the peculiarity of its zeitgeist, and re-imagined it into fiction as determinedly and insightfully as the author of American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). But this "American Trilogy", arguably his best novels exploring the troubled 1960s, the McCarthy era, and 1990s' identity politics and political correctness respectively through the eyes of an ageing and ascetic Nathan Zuckerman was the closure on Roth's America, not its advent.

The advent was in the stories called "acidulous" by Alfred Kazin collected in Goodbye, Columbus (1959), where Roth made a spectacle of his initiation into adult authorship. Dismissed later as juvenilia by Roth, who was denounced by rabbis and critics as another "self-hating Jew" on the novella's publication, this creative rejection of his protected childhood in Newark's Weequahic neighbourhood was Roth's setting out to look for America, in the footsteps of the senior generation of Jewish intellectuals from in and around New York who had come into maturity in the 1920s and 1930s.

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