Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Obituary

Philip Roth died famous, rich, and successful by common definition. He wrote an amazingly long list of books which are at least good, and they are always readable. By editing Penguin's Writers from the Other Europe series, he provided a major service to readers in English, and literature more generally, by widening access to Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kis, Tadeusz Borowski, and others from Eastern Europe. Pretty sure the last Philip Roth novel I've read is I Married a Communist, recommended, and the last one I began but didn't finish was The Counterlife. I haven't read any of them the year they were published, and I liked The Human Stain more than American Pastoral. The one with an imagined Anne Frank in it is great, but the title escapes me. I never finished The Great American Novel, but I had a copy as a teenager, purchased from Encore Books in their dollar remainder section, and I remember references to Hemingway as "Hem" in the opening. I believe that Portnoy's Complaint was the first Roth novel I've read, and the memoir Patrimony has always been one of my favorites. For one or two singular books, he's not as great as Pynchon, Barth, Bellow, DeLillo, and, no doubt, a few of his other relative contemporaries, but as of this writing, it seems like his books will last much longer on the shelf of bookstores than these other big names. His novels with historical or cultural themes almost always have a clever angle. I remember reading that Roth said he left academia because professors "weren't serious," and that he stopped dating because it was too time-consuming: "woman need to be entertained." A funny anecdote that I know of is that he requested a biography of Amiri Baraka from its African-American author, and the writer sent it signed, "Take it easy on the brothers." Roth thought that was hilarious, but it also relates to why I don't like American Pastoral. Last, sure anyone can detest being labeled as a "black writer" or "Jewish writer," but it's best to prove it by your pages. Roth could have shown much more often in his writing, and much more clearly, that he understood what it's like to be an American who isn't Jewish after World War II, the time period almost all of his books take place in. He's dead now, and I can't tell you with certainty what happens to him or anyone else at this stage of existence. Which sometimes is considered not existing. I'd be shocked if I made it to 85. Rest in peace.

Philip Roth is dead, but you and I are still alive.

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