For Outlook’s year-end special issue in 2014, ‘100 Books That Can Change Your Life’, the jury got quite animated when it came to discussing Philip Roth. The sheer number of books he wrote, around 30, with so many favourites, made it difficult to chose one, which was a pre-condition for the selection—only one book per author. Juror Mukul Kesavan was for The Plot Against America, a counter-factual novel where Charles Lindbergh is elected American President in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt, and starts targeting the Jews. Nilanjana Roy was for the novella Goodbye, Columbus, which was made into a film later, about growing up as an American Jew in the ’50s.
But the Philip Roth book which finally made it to the list, not surprisingly, was Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Mani Shankar Aiyar clinched it with, “Of course, it so happens that Portnoy is just two years elder to me. So everything in Portnoy’s Complaint is actually Aiyar’s Complaint.” And this book of uproarious, risque humour and sexual depravity which used to be the surreptitious read of every college student, especially boys of a certain vintage, made the list. The youngster Alexander Portnoy is obsessed with sex and the book is a long monologue of his sometimes real, sometimes fantasised encounters with all the girls and women who cross him, which as The New York Times put it, “surely set a record for most masturbation scenes per page”. It is somewhat reminiscent of the early films of another American Jewish legend, Woody Allen. The book was both a best-seller and a critical success, though it did have a few detractors too. Irving Howe wrote: “The cruellest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is read it twice.”
Roth’s obsessions all through his writing were sex, Jews (yes, he does have the characteristic nose) and America, the order changing occasionally. After his prodigious outpouring in the ’70s and ’80s, with The Ghost Writer and The Anatomy Lesson in the Zuckerman series—Nathan Zuckerman is the narrator in nine of Roth’s books—and other novels like When She Was Good, My Life As A Man and The Great American Novel, he started to fade. There were many books in between, unremarkable by Roth’s standards, which got polite reviews and was bought by only ardent fans.
Then, in 2000, when Roth was into his late sixties, he came up with The Human Stain, where Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, narrates the tale of Coleman Silk, a professor who is concealing the fact that he is half Black, is forced out of his college on charges of racism for a casual remark and who later has a steamy affair with the illiterate maid who comes to clean his house. It was made into a film with Anthony Hopkins as Professor Silk and the unlikely choice of a ravishing Nicole Kidman as the dowdy Faunia Farley. The film was a stain on the book, a contemporary masterpiece.
Roth wrote a biting open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker about a statement he wanted corrected about the book’s entry in the online encyclopaedia. When Roth wrote to them about the mistake, Wikipedia shot back: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their work, but we require secondary sources.” It prompted Roth to launch into a long letter about how the novel came into being, and which makes for great reading.
A couple of years before The Human Stain, Roth had written the sweeping American Pastoral, about war and terrorism, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. This triumphant success too was made into a movie two years ago in 2016, but Roth’s rotten luck with film adaptations of his books continued and the movie bombed.
By now considered one of the greatest American novelists of the second half of the 20th century, Roth continued to come up with books year after year till almost the end. His last great book was perhaps Everyman, published in 2006. It is a slim book, but tough for the reader to confront the novelist’s unsparingly harsh gaze on the grimy, disappointing ordinariness of life, morality and mortality. How can his work and life be described in a few words? Let me end with Roth’s famous quote, from his 1984 Paris Review interview with Hermione Lee: “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade.”