One of Americas greatest novelists, Philip Roth died this week, aged 85. From 1959 s Goodbye, Columbus to 2010 s Nemesis, 10 acclaimed novelists including William Boyd, David Baddiel, Linda Grant and Joyce Carol Oates pick their favourite work
I fell in love with Neil Klugman, forerunner to Portnoy and protagonist of Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth’s first novel, in my early 20 s- 40 times after the novel was written. Descriptions of Roth’s writing often err towards violence; “hes about” savagely funny, bitingly honest, fitted with feeling and frustrated hope. But although his first novel practises all the themes he would deplete 60 times quarrying- sex vanity, lower-middle-class consciousness (” for an point Brenda reminded me of the pug-nosed little mongrels from Montclair “), the mashing force of family and working, of course, American Jewish identity- what I desired about his first novel was its tenderness.
Goodbye, Columbus is immersed in the nostalgia only available to a 26 -year-old man writing of himself in his earlier 20 s, a larger psychological bounce perhaps than between decades as they pass in last-minute life. Neil is smart, inadequate, indigent, competitive. He longs for Brenda and dreads her accept, tempering his hope with pre-emptive onrush. All the things one recognises and does.
My mother told me that the first time she read Portnoy’s Complaint she mourned and, at the time, I couldn’t understand why. It’s not a sad novel. But, of course, as I get older I understood. One cries not because it is sad but because it is true, and no matter how quirky he is, speaking Roth ever leaves one a little devastated.
I picked up Goodbye, Columbus this morning and went back to Aunt Gladys, one of “the worlds largest” put-upon women in myth, who didn’t help pepper in her household because she had heard it was not absorbed by the body, and- the perfect Rothian way, wry, affectionate, with a gesture to the infinite-” it was disrupting to Aunt Gladys to think that anything she sufficed might pass through a gullet, belly and bowel just for the pleasure of the tour “. How we’ll miss him.
Emma Brockes is a novelist and Guardian critic
Philip Roth was more than capable of the type of formal patterning and closure that distracted the operational activities of the Henry James, with whom he now stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the American literary firmament. So yes, one can always pick a singular beloved- mine is the early narrative Goodbye, Columbus, though I know the capacious greatness of American Pastoral possibly warrants favourite status. But celebrating a single Roth piece constitutes its own provokes, in that his life’s work was a kind of never-ending engagement against the notion that the great work of myth was anything but, well, wield- job as act, formation; work not as noun but as verb; undertaking as marvelous as the glove-making so lovingly referred to in Pastoral, and as silly as the fevered drudge of imagination that subtends the masturbatory repetitions of Portnoy’s Complaint. Factual human being are fiction workers – it’s the only way they can make actual gumption of themselves and the people around them, by, as Roth placed it in Pastoral, always” getting them bad”- and Roth was to be among the most dedicated of all wrong-getters, his life’s work thus paradoxically a fight against the formal closure that threw contour to the many masterpieces he wrote. Hence the spillage of self, of personas real and imagined, of reputations truly envisaging and of selves fictionally ratifying, from work to work to work. So, now, Philip Roth, is to a undertaking well done.
James Schamus is a film-maker who steered an adaptation of Indignation in 2016
I read it when I was about 18- an off-piste literary select in my sobersided studenty life. I had been earnestly dealing with the Cambridge English Faculty see listing and picked up Portnoy having glowered my acces through George Eliot’s Romola. The bravura oration of Alex Portnoy wasn’t just “the worlds largest” outrageously, endlessly funny occasion I had ever spoken; it was the very near happening a novel has now come establishing me feel very drunk.
And this world-famously Jewish volume spoke intensely to my coy home districts Wasp inexperience because, with glorious opennes, it gate-crashed into the one and only subject- which Casanova, talking about copulation, called the” subject of subjects”- jerking off. The described in everyone in the public, young and old, wanking at a burlesque present, including an old person masturbating into his hat (” Ven der putz shteht! Ven der putz shteht! Into the hat that he wears on his head !”) was just mind-boggling. A perception of blaze that was also insanely funny. Then there is his agonised epiphany at understanding the word yearn in his thwarted inclination for a blonde “shikse”.( Was I, a Wasp reader, entitled to admit I shared that stricken swoon of desiring? Simply it was a Jewish girl I was in love with .) Portnoy’s Complaint had me in a cross between a chokehold and a tender accept: this is something that a great diary does.
Peter Bradshaw is the Guardian’s film commentator
Looking back at Philip Roth’s long bibliography, I realise I’m a true-life fan of early- and middle-Roth. I speak everything that appeared from Goodbye, Columbus( I was led to Roth by the excellent film) but then kind of fell by the wayside in the mid 1980 s with The Counterlife. As with Anthony Burgess and John Updike, Roth’s stunning prolixity depleted even his most loyal readers.
But I always affection the Zuckerman tales, in which “Nathan Zuckerman” extends a parallel life to that of his founder. Zuckerman Unbound( 1981) is another in the string, following The Ghost Writer, and caters a terrifying analysis of what it must have been like for Roth to deal with the tremendous notoriety and frantic contumely that Portnoy’s Complaint prompted, as well as looking at the famous Quiz Show gossips of the 1950 s. Zuckerman’s ” obscene ” tale is announced Carnovsky, but the guise is makeshift. Zuckerman is Roth by any other name, despite the author’s regular denials and prevarications.
Maybe, in the end, the Zuckerman romances are romances for novelists, or for readers who dream of being columnists. They are very funny and very true and they attach a rich category of columnists’ alter ego stories. Anthony Burgess’s Enderby, Updike’s Bech, Fernando Pessoa’s Bernardo Soares, Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams, Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose and so on- the register is surprisingly long. One of the secret glees of writing fictionally is writing about yourself through the lens of story. Not every columnist does it, but I bet you every writer commiserates to. And Roth did it, maybe more thoroughly than anyone- hence the enduring lure of the Zuckerman romances. Is this what Roth really experienced and did- or is it a fiction? Zuckerman remains endlessly tantalising.
William Boyd is a novelist and screenwriter