Martin Amis on Philip Roth: ‘the kind of satirical genius that comes along once in a generation’

From the delirious slapstick of Portnoys Complaint to the narrative richness of his American Trilogy, Philip Roth was a novelist of sincere originality, responds Martin Amis

As tributes pour in to Philip Roth, it is worth looking back to his early profession, which was one of the strangest in American symbols. Portnoy’s Complaint( 1969) was my introduction to his duty. I read it in the first edition of the paperback, and I speculated: Here we have a really deafening brand-new expres, and a whole new road of being funny- transgressive, astringent, but with something euphoric in its comedy.

Then I made my highway through the three precedes: Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go, and When She Was Good. They were committing and diverting; they cleared you think, they met you smile, often, but they didn’t do you laugh. Ah, I considered, he’s what Saul Bellow calls” an vivacity hoarder “, restrained by High Seriousness and, in his event, restrained by an overdone devotion for Henry James. Portnoy was his real” letting disappear “; now the comic powers will surely surge and swell.

It didn’t work out that route. A writer’s life is not as separated and ascetic as some would like to think; and novelists, in particular, are unmistakably in the world. And what did the world represent of Portnoy? It was critically acclaimed( it wasn’t just a succes de scandale ), and it outsold Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. It also became a part of “the member states national” speech- with talk-show one-liners zeroing in, of course, on chronic self-abuse( Barbra Streisand remarked that she would like to meet Roth” but wouldn’t want to shake his hand “). What would Henry James have said to that?

Roth reacted with dependable immorality: he wrote, or dashed off, three comic novels that were almost neurotically unfunny- Our Gang( peculiarity” Trick E. Nixon “), The Breast, and The Immense American Novel( 400 most comical sheets about baseball ). Something other than the wizard caused by Portnoy, it seemed, was peril his equilibrium.

All was explained in “Peoples lives” as a Man( 1974 ). Roth had wasted the years 1959 -6 3 writhing around in a nightmare wedding, the result of a weirdly reciprocal folly. She trapped him( a low-cut subterfuge with teenage pregnancies measure ), and he trapped himself, magnetized by hurdle, complication, and the crew-necked earnestness of his( academic) surrounding.” Literature got me into this ,” he wrote in “Peoples lives”,” and literature is gonna have to get me out .” The dud comic trio was his retaliation against literary ethics, and against High Seriousness.

But now he agreed down. My Life inducted a long series of autobiographical stories( the Zuckerman volumes ), culminating in what is called the American Trilogy( 1997 -2 000 ): American Pastoral, I Wedded a Communist, and The Human Stain- a enormous direct of virtually Victorian narrative richness. Along the road there were other triumphs: The Counterlife( the only postmodern masterpiece apart from DeLillo’s White Noise ), and Sabbath’s Theater( which I acquired rebarbative, but it is loved by many, female as well as male ). Around the beginning of this century Roth retreated into sparer utterance( the sometime novellas ), and eventually a decorous and equable silence.

‘ Writers of sincere clevernes are always divisive’ … Philip Roth at his typewriter in 1968. Picture: Bob Peterson/ Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

Writers of sincere clevernes are always divisive. Roth alienated not just the occasional reader but entire communities, denigrated, firstly, by macrocosm Jewry, and later by world-wide feminism. This choric aggression was in both cases virtually socio-cultural, and not literary. You can understand the historic uneasiness, but World Jewry got it wrong about Roth, a glad Jew as well as a proud American. And the feminist dissent is impulsively sweeping; it spies no length between Roth and his( often grievous) narrators. Besides, if you veto misogyny as a subject, then you prohibit King Lear, and much else.

My subjective impres is that Portnoy’s Complaint is still the diamond in the crown. Here the Jewish-American Novel is constricted down to one opinion: gentile girls, shiksas (” despised situations “), where archaic laws of purity come up against American womanhood, and the inevitability of substance America. In Portnoy all the great themes are there( all except fatality ): leaders, moms, infants, the male libido, woe, and Israel. Roth kindles this bonfire with the type of sarcastic genius that comes along, if we’re lucky, perhaps once in every contemporary.

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