Plenty has been spoken and written about Philip Roth since his death last week at the age of 85. Much of it has been about his frank treatment of sex. Unsurprisingly, his breakthrough novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, has been the one most referenced.
I suspect it’s safe to say that, due to this obsession with sex, some committed Catholics may have given Roth’s books a swerve. His outspoken attitude towards
religion could well have been a factor in this, too. “I’m exactly the opposite of religious,” he said in 2005. “I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous … It’s all a big lie.” He was never a man to wear his atheism lightly.
But if you are in the anti-Roth camp, I’d recommend giving him another chance. Not reading him is to deprive yourself of a body of work that ranks as one of the most stunning achievements in modern literature. From his early books, including Portnoy and Goodbye, Columbus, and his mid-period masterpieces (I Married a Communist, American Pastoral), to his final novellas, Roth picked away with unsparing precision at a host of perennial concerns. Beyond the exploration of male sexual desire, America was his big subject – its history and future, and the decaying of the American Dream. He wrote about family dysfunction and the immovable shadow of death that hangs over us all. And he did all of this with such a burning desire to expose cant, and in such gloriously compelling sentences, that even his dullest books have something electrifying about them.
Roth’s fierce atheism didn’t prevent him from presenting the world in all its muddiness and beauty, or from considering questions of faith in his work. While many of his characters are secular, the Jewish experience is, of course, an abiding theme – and in his magnificent final novel, Nemesis, the hero suffers a spiritual crisis that is movingly wrought. At the funeral of a young boy, he thinks to himself, “How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” If you’ve never read Roth before, starting at the end with Nemesis is a good idea.
That book, it must be said, is not exactly laugh-a-minute. But many of the others are. It’s another of the reasons why I, and so many others, have fallen in love with Roth’s writing. One of my favourite moments of comedy, from I Married a Communist, rounds off a bravura excoriation of polemical writing. A professor of English imagines God having no time for books when creating the world. “When God made all this stuff,” he says, “he didn’t even have 10 minutes for literature … ‘I’m creating a universe, not a university. No literature.’”
We know Roth is joking here because in truth he was a passionate believer in the novel and was saddened by its declining influence in popular culture. One must hope that those who have never read him – Catholics or otherwise – will now do so. His legacy will continue to be furiously discussed and debated for decades, even if Roth, who held out no hope of an afterlife, will forever remain oblivious. “The great thing about dying,” he once said, “is you don’t have to worry about reviews any more.”