The two faces of Philip Roth

Throughout several encounters with the late great novelist, I saw him switch between scabrous provocateur and professorial literary grandee.

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The brutal truth of literary careers is that the reputation of most great writers would not have been affected – and might even have been improved – by earlier death. Philip Roth, though, is a very rare example of a front-rank author whose later work is also the greater work. If the obituaries of Roth had appeared in the mid-Eighties of the last century rather than his own mid-80s this week, then he would likely have been remembered as a writer whose best efforts had been, in two senses, devoted to self-exploration.

That early oeuvre might easily have been dismissed as penis-waving – the masturbatory comic classic, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – giving way to navel-gazing, in the quartet of stories – from The Ghost Writer (1979) to The Prague Orgy (1985) – that playfully dramatised, via a fictional Jewish American novelist called Nathan Zuckerman, the deranging fame and accusations of anti-semitism that resulted from the novel about the furiously self-abusing young Jew, Alexander Portnoy, or, as he became in Zuckerman’s surrogate version, Carnovsky.

But, in 1986, Roth began perhaps the most remarkable and redefining second and third acts of any writing life. The Counterlife, the fifth Zuckerman book, remained playful  (characters can joltingly be alive, dead, then living again) but moved beyond the narrow focus of literary celebrity to tackle the Jewish experience in England, the Middle East and history. Two skilful memoirs – The Facts (1988) and Patrimony (1991) – also usefully established the extent to which the Zuckerman sequence, assumed to be autobiographical, was invented.

The comic tone of the previous books was increasingly shadowed by tragedy, and reached the destination entirely in a trilogy published during the second Clinton administration. Zuckerman remains as a narrator or catalyst, but the main stories are those of others: “Swede” Levov, a businessman, in American Pastoral (1997); a radio star, Ira Ringold, in I Married A Communist (1998); and a college professor, Coleman Silk, in The Human Stain (2000), the last of which is, for my dollar, Roth’s best novel.

Refuting those who had previously rebuked him for not looking far beyond his trousers or his mouth for material, Roth, in those three books, took the American 20th century as his field. The protagonists are variously destroyed by McCarthyism, Vietnam, domestic terrorism, Watergate, race wars, and the campus culture of hyper-sensitivity that Roth apprehended long before journalism did.

The trio was followed by another great political novel, The Plot Against America (2004), in which, combining the very personal with the very public, Roth imagined his own family living under a fascist regime in the U.S in the 1940s. Although Roth denied any Orwellian intent, he was widely perceived by readers to be warning, during the presidency of George W Bush, against a trend towards intolerance and neo-fascism in America that later readers may find to have been trumped in the current administration.

After five great novels in succession, Roth concluded his career with a quartet of novellas, collectively called “Nemeses”, in which Indignation (2008), set during the Korean war, and Nemesis  (2010), dealing with a polio epidemic in 1940s New Jersey, were exquisite additions to Roth’s fictionalised histories of his nation, gender and birth-race. Less happily, The Humbling (2009) returned to the satirical priapism and feminist-baiting of the earlier books, but could now only seem a fall from the heights the writer had now reached.

During the two decades between Operation Shylock (1993), which features two characters called “Philip Roth”,  and the “Nemeses” novellas, I interviewed the writer twice for newspapers, twice for radio and once for television. On the first occasion, I was terrified by his reputation as a forbidding subject. This seemed to be confirmed, when, before we started, Roth asked me what I had thought of a scene in the novel that he described in great detail but of which I had no memory of having read. Dry-mouthed, I replied that I could not recall such a passage. “Great,” said Roth, “You’ve obviously read the book. Now ask me your questions.” It later emerged that a previous interviewer, who had praised the imagined paragraphs as “profound”, had been sent away without a conversation.

Each of our professional encounters followed the same pattern. Before the tape recorder or camera switched on, Roth would deliver a playful, scabrous monologue involving many voices – as a student, he had fantasised about becoming an actor – ranging across American literary and political life. It was recognisably the sound of Portnoy’s Complaint, and thrilling to experience as a private performance. Once the interview was finished, he would bustle round his kitchen in Connecticut or New York, dispensing hot drinks and offering a food parcel for the drive home, often in the voice of a classic Jewish mother, irony disguising real kindness.

Once the formal proceedings began, though, Roth would become more watchful, professorial, and sometimes professionally tactical: on one occasion, he solemnly complimented for the record a well-known American writer whom he had inventively denigrated in his garden soliloquy just half an hour before.

It seemed clear to me that this carefully constructed public persona was a consequence of the defamatory attention he had suffered following the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint. One of the times that the off-stage and on-stage Roth coalesced was when, in one interview, he suddenly ventriloquised his mother, asking him in bewilderment, at the time of the novel’s notoriety:  “Phil, are you an anti-Semite?”

The question of Roth and women has to be addressed. His biographer, Blake Bailey, will have to negotiate most carefully the brutal portrait of the writer as a lover and husband, given by his ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, in Leaving a Doll’s House (1996). It is rumoured that Roth’s final completed work was a line-by-line response to Bloom’s account, which he was persuaded by friends not to publish.

In 2011, the publisher Carmen Callil resigned as a judge of the Man Booker International Prize after her three male co-judges voted for Roth. Callil objected to the writer’s emphasis on male sexuality, complaining, in a possibly ill-thought-out metaphor, that "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe”.

However, Dame Professor Hermione Lee, Britain’s best literary critic, was a committed Rothian, and became one of the small group of pre-readers who commented on work in progress. Although Lee could not defend everything Roth wrote – for example, the humourless, shrewish academic, Delphine Roux in The Human Stain – she understood, as Roth’s male and female admirers have, that there can be a difference, in fiction, between representation and recommendation.

Roth wrote about what men are like, but did not attempt to make the characters likeable. Alexander Portnoy, giving the liver for the family dinner a very personal filling, and the protagonist of Sabbath’s Theater (1995), masturbating on his lover’s grave, are surely intended as grotesquely exaggerated sketches of the lust impulse rather than how-to guides for boys.

Following the deaths, just over a week apart, of Tom Wolfe and Roth, the generation of American novelists born between 1922 and 1933 – also including Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, Alison Lurie, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, and John Updike – is now almost extinct. Toni Morrison, at 87, is now the only lonely living voice.

Readers and critics will have their own favourites in this pack, but, for me, as for many, Philip Roth is the greatest, for the range and longevity of his achievements. Once seen to deal only with sex and New Jersey, he became the great chronicler of American identity and imperialism in the 20th century.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years.