The iconic author and American treasure Phillip Roth was featured on the cover of the January 28, 2018 NYT Book Review. And although the 84 year-old Roth famously retired from writing in 2011, it’s quite clear he still has plenty to say as the (former) novelist shares his thoughts on Trump, #MeToo and retirement in a terrific interview by Charles McGrath.
Any book or short story or essay by the prolific Roth is worth your time, but some of his own works that must be considered required reading are:
Goodbye Columbus of course, his 1959 novella that first gained him the attention of the world, an irreverent and humorous portrait of American Jewish life for which he received the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.
The humorous and sexually explicit Portnoy’s Complaint, a psychoanalytical monologue of “a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor,” filled with “intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language“, which lifted his profile significantly after its publication in 1969.
And his amazing, autobiographical and frighteningly prescient The Plot Against America published in 2004. It is an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. But as Roth points out, “there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” (emphasis is mine)
There are so many worthy to choose from, and you might consider his non-fiction as well, but take a moment to read through Adam Gopnick’s portrait “Philip Roth: Patriot” in November 13, 2017 New Yorker magazine. A well-done piece that explores how the writer came to embrace the contradictions of a national identity.
Among other wonderful revelations in McGrath’s article and interview, when Roth is asked what he does with his long days now that he is no longer writing, he answers, “I read.” And despite his celebrated career of writing fiction he finds himself reading non-fiction.
And from reading Coates he learned of The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. Which sent him to American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund Morgan which he describes as “a big scholarly history of what Morang calls ‘the marriage of slavery and freedom’ as it existed in early Virginia. This title is not in our collection but you could give other works by Morgan a try.
And Morgan led him to the Essays by Teju Cole, but not before made a major swerve of his own and read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the world became modern about the 15th-century discovery of Lucretius’ subversive poem, On the Nature of Things… which, of course, compelled him to read the poem itself: On the Nature of Things.
And that led him back to Stephen Greenblatt’s book on “how Shakespeare became Shakespeare,” Will in the World and finally, in the midst of all of that, Roth read and enjoyed, perhaps surprisingly, Born to Run Bruce Springsteen’s amazing autobiography. But maybe that’s to be expected because, as Orville Prescott notes in his 1962 NYT’s review of Roth’s “Letting Go”, the power and ‘grip’ of Roth’s stories (even back those 50+ years) is that, “(he) writes out of his passionate interest in his fellow human beings“… and so does the Boss.