Philip Roth at 80: the novelist of desire

Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

Roth1_2512877b“In the coming years I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography,” says a poker-faced Philip Roth. “Let’s hope the first comes first.” He is speaking at the start of a new PBS film, Philip Roth Unmasked, based on extensive interviews with the author, and made to coincide with his 80th birthday. You can understand him wanting to guard his own story. His work over the last 50 years – from Goodbye, Columbus (1959) to what he claims is his final work, Nemesis (2010) – has mined his own Jewish upbringing in Newark, testing and teasing the reader to guess what is fact and what is fiction.

As Jonathan Franzen comments here it has always been Roth’s shtick to seem “more honest” and “more outrageous” than any other writer. His early work was condemned by Jewish organisations that felt he showed Jews in a bad light. He responds here as he did 50 years ago by saying he told the truth: “There were Jewish girls who bought diaphragms, there were Jewish men who were adulterous.” Sex is the driving force of Roth’s work. His favourite moment in Ulysses is when Bloom ogles a pretty girl by the sea while surreptitiously arousing himself. “At it again,” says Roth, quoting Bloom. “That should be on my tombstone!” Roth’s masturbatory classic Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) goes at it, again and again. Its combination of sex, comedy and high art made the book a hit, selling 350,000 copies in its first month. The novel’s genesis is fascinating. Always funny in company, Roth had never seiously tried doing the same on the page. Alexander Portnoy, the Jewish boy who can’t leave it alone, was the perfect vehicle. Framing it as a confession to a psycholoanalist gave him permission to say what he wanted, whatever way he liked. Roth warned his parents the book might make trouble for them and sent them on a cruise when it was published. But his father, far from being ashamed, sold copies on board signed “Hermann Roth, Philip Roth’s father”.

More here. (Note: Saw “Unmasked” and loved it. At the Film Forum in Chelsea. Free. If you can, go and see the film)