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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Philip (Milton) Roth (1933-)


American novelist and short story writer. Philip Roth first achieved fame with Goodbye, Columbus (1959), which consisted of a novella and five short stories and described the life of a of Jewish middle-class family. Ten years later appeared Portnoy's Complaint. In this "masturbation story" the narrator searches for freedom by using sex as his way of escape. The book gained a great international success.

"Between first discovering the Newark Bears and the Brooklyn Dodgers at seven or eight and first looking into Conrad's Lord Jim at age eighteen, I had done some growing up. I am only saying that my discovery of literature, and fiction particularly, and the 'love affair' to some degree hopeless, but still earnest that has ensued, derives in part from this childhood infatuation with baseball. Or, more accurately perhaps, baseball with its lore and legends, its cultural power, its seasonal associations, its native authenticity, its simple rules and transparent strategies, its longueurs and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its heroics, its nuances, its lingo, its 'characters', its peculiarly hypnotic tedium, its mythic transformation of the immediate was the literature of my boyhood." (Roth in 'My Baseball Years', from Reading Myself and Others, 1975)

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, which became the scene for his early novels. His father, Herman Roth, was an insurance salesman of Austro-Hungarian stock. Later in Patrimony (1991) Roth portrayed his eighty-six-year-old father, who suffered from a brain tumor, but who still in his early eighties "had no difficulty convincing the wealthy widows... that he had only just reached seventy."  Roth's mother Bess (née Finkel) died in 1981; her life revolved around caring for her family.

Roth attended Rutgers University for a year before transferring to Bucknell University. He studied at the University of Chicago, receiving his M.A. in English. In 1955 Roth joined the army, but was discharged after an injury during his basic training period. Roth continued his studies in Chicago, and worked from 1955 to 1957 as an English teacher. He dropped out of the Ph.D. program in 1959 and started to write film reviews for the New Republic. Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award, was later adapted to the screen, like several other of Roth's novels.

Roth's third novel, Portnoy's Complaint, became in 1969 the number one best-seller and marked a turning point in the author's career. The inspiration behind Portnoy has been variously attributed to Lenny Bruce's nightclub act. Roth records the intimate confessions of Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist. He goes through his adolescent obsession with masturbation and his relationship with his over-possessive mother, Sophie. "Then came adolescence – half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine-chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out." Portnoy's approach to hedonistic Western culture is ironic. Although he is successful, he knows that his achievements are only temporal. Many readers found the book offensive and pornographic because of its sex scenes. Roth's presentation of the Jewish mother was also criticized.

Jewishness has been Roth's major territory in his examination of the American culture. From Malamud and Bellow, his older colleagues, Roth has differed in a more ironic – sometimes characterized as "less loving" – view of the lives of the Jews. Often the readers have identified the writer himself with the obsessions of his fictional characters, and accused him of sharing their thoughts. "Publishing a book is like taking a suitcase and putting it out in a public place and walking away and leaving it there," Roth has said in an interview. "There is no way a writer can control what happens to his book when it is out in the world." (Mein Leben als Philip Roth, dir.  Christa Maerker, 1998, e-Motion-Picture/SWR)

From 1960s Roth has worked at the State University of Iowa, Princeton, the State University of New York, the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Since 1988 he was Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, New York. Roth's several awards include the Guggenheim fellowship (1959), the National Book Award (1960, 1995), the Rockefeller fellowship (1966), the National Book Critics Circle award (1988, 1992), and the PEN/Faulkner Award (1993, 2000). In 1998 Roth received the National Medal of Arts at the White House, and in 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in fiction. In 2011 Roth won the fourth Man Booker International Prize, worth £60,000. 

Roth has constantly wrestled with the problem of the identity of the Jewish-American male. The Breast (1972) made a humorous allusion to Kafka's famous short story 'Metamorphosis' – Roth's hero, David Kepesh, finds himself transformed into a massive female breast. Kepesh appears also in The Professor of Desire (1977), which chronicled his life to the age of 34, and The Dying Animal (2001), in which he has an affair with his student. "This novel – which takes its title from Yeats's lines, "Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal" – wants to address the big subjects of mortality and the emotional fallout of the 1960s, but after the large social canvas of Mr. Roth's post-war trilogy ("American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain"), it feels curiously flimsy and synthetic." (Michico Kakutani in The New York Times, May 8, 2001)

Another veteran character, Nathan Zuckerman, is involved in several love affairs in My Life as a Man (1975). He has appeared as the author's mouthpiece in subsequent novels, including I Married a Communist (1998), set in the1950s. The novels deals with divorce, the cold war, and the McCarthy-era witch hunts. Through Zuckerman Roth has explored the relationship between a fictional character and its creator, or the process of aging, as in the melancholic novel Exit Ghost (2007), Roth's last novel featuring his fictional alter ego. In an interview in November 2012 set to promote the release of the French edition of the Nemesis (2010), Roth said that that he won’t write any more books.

Sometimes Roth views his own life as a part of his fiction. In The Plot Against America (2004), an alternate history, in which the famous pilot Charles Lindbergh is the 33rd President of the fascist U.S., Philip Roth is one of the characters, suffering from his Jewish background. In Operation Shylock (1993) Roth meets a doppelganger, the other Philip Roth, a man, who claims to be the author. A true incident inspired the story: the novelist Richard Elman had recalled in his book his seduction of a beautiful actress and his upset the next morning when he learns that she thought he was Philip Roth. Elman allowed her to leave unenlightened. Another subject in the book was John Demjanjuk's trial – the man alleged to be Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. Demjanjuk claimed that he had had a doppelganger, who had committed all the crimes he was accused of and murdered Jews in concentration camps.

Roth's memoir of his family, Patrimony, won the National Critics Circle Award in 1992. A Time reviewer called Sabbath Theater (1995), about a retired puppeteer, one of the best-written works of 1995; it won the National Book Award. The Human Stain (2000) was set in the 1990s at the height of the Clinton sex-scandal. The narrator is Zuckerman who tells about Coleman Silk, the dean of a small college. He is forced to resign after alarming the guardians of politically correct usage. "Does anyone know these people?" he asks about two students who never showed up for class. "Do they exist or are they spooks?" They do, and turn out to be African Americans. And off-campus, with the help of Viagra, Silk starts an affair with an illiterate janitor, Faunia. "Most novelists wouldn't or couldn't handle the variety of elements that Roth does here. Few have his radical imagination and technical mastery. Fewer still have his daring." (R.Z. Sheppard in Time, May 22, 2000) Robert Benton's film version of the book from 2003, starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, was adapted for the screen by Nicholas Meyer.

Roth's first wife was Margaret Martinson Williams; they separated in 1963. In 1990 he married the distinguished Shakespearean actress Claire Bloom – their relationship had already started in the 1970s. The couple divided their time between homes in Connecticut and London. Their neighboring friends in Connecticut included Arthur Miller and William Styron. After they separated Bloom published her memoir Leaving a Doll's House (1996). Her 1982 memoir, Limelight and After, centered on her early years and particularly the collaboration with Chaplin. Bloom has acted in several classic and modern plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire and The Cherry Orchard. Films: Limelight (written and directed by Charles Chaplin, 1952), Look back in Anger (directed by  Tony Richardson, play John Osborne, 1959), A Doll's House (as Nora, play Henrik Ibsen, directed by Patrick Garland, 1973), Islands in the Stream (based on Ernest Hemingway's novel, directed by Franklin Schaffner, 1977), Crimes and Misdemeanors (written and directed by Woody Allen, 1989). Television dramas: Brideshead Revisited, Shadowlands, Shadow on the Sun.

For further reading: The Fiction of Philip Roth by John McDaniel (1974); Critical Esays on Philip Roth, ed.  Sanford Pinsker (1982); Philip Roth by Lee Hermione (1982); Reading Philip Roth by Asher Milbauer and Donald Watson (1988); Philip Roth Revisited by Jay Halio (1992); Beyond Despair by Aharon Applefield (1994); Philip Roth and the Jews by Alan Cooper (1996); The Imagination in Transit: The Fiction of Philip Roth by Stephen Wase (1996); Philip Roth Considered: The Controversial Universe of the American Writer by Steven Milowitz (2000); Up Society's Ass, Copper: Rereading Philip Roth by Mark Shechner (2003); Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity by Ross Posnock (2006); The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth, ed. by Timothy Parrish (2007) 

Selected works:

  • 'Expect the Vandals,' 1958 (short story, first published in Esquire Magazine)
    - Film: Battle of Blood Island, 1960, prod. Bickman/Rapp Productions, San Juan Productions, dir.  Roger Corman, screenplay Joel Rapp, starring Richard Devon, Ron Gans 
  • Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, 1959 (National Book Award)
    - Hyvästi, Columbus (translated into Finnish by Antero Tiusanen, 1970) / Ei sanasta miestä: viisi kertomusta (translated into Finnish by Risto Lehmusoksa, 1972)
    - Film: Goodbye, Columbus, 1969, , prod. Paramount / Willow Tree (Stanley Jaffe), dir.  Larry Peece, starring Richard Benjamin, Ali MacGraw, Jack Klugman
  • Letting Go, 1962
  • When She Was Good, 1967
  • Penguin Modern Stories 3, 1969 (with others)
  • Portnoy's Complaint, 1969
    - Portnoyn tauti (translated into Finnish by Pentti Saarikoski, 1969)
    - Film:  Portnoy's Complaint, 1972, prod. Chenault Productions, Warner Bros. Pictures, dir.  Ernest Lehman, starring Richard Benjamin, Karen Black, Lee Grant
  • On the Air: A Long Story, 1970
  • Our Gang: Starring Tricky and His Friends, 1971
    - Meidän jengi (translated into Finnish by Risto Lehmusoksa, 1972)
  • The Breast, 1972
    - Rinta (translated into Finnish by  Pentti Saarikoski, 1973)
  • The Great American Novel, 1973
  • My Life As a Man, 1974
    - Miehen muotokuva (translated into Finnish by Risto Lehmusoksa, 1976)
  • Reading Myself and Others, 1975
  • The Professor of Desire, 1977
    - Intohimon professori (translated into Finnish by Pentti Saarikoski, 1978)
  • The Ghost Writer, 1979
    - Haamukirjailija (translated into Finnish by Pentti Saarikoski, 1980)
    - The Ghost Writer, TV film 1984, in American Playhouse, dir.  Tristram Powell, cast: Mark Linn-Baker as Nathan Zuckerman, Sam Wanamaker, Claire Bloom
  • Novotny's Pain, 1980
  • A Philip Roth Reader, 1980 (rev. ed., 1993) 
  • Zuckerman Unbound, 1981
    - Väärinymmärretty mies (translated into Finnish by  Pentti Saarikoski, 1982)
  • The Anatomy Lesson, 1983
    - Anatomian oppitunti (translated into Finnish by Rauno Ekholm, 1985)
  • The Ghost Writer, 1983 (television play) 
  • The Prague Orgy, 1985
  • The Counterlife, 1986 (National Book Critics Circle Award) - Käänteiselämää (translated into Finnish by Kristiina Rikman, 1988)
  • The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography, 1988
  • Deception: A Novel, 1990
  • Patrimony: A True Story, 1991 (National Book Critics Circle Award)
  • Conversations with Philip Roth, 1992 (edited by George J. Searles) 
  • Operation Shylock: A Confession, 1993 (PEN/Faulkner Award)
  • The Conversion of the Jews, 1993
  • A Philip Roth Reader, 1993
  • Sabbath's Theater, 1995 (National Book Award)
  • American Pastoral, 1997 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Amerikkalainen pastoraali (translated into Finnish by Kristiina Rikman, 2002)
    - Film (in production), dir. Phillip Noyce, screenplay John Romano
  • I Married a Communist, 1998
    - Mieheni oli kommunisti (translated into Finnish by Kristiina Rikman, 2002)
  • The Human Stain, 2000 (PEN/Faulkner Award)
    - Ihmisen tahra (translated into Finnish by Kristiina Rikman, 2003)
    - Film:  The Human Stain, 2003, dir.  Robert Benton, screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise
  • The Dying Animal, 2001
    - Film Elegy, 2008, dir.  Isabel Coixet, screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, starring Penélope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, prod. Lakeshore Entertainment
  • Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work, 2001
  • The Plot Against America, 2004
    - Salajuoni Amerikkaa vastaan (translated into Finnish by Arto Schroderus, 2005)
  • Novels & Stories, 1959-1962, 2005
  • Novels, 1967-1972, 2005
  • Novels, 1973-1977, 2006
  • Everyman, 2006
    - Jokamies (translated Arto Schroderus, 2007)
  • Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985, 2007
  • Exit Ghost, 2007
    - Haamu poistuu (translated into Finnish by Arto Schroderus, 2008)
  • Novels & Other Narratives, 1986-1991, 2008
  • Indignation, 2008
    - Tuohtumus (translated into Finnish by Arto Schroderus, 2009)
  • The Humbling, 2009
    - Nöyryytys (translated into Finnish by Arto Schroderus, 2011)
  • Nemesis, 2010
    - Nemesis (suom. 2013)
  • Novels, 1993-1995, 2010
  • The American Trilogy 1997-2000: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, 2011

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