The only major literary award that eluded Philip Roth, who passed away on May 22 at the age of 85, was the Nobel Prize. Along with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Norman Mailer, Roth was a towering literary figure of the post World War II era and remained at or near the apex of his craft for almost half a century. In his sixties, Roth tapped a creative vein that over a decade saw him produce a staggering bounty of novels including Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. Awards and accolades poured in.
During his long and illustrious career Roth explored lust, transgression, mortality, and what it meant and felt like to be a Jewish-American from Newark, New Jersey. He played with the concept of identity, mixed truth and fiction, riled feminists and angered Jews. Roth’s body of work is built on a foundation of intelligence and wit, and he leaves us with some of the most beautiful, precise, and crystalline sentences ever written in English.
When I interviewed Zadie Smith, a writer whom Roth much admired, she said that while some readers might find his subject matter objectionable (Portnoy’s Complaint, for instance), reading his work is still essential, if for no other reason than to experience his inimitable prose style.