Prolific novelist Philip Roth, a dominant force in American literature throughout the latter half of the 20th century, has died at the age of 85.
Roth, the prize-winning novelist and fearless narrator of sex, death, assimilation and fate, from the comic madness of Portnoy’s Complaint to the elegiac lyricism of American Pastoral, died Tuesday night.
Roth’s death, first reported by the New Yorker and The New York Times, was later confirmed by Roth’s literary agent Andrew Wylie. He said the cause was congestive heart failure.
Roth won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his acclaimed novel American Pastoral.
“I’m in a state of shock. I’m stunned and speechless. He was a truth teller,” Roth’s friend Judith Thurman, also a writer, said.
A prolific essayist and critic, Roth was best known for mining the Jewish-American experience in his work. He first achieved fame for his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint about a horny teenager named Alexander Portnoy.
His titanic stature on the post-World War II literary scene came from the universality of his message — in his own words: “I don’t write Jewish, I write American.”
Roth said he reached a turning point when he realized he could use his own world as literary raw material, be it his upbringing or the setting of his New Jersey home town.
“You can’t invent out of nothing, or I can’t certainly,” he said in a 2011 documentary. “I need some reality, to rub two sticks of reality together to get a fire of reality.”
In the novel The Ghost Writer he quoted one of his heroes, Franz Kafka: “We should only read those books that bite and sting us.” For his critics, his books were to be repelled like a swarm of bees.
He long managed to sustain his literary output both in terms of quality as well as quantity, as exemplified by his widely admired political trilogy that included American Pastoral, I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000).
The decorated author won most top literary honors, but the coveted Nobel Literature Prize eluded him.
Being snubbed for the Nobel every year had “become a joke” for the author, said his friend French writer Josyane Savigneau on Wednesday.
“Every year we talked about it, it became funny,” Savigneau said, adding that great writers such as Marcel Proust and James Joyce had also missed out on the prize.
Philip Milton Roth was born on March 19, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, the grandson of European Jews who were part of the 19th-century wave of immigration to the United States. After receiving a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago, he began publishing stories in The Paris Review and elsewhere. Saul Bellow was an early influence, as were Thomas Wolfe, Flaubert, Henry James and Kafka, whose picture Roth hung in his writing room.
In 2012, Roth said that his most recent book, Nemesis, published two years earlier, would be his last, after having reread all his books.
“I decided that I was done with fiction,” he said.
“I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore… It’ s enough. I no longer feel this dedication to write what I have experienced my whole life.” —Agencies