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Philip Roth’s literary genius lives on…

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Jewish-American author Philip Roth passed away on May 22. He was 85. His work both delighted and disgusted. Roth, oft regarded as one of the most important figures in 20th-century American literature, is remembered for his amusing, subversive and sometimes audacious narratives.
by KEVIN LEVY | May 24, 2018

He leaves behind a legacy of critical admiration and communal outrage. Throughout his prolific career, Roth grappled with the complexities of Jewish identity and sexuality in America.

His novels often presented a less than flattering portrayal of Jewish-American life. An outspoken atheist, he represented a new voice of dissent and disillusionment as a response to a conservative and insular worldview. This would cement Roth’s status as what some would describe as the epitome of the “self-hating Jew”.

Roth, the son of first-generation American Jews, would draw on his upbringing in the prominently Jewish neighbourhoods of Newark and New Jersey. This manifested itself in his humble but loving portrayals of post-shtetl Jewish life.

Roth first came to public attention in 1959 with his first book, Goodbye Columbus, a novella accompanied by five short stories. Each of these tales presented a slice of American life from the perspective of Jews who had integrated and assimilated into Western society.

At 26 years old, Roth would go on to win The National Book Award for Fiction for this collection. This solidified his status as a juggernaut of Jewish-American literature among peers such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok.

Almost a decade later, Roth would achieve mainstream popularity with his 1969 book, Portnoy’s Complaint. The novel, written as a monologue in a psychoanalyst’s office, is a self-conscious, Freudian account of the titular protagonist’s conception of his Judaism, sexuality and relationship with his mother. The novel would face censorship and criticism for its salacious content and crude depiction of Jewish stereotypes. However, it would cement Roth’s status as one of the most daring writers of his time.

After decades of prolific writing, Roth’s 1997 novel, American Pastoral, would win him the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, perhaps his most prestigious honour. He was often considered a favourite to win the even more coveted Nobel Prize for Literature, but this award would elude him throughout his career.

Not long after 2010’s politely received novel, Nemesis, Roth announced his retirement, leaving behind him a rich bibliography of 31 volumes. In 2011, he won The Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement – a culmination of his long and distinguished career.

The impact of his writing continues to be felt today. His books have been adapted into films starring the likes of Al Pacino, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. He continues to be an important literary figure, influencing younger writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander.

Roth will remain relevant for the way in which he provokes our sensibilities and inspires us to question and criticise.

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