A tall figure in the “literary” pantheon has fallen, and he just so happens to be a Jew. As a white kid in the heart of anti-Semitic Orange County, California, I knew nothing about Jews or about their culture. In fact, when I attended a Catholic school, St. Anthony’s, in Long Beach, just over the line from Orange County, we were not “allowed” to read the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures, as my Jewish wife later explained was the proper title). Later, when I took a Bible as Literature class in college, I finally got to study it, and I knew why. It was filled with great stories about sex, violence, and revenge. Those Christian nuns were really not into that kind of stuff.
Philip Roth was, to me, as a writer, somebody who could use his imagination to break taboos. In one of his last interviews with the New York Times, he stated the fact that “writers are people who have great imaginations, which separate them from the rest of the population.” He was also asked if he had anything to say now that his writing career was over. “No, because everything I ever wanted to say was in my books.” How can you not love a guy like that? He’s so anti-tRump, without even mentioning politics.
As a twenty-three-year-old, just out of the service, when I read PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, I was awakened to the possibilities of fiction. Alexander had this psychological malady that any male kid in America could relate to. When I heard that Roth was getting criticism from his own “people,” the Jews, about his portrayals of the characters in this wildly comedic and imaginative book, I instantly became a protector of Mr. Roth and his “message.” In my mind, he was speaking Truth to Power with his art.
I believe Mr. Roth will be forever read because he could create books that, as Kafka said, “become the axes to break the frozen seas within us.” Each one of Mr. Roth’s novels took chances with imagination and never attempted to become a “best seller” through the use of formula plotting or identifiable, lovable, and non-controversial characters.
Many publishers and even authors today attempt to heap Mr. Roth’s genius into a category: literary. To the commercial hawkers of books to the masses, this spells “boring,” “non-profitable,” and “high-brow.”
To me, and to other writers who have any kind of an imagination, Mr. Roth and his work were an inspiration to do the same and not a genre of fiction. If a writer studies what Roth does in just that single book PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, he or she can learn about how to create a world so funny, so conflicting and so full of human pathos that it makes the so-called “real world” look pretty dimwitted and chaotic. This, my friends, is why we writers spend so much time in front of blank pages. We pray, nay, we gird our creative loins, hoping to have the inspiration to fantasize such memorable stories.
Mr. Roth, you will be missed by your friends and family, but you will not be missed by us writers. We have you in our midst, to read, to study and to bask in the warmth of your imagination. Until the next Hitler comes to burn your work, we will attempt to carry your bright torch of free thought into the future. Baruch Hashem.