Giant of American fiction Philip Roth dies

Tortured: His advice to young writers: “Quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field.”

Do great writers offer great wisdom? Legendary American novelist Philip Roth has died aged 85. Love, death, sex, faith: his era-defining prose left no side of human life unexamined.

He wrote more than 30 books, won countless awards, and even sparked the odd scandal. But now the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers is over.

Both biting satirist and chronicler of the everyday, Philip Roth’s work strikes at the heart of the mundane world that, one way or another, we all inhabit. Here we celebrate his greatest quotes.

On Life: “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense.” American Pastoral. Its hero’s perfect life falls apart after his daughter becomes a terrorist.

On Love: “People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole?… I think you’re whole before you begin. And the love fractures you.” The Dying Animal. About the destructive sexual desire of an old man.

On Ageing: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” Everyman. It opens with the hero’s funeral, and ends with his death.

On Writing: “If I did not do it, I would die.” At times Roth wrote a new novel every year.

On Reading: “Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.”

On Jewishness: “A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy until they die!” Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth often wrote about the Jewish community from which he came.

On Religion: “When the whole world doesn't believe in God, it'll be a great place.”

On Hate: “The danger with hatred is, once you start in on it, you get a hundred times more than you bargained for.” The Human Stain. An indictment of political correctness, it has one the greatest plot twists in modern literature.

On America: “The number of homeless in America couldn’t touch the number of Americans who had homes and families and hated the whole thing.” Sabbath’s Theatre.

On Trump: “A massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” Roth’s The Plot Against America is read by some as predicting the rise of Donald Trump.

Do great writers, such as Roth, give us wisdom?

Sage pages

No. That would be to misunderstand the point of literature, some argue. Wisdom aims to make you a better person. Great literature aims to describe the human condition — the rich, beautiful, messy, paradoxical, agonising, chaotic truth. Go to religion (amongst other places) for wisdom. Go to literature to experience life, often raw and confusing.

Don’t be so sure, others respond. Reading Roth’s work does not deliver rules or answers. But it bursts with controversial characters, incendiary ideas and provocative language. It challenges you to think, question and feel. If that doesn’t leave you wiser, nothing will.

You Decide

  1. Do novels teach us anything about the world?
  2. Will a day come when people stop reading books altogether?

Activities

  1. What is your favourite quotation from those listed above? Why do you like it? Are there any lessons that we can draw from it? Why/why not?
  2. Have a go at reading some Philip Roth for yourself. You can choose between the first chapters of American Pastoral or The Human Stain — both listed under Become An Expert. What do you like or dislike about his writing? What do you think will happen in the rest of the story?

Some People Say...

“All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.”

Philip Roth

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Philip Roth died on Tuesday evening in a Manhattan hospital. The cause was congestive heart failure. In 2005 he became only the third living writer to have his works officially enshrined in the Library of America. He had retired from writing in 2012, devoting his time to swimming, watching baseball and reading.
What do we not know?
If art teaches us anything: a question long debated in literary history. Oscar Wilde insisted that “all art is quite useless” — its purpose to create certain moods or represent beauty. By contrast, Renaissance courtier Sir Philip Sidney claimed that literature (specifically poetry) has the power to “delight and teach”. Roth is slightly more obscure on the matter, although he did insist that literature is not a “moral beauty contest”.

Word Watch

Awards
He won the Pulitzer Prize for the 1997 novel American Pastoral. Many consider him the greatest writer never to win a Nobel Prize.
Scandal
His 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint sparked intense controversy due to its sexual content, which included explicit descriptions of masturbation. The book was banned in Australia and many libraries across America.
Mundane
Of the earthly world, rather than the spiritual one.
Everyman
Loosely based on a medieval morality play written in 1485. In the play, Death comes to a character called Everyman who must account for his life before God.
Jewish
Roth was often uneasy with being categorised solely by his Jewish identity: “The epithet American-Jewish writer has no meaning for me,” he once quipped.
Sabbath’s Theatre
1995 novel which follows the life of 64-year-old Mickey Sabbath.
Megalomaniac
A person with obsessive desire for power.
Predicting
Published in 2004, it imagines Franklin D. Roosevelt losing the 1940 presidential election to populist anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh.

Subjects