The American writer Philip Roth died on Tuesday, May 22, at the age of 85. He was the author of 27 novels and won nearly all literary awards, sometimes more than once. Although he had famously, and somewhat unusually, declared retirement from writing several years ago, his death still came as a shock. And his departure leaves a huge gap in the planetary system of American letters – the only other living writer who commands the status of a large planet is Toni Morrison.
Unlike Roth, Morrison was, of course, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is possible, and one cannot know for sure, that Roth was bitter about not having found favour with the Swedish Academy, but – and I’m engaging in random speculation here – at least he didn’t have to harbour regrets that he was a writer in India. Allow me to explain.
Soon after Donald Trump took office as president of the US, a reporter had a question for Roth. Back in 2004, Roth had published a novel titled The Plot Against America. The novel told the counterfactual tale of the Democratic candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt losing the presidential election to the Republican candidate, the aviator Charles Lindbergh. In the novel, Lindbergh is an admirer of Hitler and his election unleashes the forces of hatred against foreigners and minorities.
The reporter’s question was whether Trump’s election outstripped the novelist’s imagination. Roth’s response was: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type – the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist – that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as president of the United States.” He went on to say that while earlier presidents like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush had given him cause for alarm, neither appeared “as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English.” A remarkable rant and betraying no frailty or weakness one might wrongly associate with old age.
But suppose Roth had been an Indian writer (I’m engaging in an act of counterfactual thinking in the manner of the great master himself) and had spoken up against the election of a figure like Narendra Modi? In The Plot Against America, the Jews of Newark are frightened by Lindbergh’s election. What if an Indian Roth had written that the ascent to the Prime Minister’s Office of a man accused of crimes against Muslims in Gujarat would threaten democracy in the country, that it would disenfranchise the minorities and embolden the bigots? Roth’s house would be barricaded by the bhakts, processions would be taken out against him, and, as happened with the ailing U.R. Ananthamurthy, one of the greatest writers of modern India, an air-ticket to Pakistan would be mailed to him.
Beginning with his first great success in 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth made sex, in particular, male desire, a subject of his fiction. There were other themes that ran like currents through the vast body of his work, not least his engagement with humour, a particular kind of satiric, often self-lacerating, Jewish humour. In what is often described as the American trilogy – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain – Roth traced the path taken by the Us after the World Wars. In the last decade of his writing life, Roth produced slim novels, starting with Everyman and ending with Nemesis, that examined questions of disease and death in spare prose and with intelligent, grave detachment.
Philip Roth was one of my heroes. Long before “autofiction,” or the presentation of autobiography as fiction, became a trend in contemporary writing, Roth offered a model of writing from life that was both provocative and endlessly inventive. Bad readers never got the memo on this. It was proper, therefore, that on the day after Roth’s death, the humour magazine The Onion carried the following headline with Roth’s photograph: ‘Obituary Just Thinly Disguised Version of Author’s Life.’ I thought that was perfect, of course, but what I should add is that, speaking of obituaries, what I found most amusing was the following anecdote in an appraisal in the New York Times: Roth once said about not having been awarded the Nobel, “I wonder if I had called ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ ‘The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,’ if I would have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.” That is perfect too, in Roth’s own way.
There’s so much to praise. I don’t think there’s another writer who can match Roth’s grasp of the spoken language. On the night I got the news of Roth’s death I re-read pages 363-370 of Sabbath’s Theater, a monologue on death and dying. Such precision, such flow. But the main reason why I admire Roth is that in this age where everyone aims only to be right, he risked being wrong. “To compromise some ‘character’ doesn’t get me where I want to be,” a character named Philip says in Roth’s novel, Deception. “What heats things up is compromising me. It kind of makes the indictment juicier, besmirching myself.”
If Roth had been an Indian writer, the numerous indictments of the self in his novels would have left the rabid pundits of Republic TV nonplussed. How to mount an attack on a man who is attacking himself? Despite the assaults that would no doubt have come his way, Roth would have been all right. I remember these lines from The Facts, in which his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman tells the writer named Roth: “They boo you, they whistle, they stamp their feet – you hate it but you thrive on it. Because the things that wear you down are the things that nurture you and your talent.” Such a clear understanding of resistance. It almost makes me wish he was ours.
Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of The Lovers: A Novel.