Philip Roth dead? Expelled, this genie of biting comedy? Inconceivable. He was always on the scene, and with each irrepressible new work seemed virtually to be making a scene. Uncontainable and unquenchable, he was a steady presence that could not be imagined as void.
Yet Stockholm shunned him. Of all the significant awards that could be conferred on Roth during his multilauded decades, only the Swedish dynamite inventor’s eluded him. Well, then: In the transformative perspective of Roth’s demise, let us reconsider.
It may be that the Nobel was never worthy of this iconoclastic satirist, wily cultural historian, sublime fictive ranter, comic tragedian, outraged citizen, contradictory wit, epic insulter and monumental imaginer.
How should those obtuse northland jurors, denizens of a frost-bitten society highly ranked for alcoholism and suicide, warm to the emotional temperature of the postwar Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, N.J., out of which the grandson of immigrants might emerge to become one of the most renowned American literary masters of his century?
It’s all in this vein, engaging to the end.
Roth’s shallow Jews, including his rabbis, are always and only creatures of sociology. And sociology, because it is collective, is caricature; and caricature is comedy; and comedy is zest. (When John Updike, catching up to the contemporary Jewish novel of that era, gave us Bech, a literary Jewish protagonist, it was a Jew wholly out of Roth—but without the zest.)
In life beyond fiction, Roth knew Jews of darker and denser dimension: the Israeli Aharon Appelfeld, who died earlier this year, and the Romanian, now American, Norman Manea, extraordinary writers and thinkers who as small boys of 8 and 5 were deported to Transnistria, a German killing center in Romania. Appelfeld and Mr. Manea met only as adult survivors, and it was through his singular championship of the suppressed and censored writers of Eastern Europe that Roth drew close to their fates. If Roth brought Kafka to Newark in one of his stories, it was because consciousness of Europe was already there.
In the loss of Philip Roth, we can hear a small sliding hisslike noise: the sound of a generation turning on its hinge. Gone are Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Malamud, Gaddis, Gass, Sontag, Wolfe, the household names, the headline names. Whoever comes next, there will be no one equipped with the dizzying laughter of Roth.
Not a wasted word.