Philip Roth, 1933-2018

In the winter of 1985 The Curmudgeon worked for a good government organization in Philadelphia and one of his responsibilities was to hire college and law students for summer jobs doing research and writing. One of the applicants was an undergraduate from the University of Pennsylvania, and as The Curmudgeon recalls, he was really poorly dressed for his interview:  pants and a sport coat that were mismatched, solid wool tie, and hush puppies.  The Curmudgeon didn’t care about that:  he himself is not much of a dresser and it certainly didn’t matter that this young fellow had no idea how to put together an outfit that didn’t involve blue jeans.

At the end of the interview the young man stated that regardless of whether he got the job, he would like his writing sample – the quality of which was reason he got the interview – returned to him.  There seemed nothing out of the ordinary about the request:  these were pre-computer days, it was typed, and he probably hadn’t made a copy.  Still, The Curmudgeon couldn’t resist asking why.

“Because my professor’s comments are on it and that professor was Philip Roth, so I want to keep it.”

The Curmudgeon couldn’t blame him.  By 1985 The Curmudgeon had read only two of Roth’s books – Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint (which he re-read recently and endorsed here) – but he knew he would keep reading Roth.  And he did:  he has read every piece of fiction Roth wrote, has read some of his non-fiction, and has a general idea of how he will go about reading the rest of Roth’s non-fiction.

Roth isn’t always easy to like.  He wrote about sex a lot, and not in a romantic way, and often seemed to be a little at war with his readers and a lot at war with women. Today, a lot of people are criticizing his work in the face of fast-changing social mores.  The Curmudgeon recalls reading Roth’s novel The Professor of Desire on an airplane, and around the time he read a passage about Roth’s protagonist, well, doing something in the bathroom soap dish in the home of someone he was visiting, putting down the book and saying to himself “This is ridiculous.  I’m done.”  But it was a cross-country flight and he had nothing else to read, so he resumed – and shortly thereafter was rewarded when the light bulb went on over his head and he realized, “Ah, so that’s where he was going with all that.  This is great.”

The Curmudgeon has a pretty high opinion of his own writing but sometimes, he reads a Roth sentence and says to himself “I could never, ever write a sentence like that.”

A few years ago Roth announced that he was done writing fiction.  He was about 80 at the time, so it was understandable.  Even so, Roth has toyed with his readers for so many years that The Curmudgeon always suspected that there would be the surprise publication of a new Roth novel anyway.  Philip Roth passed away last week at the age of 85, and if we see a new, posthumous Roth novel in the next few years, The Curmudgeon wouldn’t be surprised at all.

Roth was a treasure, and The Curmudgeon, and many of Roth’s readers, will miss him.  Many of those readers also hope the folks in Sweden will wake up and award Roth in death the Nobel Prize for Literature that eluded him during his life.

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