Philip Roth, 1969
Portnoy's Complaint is the famously outrageous confession made to his analyst by Alexander Portnoy, the Huck Finn of Newark, who is thrust through life by his unappeasable sexuality, yet held back at the same time by the iron grip of his unforgettable childhood. Thirty years after it was first published, Portnoy's Complaint remains a classic of American literature, a tour de force of comic and carnal brilliance, and probably the funniest book about sex ever written. It was recently designated one of the hundred best books of the twentieth century by the Modern Library judges. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—March 19, 1933
• Where—Newark, New Jersey, USA
• Education—B.A., Bucknell University; M.A.,
University of Chicago
• Awards—the most awarded US writer—see below
• Currently—lives in Connecticut
After many years of teaching comparative literature—mostly at the University of Pennsylvania—Philip Roth retired from teaching as Distinguished Professor of Literature at Hunter College in 1992. Until 1989, he was general editor of the Penguin book series Writers from the Other Europe, which he inaugurated in 1974 and which introduced the work of Bruno Schultz and Milan Kundera to an American audience.
His lengthy interviews with foreign authors—among them Primo Levi, Ivan Klima, and Aharon Appelfeld—have appeared in the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review. Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933 and has lived in Rome, London, Chicago, and New York. He now resides in Connecticut. (From the publisher.)
Philip Roth's long and celebrated career has been something of a thorn in the side of the writer. As it is for so many, fame has been the proverbial double-edged sword, bringing his trenchant tragic-comedies to a wide audience, but also making him a prisoner of expectations and perceptions. Still, since 1959, Roth has forged along, crafting gorgeous variations of the Great American Novel and producing, in addition, an autobiography (The Facts) and a non-fictional account of his father's death (Patrimony: A True Story).
Roth's novels have been oft characterized as "Jewish literature," a stifling distinction that irks Roth to no end. Having grown up in a Jewish household in a lower-middle-class sub-section of Newark, New Jersey, he is incessantly being asked where his seemingly autobiographical characters end and the author begins, another irritant for Roth. He approaches interviewers with an unsettling combination of stoicism, defensiveness, and black wit, qualities that are reflected in his work. For such a high-profile writer, Roth remains enigmatic, seeming to have laid his life out plainly in his writing, but refusing to specify who the real Philip Roth is.
Roth's debut Goodbye, Columbus instantly established him as a significant writer. This National Book Award winner was a curious compendium of a novella that explored class conflict and romantic relationships and five short stories. Here, fully formed in Roth's first outing, was his signature wit, his unflinching insightfulness, and his uncanny ability to satirize his character's situations while also presenting them with humanity. The only missing element of his early work was the outrageousness he would not begin to cultivate until his third full-length novel Portnoy's Complaint—an unquestionably daring and funny post-sexual revolution comedy that tipped Roth over the line from critically acclaimed writer to literary celebrity.
Even as Roth's personal relationships and his relationship to writing were severely shaken following the success of Portnoy's Complaint, he continued publishing outrageous novels in the vein of his commercial breakthrough. There was Our Gang, a parodic attack on the Nixon administration, and The Breast, a truly bizarre take on Kafka's Metamorphosis, and My Life as a Man, the pivotal novel that introduced Roth's literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.
Zuckerman would soon be the subject of his very own series, which followed the writer's journey from aspiring young artist with lofty goals to a bestselling author, constantly bombarded by idiotic questions, to a man whose most important relationships have all but crumbled in the wake of his success. The Zuckerman Trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Counterlife) directly parallels Roth's career and unfolds with aching poignancy and unforgiving humor.
Zuckerman would later reemerge in another trilogy, although this time he would largely be relegated to the role of narrator. Roth's American Trilogy (I Married a Communist, the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America), shifts the focus to key moments in the history of late-20th–century American history.
In Everyman (2006), Roth reaches further back into history. Taking its name from a line of 15th-century English allegorical plays, Everyman is classic Roth—funny, tragic, and above all else, human. It is also yet another in a seemingly unbreakable line of critical favorites, praised by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and The Library Journal.
In 2007's highly anticipated Exit Ghost, Roth returned Nathan Zuckerman to his native Manhattan for one final adventure, thus bringing to a rueful, satisfying conclusion one of the most acclaimed literary series of our day. While this may (or may not) be Zuckerman's swan song, it seems unlikely that we have seen the last Philip Roth. Long may he roar. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)
Philip Roth is one of the most celebrated living American writers. Two of his works of fiction have won the National Book Award (Goodbye, Columbus; Sabbath's Theater); two others were finalists. Two have won National Book Critics Circle awards (Patrimony; Counterlife); again, another two were finalists. He has also won three PEN/Faulkner Awards (Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and Everyman) and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. In 2001, The Human Stain was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists still at work, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. In May 2006, he was given the PEN/Nabokov Award, and in 2007 the first PEN/Saul Bellow Award — both for lifetime achievement.
The May 21, 2006 issue of the New York Times Book Review announced the results of a letter that was sent to what the publication described as "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." Of the 22 books cited, six of Roth's novels were selected: American Pastoral, The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. The accompanying essay, written by critic A.O. Scott, stated, "If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, [Roth] would have won." ("More" and "Awards" from Wikipedia.)
Philip Roth...has finally come up with the existentially quintessential form for any American-Jewish tale bearing—or baring—guilt.... The result is not only one of those bullseye hits in the ever-darkening field of humor, a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect—and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.
Josh Greenfield - New York Times
Roth's barbric yawp of a book ws a literary instance of shock and awe, a dirty comic masterpiece that can stand with Tristam Shandy.... It's also...tender and charitable, and just toward the main character. How else to describe a book that...discovers exactly the most painful question about relations between children and parents. "Doctor what should I rid myslef of, tell me, the hatred...or the love?"
Richard Lacayo - Time (From "100 best English-language novels from 1923 to present.")
It's actually a book about enmeshment and one's relationship with one's parents.... These days, all mothers are Jewish mothers. That is the way you're suposed to mother...to be warm and inviting and caressing.... I found Portnoy to be funny and angry and compassionate—and most of all searching. This is a character who is in deep conflict because he wants to change.
Alana Newhouse - National Public Radio
Roth is the bravest writer in the United States. He's morally brave, he's politically brave. And Portnoy is part of that bravery.
Cynthia Ozick - Newsday
Touching as well as hilariously lewd.... Roth is vibrantly talented...as marvelous a mimic and fantasist as has been produced by the most verbal group in human history
Alfred Kazin - New York Review of Books
Simply one of the two or three funniest works in American fiction.
1. After Portnoy was published, many Jewish critics felt it demeaned the Jewish family and culture. Do you agree or disagree. Do you find Roth's depiction of the Portnoy family mean-spirited...or humorously loving?
2. Roth writes about a Jewish boy growing into manhood, but a New York Times reviewer (see above) calls it a "catholic" work in that it deals with universal, not just Jewish, themes. Agree or disagree? How so?
3. What is Alexander's issue with is family? Why his resentment? From where does his sense of guilt stem? Is he self-loving or self-loathing?
4. Discuss the character of Mrs. Portnoy—what kind of mother and wife is she? (See Alana Newhouse's comments on NPR above)
5. Alexander eventually finds his way to Israel. What does he seem to be searching for...what understanding does he reach?
6. Do you find the book is funny?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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