NEWS
23/05/2018 07:15 BST | Updated 23/05/2018 11:58 BST

Philip Roth Dead: American Pastoral Author Dies Aged 85

In 1998 he won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral.

Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth has died at the age of 85.

Roth’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie, said that he passed away in a New York City hospital of congestive heart failure.

The author of more than 25 books, Roth was a fierce satirist and uncompromising realist, confronting readers in a bold, direct style.

In The Plot Against America, published in 2004, he placed his own family under the anti-Semitic reign of President Charles Lindbergh. In 2010, in Nemesis, he subjected his native New Jersey to a polio epidemic.

He was among the most famous writers never to win the Nobel Prize. But he received virtually every other literary honour, including two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle prizes and, in 1998, the Pulitzer for American Pastoral.

ERIC THAYER / Reuters
Roth pictured in 2010.

He was in his 20s when he won his first award and awed critics and fellow writers by producing some of his most acclaimed novels in his 60s and 70s, including The Human Stain and Sabbath’s Theater, a story lust and mortality he considered his finest work.

He identified himself as an American writer, not a Jewish one, but approached the American experience and the Jewish experience in a similar way in his work. While his predecessors such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud wrote of the Jews’ painful adjustment from immigrant life, Roth’s characters represented the next generation. 

The American dream, or nightmare, was to become “a Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness.” The reality, more often, was to be regarded as a Jew among gentiles and a gentile among Jews.

In the novel The Ghost Writer he quoted one of his heroes, Franz Kafka: “We should only read those books that bite and sting us.”

He was often criticised for his portrayal of women, who in his books were at times little more than objects of desire and rage – and The Village Voice once put his picture on its cover, condemning him as a misogynist.

When Roth won the Man Booker International Prize, in 2011, a judge resigned, alleging Roth went “on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book”.

Ex-wife Claire Bloom wrote a best-selling memoir, Leaving A Doll’s House, in which the actress remembered reading the manuscript of his novel Deception. She recalled discovering his characters included a boring middle-aged wife named Claire, married to an adulterous writer named Philip.

Bloom also described her ex-husband as cold, manipulative and unstable. The book was published by Virago Press, whose founder, Carmen Callil, was the same judge who quit years later from the Booker committee.

Roth survived a burst appendix in the late 1960s and near-suicidal depression in 1987. After the disappointing reaction to his 1993 novel, Operation Shylock, he fell again into severe depression and for years rarely communicated with the media.

In 2012, he announced that he had stopped writing fiction and would instead dedicate himself to helping biographer Blake Bailey complete his life story. By 2015, he retired from public life altogether.

Until his abrupt retirement, Roth was a dedicated, prolific author who often published a book a year and was generous to writers from other countries.

For years, he edited the Writers from the Other Europe series, in which authors from Eastern Europe received exposure to American readers; Milan Kundera was among the beneficiaries. Roth also helped bring a wider readership to the acclaimed Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld.

Throughout his career, he never promised to be his readers’ friend; writing was its own reward, the narration of “life, in all its shameless impurity”.