The New York Times reports that Philip Roth, one of the most celebrated, discussed, and occasionally grumbled-at authors of the 20th century, has died. A prolific examiner of sex, American life, and identity, Roth published dozens of novels and novellas over the course of his career, from the Kafka-esque The Breast to the book generally held up as most-synonymous with his name, the vulgar, brilliant, frequently denounced Portnoy’s Complaint. Eighty-five years old at the time of his death, Roth continued to write well into his advancing years, publishing a novel a year for most of the early 2000s.
Born in a New Jersey suburb to middle-class Jewish parents, Roth spent his career circling the places and circumstances of his birth, whether in the lust-filled monologue of Complaint or the alternate-historical anti-Semitism of The Plot Against America. Funny, crass, and frequently fixated on sexuality (especially in his youth), Roth’s novels occasionally attracted the interest of ambitious filmmakers, defeating them more often than not. (The 1972 film adaptation of Portnoy’s bombed wildly, for instance, while 2003’s The Human Stain—which asked audiences to buy Anthony Hopkins as a light-skinned black man passing as white, and Nicole Kidman as his semi-illiterate girlfriend, didn’t fare much better.)
But Roth’s heart was always with the novel, frequently bemoaning the American people’s increasing addiction to “screens,” even as he continued to pursue the “cultic” craft that owned his heart (and for which he was well-rewarded; although he never pulled down the Nobel, Roth was recognized with the Pulitzer, the Man Booker Prize, recognition in the National Library, and more). In Roth’s hands, “The Great American Novel” was a lively, funny thing; cynical, satirical, and, as the years went on, increasingly interested in the questions of tragedy and time. He formally retired from the job in 2012, 53 years after the publication of his first collection, Goodbye, Columbus. Roth reportedly placed a Post-it note on his computer in the aftermath of his decision, presumably as a reminder to himself: “The struggle with writing is done.”
Roth’s death was reported earlier this afternoon.