While it did come as a shock to some of Philip Roth’s friends when the novelist announced his retirement from writing last year, one might imagine that after 31 novels, two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, three PEN/Faulkner Awards and a host of other accolades, the man deserves a break. Roth celebrated his 80th birthday on Tuesday. New Yorker editor David Remnick writes in his account of Roth’s Newark birthday party that the writer “sensed that better books were not ahead” and quit rather than experience his powers failing. This is in character, writes Remnick, for a writer whose books “rage against the indignities and inevitabilities, the inescapability, the horrific cosmic joke of age, of death.”
Remnick’s observation reminds me of the two Roth characters who loom large in my memory of his work—both oversexed mama’s boys, driven by grim humor and narcissistic self-regard. First I think of grotesque old lecher Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, who ekes out his later years on tiny bits of sympathy, lascivious remembrances, and suicidal fantasies. At one point in the novel, he observes, “we are immoderate because grief is immoderate, all the hundreds and thousands of kinds of grief.”
If Sabbath is a projection of Roth’s fear of aging, he is an effectively terrifying portrait of dissolution and decay; for all his gallows humor, he can’t hide the fact that he just doesn’t know when to let go of former glories. If he’s an elderly Alexander Portnoy (perhaps), he’s a Portnoy gone to pot with a few hundred kinds of grief. Of course Portnoy— 33-year-old neurotic chronic masturbator and “lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor”— narrates the novel that made Roth a household name. You can see Roth read from Portnoy’s Complaint in the video above from PBS.
Since Portnoy’s 1969 publication, Roth has endured question after question about the autobiographical content in his novels. Surely he invested Portnoy and Sabbath with some measure of his raging Id, but his body of work takes in concerns far beyond sexually obsessive Jewish mother’s boys. To get a glimpse of the early, pre-Portnoy Roth, take a look at the 1958 and ‘59 short stories “Epstein” and “The Conversion of the Jews” at the Paris Review. Both stories appeared in Roth’s first book Goodbye, Columbus, for which he won his first National Book Award in 1960. And for a look at the aging writer wrestling with the brave new world of open source collaborative authorship, read his fascinating “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” from September of last year, a month before he announced his retirement.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness