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Philip Roth
Newark, New Jersey, 19 March 1933 • American novelist

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Philip Milton Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, the son of American-born parents and the grandson of European Jews who were part of the nineteenth-century wave of immigration to the United States. He grew up in the city's lower-middle-class section of Weequahic and was educated in Newark public schools. He later attended Bucknell University, where he received his B.A., and the University of Chicago, where he completed his M. A. and taught English. Afterwards, at both Iowa and Princeton, he taught creative writing, and for many years he taught comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He retired from teaching in 1992.

His first book was Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a novella and five stories that use wit, irony, and humor to depict Jewish life in post-war America. The book won him critical recognition, including the National Book Award for fiction, and along with that, condemnation from some within the Jewish community for depicting what they saw as the unflattering side of cotemporary Jewish American experience. His first full-length novel was Letting Go (1962), a Jamesian realistic work that explores many of the societal and ethical issues of the 1950s. This was followed in 1967 by When She Was Good, another novel in the realistic mode that takes as its focus a rare narrative voice in Roth's fiction: a young Midwestern female.

He is perhaps best known - notoriously so, to many - for his third novel, Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a wildly comic representation of his middle-class New York Jewish world in the portrait of Alexander Portnoy, whose possessive mother makes him so guilty and insecure that he can seek relief only in elaborate masturbation and sex with forbidden shiksas. For readers of that hilarious novel, eating liver would never be the same (read the book and you'll understand). Portnoy's Complaint was not only the New York Time's best seller for the year 1969, it also made a celebrity out of Roth. . . an uncomfortable position that he would later fictionalize in such novels as Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and Operation Shylock (1993). Following the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth experimented with different comic modes, at times outrageous, as illustrated in the works Our Gang (1971), a parodic attack on Richard Nixon; Breast (1972), a Kafkaesque rendering of sexual desire; The Great American Novel (1973), a wild satire of both Frank Norris's novelistic quest and the great American pastime, baseball; and the short story 'On the Air.'

In My Life As a Man (1974), Roth not only introduces his most developed protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, but for the first time his fiction becomes highly self-reflexive and postmodern. One of his most significant literary efforts is the Zuckerman Trilogy: Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound, and Anatomy Lesson (1983) and wrapped up with a novella epilogue, 'The Prague Orgy' (1985). These novels trace the development of Roth's alter ego - or alter brain, as Roth has called him - Nathan Zuckerman, from an aspiring young writer to a socially compromised, and psychologically besieged, literary celebrity. In Counterlife (1986), perhaps his most ambitious and meticulously structured novel, Roth brings a temporarily end to his Zuckerman writings. It is also the first time that the author engages in a sustained examination of the relationship between American and Israeli Jews.

His next four books - Facts (1988), Deception (1990), Patrimony (1991), and Operation Shylock - explore the relationship between the lived world and the written world, between 'fact' and 'fiction.' Through his protagonist in these works, also named Philip Roth, the author questions the genres of autobiography and fiction, and he mischievously encourages the reader to become caught up in this literary game. Of these four books, only one, Deception, is billed as a novel. The other three are subtitled as either an autobiography (The Facts), a memoir or 'true story' (Patrimony), or a confession (Operation Shylock). The most elaborate of these, Operation Shylock, is arguably Roth's finest work, leading
fellow writer Cynthia Ozick to call it in one of her interviews, 'the Great American Jewish Novel' and Roth 'the boldest American writer alive.'

Roth's next novel, Sabbath's Theater (1995), is a return to the outrageous psycho-sexual (and tragicomic) form that entertained and outraged so many in Portnoy's Complaint. Its 'hero,' the over-the-hill puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, is nothing if not a character portrait of transgressive behavior. However in his next three novels, what is called his 'American Trilogy', Roth relies once again on Nathan Zuckerman as his agent of focus. American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000) can be read as novels that reflect key moments in late twentieth-century American experience - in the 1960s, 1950s, and 1990s, respectively - and each is chronicled by an older Zuckerman, no longer the mischievous and sexually-adventurous young writer he once was. In this later trilogy, the aged writer has become somewhat of a recluse who devotes himself exclusively to his writing, and through this writing reveals the stories of memorable individuals who, in many ways, represent the social, political, and psychological conflicts that define post-war America.

In The Dying Animal (2001), Roth revisits the life of David Kepesh, the protagonist of The Breast and The Professor of Desire (1977). As in the earlier novels, Kepesh is concerned with the erotic side of existence and, as he puts it, 'emancipated manhood.' Yet even though its focus in explicitly sexual, this novel, like almost all of Roth's other works, has as its theme the ways in which individuals - specifically men - live with desire in the larger sense of the word. One of the hallmarks of Roth's fiction is the ways in which sexual, communal, familial, ethnic, artistic, and political freedoms play themselves out on the field of contemporary existence.

The Plot Against America (2004) takes Roth into fresh literary territory. It is an alternative history whose premise is the 1940 election of Charles A. Lindbergh to the White House. What, Roth asks, would America have been like had the isolationist and anti-Semitic Lindbergh defeated F.D.R., reached a cordial 'understanding' with Adolph Hitler, and kept the United States out of the Second World War? Reminiscent of the four works preceding it, the new novel appears to continue the author’s exploration of American identities, national as well as individual, within the contexts of its history. Also, much like the American trilogy preceding it, The Plot Against America focuses on the ways in which history is constructed, showing it to be in many ways a 'fiction' much like that we see revealed in the pages of a novel.

Roth's most recent book, Everyman (2006), finds him revisiting the short novel, or novella, form that he has been exploring in such works as The Breast, Deception, and The Dying Animal. The thematic focus in this novel isn't so much on death as it is on illness and the role that it plays in our lives. The protagonist is an anonymous 'everyman' figure (reminiscent of the medieval drama) who, from his youngest days, feels the effects of the decaying body and where it ultimately leads.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Roth has also proven to be an accomplished essayist. In collections such as Reading Myself and Others (1975) and the more recent Shop Talk (2001), his focus is on the act of writing, both his own and that of other authors. The lengthy interviews that make up Shop Talk first appeared in such publications as the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the London Review of Books. The pieces themselves are a testament to Roth's unwavering and ongoing admiration of some of the most significant writers in the last half of the twentieth century. Until 1989 he was the General Editor of the Penguin book series 'Writers from the Other Europe,' which he inaugurated in 1974. The series helped to introduce American audiences to, among others, Milan Kundera, Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, and Ivan Klíma.

Philip Roth has lived in Rome, London, Chicago, and New York. He currently lives in Connecticut.

- (Philip Roth Society)

The Professor of Desire
David Kapesh, an adventurous man of intelligence and feeling, tries to make his way to both pleasure and dignity through a world of sensual possiblities. This novel, by the author of Portnoy's Complaint, explores the pursuit and loss of erotic happiness.
Goodbye, Columbus
A Radcliffe undergraduate and a Newark public library employee engage in a summer romance.
The Human Stain
Coleman Silk has a secret. But it's not the secret of his affair, at seventy-one, with a woman half his age. And it's not the secret of his alleged racism, which provoked the college witchhunt that cost him his job. Coleman's secret is deeper, and lies at the very core of who he is, and he has kept it hidden from everyone for fifty years.
Operation Shylock
A novel in which Philip Roth confronts his double, an imposter whose self-appointed task is to lead the Jews not into, but out of Israel, and back to Europe.

The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow, 1953
Philip Roth has said, of Bellow and Malamud: 'They pointed to a world that I could recognize, and said: this is the material of fiction. (...) It takes a kind of intellectual revelation to discover that you can write about the place you come from.'

Dubin's Lives
Bernard Malamud, 1979
Malamud's protagonist is prize-winning biographer William Dubin, who learns from lives, or thinks he does: those he writes, those he shares, the life he lives. Now in his later middle age, he seeks his own secret self, and the obsession of biography is supplanted by the obsession of love - for a woman half his age.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories
Franz Kafka, 1915-1924
Teaching at the University of Pennsylvania during the gestation of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth assigned 'a lot of Kafka…. The course might have been called "Studies in Guilt and Persecution."'

Portnoy's Complaint
The famous confession of Alexander Portnoy who is thrust through life by his unappeasable sexuality, yet held back at the same time by the iron grip of his unforgettable childhood.
The terrain of this savagely sad short novel is the human body, and its subject is the common experience that terrifies us all.

The Counterlife
The Counterlife follows protagonist Nathan Zuckerman from New York to Israel to London. Along the way, monologues, eulogies, letters, interviews, and conversations ponder Judaism and Zionism, the nature of personality, the competing claims of imagination and life, and sex.
Roth watches as his eighty-six-year-old father - famous for his vigor, charm, and his repertoire of Newark recollections - battles with the brain tumor that will kill him.
Sabbath's Theater
After the death of his long-time mistress - an erotic free spirit whose adulterous daring exceeds even his own - 64-year-old puppeteer Mickey Sabbath embarks on a turbulent journey into his past.
The Dying Animal
David Kepesh is white-haired and over sixty, an eminent TV culture critic and star lecturer at a New York College, when he meets Consuela Castillo, a decorous, well-mannered student of twenty-four, the daughter of wealthy Cuban exiles, who promptly puts his life into erotic disorder and haunts him for the next eight years.
American Pastoral
Seymour 'Swede' Levov - a legendary high school athlete, a devoted family man, a hard worker, the prosperous inheriter of his father's Newark glove factory - comes of age in thriving, triumphant post-war America. But everything he loves is lost when the country begins to run amok in the turbulent 1960s.
I Married a Communist
The rise and fall of Ira Ringold, a big American roughneck who begins life as a teenage ditch-digger in 1930s Newark, becomes a big-time 1940s radio star, and is destroyed, as both a performer and a man, in the McCarthy witchhunt of the 1950s.
The Breast
Like a latter-day Gregor Samsa, Professor David Kepesh wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed. But where Kafka's protagonist turned into a giant beetle, the narrator of Philip Roth's richly conceived fantasy has become a 155-pound female breast.
The Facts
By offering his memoirs plus a critique of same penned by his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, Roth here undermines the autobiographical genre as he derailed fictional conventions in The Counterlife.
The Anatomy Lesson
At forty, the writer Nathan Zuckerman comes down with a mysterious affliction - pure pain, beginning in his neck and shoulders, invading his torso, and taking possession of his spirit. Zuckerman, whose work was his life, is unable to write a line.
The Ghost Writer
The Ghost Writer introduces Nathan Zuckerman in the 1950s; a budding writer infatuated with the Great Books, discovering the contradictory claims of literature and experience while an overnight guest in the secluded New England farmhouse of his literary idol, E. I. Lonoff.
Letting Go
Roth's first full-length novel, published just after Goodbye, Columbus, when he was twenty-nine. Set in 1950s Chicago, New York, and Iowa city, Letting Go presents a fictional portrait of a mid-twentieth-century America defined by social and ethical constraints and by moral compulsions conspicuously different from those of today.
When She Was Good
When she was still a child, Lucy Nelson had her alcoholic failure of a father thrown in jail. Ever since then she has been trying to reform the men around her, even if that ultimately means destroying herself in the process.
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