Philip Roth is America’s greatest living novelist. His books are the most widely anticipated literary events on both sides of the Atlantic – no other writer working today mixes universal critical acclaim with such broad popularity. His latest book, Exit Ghost (his 28th), is due out next month, and is certain to be the most important of the season.
Roth was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, the oldest child of Herman and Bessie Roth, first-generation Jewish-Americans. He graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went on to study with Saul Bellow at the University of Chicago. His debut novel, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), earned him the National Book Award – the first of many big prizes – but it wasn’t until the raunchy, hilarious Portnoy’s Complaint, in 1969, that he became a bestseller. Although always popular, Roth’s work underwent a resurgence during the 1990s, when, over an astonishing five-year period, he won all four of America’s leading literary prizes – for four different books.
One of the keys to his success is his ability to discuss the weightiest of topics – faith, marriage, family – while at the same time being the sexiest writer in the business. Ever since Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s work has been characterised by a feverish interest in sex that occasionally teeters on the edge of the pornographic. Yet his work also remains a highly serious discussion of man’s tenuous place in an increasingly hostile world. Like so many prophets before him, Roth sees man as a fallen creature. It’s just that he usually sees man as falling into bed.
The other hallmark of Roth’s work has been its playfully autobiographical nature. He has famously said that his writing has always been about “making fake biography”. Roth-watchers are constantly looking for evidence of the author’s personal life in his writing – whether it be his feelings toward his mother, his two spectacularly failed marriages or his uneasy relationship with fame. To deflect some of this attention, the reclusive author has created the surrogate character Nathan Zuckerman, a randy Jewish-American author who shot to fame with the publication of a scandalous novel. Zuckerman is one of literature’s great creations, a wise-cracking, bed-hopping trickster who allows his author to keep one step ahead of his readership. Exit Ghost is rumoured to be his last gasp. Maybe, maybe not. Let’s just hope it isn’t Roth’s. …