The Great American Novel-ist!


Portnoy's Complaint: US 1st edition (1969)

Welcome to the second blog post in the series (of three) profiling the three writers who collectively inspired me to pursue my literary ambitions. In my last blog post I profiled crime writer extraordinaire, James Ellroy. This time it’s the turn of Philip Roth – arguably America’s most celebrated and prolific living writer. Roth’s first novel (Goodbye, Columbus) was published in 1959 and his next (Nemesis) will appear in October 2010 – that’s 51 years of published output spanning five decades of social and cultural change in the USA.

The Great American Novel.........ist!

These days Roth might look like a dead ringer for Pete Sampras’ dad – but there’s a whole history of incredible taboo-breaking writing behind this venerable old man of American literature.

Roth?....or Pistol Pete's dad?!

Philip Roth has published some 33 books – including Nemesis (due for release in October this year). He has won 21 awards for writing – including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998 and the PEN/Faulkner Award no fewer than three times (1994, 2001, 2007). In 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, given every six years ‘for the entire work of the recipient’. It’s a track record that I (and no doubt many other writers with just one or two completed books out there) view with a certain degree of hushed reverence and genuine awe.

Roth's first novel: Goodbye, Columbus

Roth writes literary fiction – but it’s not that arcane indecipherable brand of literary fiction that constantly admires itself in the mirror; it’s earthy, accessible thought-provoking literary fiction that, more often than not, contains a bounty of knowing humour and biting satire.

Portnoy's: latest UK release

I’ve not read every book Roth has written – unlike my overall favourite, James Ellroy, who hasn’t yet published a word I haven’t seen! – but I’ve read a seminal few of Roth’s (…and those who are familiar with Portnoy’s Complaint will spot the pun in that sentence!). In fact, the bulk of Roth’s recent work has passed me by – although I do fully intend to catch up. The most recently written book of Roth’s I have read is The Human Stain – which means I’ve read nothing he’s written in the past 10 years. However, there was a golden period in Roth’s writing (in book terms: from Portnoy’s through to The Great American Novel; in chronological terms: 1969-1973) in which he could virtually do no wrong…and I’ve read all of his output from that era.

Roth's Operation Shylock: US 1st edition cover

Having said all of the above, there are two books by Philip Roth that have definitely influenced me in my own writing – which is why I am featuring them in this blog here now.

Portnoy's: Vintage edition cover

Portnoy’s Complaint probably needs no real introduction as its reputation wholly precedes it. It’s the book that caused shock and outrage in America back in 1969 (..and how appropriate it was published in ’69 methinks!), contains that infamous scene and faithfully (and mercilessly) details the developing adolescent male’s sexual preoccupations and all-consuming imperatives. It is also gloriously unashamedly laugh-out-loud funny. Those of you who have read my own RUDE BOY will understand the debt I owe to Portnoy’s is every bit as great as the one I owe to Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye (…although until this very blog post I have not yet formally acknowledged the direct influence of Portnoy’s on RUDE BOY…so you all just heard it here first folks!)

My own old battered copy!

Operation Shylock is another Roth comic novel – although, Roth being Roth, it has depth and profundity almost casually thrown into the mix too. In Operation Shylock a fake Philip Roth is out and about in the world impersonating the real Philip Roth – giving interviews and expressing opinions in public that are polar opposites of the real Roth’s viewpoints. In effect, Roth is being haunted by himself – tormented (and his reputation trashed) by a rampant and unfettered fake alter ego that declares Roth himself to be the impostor…while proclaiming the actual impostor to be the real deal! It’s a fabulous literary conceit that works brilliantly given Roth’s stature as an established novelist at the time of writing the book (1993). Martin Amis did exactly the same thing in Money (albeit in a vignette rather than as the central focus of the plot) – in which he featured himself as a character who is encountered in a café by the novel’s protagonist. I haven’t yet worked out how to usefully (as opposed to gratuitously) inject myself into one of my own novels as a character – but it’s a concept that, as a writer, I find both fascinating and highly tempting. Perhaps I will try it one day!

Anyhow, that’s it for this blog post. Next time: Ivan Klima is the writer in the spotlight.

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2 Responses to The Great American Novel-ist!

  1. Poppet says:

    This wasn’t nearly long enough. It was just getting good 🙂

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