Goodbye, Phillip Roth

I shouldn’t have been given his age, but I felt profoundly surprised last night hearing about the death of Phillip Roth.

Surprise, not a shock. I’m very sorry he’s gone. He was at the age when such things happen, and he probably had a few extra years over the average. It is to be expected. The surprise comes as he has appeared just as healthy and intellectually vibrant as ever in the interviews I’ve read with him recently. Of course, that means nothing.

As a keen reader, I’m more than surprised. He gave up writing a few years ago, but even so, his is a body of work very few writers can rival. I came relatively late to Roth, I’m not sure why. I remember reading Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus, when I was still a relatively young reader – just out of my teens. I enjoyed them, but I probably didn’t pick up another book of his for over 20 years.

It was that second coming when I really began to immerse myself in his writings. I re-read those books, then started on the others. I liked some more than others, but across the board, I enjoyed the writing, the intellect, and often the scope of vision. He captured things that were real. As a bonus, a lot of it was pretty edgy too, with a wicked sense of humour at work. A lot of that stuff became controversial, but I enjoyed it.

His death feels greater because I think – for me – he’s the last of an era. Writing has changed since he started up, and though there is much, I can appreciate in more contemporary novels my literary heartland are the novels of this time, the works of Updike, Styron, Salter and Roth – all now gone. Perhaps it is because I grew up with them, they are both my influences and much of my inspiration.

I don’t know if there is a contemporary chronicler like Roth was. Sad to see him gone, but glad of his work.

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