Philip Roth: “It amazed him that any literate audience could be interested in his store of tribal secrets.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of novelist Philip Roth, born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in a Jewish family; his father sold insurance, and his mother, he said, “raised housekeeping in America to a great art.” The neighborhood was mostly Jewish, and Newark itself was an industrial city–full of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Ireland, as well as African-Americans. He graduated from high school at the age of 16.

After graduating from Bucknell, he went to Chicago for graduate work in English literature and then served for two years in the U.S. Army. He was able to make a few thousand dollars a year teaching, and he started publishing short fiction….When he was 27, he published his first book, Goodbye, Columbus — a novella accompanied by five short stories. The title novella was the story of Neil Klugman, a teenage Jewish boy from Newark and his summer romance with a wealthy suburban Radcliffe student.

Roth won a Guggenheim fellowship and took off for Rome. While there he learned that Goodbye, Columbus had won the National Book Award….Writing a preface for the book 30 years later, Roth wrote about himself as a young writer in the third person:

“In the beginning it simply amazed him that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan — about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.”

Roth went on to write Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Sabbath’s Theater (1995), American Pastoral (1997), The Plot Against America (2004), and Nemesis (2010).

In 2012, Roth announced that he had retired from writing fiction. He reread all 31 of his books — to be sure he hadn’t wasted his time. He said:

“After that, I decided that I was finished with fiction. I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. At the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!” He died in New York in 2018 at the age of 85.

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