Philip Roth, Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America, Dies at 85

Philip Roth, Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America, Dies at 85

Mr. Roth’s other great theme was sex, or male lust, which in his books is both a life force and a principle of rage and disorder. It is sex, the uncontrollable need to have it, that torments poor, guilt-ridden Portnoy, probably Mr. Roth’s most famous character, who desperately wants to “be bad — and to enjoy it.” And Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of “Sabbath’s Theater,” one of Mr. Roth’s major late-career novels, is in many ways Portnoy grown old but still in the grip of lust and longing, raging against the indignity of old age and yet saved from suicidal impulses by the realization that there are too many people he loves to hate.

In public Mr. Roth, tall and good-looking, was gracious and charming but with little use for small talk. In private he was a gifted mimic and comedian. Friends used to say that if his writing career had ever fizzled he could have made a nice living doing stand-up. But there was about his person, as about his writing, a kind of simmering intensity, an impatience with art that didn’t take itself seriously.

Some writers “pretend to be more lovable than they are and some pretend to be less,” he told Ms. Lee. “Beside the point. Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts.”

Philip Milton Roth was born in Newark on March 19, 1933, the younger of two sons. (His brother, Sandy, a commercial artist, died in 2009.) His father, Herman, was an insurance manager for Metropolitan Life who felt that his career had been thwarted by the gentile executives who ran the company. Mr. Roth once described him as a cross between Captain Ahab and Willy Loman. His mother, the former Bess Finkel, was a secretary before she married and then became a housekeeper of the heroic old school — the kind, he once suggested, who raised cleaning to an art form.

The family lived in a five-room apartment on Summit Avenue within which were only three books when he was growing up — given as presents when someone was ill, Mr. Roth said. He went to Weequahic High, where he was a good student but not good enough to win a scholarship to Rutgers, as he had hoped. In 1951 he enrolled as a pre-law student at the Newark branch of Rutgers, with vague notions of becoming “a lawyer for the underdog.”

But he yearned to live away from home, and the following year he transferred to Bucknell College in Lewisburg, Pa., a place about which he knew almost nothing except that a Newark neighbor seemed to have thrived there. Inspired by one of his professors, Mildred Martin, with whom he remained a lasting friend, Mr. Roth switched his interests from law to literature. He helped found a campus literary magazine, where in an early burst of his satiric power he published a parody of the college newspaper so devastating that it earned him an admonition from the dean.

Credit: Philip Roth, Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America, Dies at 85