The New Yorker:
Everyone thought he would go on forever. And didn’t many of us assume that the public retirement was merely private retrenchment—that Philip Roth was still writing every day at home, because he could never not write? More than any other postwar American novelist, Roth wrote the self—the self was examined, cajoled, lampooned, fictionalized, ghosted, exalted, disgraced, but above all constituted by and in writing. Maybe you have to go back to the very different Henry James to find an American novelist so purely a bundle of words, so restlessly and absolutely committed to the investigation and construction of life through language. (In the English tradition, that writer would be D. H. Lawrence, who seems Roth’s truer precursor in every way.) You could find him at times repetitive, only intermittently good; you could certainly find his increasingly conservative politics resistible, and hope that, one day, he might represent relations between men and women as something other than purely erotic. But I admired him above all other living American novelists because his life and work had the only quality that really matters: that of unceasing necessity. He would not cease from exploration; he could not cease; and the varieties of fiction existed in order for him to explore the varieties of experience. Roth wrote some essays, and some of them are really fine. His memoir of his father, “Patrimony,” is a beautiful book. But he was essentially a monomaniac, a fanatic of fiction. The novel was the only instrument that mattered. He lived with it and through it, like any demented virtuoso. Purity of heart is to will one thing, says Kierkegaard. Roth, that vitally dirty-minded man, was very pure.
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