Roth, Philip: Major American Writer, Whose Many Novels Were Adated to the Screen (Goodbye, Columbus), Dies at 85

Philip Roth, one of most influential American novelists, who won two National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, has died at the age of 85.

A prolific writer, Roth was the author of dozens of novels including Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus.

Roth was a major writer who explored significant and often controversial issues, such as the meanings and variations of Jewish identity and male sexual anxieties and practices.

He was also won of the most honored writers in history: He won the Putlizer, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, a Man Booker International Prize and three PEN/Faulkner awards.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, a state that would often serve as setting for his stories, Roth grew up in a Jewish middle-class family and attended Rutgers University before transferring to Bucknell University,

After receiving an M.A. in English literature from the University of Chicago, Roth published his first story in “The New Yorker” in 1958, at the age of 25.

He achieved his first success with the publication of his debut short story collection, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959.  Ten years later, the best film of his many adaptations was released to great success, starring Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin.

Roth’s first novel, Letting Go, which was published in 1962, catapulted him to fame and acclaim, in and outside literary circles.

His third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, in 1969, was described as one of the dirtiest novels ever published” by The New Yorker.  Portnoy’s Complaint was controversial due to his frank depiction of sex and erotic desire, which angered some conservative Jewish leaders and intellectuals.  Nonetheless, it was a commercial success that spawned a 1972 film adaptation, starring Richard Benjamin, Karen Black and Lee Grant.

With 1979’s The Ghost Writer, Roth introduced readers to a recurring character named Nathan Zuckerman, who would also appear in Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain and Exit Ghost. Zuckerman’s resemblance to the author prompted some speculation that these books were semi-autobiographical, though Roth denied those claims.

In 1997, American Pastoral won Roth his Pulitzer Prize.  It was adapted in 2016 to the big screen by Ewan McGregor, who played a father whose daughter becomes a terrorist in the 1960s.

Other Roth books served as source material for film versions, none too good.

His 2000 book The Human Stain was adapted just three years later into a Robert Benton film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, both miscast. (The film was booed at the press screening I had attended in Venice Film Fest)

In 2008, Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley appeared in Elegy a version of Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal.

The Al Pacino-Greta Gerwig movie The Humbling was based on Roth’s 2009 book of the same name.  Directed by Barry Levinson, it met with mixed critical response.

In 2016, producer James Schmaus made a very disappointing directing debut with his adaptation of Indignation, which Roth published in 2008l.

Roth became the first novelist to win three PEN/Faulkner awards after the publication of Everyman” in 2006, and in 2011 he won the Man Booker International Prize after the publication of his 2010 novel Nemesis.

“His imagination has not only recast our idea of Jewish identity, it has also reanimated fiction, and not just American fiction, generally,” the chair of the prize’s judges, said at the time. “His career is remarkable in that he starts at such a high level, and keeps getting better. In his 50s and 60s, when most novelists are in decline, he wrote a string of novels of the highest, enduring quality. His most recent, “Nemesis,” is as fresh, memorable, and alive with feeling as anything he has written. His is an astonishing achievement.”

Roth announced he was retiring from writing in 2012, though remained a figure of interest to the media, getting profiles in various magazines, including the “New Yorker.”

He candidly and famously offered one writer who had just published his first book this advice, in The Paris Review:  “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”