As a novelist, I think of myself, and have from the beginning, as a free American - Philip Roth
Philip Roth's Portnoy, a psychoanalyst's delight, was a free American — he could — and did — jerk off everywhere, even on a piece of refrigerated liver, much to the disgust of many Jewish Americans.
The Jew scholars went after him with all the Kabbalah they had, calling him names and pelting him with obscenities.
Roth had decided a decade ago, in his late seventies, when a short story of his drew a firestorm of protests from conservative Jews, to never write about Jews.
After Goodbye, Columbus, his book of short stories that won a coveted American award, Roth wrote two indifferent books, which he said later were more of craft-practice.
Just like Saul Bellow, a writer he hugely admired, who hit his stride with The Adventures of Augie March after craft-practice with two books, Roth, too, made it to national literary gallery with Portnoy's Complaint. He later joked that had he used the term rapacious capitalism in the Portnoy title, he would have scored the Nobel, a prize that eluded him until his death.
In his late phase, when many writers get tired of fashioning words out of their troubled psyches and wind down their work, awards came to him as easily as words.
In the early 90s, after a heart surgery and crippling back problems, Roth went into a profound, almost suicidal depression.
His marriage to the English actor Claire Bloom had dissolved, and Bloom had gone ahead and written a nasty takedown of their years together.
She had called him self-centred and narcissistic.
Roth, never to lose an opportunity to mine himself and his personal stories, partly based on her the character of Eve Frame, the antisemitic wife who destroys her radio star husband Ira Ringold in I Married a Communist, a novel of vicious, reputation-ripping McCarthy years.
But the novel he wrote after emerging out of his life-threatening depression was Sabbath's Theatre, a raucous and chaotic romp of unbridled onanism.
Many critics, who consider it his best book, also see a connection with Portnoy. Mickey Sabbath, who takes great pleasure in his status as a “dirty old man” is an older Portnoy, his sexual urges still uncontrollable.
The book had grotesque, priapic scenes: in one, Sabbath, old and haggard, goes to the grave of his girlfriend and masturbates on it.
Michiko Kakutani, the legendary New York Times critic, found the book "distasteful and disingenuous" and hard to finish.
Both Harold Bloom and James Wood, stellar critics in the league of Kakutani, became great admirers of Sabbath’s Theatre.
Bloom has called it Roth's masterwork. There are women who have labelled Roth a misogynist, something, many say, that made getting a Nobel impossible for him.
Defending him, his friend and Irish novelist Edna O'Brien said: "That's tosh! As regards women, Philip has been mistakenly accused of not liking or understanding them."
Roth's Yoknapatawpha was Newark, where he went regularly in his many books to take the measure of the nation. Through Nathan Zuckerman, a character many think is a stand-in for Roth, he roamed America and took its temperature and tried to understand the cultural shifts that engulfed the nation.
In his later books, as his frustration with culture-rejecting America grew, he made Zuckerman lose his prostate and potency.
In the 80s, he compiled a book called Shop Talk, a series of interviews with writers such as Aharon Appelfeld, Ivan Klima, Primo Levi and others.
He was also largely responsible for popularising eastern European writers such as Milan Kundera, Tadeusz Borowski and Bruno Schulz.
Roth made many excursions behind the Iron Curtain and helped these writers get American audiences. These writers, whose books used to circulate only in samizdat editions, found gratified readers in America and western Europe.
Another beautiful book that Roth wrote during this time was Patrimony, a searing memoir of his father's depletion and death.
In 2004, when he wrote a counterfactual called The Plot Against America, in which the rightwinger aviator Charles Lindbergh captures power, he never realised how eerily, in 12 years, the book's plot would foreshadow the ominous emergence of Trump, a cartoonish president with rightwing written all over him.
By then, Roth had stopped writing. He spent his last years mostly reading nonfiction. American history for large part.
For a man who spent a large part of his life holed up in the isolation of his huge farm in Connecticut, without phone or fax, the freedom from words was suddenly exhilarating.
He wrote a piece for the New Yorker excoriating Wikipedia for some wrong entries, watched films, went out with his friends and played with his iPhone, a shiny toy whose intricacies he was still trying to understand.
Roth, during his later years, had started lamenting the death of reading. “I think what we're seeing is the narrowing of consciousness,'' he regretted. "The writer,'' he told The New Yorker's David Remnick, “is just not of interest to the public as somebody who may have an inroad into consciousness.”'
Writing in The Human Stain, just after the Clinton scandal broke, Roth wrote: "It was the summer when a President's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.''
In the era of Trump, the sentence still holds its immense power if the word penis is supplanted with tweet. Later, when he had stopped writing, in 2012, when the first term of the Obama presidency was over, he said he did not understand America anymore. "I see it on TV, but I am not living it anymore," he said.Eventually, he told Bernard Avishai, “the job is to die”. But Roth, now that he has died, has left us with an onerous job: to read his many books and understand his sheer energy, his love for America and his world - full of many goodnesses and perversities.