© Sam Falk / New York Times
For the last few years I’d thought of the American novelist Philip Roth, who died on May 22nd at the age of 85, as the ‘last man standing’. This was because he seemed to me the very last of a certain breed: those high-profile, often brash and larger-than-life, and sometimes narcissistic, men of letters who made the American literary world an eventful and entertaining place in the mid-to-late 20th century.
I’m thinking of the likes of Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut. While it’s wrong to generalise, and each one had his own unique context and character, they seemed overall much more dramatically writerly than their British counterparts at the time. Elephantine egos abounded, many of them loved the spotlight, and there were few qualms about rolling up sleeves and wading into a good literary feud, fight or slagging match with a rival. For instance, Gore Vidal got punched in the face – or struck by a glass, or headbutted, depending on which story you believe – by Norman Mailer after he’d written a piece comparing Mailer to Charles Manson. I couldn’t imagine John Fowles doing that to Malcolm Bradbury.
Certain members of America’s premier league of post-war writers were also notable boozers. I seem to remember Martin Amis likening them once to a bunch of drunks you’d find in the back of a police van late on a Saturday night on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. (Aye, right, Martin. Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night. You’d know all about that.)
They generated lots of good copy and anecdotes but thinking about them now they were problematic in many ways. American literature back then was very much a boys’ club – the attention they got seemed far more than that accorded to America’s post-war women writers. As a teenager, when I was really getting into books for the first time, I knew of the reclusive Harper Lee; and of Shirley Jackson, though she seemed neglected because she’d written too much ‘genre’ fiction and not enough proper ‘adult’ stuff; but that was about it. I didn’t hear of people like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor until much later.
There was also a reek of smug, well-to-do WASP / Jewish male privilege hanging around them and, accordingly, their characters seemed frequently to be successful middle-aged blokes working in America’s boardrooms or on its campuses, fraternising with the rich, the powerful and the intellectual and, of course, having their pick of beautiful young ladies. I know Updike’s fiction wasn’t all like this, but whenever I think of the characters in his short stories now I seem only to recall fifty-something college professors married to twenty-or-thirty-something women who, of course, had started out as their students.
Then again, some of them – like Heller, Mailer and Vonnegut – had fought in World War II and belonged to a generation of men who, after that, felt they’d earned their sense of entitlement. (Mind you, no war-spawned sense of entitlement excuses Mailer from drunkenly sticking a knife into his then-wife in 1960.)
I must confess that the only thing I’ve read by Philip Roth is 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I consumed this as a teenager and greatly enjoyed it – something possibly connected with the fact that the book was about wanking. For several years I’ve had his 2004 novel The Plot against America, which is set in a parallel universe where Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and sets the USA on a course into fascism, sitting on a shelf somewhere but I’ve never got around to reading it. I should, as it sounds intriguing.
In Roth’s final interview, with the New York Times back in January this year, he was asked if he saw any resemblance between the events depicted in the book and those that have rocked America’s political establishment in the last couple of years. The octogenarian Roth gave a splendidly robust response. “Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also – because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 – an authentic American hero… Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”