Novelist Philip Roth, whose vast body of work included the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral and the archetypal Portnoy’s Complaint, died Tuesday at the age of 85.
His death was announced by the New York Times and the New Yorker, the latter of which published one of Roth’s early short stories, “The Kind of Person I Am,” in 1958. Roth went on to publish a hefty bibliography, with famed works including Goodbye, Columbus; Zuckerman Unbound, and The Human Stain, in addition to the aforementioned Pastoral and Portnoy. Roth retired from writing novels in 2012.
Roth was known for writing extensively about Jewish life, sex, and identity for young men in the United States, and Portnoy’s Complaint, which was published in 1969, was largely controversial thanks to its sex-obsessed and guilt-ridden titular character, Alexander Portnoy. Later works like Exit Ghost contemplated death and legacy.
“Roth is no longer the wunderkind; he is sixty-seven, and the books reflect it,” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in a profile of Roth in 2000. “His voice is still charged, an endlessly pliable instrument of comedy and impersonation, but that voice has also darkened, its comedy is deeper, the story it tells is more tragic and painful.”
The New York Times interviewed Roth in January, asking him how it felt to be one of the last bastions of a literary scene that once included the likes of Saul Bellow and John Updike. Roth responded:
Right now it is astonishing to find myself still here at the end of each day. Getting into bed at night I smile and think, “I lived another day.” And then it’s astonishing again to awaken eight hours later and to see that it is morning of the next day and that I continue to be here. “I survived another night,” which thought causes me to smile once more. I go to sleep smiling and I wake up smiling. I’m very pleased that I’m still alive.
Moreover, when this happens, as it has, week after week and month after month since I began drawing Social Security, it produces the illusion that this thing is just never going to end, though of course I know that it can stop on a dime. It’s something like playing a game, day in and day out, a high-stakes game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning. We will see how long my luck holds out.
Roth’s death was confirmed by close friend Judith Thurman, according to the Times. The cause was not immediately reported.