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This article is taken from PN Review 243, Volume 45 Number 1, September - October 2018.

on Philip Roth
When Anne Frank Came to Stay
David Herman
AFTER PHILIP ROTH DIED the tributes poured out. The consensus was overwhelming, both about what they said and, more interestingly what they didn’t say.

They agreed that Roth was probably the greatest American writer of his generation. This wasn’t always the case. During the 1970s there was some debate about whether he was in the same league as Bellow. Bellow had just won the Nobel Prize and in 1975 published his fourth great novel, Humboldt’s Gift. Roth seemed adrift. The Seventies were not his best years. ‘1971, 1972, 1973, Roth – clearly something of a genius – pulled off three unqualified duds,’ wrote Marin Amis. Twenty years later, however, critics began to ask whether Bellow was too formulaic, and worse still for a younger generation of readers, too cranky and right-wing. ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?’ he asked in the 1990s, ‘The Proust of the Papuans?’ At that very moment Roth found an astonishing new voice. Four great novels in five years and the plaudits and awards flowed.

Think of those great set-pieces: the Chinese restaurant scene in The Human Stain, the high school reunion at the beginning of American Pastoral, Nixon’s funeral in I Married a Communist. Those long, flowing sentences. The extraordinary images, the energy of his prose and the new elegiac tone.

Above all, Roth found his greatest subject. What was Roth’s subject? The front page of Libération said simply: ‘PHILIP ROTH: AMERICAN EROS.’ Had anyone written about sex like Roth? But according ...


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