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Philip Roth Blows Up


Then something happened. When he left the hospital, Roth hunkered down and unleashed Sabbath's Theater, which won the 1995 National Book Award. In 1997, he published American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer. In 1998 came I Married a Communist. Twenty months later, there's The Human Stain.

Many of Roth's friends and peers believe that this novel, the story of a professor ruined by the idiocies of political correctness, is his best and bravest yet. In a Roth first, one of the central characters is black. "He finally broke out of this ongoing segregation of American fiction," says culture critic Stanley Crouch. "You know -- black people writing about black people over and over again, Jews writing about Jews. Brother Roth decided to climb the fence. It's a good sign not only for him but for American fiction."

Still, it wouldn't be a work by Roth if it weren't also driven forward by some old-fashioned, vindictive fury. "What certainly comes through in The Human Stain," says Ted Solotaroff, author of the beautiful memoir Truth Comes in Blows, "is the kind of rage that he was carrying around from the whole affair with Claire Bloom and her book. He's found a very strong fire hose for all that pressure."

Today, the only prize left for Roth to win is the one that dares not speak its name. He doesn't actively campaign for it, as Theodore Dreiser supposedly did, but it's certainly on his mind. Just over two years ago, a friend called Roth and asked him if it was a good time to talk. I guess, Roth sighed. The winners of the Nobel Prize were just announced on the radio, and once again, I didn't get one.

"He plainly has mentioned it," says Styron, "but his take on the Nobel Prize is sort of ambivalent, in the sense of it going to people that sometimes don't deserve it." Indeed, as long as multicultural and feminist concerns prevail in Stockholm, most of his supporters remain skeptical. "Whether I will ever persuade the Nobel Prize people -- and I have tried -- I don't know," sighs Harold Bloom. "He's not terribly politically correct, you know. And they are."

Roth has one advantage, though: In Europe, he's become the biggest American export since David Hasselhoff. On the Continent, he has squadrons of devotees who have been arguing Roth's -- for lack of a better term -- Nobeligibility. He's already an honorary citizen of the United Kingdom, having lived part-time in London for more than a dozen years with Claire Bloom. And Roth has been the subject of at least three European documentaries: France's Philip Roth, England's Philip Roth: My True Story, and Germany's The Roth Explosion: Confessions of a Writer (first two lines: "Who am I? I am he who writes the books").

The Roth Explosion was also the name of a four-day Roth festival in Aix-en-Provence last October, which drew Zuckerman experts from all over the Continent, including one Caj Lundgren, whose native city happens to be Stockholm. It was quite a scene: For weeks, an exhibition on Roth's hometown ("What Is Newark, Where Is Newark?") ran at the Galerie Zola, and photographs of Roth's face, emblazoned on a background of fire-engine red, flew on banners throughout the tiny, medieval town. Roth told his friends they made him feel like Chairman Mao.

The next batch of Nobel Prizes won't be announced until October. Until then, Roth would be content with a best-seller. Houghton Mifflin is printing a very optimistic 100,000 copies of The Human Stain, and though he wouldn't talk to New York -- an old cover story on his split with Bloom still irks him -- the normally press-shy Roth has been coaxed into all kinds of other press appearances, including an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, a chat with the New York Times Book Review, and a profile for The New Yorker by its editor-in-chief, David Remnick. Roth will even have his own Web page.

So what is it that brought on this decade-long virtuoso outpouring? Part of it, obviously, can never be explained. But his friends all agree that his triple-bypass surgery in 1989 must have at least intensified his sense of urgency. "At a certain point, I think he thought he was getting old and had a lot more to say," says writer David Plante. "And he was going to devote himself to saying it."

Even as far back as 1986, there were hints of a sea change in Roth's fiction. Solotaroff traces it back to chapters two and three of The Counterlife. "In those two chapters," he says, "he wrote about Israel in this fresh, penetrating, and very brave way. It was as if he regained the world as a subject. He started going back to the past with a purpose beyond 'Let's see what it was like when I was 30.' "

Instead, Roth began delving into the past in order to tackle the great events and issues of the day: the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, Vietnam. His novels assumed an almost reportorial quality, dense with the kind of far-flung research one associates with the dispatches of Tom Wolfe. Roth journeyed to Gloversville, New York, to take notes on the old glove-making industry for American Pastoral. He interviewed a harpist for I Married a Communist. In The Human Stain, he demonstrates an unlikely familiarity with the challenges of ice fishing.

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