Reading guide

Where to start with Philip Roth

Philip Roth has written 31 books over the course of his career, now published in a stunning design by Vintage. Between them, the books have won prizes, caused controversy, and generally shaken up the landscape of American fiction. But if you're new to Roth, where do you start? At the beginning, the middle, the end? Six of his biggest fans in publishing share their advice.

 

The Ghost Writer

Where better to start with Roth than with the first book to be narrated by his fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who will go on to narrate some of your favourite Roth books once this one has got you hooked. In this first outing the young Zuckerman visits the home of his literary idol, E. I. Lonoff, in 1956 and you get to enjoy the first of Roth’s gifts: wisdom; as the two men talk about life and writing. That same evening he meets Amy Bellette, a former student of Lonoff’s with a vague European past who is working on his papers, but who may be a little closer than that. The plot thickens when heavy snowfall forces Zuckerman to stay the night and Roth introduces the wonderfully outrageous fantasy of Zuckerman’s that Bellette is none other than Anne Frank, very much alive. After reading this novel filled with wit, intelligence, a love of literature and huge dose of audacity you have the joy of many more Zuckerman novels to come, including Exit Ghost which brings him face to face with Amy Bellette one last time.
 

Chosen by Will Rycroft, Community Manager at Vintage

Portnoy's Complaint

Philip Roth wrote a staggering 31 books, but Portnoy’s Complaint seemed to unshackle him in some significant way. It’s a shocking Freudian rant from the lips of Alexander Portnoy, about his loving (and irritating) parents, his Jewishness, his sexuality, and it added a new prototype to confessional fiction – something that Roth and his various alter-egos would refine again and again over the next 40 years. But I love Portnoy’s Complaint for its mad, incessant prose, its joyous lawlessness, and its screamingly funny jokes. No one writes at quite the same decibel-level as Philip Roth, and the complaints of Portnoy reach a crazed intensity that I have never encountered before. 
 

Chosen by Greg Clowes, Assistant Editor at Vintage

Sabbath's Theater

It’s hard to remember – or even imagine – now, but in the mid-90s it was beginning to look as if Philip Roth’s best days might be behind him. Personally, I’ve never understood why writers writing about writers is always considered boring. But by the time Roth was writing about writers writing about writers defending themselves for writing about writers, it did seem as if his fictional games were heading for something of a dead end. But then, apparently out of nowhere, came the thrilling surprise of Sabbath’s Theater, a novel even more ferocious and combative than anything he’d written before.

The main character is Mickey Sabbath – failed puppeteer, unrepentant lecher and a man hell-bent on trashing all contemporary pieties. (When caught masturbating into his friend’s daughter’s underwear, Sabbath’s characteristic defence is, “I am sixty-four, she is nineteen. It’s only natural.”) Every page – indeed, almost every sentence – burns with a blistering, darkly comic rage. Yet there’s also a powerful undertow of melancholy as the ageing Sabbath becomes the first of Roth’s late-period protagonists to be caught between “the fantasy of endlessness” and “the fact of finitude”. American Pastoral – the rather more considered novel that followed – is usually seen as the start of Roth’s blazing Indian summer. But for anybody who wants (and can take) his fiction at its most exhilaratingly fearless, Sabbath’s Theater remains impossible to beat.

Chosen by James Walton, journalist

American Pastoral

Start with American Pastoral, I did, and it blew my mind. Here is the archetypal hero: ‘Swede’ Levov, the blonde haired, blue-eyed sporting hotshot effortlessly living out the American Dream. But bit-by-bit his pastoral idyll is picked apart by a source terrifyingly close to home – his daughter Merry. This novel has it all: writing that takes your breath away, full of tragedy, comedy and despair; it’s Roth right at the peak of his powers. In his full flow, Roth can make the even the most ordinary epic – I never knew the art of glove manufacture (which is how Swede and his family have made their money) would make for essential reading… but it does, trust me.
 

Chosen by Beth Coates, Editorial Director at Vintage

Patrimony

Philip Roth is not just a great novelist: he is a great writer, as such non-fiction as The Facts and Patrimony testify. In Patrimony, an unflinching yet deeply compassionate account of his father Herman’s last years, he portrays a man in all his vulnerability. But he also touches on his incredible grit and determination, such as when he talks about his years in Insurance handling a staff of over fifty people, on his extraordinary ability to survive, and on his devotion to his family.

Roth accompanies his father through his last years and tries to make them as bearable as possible, from working through the medical diagnosis of his failing body through lack of sight and a tumor, to caring for him at his most embarrassing and vulnerable moments. Extraordinary, generous and profoundly moving, and also at times very funny, Patrimony is hewn out of love. It is an essential book that teaches us about the loving forbearance and tender forgiveness necessary in the family dynamic.

Chosen by Peter Straus, literary agent at Rogers, Coleridge and White

Nemesis

Nemesis (2010) is a short novel from Philip Roth’s extraordinary late period, one of the four novels he lists in his prelims as ‘Nemeses’. Set in Newark, New Jersey, in the ‘stifling heat’ of the summer of 1944, it feels like one of the most autobiographical of Roth’s late novels. Its subject is the polio epidemic that struck Newark in 1944, at a time when polio was a terrifying scourge, leaving its victims paralysed or disabled for life. Bucky Cantor, Roth’s protagonist, is a kind, vigorous, good man, in charge of a playground in central Newark because his weak eyes have prevented him from serving in the Forces. One by one the children under his care fall ill, and Bucky has to decide whether to stay or to escape to Indian Hill, a summer camp in the mountains where his girlfriend is working. The novel is brilliant about the fear that an epidemic breeds: panic, anger, bewilderment and pain.

Early in Nemesis is a scene I have never forgotten. One afternoon a group of Italian high school boys drive up to the playground. Bucky asks, ‘What do you fellows want here?’ ‘We’re spreadin’ polio,’ one of the Italians replied. They then spit on the pavement, covering it with ‘twenty square feet of a wet, slimy, disgusting mess’. Bucky swabs it up, using hot water and ammonia, and becomes a hero to his charges, ‘an idolized, protective, heroic older brother’. It’s a tiny scene, but it reverberates through the rest of the novel, giving the reader a shiver of disgust every time they think of it.
 

Chosen by Dan Franklin, Associate Publisher at Jonathan Cape, Vintage

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