Leader: In praise of ... Philip Roth

Leader: Philip Roth is one of the great American novelists, and arguably one of the greatest novelists alive anywhere today.

His teachers recall a quiet boy, intelligent but unimpressive. "Why does he beat this one narrow, little vein of human experience? There are more important things in the world," said one. "I wonder why he hates himself so much as a Jew," said another. Happily, teachers are notoriously unreliable predictors of talent, and more than half a century later Philip Roth is one of the great American novelists, and arguably one of the greatest novelists alive anywhere today. His latest novel Exit Ghost kills off the fictional author Nathan Zuckerman, who has been appearing in Roth's novels as narrator, minor character and listener to other people's stories since 1974. Zuckerman, now 71, incontinent and impotent, is as rich a vehicle for Roth's brand of "seeming self-exposure" as the character that first propelled him to stardom, Alexander Portnoy. Roth, who gives interviews rarely (because he is asked the same questions over and over again) is plagued by the observation that his books are autobiographical and confessional. The labels minimise the invention that goes into his characters' making, and their ability to define what it means to be American. The quality of Roth's invention has been so strong, and his production so steady, that when the New York Times last year asked 200 writers, critics and editors for the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, seven of Roth's novels made the shortlist, and competed with each other. Had the Times asked for the best single writer of fiction, Roth would have won.


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