Philip Roth’s War

There are those – me among them – who consider Philip Roth the greatest living American writer. Primarily a novelist, Roth has also been, episodically, un homme engage. A man engaged in the life of his times – the political life of his times. He has, in other words, not shied from making known his political views, and during the Cold War, and for a time thereafter, he was deeply involved in the culture wars that then characterized East Europe.

But, for most of his life Roth has done little other than write. He has led something of a solitary existence, not antisocial exactly, but nevertheless sealing himself away for years on end in rural Connecticut, so that he and his pen could be left in piece. Not for him the quotidian habits of a family man. He was the quintessential writer.

I say “was” because several years ago, Roth announced that he was hanging it up. He was done. He would write no more. I have no idea if this is true or not. For all I know Roth is continuing, in private, in secret, furiously to practice his craft. But likely as not, at about 80 years of age (he is now almost 84), he felt finished, he felt that his best work was behind him, and so he stopped.

His voice has, however, not been stilled. Though he is as he has always been – out of the public eye – he is not mute. President Donald Trump has so stirred Roth that Roth has been stirred to make himself heard.

“I was born in 1933, the year that F. D. R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency….

As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book [he refers here to his novel “The Plot Against America”], what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”*

*From an exchange with Judith Thurman, in The New Yorker, January 20, 2017.

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