Unlovable, but not self-hating

Postwar America found not only prosperity but a new literary voice. Philip Roth, one of its principal exponents, has now laid down his pen. Having written 31 books, Roth has decided that he has said what he wants to say. He told the New York Times last week: "I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, 'Maybe it's over, maybe it's over'."

If it is indeed over, his is still a remarkable literary output. Roth is controversial. He has sometimes caused consternation, even outrage, among American Jews. He was an unlovable figure in a highly acrimonious divorce from Claire Bloom, a fine classical and film actress. But his work will last. With (especially) Saul Bellow and John Updike, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, he was part of a flowering of the American novel in the 1950s and 1960s, separating it from its European counterparts and the modernist tradition. And he is the only one of that circle now living.

Roth's most famous work is Portnoy's Complaint. It's about Jewish family life and sex. It is very funny. But there are quieter works and, in my judgment, more successful ones. His early collection of stories Goodbye, Columbus is an elegiac treatment of the loss of innocence. His 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, prefigures both his vitriolic break with Bloom and his eventual retirement, in depicting the creative urge and its effect on human relationships. And American Pastoral (1997), which won a Pulitzer Prize, conveys as well as any modern novel "the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things".

Yet, from the outset of his career, Roth has been assailed for supposedly unsympathetic portrayals of Jewry. His short story "Defender of the Faith" (included in Goodbye, Columbus) concerns a Jewish army recruit who uses his religious affiliation to secure privileges from his Jewish sergeant. According to Roth's own recollection, he was accused of being a "self-hating Jew" whose writings did "irreparable damage to the Jewish people".

Roth is the only one of that circle of writers still living

Marie Syrkin, an author and teacher and a profound and important advocate of Zionism, was outraged at the lecherous protagonist of Portnoy's Complaint. She accused Roth of creating a character "straight out of the Goebbels-Streicher script" - apparently because Portnoy lusted after blondes.

It was an odd, even bizarre, attack. Roth is scabrous, not pernicious. Jewish "self-hatred" is a term that gained particular currency around the First World War, and wider circulation from the philosopher Theodor Lessing's 1933 book Der judische Selbsthass, but it is a label that I am wary about applying to anyone. Like the old antisemitic canard of Jewish "dual loyalties", it presumes that the secrets of the human heart are transparent.

In any event, Roth's characters are no more antisemitic than is Leo Rosten's great comic creation Hyman Kaplan, whose misadventures rely on his Yiddish literalism. Roth's works are a large slice of modern Jewish life.

They are also a link to the history of the diaspora. Roth's 2004 novel The Plot Against America is premised on a historical counterfactual: the election of aviator Charles Lindbergh as an isolationist American President in 1940. Christopher Hitchens, an acute critic of politics and literature, faulted Roth's attempt to "mesh the 'micro' - most usually the familiar world of Jewish angst in New Jersey - with the 'macro': the successive spasms of alarm and disorder that have punctuated modern American history".

But, for me, this is a great work of modern literature. It illustrates the terrible costs of insularity, from which the international order suffers still.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times

Last updated: 11:45am, November 26 2012