Philip Roth died in May at the age of 85, only a few months after the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, the former Cannon Beach resident and author of world acclaim.
Until their deaths, Roth and Le Guin had been the only living authors in the Library of America, a series “preserving the words that have shaped the American canon.”
Both Le Guin and Roth would likely be uncomfortable with their sudden literary synchronicity.
In so many ways they were polar opposites: Le Guin a product of the Pacific Northwest; Roth, of the East Coast.
Le Guin was the daughter of academics, raised in Berkeley, California; Roth, from a middle-class family in the shadow of Newark, New Jersey.
Roth’s fiction took place on earth; Le Guin’s in other worlds.
Le Guin spent a long domestic life with her husband Charles and raised a family. Roth’s serial relationships were fitful and occasionally troubled — his former wife, the actress Claire Bloom, wrote a savage accounting of their years together. He had no children.
In many of Le Guin’s novels, she imagines a world without gender.
Philip Roth’s voice is fixated on the roots of his desire.
In later years, Le Guin confronted the divide between herself and Roth with a painful assessment: “He’s an awfully male writer,” she told Literary Hub, the Grove Atlantic literary news source. “It’s sort of like he doesn’t want me in his world.”
But it is their moment in time, in America, their passion for writing and uncanny ability to confound critics that ultimately make Roth and Le Guin part of a literary quilt.
Each found their voice and connected with the public in decades-long careers.
Their breakout novels — “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness,” came out the same year, 1969.
Le Guin was an unfashionable outsider from the East Coast literary establishment. Both bristled at labels
“Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over,” she said in a 2014 interview.
Le Guin and Roth both viewed the art of storytelling with reverence, as prolific and highly regarded authors of essays and criticism.
The two authors each retreated from fashionable literary salons. Roth lived and wrote in a wooded rural town in Connecticut 100 miles from New York; Le Guin, in Portland and Cannon Beach.
Each often used their remote locations as backdrops for their fiction: Roth painting bucolic New England; Le Guin, the grandeur of the Oregon Coast.
In a 1973 essay, Salman Rushdie ascribes to each a shared literary device, the power of allegory: Roth, in “The Great American Novel”; Le Guin in “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
Le Guin and Roth shared a kooky love of language and lingo, sometimes made up. Their love of words extended to tongues new and old: Le Guin’s Hainish and the Hardic tongue of Earthsea. “Have you no harekki on Gont?” asks a character in “A Wizard of Earthsea.”
Compare Roth’s Yiddish, “Kish mir in tuchis” — which means what it sounds like.
Voices for freedom
Le Guin and Roth came from a generation of progressive politics, secular outlook and rigid work ethic.
Intensely political, they pressed boundaries and hailed free expression.
Roth perceived the daily repression of Eastern European regimes, where writers feared for their safety and viewed their example as a cautionary tale, identifying abusive political power “as immoral coercion.” He helped bring writers like Milan Kundera and Bruno Schulz from behind the Iron Curtain to American readers.
Le Guin loathed intolerance, totalitarianism and repression. “Only fear rules men,” a Le Guin character states in “The Left Hand of Darkness.” “Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough.”
Le Guin’s greatest moments in public life came from the podium. At the 2014 National Book Awards, she delivered a speech that resonated to not only the world of publishing, but politics, society and letters.
She urged an ascendancy of writers who can “remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”
Both Le Guin and Roth were honored by the National Book Foundation with its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, an honor bestowed on Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike and Stephen King.
Neither received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Is there a nexus between them? Does there need to be one?
Roth supplies a better understanding of appreciating great authors in his essay, “Writing American Fiction” — “There seems to me little, in the end, to prove an assertion about the psychology of a nation’s writers, outside, that is, of their books themselves.”
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.