Gathered for three days in Newark, Roth's hometown and an industrial and multicultural suburb of New Jersey, dozens of actors, authors and academics debated, performed and read on stage works of the novelist in front of hundreds of spectators who also crisscrossed by bus the neighborhoods of his youth and celebrated what would have been Sunday his 90th birthday.

Born on March 19, 1933, to a middle-class Jewish family that came from the borders of Ukraine and Poland in the early twentieth century, Roth died in Manhattan on May 22, 2018, covered in glory in the United States and abroad, but without escaping controversy for some books.

A year and a half before his death, "I remember receiving an email from him, just after the election of (Donald) Trump (in November 2016) saying +yes, he will suspend the Constitution +" of the United States, said historian Sean Wilentz at the "Philip Roth Unbound" festival co-produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC).

"Trump is the unexpected"

A journalist for the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch, reported that at the time of Donald Trump's victory, Philip Roth had sworn to him "never had written anything" in his novels about the irruption of a populist in a democracy.

"Trump is the unexpected. Even if, of course, (Roth) had somehow written the script" of the billionaire's election, Gourevitch said.

Because when the 45th American president entered the White House on January 20, 2017, many reread Roth's best-known novel, "The Plot Against America" (2004), adapted into a TV series in 2020.

This uchrony mixes authentic historical facts and inventions.

The narrator, Philip Roth, a Jewish child from Newark, tells how the United States descended into authoritarianism, "fascism", anti-Semitism, deportations and anti-Jewish riots after the fictional victory in the 1940 presidential election, against Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, of aviator Charles Lindbergh, a pro-Nazi Republican, isolationist and supporter of "America first", a slogan of Donald Trump.

"White supremacist"

But as early as 2017, Philip Roth denied in the press any parallel between Trump, "total impostor (...) megalomaniac" with a "vocabulary of 77 words" and Lindbergh, "true racist, anti-Semite and white supremacist sympathetic to fascism" but above all "great hero" of aviation.

US President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to writer Philip Roth during a ceremony at the White Miason on March 2, 2010 © MARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP

With his "Conspiracy" and his novels "American Pastoral" (1997) and "I Married a Communist" (1998), Roth, armed with his "historical conscience" expresses his "concern about the fragility of our democracy," according to publisher Cary Goldstein, co-producer of the festival.

In addition, the organizers pointed out, "the story of the +Conspiracy against America+ resonates with our current political and social climate."

In a sign of the echo of Roth's thought, the festival was sold out Sunday to listen to five hours during the nine chapters of "The Conspiracy" recited by nine actors and actresses -- including Cynthia Nixon, Tony Shalhoub, Sharon Epatha Merkerson or Sam Waterston -- alone on stage behind a desk and a microphone.

For author Francine Rose, Roth's powerful description in her novel of the insidious fear of American Jews shows that "anti-Semitism is a recurring phenomenon" in history and "not invented by Hitler."


According to US authorities and Jewish groups, the number of anti-Semitic crimes and offenses has increased in recent years in a country in the midst of ideological and societal turbulence.

The political landscape is not only polarized to the extreme between President Joe Biden's Democrats and the base of Republican supporters of Donald Trump.

But conservatives, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also want to win "culture wars" over guns, sexual orientation and gender identity, multiculturalism and diversity.

These communal tensions were criticized by Philip Roth in "The Stain" (2000). For the African-American novelist Darryl Pinckney, they represent in today's United States a form of "decay of the bourgeoisie".

For his thurifers, Roth lucidly portrayed the failings of the United States in provocative and satirical narratives, with a deep reflection on the weight of history, Jewish identity, sexuality, aging and death.

Critics have also accused him of being a misogynist, especially during the #Metoo movement in 2017.

But for Francine Prose, it is necessary to distinguish between the female "characters" invented by the novelist and the fact that the man "has defamed neither women nor feminism".

© 2023 AFP