Interviews

Philip Roth, The Art of Fiction No. 84

Interviewed by Hermione Lee

I met Philip Roth after I had published a short book about his work for the Methuen Contemporary Writers Series. He read the book and wrote me a generous letter. After our first meeting, he sent me the fourth draft of The Anatomy Lesson, which we later talked about, because, in the final stages of writing a novel, Roth likes to get as much criticism and response as he can from a few interested readers. Just after he finished The Anatomy Lesson we began the Paris Review interview. We met in the early summer of 1983 at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, where Roth occasionally takes a room to work in when he’s visiting England. The room had been turned into a small, meticulously organized office—IBM golf-ball typewriter, alphabetical file holders, Anglepoise lamps, dictionaries, aspirin, copyholder, felt-tip pens for correcting, a radio—with a few books on the mantelpiece, among them the recently published autobiography by Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope, Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, David Magarshaek’s Chekhov, John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems, Fordyce’s Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness (useful for Zuckerman), Claire Bloom’s autobiography, Limelight and After, and some Paris Review interviews. We talked in this businesslike cell for a day and a half, pausing only for meals. I was looked after with great thoughtfulness. Roth’s manner, which matches his appearance—subdued, conventional clothes, gold-rimmed spectacles, the look of a quiet professional American visitor to London, perhaps an academic or a lawyer—is courteous, mild, and responsive. He listens carefully to everything, makes lots of quick jokes, and likes to be amused. Just underneath this benign appearance there is a ferocious concentration and mental rapacity; everything is grist for his mill, no vagueness is tolerated, differences of opinion are pounced on greedily, and nothing that might be useful is let slip. Thinking on his feet, he develops his ideas through a playful use of figurative language—as much as a way of avoiding confessional answers (though he can be very direct) as of interesting himself. The transcripts from this taped conversation were long, absorbing, funny, disorganized, and repetitive. I edited them down to a manageable size and sent my version on to him. Then there was a long pause while he went back to America and The Anatomy Lesson was published. Early in 1984, on his next visit to England, we resumed; he revised my version and we talked about the revision until it acquired its final form. I found this process extremely interesting. The mood of the interview had changed in the six months between his finishing a novel and starting new work; it became more combative and buoyant. And the several drafts in themselves displayed Roth’s methods of work: raw chunks of talk were processed into stylish, energetic, concentrated prose, and the return to past thoughts generated new ideas. The result provides an example, as well as an account, of Philip Roth’s presentation of himself.

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you get started on a new book?

PHILIP ROTH

Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

INTERVIEWER

How much of a book is in your mind before you start?

ROTH

What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you. You’re looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.

INTERVIEWER

Must you have a beginning? Would you ever begin with an ending?

ROTH

For all I know I am beginning with the ending. My page one can wind up a year later as page two hundred, if it’s still even around.

INTERVIEWER

What happens to those hundred or so pages that you have left over? Do you save them up?

ROTH

I generally prefer never to see them again.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work best at any particular time of the day?

ROTH

I work all day, morning and afternoon, just about every day. If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think other writers work such long hours?

ROTH

I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out “Is he as crazy as I am?” I don’t need that question answered.

INTERVIEWER

Does your reading affect what you write?

ROTH

I read all the time when I’m working, usually at night. It’s a way of keeping the circuits open. It’s a way of thinking about my line of work while getting a little rest from the work at hand. It helps inasmuch as it fuels the overall obsession.

INTERVIEWER

Do you show your work in progress to anyone?

ROTH

It’s more useful for my mistakes to ripen and burst in their own good time. I give myself all the opposition I need while I’m writing, and praise is meaningless to me when I know something isn’t even half finished. Nobody sees what I’m doing until I absolutely can’t go any further and might even like to believe that I’m done.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a Roth reader in mind when you write?

ROTH

No. I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, “How he is going to hate this!” That can be just the encouragement I need.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke of the last phase of writing a novel being a “crisis” in which you turn against the material and hate the work. Is there always this crisis, with every book?

ROTH

Always. Months of looking at the manuscript and saying, “This is wrong—but what’s wrong?” I ask myself, “If this book were a dream, it would be a dream of what?” But when I’m asking this I’m also trying to believe in what I’ve written, to forget that it’s writing and to say, “This has taken place,” even if it hasn’t. The idea is to perceive your invention as a reality that can be understood as a dream. The idea is to turn flesh and blood into literary characters and literary characters into flesh and blood.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say more about these crises?

ROTH

In The Ghost Writer the crisis—one among many—had to do with Zuckerman, Amy Bellette, and Anne Frank. It wasn’t easy to see that Amy Bellette as Anne Frank was Zuckerman’s own creation. Only by working through numerous alternatives did I decide that not only was she his creation, but that she might possibly be her own creation too, a young woman inventing herself within Zuckerman’s invention. To enrich his fantasy without obfuscation or muddle, to be ambiguous and clear—well, that was my writing problem through one whole summer and fall. In Zuckerman Unbound the crisis was a result of failing to see that Zuckerman’s father shouldn’t already be dead when the book begins. I eventually realized that the death should come at the conclusion of the book, allegedly as a consequence of the son’s blasphemous best-seller. But, starting off, I’d got the thing back to front, and then I stared at it dumbly for months, seeing nothing. I knew that I wanted the book to veer away from Alvin Pepler—I like to be steamrolling along in one direction and then to spring my surprise—but I couldn’t give up the premise of my earliest drafts until I saw that the novel’s obsessive concern with assassinations, death threats, funerals, and funeral homes was leading up to, rather than away from, the death of Zuckerman’s father. How you juxtapose the events can tie you up in knots and rearranging the sequence can free you suddenly to streak for the finish line. In The Anatomy Lesson the discovery I made—having banged the typewriter with my head far too long—was that Zuckerman, in the moment that he takes flight for Chicago to try to become a doctor, should begin to impersonate a pornographer. There had to be willed extremism at either end of the moral spectrum, each of his escape-dreams of self-transformation subverting the meaning and mocking the intention of the other. If he had gone off solely to become a doctor, driven only by that high moral ardor, or, if he had just gone around impersonating a pornographer, spewing only that anarchic and alienating rage, he wouldn’t have been my man. He has two dominant modes: his mode of self-abnegation, and his fuck-’em mode. You want a bad Jewish boy, that’s what you’re going to get. He rests from one by taking up the other; though, as we see, it’s not much of a rest. The thing about Zuckerman that interests me is that everybody’s split, but few so openly as this. Everybody is full of cracks and fissures, but usually we see people trying very hard to hide the places where they’re split. Most people desperately want to heal their lesions, and keep trying to. Hiding them is sometimes taken for healing them (or for not having them). But Zuckerman can’t successfully do either, and by the end of the trilogy has proved it even to himself. What’s determined his life and his work are the lines of fracture in what is by no means a clean break. I was interested in following those lines.

INTERVIEWER

What happens to Philip Roth when he turns into Nathan Zuckerman?

ROTH

Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift. Zuckerman is a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer. I am a writer writing a book impersonating a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer—who then, to compound the impersonation, to barb the edge, pretends he’s a well-known literary critic. Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade. Think of the ventriloquist. He speaks so that his voice appears to proceed from someone at a distance from himself. But if he weren’t in your line of vision you’d get no pleasure from his art at all. His art consists of being present and absent; he’s most himself by simultaneously being someone else, neither of whom he “is” once the curtain is down. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it—all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life. Millions of people do this all the time, of course, and not with the justification of making literature. They mean it. It’s amazing what lies people can sustain behind the mask of their real faces. Think of the art of the adulterer: under tremendous pressure and against enormous odds, ordinary husbands and wives, who would freeze with self-consciousness up on a stage, yet in the theater of the home, alone before the audience of the betrayed spouse, they act out roles of innocence and fidelity with flawless dramatic skill. Great, great performances, conceived with genius down to the smallest particulars, impeccably meticulous naturalistic acting, and all done by rank amateurs. People beautifully pretending to be “themselves.” Make-believe can take the subtlest forms, you know. Why should a novelist, a pretender by profession, be any less deft or more reliable than a stolid, unimaginative suburban accountant cheating on his wife? Jack Benny used to pretend to be a miser, remember? Called himself by his own good name and claimed that he was stingy and mean. It excited his comic imagination to do this. He probably wasn’t all that funny as just another nice fellow writing checks to the UJA and taking his friends out to dinner. Céline pretended to be a rather indifferent, even irresponsible physician, when he seems in fact to have worked hard at his practice and to have been conscientious about his patients. But that wasn’t interesting.

INTERVIEWER

But it is. Being a good doctor is interesting.

ROTH

For William Carlos Williams maybe, but not for Céline. Being a devoted husband, an intelligent father, and a dedicated family physician in Rutherford, New Jersey, might have seemed as admirable to Céline as it does to you, or to me for that matter, but his writing drew its vigor from the demotic voice and the dramatization of his outlaw side (which was considerable), and so he created the Céline of the great novels in somewhat the way Jack Benny, also flirting with the taboo, created himself as a miser. You have to be awfully naive not to understand that a writer is a performer who puts on the act he does best—not least when he dons the mask of the first-person singular. That may be the best mask of all for a second self. Some (many) pretend to be more lovable than they are and some pretend to be less. Beside the point. Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts. The question to ask about the writer isn’t “Why does he behave so badly?” but “What does he gain by wearing this mask?” I don’t admire the Genet that Genet presents as himself any more than I admire the unsavory Molloy impersonated by Beckett. I admire Genet because he writes books that won’t let me forget who that Genet is. When Rebecca West was writing about Augustine, she said that his Confessions was too subjectively true to be objectively true. I think this is so in the first-person novels of Genet and Céline, as it is in Colette, books like The Shackle and The Vagabond. Gombrowicz has a novel called Pornographia in which he introduces himself as a character, using his own name—the better to implicate himself in certain highly dubious proceedings and bring the moral terror to life. Konwicki, another Pole, in his last two novels, The Polish Complex and A Minor Apocalypse, works to close the gap between the reader and the narrative by introducing “Konwicki” as the central character. He strengthens the illusion that the novel is true—and not to be discounted as “fiction”—by impersonating himself. It all goes back to Jack Benny. Need I add, however, that it’s hardly a disinterested undertaking? Writing for me isn’t a natural thing that I just keep doing, the way fish swim and birds fly. It’s something that’s done under a certain kind of provocation, a particular urgency. It’s the transformation, through an elaborate impersonation, of a personal emergency into a public act (in both senses of that word). It can be a very trying spiritual exercise to siphon through your being qualities that are alien to your moral makeup—as trying for the writer as for the reader. You can wind up feeling more like a sword-swallower than a ventriloquist or impersonator. You sometimes use yourself very harshly in order to reach what is, literally speaking, beyond you. The impersonator can’t afford to indulge the ordinary human instincts which direct people in what they want to present and what they want to hide.

INTERVIEWER

If the novelist is an impersonator, then what about the autobiography? What is the relationship, for example, between the deaths of the parents, which are so important in the last two Zuckerman novels, and the death of your own parents?

ROTH

Why not ask about the relationship between the death of my parents and the death of Gabe Wallach’s mother, the germinating incident in my 1962 novel, Letting Go? Or ask about the death and funeral of the father, which is at the heart of “The Day It Snowed,” my first published story in the Chicago Review in 1955? Or ask about the death of Kepesh’s mother, wife of the owner of a Catskills hotel, which is the turning point in The Professor of Desire? The terrible blow of the death of a parent is something I began writing about long before any parent of mine had died. Novelists are frequently as interested in what hasn’t happened to them as in what has. What may be taken by the innocent for naked autobiography is, as I’ve been suggesting, more than likely mock-autobiography or hypothetical autobiography or autobiography grandiosely enlarged. We know about the people who walk into the police station and confess to crimes they haven’t committed. Well, the false confession appeals to writers, too. Novelists are even interested in what happens to other people and, like liars and con men everywhere, will pretend that something dramatic or awful or hair-raising or splendid that happened to someone else actually happened to them. The physical particulars and moral circumstances of Zuckerman’s mother’s death have practically nothing to do with the death of my own mother. The death of the mother of one of my dearest friends—whose account of her suffering stuck in my mind long after he’d told me about it—furnished the most telling details for the mother’s death in The Anatomy Lesson. The black cleaning woman who commiserates with Zuckerman in Miami Beach about his mother’s death is modeled on the housekeeper of old friends in Philadelphia, a woman I haven’t seen for ten years and who never laid eyes on anybody in my family but me. I was always entranced by her tangy style of speech, and when the right moment came, I used it. But the words in her mouth I invented. Olivia, the eighty-three-year-old black Florida cleaning woman, c’est moi.

As you well know, the intriguing biographical issue—and critical issue, for that matter—isn’t that a writer will write about some of what has happened to him, but how he writes about it, which, when understood properly, takes us a long way to understanding why he writes about it. A more intriguing question is why and how he writes about what hasn’t happened—how he feeds what’s hypothetical or imagined into what’s inspired and controlled by recollection, and how what’s recollected spawns the overall fantasy. I suggest, by the way, that the best person to ask about the autobiographical relevance of the climactic death of the father in Zuckerman Unbound is my own father, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I’ll give you his phone number.

INTERVIEWER

Then what is the relationship between your experience of psychoanalysis and the use of psychoanalysis as a literary stratagem?

ROTH

If I hadn’t been analyzed I wouldn’t have written Portnoy’s Complaint as I wrote it, or My Life as a Man as I wrote it, nor would The Breast resemble itself. Nor would I resemble myself. The experience of psychoanalysis was probably more useful to me as a writer than as a neurotic, although there may be a false distinction there. It’s an experience that I shared with tens of thousands of baffled people, and anything that powerful in the private domain that joins a writer to his generation, to his class, to his moment, is tremendously important for him, providing that afterwards he can separate himself enough to examine the experience objectively, imaginatively, in the writing clinic. You have to be able to become your doctor’s doctor, even if only to write about patienthood, which was, certainly in part, a subject in My Life as a Man. Why patienthood interested me—and as far back as Letting Go, written four or five years before my own analysis—was because so many enlightened contemporaries had come to accept the view of themselves as patients, and the ideas of psychic disease, cure, and recovery. You’re asking me about the relationship between art and life? It’s like the relationship between the eight hundred or so hours that it took to be psychoanalyzed, and the eight or so hours that it would take to read Portnoy’s Complaint aloud. Life is long and art is shorter.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about your marriage?

ROTH

It took place so long ago that I no longer trust my memory of it. The problem is complicated further by My Life as a Man, which diverges so dramatically in so many places from its origin in my own nasty situation that I’m hard put, some twenty-five years later, to sort out the invention of 1974 from the facts of 1959. You might as well ask the author of The Naked and the Dead what happened to him in the Philippines. I can only tell you that that was my time as an infantryman, and that My Life as a Man is the war novel I wrote some years after failing to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have painful feelings on looking back?

ROTH

Looking back I see these as fascinating years—as people of fifty often do contemplating the youthful adventure for which they paid with a decade of their lives a comfortingly long time ago. I was more aggressive then than I am today, some people were even said to be intimidated by me, but I was an easy target, all the same. We’re easy targets at twenty-five, if only someone discovers the enormous bull’s-eye.

INTERVIEWER

And where was it?

ROTH

Oh, where it can usually be found in self-confessed budding literary geniuses. My idealism. My romanticism. My passion to capitalize the L in life. I wanted something difficult and dangerous to happen to me. I wanted a hard time. Well, I got it. I’d come from a small, safe, relatively happy provincial background—my Newark neighborhood in the thirties and forties was just a Jewish Terre Haute—and I’d absorbed, along with the ambition and drive, the fears and phobias of my generation of American Jewish children. In my early twenties, I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid of all those things. It wasn’t a mistake to want to prove that, even though, after the ball was over, I was virtually unable to write for three or four years. From 1962 to 1967 is the longest I’ve gone, since becoming a writer, without publishing a book. Alimony and recurrent court costs had bled me of every penny I could earn by teaching and writing, and, hardly into my thirties, I was thousands of dollars in debt to my friend and editor, Joe Fox. The loan was to help pay for my analysis, which I needed primarily to prevent me from going out and committing murder because of the alimony and court costs incurred for having served two years in a childless marriage. The image that teased me during those years was of a train that had been shunted onto the wrong track. In my early twenties, I had been zipping right along there, you know—on schedule, express stops only, final destination clearly in mind; and then suddenly I was on the wrong track, speeding off into the wilds. I’d ask myself, “How the hell do you get this thing back on the right track?” Well, you can’t. I’ve continued to be surprised, over the years, whenever I discover myself, late at night, pulling into the wrong station.

INTERVIEWER

But not getting back on the same track was a great thing for you, presumably.

ROTH

John Berryman said that for a writer any ordeal that doesn’t kill him is terrific. The fact that his ordeal did finally kill him doesn’t make what he was saying wrong.

INTERVIEWER

What do you feel about feminism, particularly the feminist attack on you?

ROTH

What is it?

INTERVIEWER

The force of the attack would be, in part, that the female characters are unsympathetically treated, for instance that Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good is hostilely presented.

ROTH

Don’t elevate that by calling it a “feminist” attack. That’s just stupid reading. Lucy Nelson is a furious adolescent who wants a decent life. She is presented as better than her world and conscious of being better. She is confronted and opposed by men who typify deeply irritating types to many women. She is the protector of a passive, defenseless mother whose vulnerability drives her crazy. She happens to be raging against aspects of middle-class American life that the new militant feminism was to identify as the enemy only a few years after Lucy’s appearance in print—hers might even be thought of as a case of premature feminist rage. When She Was Good deals with Lucy’s struggle to free herself from the terrible disappointment engendered in a daughter by an irresponsible father. It deals with her hatred of the father he was and her yearning for the father he couldn’t be. It would be sheer idiocy, particularly if this were a feminist attack, to contend that such powerful feelings of loss and contempt and shame do not exist in the daughters of drunks, cowards, and criminals. There is also the helpless mama’s boy Lucy marries, and her hatred of his incompetence and professional innocence. Is there no such thing in the world as marital hatred? That will come as news to all the rich divorce lawyers, not to mention to Thomas Hardy and Gustave Flaubert. By the way, is Lucy’s father treated “hostilely” because he’s a drunk and a petty thief who ends up in jail? Is Lucy’s husband treated “hostilely” because he happens to be a big baby? Is the uncle who tries to destroy Lucy “hostilely” treated because he’s a brute? This is a novel about a wounded daughter who has more than sufficient cause to be enraged with the men in her life. She is only “hostilely” presented if it’s an act of hostility to recognize that young women can be wounded and young women can be enraged. I’d bet there are even some enraged and wounded women who are feminists. You know, the dirty little secret is no longer sex; the dirty little secret is hatred and rage. It’s the tirade that’s taboo. Odd that this should be so a hundred years after Dostoyevsky (and fifty after Freud), but nobody nice likes to be identified with the stuff. It’s the way folks used to feel about fellatio in the good old days. “Me? Never heard of it. Disgusting.” But is it “hostile,” really, to take a look at the ferocity of the emotion they call “hostility”? When She Was Good is not serving the cause—that’s true. The anger of this young woman isn’t presented to be endorsed with a hearty “Right on!” that will move the populace to action. The nature of the anger is examined, as is the depth of the wound. So are the consequences of the anger, for Lucy as for everyone. I hate to have to be the one to say it, but the portrait isn’t without its poignancy. I don’t mean by poignancy what the compassionate book reviewers call “compassion.” I mean you see the suffering that real rage is.

INTERVIEWER

But supposing I say to you that nearly all the women in the books are there to obstruct, or to help, or to console the male characters. There’s the woman who cooks and consoles and is sane and calming, or the other kind of woman, the dangerous maniac, the obstructor. They occur as means of helping or obstructing Kepesh or Zuckerman or Tarnopol. And that could be seen as a limited view of women.

ROTH

Let’s face it, some women who are sane also happen to know how to cook. So do some of the dangerous maniacs. Let’s leave out the sin of cooking. A great book on the order of Oblomov could be written about a man allying himself with woman after woman who gorges him with marvelous meals, but I haven’t written it. If your description of the “sane,” “calm,” and “consoling” woman applies to anyone, it’s to Claire Ovington in The Professor of Desire, with whom Kepesh establishes a tender liaison some years after the breakup of his marriage. Now, I’d have no objection to your writing a novel about this relationship from the point of view of Claire Ovington—I’d be intrigued to see how she saw it—so why do you take a slightly critical tone about my writing the novel from the point of view of David Kepesh?

INTERVIEWER

There’s nothing wrong with the novel’s being written from David Kepesh’s point of view. What might cause difficulties for some readers is that Claire, and the other women in the novel, are there to help or hinder him.

ROTH

I’m not pretending to give you anything other than his sense of his life with this young woman. My book doesn’t stand or fall on the fact that Claire Ovington is calm and sane, but on whether I am able to depict what calmness and sanity are like, and what it is to have a mate—and why it is one would want a mate—who possesses those and other virtues in abundance. She is also vulnerable to jealousy when Kepesh’s ex-wife turns up uninvited, and she carries with her a certain sadness about her family background. She isn’t there “as a means” of helping Kepesh. She helps him—and he helps her. They are in love. She is there because Kepesh has fallen in love with a sane and calm and consoling woman after having been unhappily married to a difficult and exciting woman he was unable to handle. Don’t people do that? Someone more doctrinaire than you might tell me that the state of being in love, particularly of being passionately in love, is no basis for establishing permanent relationships between men and women. But, alas, people, even people of intelligence and experience, will do it—have done it and seem intent on going on doing it—and I am not interested in writing about what people should do for the good of the human race and pretending that’s what they do do, but writing about what they do indeed do, lacking the programmatic efficiency of the infallible theorists. The irony of Kepesh’s situation is that having found the calm and consoling woman he can live with, a woman of numerous qualities, he then finds his desire for her perversely seeping away, and realizes that unless this involuntary diminution of passion can be arrested, he’ll become alienated from the best thing in his life. Doesn’t that happen either? From what I hear this damn seeping away of desire happens all the time and is extremely distressing to the people involved. Look, I didn’t invent the loss of desire, and I didn’t invent the lure of passion, and I didn’t invent sane companions, and I didn’t invent maniacs. I’m sorry if my men don’t have the correct feelings about women, or the universal range of feelings about women, or the feelings about women that it will be okay for men to have in 1995, but I do insist that there is some morsel of truth in my depiction of what it might be like for a man to be a Kepesh, or a Portnoy, or a breast.

INTERVIEWER

Why have you never reused the character of Portnoy in another book, the way that you have used Kepesh and Zuckerman?

ROTH

But I did use Portnoy in another book. Our Gang and The Great American Novel are Portnoy in another book. Portnoy wasn’t a character for me, he was an explosion, and I wasn’t finished exploding after Portnoy’s Complaint. The first thing I wrote after Portnoy’s Complaint was a long story that appeared in Ted Solotaroff’s American Review called “On the Air.” John Updike was here a while ago and while we were all having dinner one night, he said, “How come you’ve never reprinted that story?” I said, “It’s too disgusting.” John laughed. He said, “It is, it’s a truly disgusting story.” And I said, “I didn’t know what I was thinking about when I wrote it.” And that is true to some degree—I didn’t want to know; the idea was not to know. But I also did know. I looked in the arsenal and found another dynamite stick, and I thought, “Light the fuse and see what happens.” I was trying to blow up more of myself. This phenomenon is known to students of literary survey courses as the writer changing his style. I was blowing up a lot of old loyalties and inhibitions, literary as well as personal. I think this may be why so many Jews were incensed by Portnoy’s Complaint. It wasn’t that they’d never heard about kids masturbating before, or about Jewish family fighting. It was, rather, that if they couldn’t even control someone like me anymore, with all my respectable affiliations and credentials, all my Seriousness of Purpose, something had gone wrong. After all, I wasn’t Abbie Hoffman or Lenny Bruce, I was a university teacher who had published in Commentary. But at the time it seemed to me that the next thing to be serious about was not being so God damn serious. As Zuckerman reminds Appel, “Seriousness can be as stupid as anything else.”

INTERVIEWER

Weren’t you also looking for a fight, writing Portnoy’s Complaint?

ROTH

I’d found a fight without looking for it long before that. They’d never really got off my ass for publishing Goodbye, Columbus, which was considered in some circles to be my Mein Kampf. Unlike Alexander Portnoy, my education in petit bourgeois morality didn’t come at home, but after I’d left home and begun to publish my first short stories. My own household environment as a youngster was much closer to Zuckerman’s than to Portnoy’s. It had its constraints, but there was nothing resembling the censorious small-mindedness and shame-ridden xenophobia that I ran into from the official Jews who wanted me to shut up. The moral atmosphere of the Portnoy household, in its repressive aspects, owes a lot to the response of persistent voices within the official Jewish community to my debut. They did much to help make it seem auspicious.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been talking about the opposition to Portnoy’s Complaint. What about the recognition—how did its enormous success affect you?

ROTH

It was too big, on a larger and much crazier scale than I could begin to deal with, so I took off. A few weeks after publication, I boarded a bus at the Port Authority terminal for Saratoga Springs, and holed up at Yaddo, the writers’ colony, for three months. Precisely what Zuckerman should have done after Carnovsky—but he hung around, the fool, and look what happened to him. He would have enjoyed Yaddo more than he enjoyed Alvin Pepler. But it made Zuckerman Unbound funnier keeping him in Manhattan, and it made my own life easier, not being there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you dislike New York?

ROTH

I lived there from 1962 until I moved to the country after Portnoy’s Complaint, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. New York gave me Portnoy’s Complaint in a way. When I was living and teaching in Iowa City and Princeton, I didn’t ever feel so free as I did in New York, in the sixties, to indulge myself in comic performance, on paper and with friends. There were raucous evenings with my New York friends, there was uncensored shamelessness in my psychoanalytic sessions, there was the dramatic, stagy atmosphere of the city itself in the years after Kennedy’s assassination—all this inspired me to try out a new voice, a fourth voice, a less page-bound voice than the voice of Goodbye, Columbus, or of Letting Go, or of When She Was Good. So did the opposition to the war in Vietnam. There’s always something behind a book to which it has no seeming connection, something invisible to the reader which has helped to release the writer’s initial impulse. I’m thinking about the rage and rebelliousness that were in the air, the vivid examples I saw around me of angry defiance and hysterical opposition. This gave me a few ideas for my act.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel you were part of what was going on in the sixties?

ROTH

I felt the power of the life around me. I believed myself to be feeling the full consciousness of a place—this time New York—for the first time really since childhood. I was also, like others, receiving a stunning education in moral, political, and cultural possibilities from the country’s eventful public life and from what was happening in Vietnam.

INTERVIEWER

But you published a famous essay in Commentary in 1960 called “Writing American Fiction” about the way that intellectuals or thinking people in America felt that they were living in a foreign country, a country in whose communal life they were not involved.

ROTH

Well, that’s the difference between 1960 and 1968. (Being published in Commentary is another difference.) Alienated in America, a stranger to its pleasures and preoccupations—that was how many young people like me saw their situation in the fifties. It was a perfectly honorable stance, I think, shaped by our literary aspirations and modernist enthusiasms, the high-minded of the second post-immigrant generation coming into conflict with the first great eruption of postwar media garbage. Little did we know that some twenty years later the philistine ignorance on which we would have liked to turn our backs would infect the country like Camus’s plague. Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry, just where Orwell failed; he would have seen that the grotesquerie to be visited upon the English-speaking world would not be an extension of the repressive Eastern totalitarian nightmare but a proliferation of the Western farce of media stupidity and cynical commercialism—American-style philistinism run amok. It wasn’t Big Brother who’d be watching us from the screen, but we who’d be watching a terrifyingly powerful world leader with the soul of an amiable, soap-opera grandmother, the values of a civic-minded Beverly Hills Cadillac dealer, and the historical background and intellectual equipment of a high-school senior in a June Allyson musical.

INTERVIEWER

What happened to you later, in the seventies? Did what was happening in the country continue to mean much to someone like you?

ROTH

I have to remember what book I was writing and then I can remember what happened to me—though what was happening to me was largely the book I was writing. Nixon came and went in ’73, and while Nixon was coming and going I was being driven quite crazy by My Life as a Man. In a way I had been writing that book on and off since 1964. I kept looking for a setting for the sordid scene in which Maureen buys a urine specimen from a poor pregnant black woman in order to get Tarnopol to think he’s impregnated her. I thought of it first as a scene for When She Was Good, but it was all wrong for Lucy and Roy in Liberty Center. Then I thought it might go into Portnoy’s Complaint, but it was too malevolent for that kind of comedy. Then I wrote cartons and cartons of drafts of what eventually turned out to be My Life as a Man—eventually, after I finally realized that my solution lay in the very problem I couldn’t overcome: my inability to find the setting appropriate to the sordid event, rather than the sordid event itself, was really at the heart of the novel. Watergate made life interesting when I wasn’t writing, but from nine to five every day I didn’t think too much about Nixon or about Vietnam. I was trying to solve the problem of this book. When it seemed I never would, I stopped and wrote Our Gang; when I tried again and still couldn’t write it, I stopped and wrote the baseball book; then while finishing the baseball book, I stopped to write The Breast. It was as though I were blasting my way through a tunnel to reach the novel that I couldn’t write. Each of one’s books is a blast, clearing the way for what’s next. It’s all one book you write anyway. At night you dream six dreams. But are they six dreams? One dream prefigures or anticipates the next, or somehow concludes what hasn’t yet even been fully dreamed. Then comes the next dream, the corrective of the dream before—the alternative dream, the antidote dream—enlarging upon it, or laughing at it, or contradicting it, or trying just to get the dream dreamed right. You can go on trying all night long.

INTERVIEWER

After Portnoy, after leaving New York, you moved to the country. What about rural life? Obviously it was used as material in The Ghost Writer.

ROTH

I might never have become interested in writing about a reclusive writer if I hadn’t first had my own small taste of E. I. Lonoff’s thirty-five years of rural splendor. I need something solid under my feet to kick off my imagination. But aside from giving me a sense of the Lonoffs’ lives, the country existence hasn’t offered anything as yet in the way of subject. Probably it never will and I should get the hell out. Only I happen to love living there, and I can’t make every choice conform to the needs of my work.

INTERVIEWER

What about England, where you spend part of each year? Is that a possible source of fiction?

ROTH

Ask me twenty years from now. That’s about how long it took Isaac Singer to get enough of Poland out of his system—and to let enough of America in—to begin, little by little, as a writer, to see and depict his upper-Broadway cafeterias. If you don’t know the fantasy life of a country, it’s hard to write fiction about it that isn’t just description of the decor, human and otherwise. Little things trickle through when I see the country dreaming out loud—in the theater, at an election, during the Falklands crisis, but I know nothing really about what means what to people here. It’s very hard for me to understand who people are, even when they tell me, and I don’t even know if that’s because of who they are or because of me. I don’t know who is impersonating what, if I’m necessarily seeing the real thing or just a fabrication, nor can I easily see where the two overlap. My perceptions are clouded by the fact that I speak the language. I believe I know what’s being said, you see, even if I don’t. Worst of all, I don’t hate anything here. What a relief it is to have no culture-grievances, not to have to hear the sound of one’s voice taking positions and having opinions and recounting all that’s wrong! What bliss—but for the writing that’s no asset. Nothing drives me crazy here, and a writer has to be driven crazy to help him to see. A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book. Now if I had to live here, if for some reason I were forbidden ever to return to America, if my position and my personal well-being were suddenly to become permanently bound up with England, well, what was maddening and meaningful might begin to come into focus, and yes, in about the year 2005, maybe 2010, little by little I’d stop writing about Newark and I would dare to set a story at a table in a wine bar on Kensington Park Road. A story about an elderly exiled foreign writer, in this instance reading not the Jewish Daily Forward, but the Herald Tribune.

INTERVIEWER

In these last three books, the Zuckerman novels, there has been a reiteration of the struggle with Jewishness and Jewish criticism. Why do you think these books go over the past as much as they do? Why is that happening now?

ROTH

In the early seventies, I began to be a regular visitor to Czechoslovakia. I went to Prague every spring and took a little crash course in political repression. I’d only known repression firsthand in somewhat more benign and covert forms—as psychosexual constraint or as social restriction. I knew less about anti-Semitic repression from personal experience than I did about the repressions Jews practiced upon themselves, and upon one another, as a consequence of the history of anti-Semitism. Portnoy, you remember, considers himself just such a practicing Jew. Anyway, I became highly attuned to the differences between the writer’s life in totalitarian Prague and in freewheeling New York, and I decided, after some initial uncertainty, to focus on the unreckoned consequences of a life in art in the world that I knew best. I realized that there were already many wonderful and famous stories and novels by Henry James and Thomas Mann and James Joyce about the life of the artist, but none I knew of about the comedy that an artistic vocation can turn out to be in the U.S.A. When Thomas Wolfe tackled the subject he was rather rhapsodic. Zuckerman’s struggle with Jewishness and Jewish criticism is seen in the context of his comical career as an American writer, ousted by his family, alienated from his fans, and finally at odds with his own nerve endings. The Jewish quality of books like mine doesn’t really reside in their subject matter. Talking about Jewishness hardly interests me at all. It’s a kind of sensibility that makes, say, The Anatomy Lesson Jewish, if anything does: the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the playacting—above all the talking. The talking and the shouting. Jews will go on, you know. It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish—it’s that the book won’t shut up. The book won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up. Gets too close. “Listen, listen—that’s only the half of it!” I knew what I was doing when I broke Zuckerman’s jaw. For a Jew a broken jaw is a terrible tragedy. It was to avoid this that so many of us went into teaching rather than prizefighting.

INTERVIEWER

Why is Milton Appel, the good, high-minded Jew who was a guru for Zuckerman in his early years, a punching-bag in The Anatomy Lesson, someone that Zuckerman wants to desanctify?

ROTH

If I were not myself, if someone else had been assigned the role of being Roth and writing his books, I might very well, in this other incarnation, have been his Milton Appel.

INTERVIEWER

Is Zuckerman’s rage at Milton Appel the expression of a kind of guilt on your part?

ROTH

Guilt? Not at all. As a matter of fact, in an earlier draft of the book, Zuckerman and his young girlfriend Diana took exactly opposite positions in their argument about Appel. She, with all her feisty inexperience, said to Zuckerman, “Why do you let him push you around, why do you take this shit sitting down?” and Zuckerman, the older man, said to her, “Don’t be ridiculous, dear, calm down, he doesn’t matter.” There was the real autobiographical scene, and it had no life at all. I had to absorb the rage into the main character even if my own rage on this topic had long since subsided. By being true to life I was actually ducking the issue. So I reversed their positions, and had the twenty-year-old college girl telling Zuckerman to grow up, and gave Zuckerman the tantrum. Much more fun. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with a Zuckerman as eminently reasonable as myself.

INTERVIEWER

So your hero always has to be enraged or in trouble or complaining.

ROTH

My hero has to be in a state of vivid transformation or radical displacement. “I am not what I am—I am, if anything, what I am not.” The litany begins something like that.

INTERVIEWER

How conscious are you as you are writing of whether you are moving from a third- to a first-person narrative?

ROTH

It’s not conscious or unconscious—the movement is spontaneous.

INTERVIEWER

But how does it feel, to be writing in the third person as opposed to the first person?

ROTH

How does it feel looking through a microscope, when you adjust the focus? Everything depends upon how close you want to bring the naked object to the naked eye. And vice versa. Depends on what you want to magnify, and to what power.

INTERVIEWER

But do you free yourself in certain ways by putting Zuckerman in the third person?

ROTH

I free myself to say about Zuckerman what it would be inappropriate for him to say about himself in quite the same way. The irony would be lost in the first person, or the comedy; I can introduce a note of gravity that might be jarring coming from him. The shifting within a single narrative from the one voice to the other is how a reader’s moral perspective is determined. It’s something like this that we all want to do in ordinary conversation when we employ the indefinite pronoun “one” in speaking of ourselves. Using “one” places your observation in a looser relationship to the self that’s uttering it. Look, sometimes it’s more telling to let him speak for himself, sometimes it’s more telling to speak about him; sometimes it’s more telling to narrate obliquely, sometimes not. The Ghost Writer is narrated in the first person, probably because what’s being described is largely a world Zuckerman’s discovered outside of himself, the book of a young explorer. The older and more scarred he gets, the more inward-looking he gets, the further out I have to get. The crisis of solipsism he suffers in The Anatomy Lesson is better seen from a bit of a distance.

INTERVIEWER

Do you direct yourself as you are writing to make distinctions between what is spoken and what is narrative?

ROTH

I don’t “direct” myself. I respond to what seem the liveliest possibilities. There’s no necessary balance to be achieved between what is spoken and what is narrated. You go with what’s alive. Two thousand pages of narrative and six lines of dialogue may be just the ticket for one writer, and two thousand pages of dialogue and six lines of narrative the solution for another.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever take long chunks that have been dialogue and make them into narrative, or the other way around?

ROTH

Sure. I did that with the Anne Frank section of The Ghost Writer. I had trouble getting that right. When I began, in the third person, I was somehow revering the material. I was taking a high elegiac tone in telling the story of Anne Frank surviving and coming to America. I didn’t know where I was going so I began by doing what you’re supposed to do when writing the life of a saint. It was the tone appropriate to hagiography. Instead of Anne Frank gaining new meaning within the context of my story, I was trying to draw from the ready store of stock emotions that everybody is supposed to have about her. It’s what even good actors sometimes will do during the first weeks of rehearsing a play—gravitate to the conventional form of presentation, cling to the cliché while anxiously waiting for something authentic to take hold. In retrospect, my difficulties look somewhat bizarre, because just what Zuckerman was fighting against, I was in fact succumbing to—the officially authorized and most consoling legend. I tell you, no one who later complained that in The Ghost Writer I had abused the memory of Anne Frank would have batted an eye had I let those banalities out into the world. That would have been just fine; I might even have got a citation. But I couldn’t have given myself any prizes for it. The difficulties of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?—was finally to become The Ghost Writer’s theme. But before it became a theme, it apparently had to be an ordeal. It often happens, at least with me, that the struggles that generate a book’s moral life are naively enacted upon the body of the book during the early, uncertain stages of writing. That is the ordeal, and it ended when I took that whole section and recast it in the first person—Anne Frank’s story told by Amy Bellette. The victim wasn’t herself going to talk about her plight in the voice of “The March of Time.” She hadn’t in the Diary, so why should she in life? I didn’t want this section to appear as first-person narration, but I knew that by passing it through the first-person sieve, I stood a good chance of getting rid of this terrible tone, which wasn’t hers, but mine. I did get rid of it. The impassioned cadences, the straining emotions, the somber, overdramatized, archaic diction—I cleared it all out, thanks to Amy Bellette. Rather straightforwardly, I then cast the section back into the third person, and then I was able to get to work on it—to write rather than to rhapsodize or eulogize.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think you have influenced the environment, the culture, as a writer?

ROTH

Not at all. If I had followed my early college plans to become an attorney, I don’t see where it would matter to the culture.

INTERVIEWER

Do you say that with bitterness or with glee?

ROTH

Neither. It’s a fact of life. In an enormous commercial society that demands complete freedom of expression, the culture is a maw. Recently, the first American novelist to receive a special Congressional Gold Medal for his “contribution to the nation” was Louis L’Amour. It was presented to him at the White House by the president. The only other country in the world where such a writer would receive his government’s highest award is the Soviet Union. In a totalitarian state, however, all culture is dictated by the regime; fortunately we in America live in Reagan’s and not Plato’s Republic, and aside from their stupid medal, culture is almost entirely ignored. And that is preferable by far. As long as those on top keep giving the honors to Louis L’Amour and couldn’t care less about anything else, everything will be just fine. When I was first in Czechoslovakia, it occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters. This isn’t to say I wished to change places. I didn’t envy them their persecution and the way in which it heightens their social importance. I didn’t even envy them their seemingly more valuable and serious themes. The trivialization, in the West, of much that’s deadly serious in the East is itself a subject, one requiring considerable imaginative ingenuity to transform into compelling fiction. To write a serious book that doesn’t signal its seriousness with the rhetorical cues or thematic gravity that’s traditionally associated with seriousness is a worthy undertaking too. To do justice to a spiritual predicament which is not blatantly shocking and monstrously horrible, which does not elicit universal compassion, or occur on a large historical stage, or on the grandest scale of twentieth-century suffering—well, that’s the lot that has fallen to those who write where everything goes and nothing matters. I recently heard the critic George Steiner, on English television, denouncing contemporary Western literature as utterly worthless and without quality, and claiming that the great documents of the human soul, the masterpieces, could only arise from souls being crushed by regimes like those in Czechoslovakia. I wonder then why all the writers I know in Czechoslovakia loathe the regime and passionately wish that it would disappear from the face of the earth. Don’t they understand, as Steiner does, that this is their chance to be great? Sometimes one or two writers with colossal brute strength do manage, miraculously, to survive and, taking the system as their subject, to make art of a very high order out of their persecution. But most of them who remain sealed up inside totalitarian states are, as writers, destroyed by the system. That system doesn’t make masterpieces; it makes coronaries, ulcers, and asthma, it makes alcoholics, it makes depressives, it makes bitterness and desperation and insanity. The writers are intellectually disfigured, spiritually demoralized, physically sickened, and culturally bored. Frequently they are silenced completely. Nine-tenths of the best of them will never do their best work just because of the system. The writers nourished by this system are the party hacks. When such a system prevails for two or three generations, relentlessly grinding away at a community of writers for twenty, thirty, or forty years, the obsessions become fixed, the language grows stale, the readership slowly dies out from starvation, and the existence of a national literature of originality, variety, vibrancy (which is very different from the brute survival of a single powerful voice) is nearly impossible. A literature that has the misfortune of remaining isolated underground for too long will inevitably become provincial, backwards, even naive, despite the fund of dark experience that may inspire it. By contrast, our work here hasn’t been deprived of authenticity because as writers we haven’t been stomped on by a totalitarian government. I don’t know of any Western writer, aside from George Steiner, who is so grandiosely and sentimentally deluded about human suffering—and “masterpieces”—that he’s come back from behind the Iron Curtain thinking himself devalued because he hasn’t had to contend with such a wretched intellectual and literary environment. If the choice is between Louis L’Amour and our literary freedom and our extensive, lively, national literature on the one hand, and Solzhenitsyn and that cultural desert and crushing suppression on the other, I’ll take L’Amour.

INTERVIEWER

But don’t you feel powerless as a writer in America?

ROTH

Writing novels is not the road to power. I don’t believe that, in my society, novels effect serious changes in anyone other than the handful of people who are writers, whose own novels are of course seriously affected by other novelists’ novels. I can’t see anything like that happening to the ordinary reader, nor would I expect it to.

INTERVIEWER

What do novels do then?

ROTH

To the ordinary reader? Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read. That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.

INTERVIEWER

But are there no other aftereffects?

ROTH

You asked if I thought my fiction had changed anything in the culture and the answer is no. Sure, there’s been some scandal, but people are scandalized all the time; it’s a way of life for them. It doesn’t mean a thing. If you ask if I want my fiction to change anything in the culture, the answer is still no. What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book—if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that’s otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn’t fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it’s not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading.

INTERVIEWER

Last question. How would you describe yourself? What do you think you are like, compared with those vividly transforming heroes of yours?

ROTH

I am like somebody who is trying vividly to transform himself out of himself and into his vividly transforming heroes. I am very much like somebody who spends all day writing.

 

 


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.