Last month our friends at the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles reported that Philip Roth has called it a day, and the world took notice. Here is the full interview with Nelly Kaprielian, in English. —Lorin Stein
Out of all your novels, Nemesis seems to be the one where you lay out most clearly your own vision of existence.
That’s true. I think everything in life is a matter of luck. I don’t believe in psychoanalysis, or in a subconscious that guides our choices. All we have is the good luck or the bad luck to meet certain people who will be either good or bad for us. My first wife, for example, turned out to be a criminal—she was always stealing, lying, and so forth—and it’s not as if I chose her for that reason. I hate criminals. But there you are, I had the bad luck to marry a bad person. Psychoanalysts will tell you that I chose her unconsciously—I don’t believe in that, though in a certain way this isn’t far from my own view, which is that, in the face of life, we are innocents. There is a certain innocence in each of us in the way we deal with our lives.
Nemesis belongs to a group of four novels entitled “Nemeses” (including Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling). How are they connected?
Each one deals with the subject of death from a different point of view. In each of these books, the protagonist has to face his “nemesis,” a word one hears a lot in the United States, and which could be defined as doom, or misfortune, a force that he can’t overcome and that chooses him as its victim. In Nemesis, the nemesis seems to be polio, but in the case of Bucky Cantor, it is actually his troubled conscience. One thing that’s always interested me as a writer, ever since Letting Go, one of my first novels, is people who have an extreme—and finally misplaced—sense of their own responsibility. Bucky is a man who defines himself solely by his virtue, and that’s a very dangerous thing. It isn’t just polio that’s going to ruin his life, but his aspiration to total responsibility.
First of all, because it’s a new subject for me, somthing I’ve never written about before, and also because for people born like me in the 1920s or ’30s in America, polio loomed very large. Until the vaccine was discovered, in 1955, we all lived with the threat of it, and it terrified us. It wasn’t until after I wrote Nemesis that I saw its connection to my novel The Plot Against America. In both cases, I imagine a tragedy that strikes the Jewish community of Newark in the 1940s—the community I come from. In the case of The Plot, I made up the menace, the nemesis—the Nazi Charles Lindbergh becoming president of the United States. In Nemesis, it’s polio, which existed, although there wasn’t an epidemic in 1944. And also illness is the most extreme form of misfortune. It pounces on you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Beyond the question of bad luck, it seems to me that you are interested in writing about what we do with our luck and how a man reacts to what happens to him.
Although we may believe that Bucky destroys his life by breaking up with his fiancée, for Bucky, who wants to be the embodiment of the word “responsibility,” this breakup is a great success, even if it condemns him to solitude. But I don’t have any judgment about that, I only wanted to raise the question. That above all is how I see my job as a writer. What happens when people are faced with a polio epidemic? The novel is made to raise questions, not to give answers. I don’t write books of philosophy.
And yet Nemesis raises the question of destiny or chance, of the meaning of life…
To tell you the truth, I’m not much given to abstractions. I don’t have that turn of mind. And as soon as a conversation gets into metaphysics or philosophy, I fall asleep. The only thing that really interests me—all I know how to do—is to tell a story. As soon as people start talking in abstractions, I feel as if I’m ten years old again, I stop understanding, and I just want to take a long nap.
Your recent books are all haunted by some menace. How much do you think it influenced you to be a Jewish child during the war?
I had a very protected childhood. My parents never got divorced, I lived in a neighborhood that was ninety-nine percent Jewish, so we weren’t touched by anti-Semitism. Of course, from the time I was eight until I was twelve, the country was at war, and I was very interested in that. Every generation that lived through the Second World War, whether it was in France or Germany or here, was marked for life. The other menace, a real one, was polio. Every summer, when we’d spend the day playing outside, we heard people talking about polio. We didn’t care until one of us died of it. But you know, I don’t believe that the biography of a writer has anything to do with his books.
So what makes you write?
The desire to experiment, to ask what if. What if … such and such occurred, what would happen then? I begin all of my books with a what if. For example, “What if a polio epidemic had struck my neighborhood in Newark in 1944?”
Can you see yourself begining to write with a “What if … this great guy married this wonderful girl and they were happy together?” Is happiness not a good subject for writing?
But I already wrote that book! Years ago, when I wrote The Professor of Desire, I wanted to write about a very common phenomenon that you never read anything about—if two people fall in love with each other and get married … what happens? Well, sex disappears, the sexuality between them disappears. Marriage is the direct route to chastity. So you see, I started writing The Professor of Desire about a situation that was happy but that led to a real problem.
Was it autobiographical?
It would be simplistic to think that a writer only writes what happened to him. Most of the time I write about things that didn’t happen to me—because I’m curious. A writer can even be drawn to subjects that are way outside his universe. The important thing is to find what will unlock a wave of writing in him, what’s going to spark verbal energy. Certain subjects have potential, others don’t.
Do you know why?
Not at all. Or rather, I stopped knowing why a while ago. That’s the great achievement of my life—today I know that I don’t know. And that subjects don’t come to me easily. For me, writing has always been something very difficult. The problem is that when I was a child I fell in love with literature. Later on I told myself that I could be a writer. So I tried and that worked to a certain degree. If I could have done something better, believe me, I would have, gladly! But in the beginning it was exciting, so I kept at it.
Do you still have the desire to write?
No. Anyway, I have no intention of writing in the next ten years. To tell the truth, I’m finished. Nemesis is going to be my last book. Look at E. M. Forster. He stopped writing at around the age of forty. And I, who used to churn out book after book, haven’t written anything in three years. I’ve been working instead on my archives so I can turn them over to my biographer. I’ve turned over thousands of pages which are like memoirs but not literary, not publishable as such. I don’t want to write my memoirs, but I wanted my biographer to have the material for his book before I die. If I die without leaving him anything, what will he start with?
But you just spent our whole interview saying that the life of a writer has no bearing on his work, and yet you find it important that someone write your biography?
I have no choice. If it were up to me, I’d prefer that there not be any biography of me, but there will biographies after I die, so at least I want to make sure that one of them’s correct. Blake Bailey wrote an excellent biography of John Cheever, who was a friend of mine and a tough subject for a biography, since, being gay and alcoholic, he spent almost his entire life in concealment. Bailey got in touch with me, we spent two whole days talking, and he convinced me. But I won’t control his work. In any case, twenty percent of it will be wrong, but that’s always better than twenty-two percent.
How have you started to prepare your archives for after your death?
Once Blake Bailey has got what he needs, I’ve asked my executors—my agent, Andrew Wylie, and a friend who’s a psychoanalyst—to destroy them after my death. I don’t want my personal papers dragged all over the place. No one has to read them. All my manuscripts are already in the Library of Congress and have been there since the seventies.
At seventy-eight, how do you feel about what you’ve written?
When I turned seventy-four, I realized that I didn’t have much time left, so I decided to reread the novels that I loved when I was twenty or thirty, because that’s what you never reread. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Conrad, Hemingway … and when I finished, I decided to reread all my books, starting at the end, Nemesis. I read until I got tired of them, just before Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a flawed book. I wanted to see whether I’d been wasting my time by writing. And I decided that I’d actually done all right. At the end of his life the boxer Joe Louis said, “I did the best I could with what I had.” That’s exactly what I’d say about my work. I did the best I could with what I had.
And after that, I decided that I was done with fiction. I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I’ve given my life to the novel. I’ve studied it, I’ve taught it, I’ve written it, and I’ve read it. To the exclusion of practically everything else. It’s enough! I don’t feel that fanaticism about writing that I felt all my life. The idea of trying to write one more time is impossible to me!
Aren’t you exaggerating a little bit?
Writing means always being wrong. All your drafts tell the story of your failures. I don’t have the energy of frustration anymore, or the strength to confront myself. Because to write is to be frustrated. You spend your time writing the wrong word, the wrong sentence, the wrong story. You continually fool yourself, you continually fail, and so you have to live in a state of perpetual frustration. You spend your time telling yourself, That doesn’t work, I have to start again. Oh, that doesn’t work either—and you start again. I’m tired of all that work. I’m in a different stage of my life. And I don’t feel at all melancholy.
So there won’t ever be another Philip Roth novel?
I don’t think another novel more or less can change whatever it is I’ve already done. And if I write a new book, it will almost certainly be a failure. Who needs another mediocre book?
You don’t have any desire to write about America today?
I’m seventy-eight, I don’t know anything anymore about America today. I watch it on TV. But I don’t live there.
I’d like to end with a political question, two months before the elections. Do you think Mitt Romney has a chance against Obama?
No, but not for good reasons, just because he has no charisma and even Americans are beginning to understand how boring he is. If he won, it would be a disaster—right-wing American presidents are always disasters. But I’m still impressed with Obama. It’s been a long time since we had someone so intelligent in the White House. So I look forward to voting for him again. But you know, I don’t like talking about politics. Who am I to give a public opinion? I’m just a citizen like anybody else.