His Life as A Writer

Philip Roth rules out questions about his personal life.
Philip Roth rules out questions about his personal life. "Your honor, the witness is not cooperating," he jokes, after responding to yet another inquiry by saying he doesn't remember. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

NEW YORK

"You're talking to the wrong guy," Philip Roth is saying. "That should be your headline: You're talking to the wrong guy."

America's greatest living writer -- that's an impossibly subjective judgment, of course, but one that comes with plenty of support -- is uncomfortably installed on a couch in the Manhattan office of his literary agent, Andrew Wylie. Roth has driven a couple of hours from his home in northwest Connecticut. At 73, he's feeling a little stiff, so at times he stands.

When he does, he towers over you. It seems, while not intentional, in character somehow.

The occasion for the interview is the publication of the third volume of the Library of America's projected eight-volume edition of Roth's collected works -- a volume that includes "The Great American Novel," "My Life as a Man" and "The Professor of Desire," all written in the 1970s. Roth has ruled out questions about his personal life, but the passage of three decades and the publication of 17 subsequent books have rendered him an unreliable narrator of his early creative trajectory.

"Your honor, the witness is not cooperating," he jokes, after responding to yet another inquiry by saying he doesn't remember.

Oy. Might be time to rethink the interview strategy here.

You've come armed to ask Roth in particular about "My Life as a Man," the 1974 novel that contains not one but two re-imaginings of his traumatic first marriage. Never mind that you can't ask about the real Maggie Roth, who died in an auto accident in 1968 after the couple had separated. The book is a psychological gold mine, a much-agonized-over text that looks -- at least in pre-interview imaginings -- like a Rothian Rosetta stone.

It's in "My Life as a Man," after all, that Roth introduces his most important character, the Roth-like novelist Nathan Zuckerman -- so central to Roth's vision that he'll show up in nine other books. And it's in "My Life" that Roth struggles to make sense of the spectacularly failed relationship that surely helps explain what is often cited as the major flaw in his fiction: his inability to see women whole.

Hey, this could be the key to who Roth is as a writer! Maybe even as a human being! But if that's the kind of analysis you're looking for, well -- you're on your own.

"You're talking to the wrong guy," Roth repeats, pleading ignorance in response to a query about a failed relationship in another novel. "I should have had someone else come here today."

Good idea, you think. Better you should talk to Zuckerman! You'd get a lot farther posing questions to that other Newark-born novelist with the burning compulsion to alchemize his life into art.


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