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His Life as A Writer
Philip Roth, Now Collected in Three Volumes, as Well as Slightly Abridged

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.

The man may be a figment of Philip Roth's imagination. His biography is not necessarily Roth's. But Nathan Zuckerman has more insight into his celebrated creator than any other human being -- living, fictional or dead.

* * *

"Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone."

-- Philip Roth, "The Anatomy Lesson"

About that "America's greatest living writer" thing: Here are some reasons to believe.

To start with, there's the fact that the Library of America has chosen to publish the collected works of only three writers while they were still alive: Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Welty and Bellow have since died. You do the math.

Then there's the utterly unscientific but nonetheless revealing survey that the New York Times Book Review published last spring, in which it asked a cadre of literary luminaries to name the best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years. Toni Morrison's "Beloved" took the top slot, but Roth managed to stand out nonetheless: No fewer than six of his books -- more than any competitor's -- received multiple votes.

But the most compelling argument for Roth's preeminence arises from the astonishing run he had in the 1990s. Over a span of just six years, he won all four major American writing awards, each for a different book: the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Patrimony," the PEN/Faulkner Award for "Operation Shylock," the National Book Award for "Sabbath's Theater" and the Pulitzer Prize for "American Pastoral."

All this as he was entering his seventh decade, an age when many writers, if not in steep decline, have at least started slowing down.

Roth published his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," in 1959, and a writing career spanning six decades is too much to deal with in one interview. But you can't spend 90 minutes with him without at least nodding in the direction of the 1969 bestseller that remains his most notorious work.

"Portnoy's Complaint" was a literary hand grenade perfectly suited to the explosive decade that produced it. A comic, hyperbolic howl of protest against oppressive authority -- in this case, by a "nice Jewish boy" repressed and stressed by the expectations of the striving immigrant culture in which he was raised -- the novel limned its protagonist's sexual obsession with a profane fluency that obscured an undercurrent of pain.

It was a huge breakthrough for Roth.

"Something cracked open" while he was working on it, he recalls. "I remember the exuberance of the writing. I remember myself being surprised by the subject, and of course being surprised that it could be made into a literary subject."

Suggest that he was finding his voice, however, and he breaks in with an immediate correction:

"You said 'finding your voice' and I would say 'finding a voice.' Because the voice in 'The Human Stain' and the voice in 'The Professor of Desire' and the voice in 'Operation Shylock' -- they're all different voices."

"Portnoy" sold more than 400,000 hardcover copies. More important, it transformed Roth's public image from serious-minded literary craftsman to dirty-minded mass-culture phenomenon. He had to learn to cope with highbrow contempt ("The cruelest thing anyone can do with 'Portnoy's Complaint' is to read it twice," wrote Irving Howe in Commentary) as well as the mindless celebritization of his writing life. Not to mention that elusive distinction -- no, no, his mother was not Sophie Portnoy -- between fiction and fact.

Part of how he coped was to put poor Nathan Zuckerman through the same thing.

Take the judgment volunteered by an obsessed fan in "Zuckerman Unbound": "Flash, yes; depth, no. This is something you had to write to make a new beginning," the fan tells Zuckerman.

What does the real novelist make of this critique? He won't go there. "I don't remember that," he says.

Fair enough. Both Roth and Zuckerman spent far too many years being buffeted by aftershocks from the in-your-face novels that made them rich and set them free. Yet both did, eventually, learn how to deal.

Besides, dealing with the fallout from "Portnoy" could scarcely have been more difficult than rehabbing Roth's psyche after his marriage to the former Margaret Martinson Williams. Roth enlisted Zuckerman's help here, too. He gave him the last word on the subject of Maggie -- or Lydia, or Maureen, or Josie, as she's variously called in Roth's retellings -- at the end of a book called, simply and misleadingly, "The Facts."

It took a while, this marital exorcism.

By the time "The Facts" was published, his wife had been dead for 20 years.

* * *

"With autobiography, there's always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented. It's probably the most manipulative of all literary forms."

-- Nathan Zuckerman in "The Facts"

They met in 1956. He was teaching freshman composition at the University of Chicago. She was a blue-eyed blonde he'd first noticed waitressing nearby -- "a virtual ringer," as he would later write, "for the solid, energetic girl in the cheery movies about America's heartland."

The solidity and cheeriness were an illusion, as her husband-to-be sensed even then.

Divorced, the mother of two, four years older than Roth, she was in reality -- as he put it in "The Facts" -- "a small-town drunkard's angry daughter, a young woman already haunted by grim sexual memories and oppressed by an inextinguishable resentment over the injustices of her origins." Yet what drew his naive 23-year-old self to Maggie Williams, he came to believe, was precisely her worldly experience and victimization, the fact that she was not a nice Jewish girl from a familiar milieu.

"Your mistakes are how your life changes," Roth says now.

And how.

In the short run, his life changed immeasurably for the worse. His connection to Maggie descended into an unwanted, strife-scarred marriage. She tricked him into it by faking a pregnancy test with urine purchased from an indigent Chicago woman. This episode (which she later confessed to him, he reports) is one of the few that went straight into Roth's fiction without significant alteration. He didn't think he could improve on it.

His work changed as well. He had to get this train wreck fictionalized, he thought, simply to prove he'd survived. He started writing "My Life as a Man" in 1970, two years after Maggie's death -- but he couldn't get it right.

"I wrote it and stopped, wrote it and stopped," he says. "I couldn't solve it."

At the same time, he was working on a project that was far less fraught.

"The Great American Novel" was the final manifestation of the comic phase he'd entered with "Portnoy's Complaint." In this mode, "full of high jinks, full of energy," he created an imaginary baseball league and an endearingly inept last-place team -- not to mention a Jewish owner with a statistics-obsessed son.

"The sacrifice bunt is wrong ," the boy exclaims, pleading the case for scientific rationalism.

"Isaac, please," his father shoots back, "if de goyim say bunt, let dem bunt!"

Roth laughs at the reference. "That I borrowed from a book called 'Percentage Baseball,' by Earnshaw Cook," he says.

If only there'd been one called "Percentage Marriage," it might have been easier to finish "My Life as a Man."

After his string of false starts, he came up with a solution that foreshadowed later Roth strategies. He created a novelist-protagonist (Peter Tarnopol) who is alleged to be telling his story as nonfiction. And he had Tarnopol create another novelist-protagonist (Zuckerman) who serves up fictional variations on the same tortuous tale.

Why play with the fact-fiction divide like this?

Roth objects to the question. "I'm not playing with it," he says. "I don't care to play ." Then he discounts the complexity of the multiple-versions move:

"This man is trying to transform his experience into fiction. He imagines it once, he imagines it twice and says: 'The hell with it, here's the straight story.' As simple as that."

Depends how you define "simple," it would seem. But the fascinating thing is that when Roth eventually attempted his own nonfiction version, he couldn't keep it simple at all.

"The Facts," as originally written, unfolded as straight autobiography. It touched on Roth's childhood (presented largely as idyllic), his years at Bucknell University (where he discovered literature), his writing career and, most notably, his epic struggle with the wife whose name he changed to Josie.

Roth didn't like it.

"I just wasn't satisfied," he says. "I thought, 'Well, what about this and what about that?' and I thought, 'Well, articulate that.' So that made it truly autobiographical. Doubt, self -doubt, made it truly autobiographical -- because that's a big part of one's being a writer."

So he gave "The Facts" a new beginning and a new end.

The beginning consists of a letter from himself to Nathan Zuckerman, explaining what he'd tried to do and asking if the result was good enough to merit publication. The end offers Zuckerman's devastating 25-page reply.

"Don't publish," he tells Roth emphatically.

Then he rips Roth's autobiography to shreds, highlighting every single thing the poor schmuck has evaded, distorted or concealed.

* * *

"Let's face it, even the worst criticism contains some truth. They always see something you're trying to hide."

-- Diana Rutherford to Zuckerman, in "The Anatomy Lesson"

What to make of Roth's aggressive self-critique? Does Zuckerman's diatribe mean what you think it means: that Roth's understanding of his own life and work is both darker and more complex than he usually lets on?

Later, you'll have a chance to discuss this with Ross Miller, a Roth friend of two decades who's deep into writing a critical biography of the novelist.

"I think the epilogue-rebuttal in 'The Facts' is the truest and most revealing autobiography he's ever written," Miller will say.

But right now, Roth is in "I don't remember" mode again. You're reduced to casting out lines from Zuckerman's analysis, hoping for nibbles of response.

Here's Zuckerman on Roth's compulsive fictionalizing of his experience: "My guess is that you've written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were. By now what you are is a walking text."

"Tough guy," is Roth's reply.

Here Zuckerman's take on Roth's escape from the womb of home and family: "Very neat, but where's the struggle? . . . Because if there wasn't a struggle, then it just doesn't seem like Philip Roth to me."

"Big mouth," Roth jokes. He laughs, but says no more.

And here's Zuckerman on Maggie/Josie as an aid to that escape: "And if I'm right, at the end of the tunnel, waiting like your moll in the getaway car, was Josie, embodying everything the Jewish haven was not . . ."

Another laugh.

The material is so rich you can't begin to cite it all. Still, you read part of a long passage the point of which is that Roth -- a man used to being "the dominating consciousness in every situation," somebody "mentally very tricky, who hears the reverberations of everything he's ever said" -- met his psychic match in Josie.

You go on to mention Zuckerman's belief that his creator's anger, which Roth suggests was a result of his marriage, must really have preceded it -- or "I doubt that Josie would have come into your life . . ."

Anger directed at a woman: This is dangerous territory. You're glad to have Zuckerman as your front man when you venture in. But Roth shuts down the topic anyway.

He really doesn't remember "The Facts," he says.

Okay.

This might be a good time to bring up an argument that's been repeatedly made about Roth's work, one captured in the hyped-up headline of a recent piece by Chicago Tribune critic Julia Keller. "Philip Roth hates women," it blares, before throwing in some qualifying questions: "Is that true? And does it matter?"

Keller's answers: Yes, it's true, though only if by "hates women" you actually mean "his women have no souls." And yes, it matters, because Roth, whom she calls "a provocative and prolific genius," is "the best novelist in America."

She's a newspaper writer, so she can be a little glib. But Keller's indictment is intriguing because of the arguments it avoids. She doesn't care about Roth's personal life and thus makes no use of the unflattering portrait his second wife, actress Claire Bloom, published after their 1994 divorce. Nor is she concerned with the sexual preoccupations of Roth's male characters.

She just wants the women to be more complex: to make moral choices, to have epiphanies, to be granted "the same radiant singularity" Roth grants his guys.

You'd like to ask him about all this directly, but it seems clear -- or at least that's your excuse -- that persistent questions about what he calls "these cliches" would end the interview. Better perhaps to remind him of another insight he put in Zuckerman's mouth.

If Roth wanted to "reminisce productively" about his first marriage, Zuckerman suggested, "maybe what you should be writing, instead of autobiography, are thirty thousand words from Josie's point of view."

Roth considers the notion, then rejects it.

He writes, he says, "about the lives of men."

* * *

"I was a biography in perpetual motion, memory to the marrow of my bones."

-- Nathan Zuckerman in "American Pastoral"

Men's lives evolve, of course, as they grow older. Zuckerman's certainly has.

"Time has passed and he's changed," says Roth of the quieter, less libidinous character into which the once-raging novelist-celebrity has been transformed. This new Zuckerman is more attuned to the outside world, more drawn to stories not his own.

The interview time is passing as well. Abruptly, though with apologies, Roth announces that he has to go in two minutes.

You've barely touched on his most recent work -- 2004's best-selling "The Plot Against America," this year's less successful "Everyman." You'd love to talk more about "Patrimony," the stark, moving memoir he wrote about his father's death. There's no time to ask him what he's working on or what he's reading. He writes in the daytime and reads in the evenings, compulsively marking passages in the literature he consumes.

Roth has urged you to read more of his later novels, and you will. You'll have some things to ask about should you ever meet again. There's the former Miss New Jersey in "American Pastoral," for example, who spends much of her energy trying to ensure that that label doesn't define her.

Interesting.

And then there's the 34-year-old woman with the horrific past in "The Human Stain," who dies, like Roth's wife, in a car crash -- but who's been given a fierce dignity that transcends her brutalization at the hands of men.

The Library of America is planning eight Roth volumes, with the last to be issued in 2013. One more question: Won't there be additional Philip Roth books by then?

"We'll see how much more I write," Roth says. "We'll talk about it."

He grins like a man whose getaway car is waiting.

"I'll meet you here."

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