In Conversation . . . With Philip Roth

Marc Weitzmann
Marc Weitzmann
Sunday, September 30, 2007

Philip Roth writes in a spare but comfortable two-room clapboard cabin some 200 feet from his house in Connecticut, where he spends most of his time, surrounded by woods and silence. Although there is a desk -- neatly ordered, like everything else here -- he writes standing up at a computer mounted on a high work table, out of consideration, he says, for his aging spine and also, he claims, because walking about the room rather than sitting at a desk helps him think out his sentences. A couch, a high, long wall of books and, in the other room, bright with the light of three walls of windows, a wood stove, some weights, an exercise mat and a treadmill -- that's about all.

We met in France in March 1998. Our conversations continued for the next nine years, sometimes in Connecticut, but invariably at the Russian Samovar, a restaurant on Manhattan's West side. Accustomed as I was to the self-conscious solemnity of Parisian literary life, Roth's spontaneousness over a glass of vodka, his generous curiosity and keen attention were more than refreshing.

You had a happy childhood. There was no divorce, no looming threats; you had two loving, hardworking parents, and your experience of life was ordered and predictable. But what characterizes your books is precisely the opposite. From " My Life as a Man" to "Exit Ghost," you are obsessed with the untamed, the unpredictable, the details. In " Portnoy's Complaint," for instance, you focus on something as trivial as the hard-on and masturbation, and they provoke a meditation on the most primitive aspects of family life. Do you think your way of meditating has largely to do with you being a writer?

A) "As trivial as the hard-on"? Tell that to Othello. One can be trivialized by a hard-on, but you know as well as I do the ecstasy and the havoc that can be wrought by the male member erect. Where would literature be without the hard-on? Where would the species be?

B) That I should have been blessed with a life of predictability and order as a child, far from rendering me ignorant of the counter-experience, seems to have alerted me to it and to have put me forever after on the lookout for chaos. Moreover, my life as an adult has been anything but predictable and tame and has had a far greater influence on my writing and thinking than my 10 or 12 childhood years.

C) "Do you think your way of meditating has largely to do with you being a writer?" It has everything to do with it. The thinking I trust is grounded in the specificity that you find in realistic fiction. The dense specificity of cases: What's more trustworthy than that?

You once told me that at the age of 12 you wrote a play for school called "Let Freedom Ring." " The Plot Against America," you say, is simply a more sophisticated version of it. How so?

I graduated from an urban public elementary school in January 1946. Ours was the first postwar class to enter high school. That a brand-new historical moment was upon us was not lost on the bright kids in my class, who had been 8 and 9 when the war began, were 12 and 13 when it concluded, and -- as a result of almost all of us being knowledgeable about anti-Semitism -- had come to be precociously alert to inequalities in American society. The idealism and patriotism we were inculcated with during the war spilled over in the war's aftermath into a concern with discrimination and injustice. For me this led to my being teamed up by our eighth-grade teacher with a clever classmate to write a play we two called "Let Freedom Ring." The one-act play, an allegory, pitted a character named "Tolerance" (virtuously performed by my female co-writer) against one named "Prejudice" (sinisterly performed by me). It included a supporting cast of classmates who, in a series of scenes intended to show how wonderful these people were, played representatives of ethnic and religious groups suffering from the indignities of discrimination. The play ended with the cast of worthy minorities at the footlights joining Tolerance as she rousingly sang "The House I Live In," a popular 1940s' paean to the American melting pot, famously recorded by Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, Prejudice skulked off stage right, head bowed and dragging his feet in defeat.

To paraphrase Peter Tarnopol at the end of " My Life as a Man," your characters experience the curse of being who they are and none other. Isn't that the misfortune of Mickey in " Sabbath's Theater" or Alexander Portnoy in " Portnoy's Complaint"? Sex, impulses, inner disorder -- they assault the individual with as much brutality and chaos as the difficult history in "The Plot Against America."

If what you're saying is that, whatever the setting, I place my characters -- to use Bruno Bettelheim's phrases -- in "extreme situations," I would agree. I generally begin a book with nothing to go on except Mr. X in predicament Z. What follows over the next year or two is my figuring out who Mr. X is -- his origins, his preoccupations, his passions, his longings, his antagonisms -- and what the nature and the dimensions are of predicament Z. The key to success is getting the right X for Z and the right Z for X. You wouldn't want Mickey Sabbath as the protagonist of "American Pastoral" just as you wouldn't want Swede Levov as the protagonist of "Sabbath's Theatre." It all comes down to the juxtaposition not only of character and predicament but of tone and everything else. You can't write "Everyman" in the voice of The Great American Novel and get what you're looking for.

"Exit Ghost" seems at first a new chapter in the picaresque adventures of Nathan Zuckerman, but it takes place in post-9/11 New York, where an aging man finds himself in the company of ambitious 30-year-old aspiring writers. Zuckerman, by contrast, feels an alien in the city. Does Zuckerman still have a place in today's America?

Zuckerman feels an alien in New York largely because he has been living a solitary rural existence over a 100 hundred miles from the city for the previous 11 years. That's a long time to be away from any society, especially from one that has been altered by a huge catastrophe (9/11), a political calamity (the Bush presidency) and a surge of technological innovation. In those 11 years Zuckerman has also gone from being a healthy 60-year-old to a 71-year-old cancer survivor, left impotent and incontinent by prostate surgery. If he doesn't belong to the same American society he left behind in New York in 1993, the physical powers and psychical prowess of his 1993 body no longer belong to him either. A vigorous man has advanced from healthy late middle age to an old age in which he feels physically strong but a good deal less than whole -- he certainly comes to feel like that when, in New York, he encounters temptations and antagonisms to which he is no longer equal. And because the political moment is foreign to Zuckerman, he feels little or nothing of the national darkness that has befallen the younger people in the book. The two worlds diverge, there as elsewhere.

Starting with "American Pastoral", you've made Zuckerman an impotent man, transforming him into a mere witness-narrator. Why? And why have you now made him an active character once more?

I wouldn't say that I've "made" Zuckerman impotent in order for him to become nothing more than a narrator: It's the surgery for prostate cancer that makes him impotent and severs him from sexual life. Impotence along with incontinence are not uncommon consequences of prostate surgery. The question is why give him prostate cancer in the first place, and the answer is because at some point in the early '90s it began to seem as though every third man I knew was blighted by that savage disease, and, as a friend to some of them, I was privy to the ordeal. Giving Zuckerman prostate cancer and all the suffering that goes with it seemed an interesting and genuine way of making him, sadly, of his times. The fears and burdens that menace men have always been a subject of interest to me, and this was a nightmare whose cruel details I knew I could write about authoritatively when the time came.

The time came in the last of the nine Zuckerman books, "Exit Ghost," where I decided it would be fitting to conclude the series by placing Zuckerman and his travails back at the heart of the novel after years of keeping his story secondary to the story of Swede Levov in "American Pastoral," of Ira Ringold in "I Married a Communist," and of Coleman Silk in "The Human Stain." Having afflicted him with this all-too-common male disease, I was at last required to make something dramatically significant out of his enduring its renunciations, humiliations and demands.

"Exit Ghost" is a meditation on the writer's condition. On the one hand, there's Amy Bellette, who describes her writer husband, Lonoff, as "gloomy," "remote," "irritable." On the other hand, there's Zuckerman, who knows what he wants, all the more so perhaps because he can't have it. Is irritability part of the writer's condition?

If I remember correctly, once Anna and Vronsky get away and finally have what they want, life becomes insufferable. That may not be the classic scenario of what comes when adulterous lovers flee to the paradise of their dreams, but it's one possible outcome, and the one that seemed to me more likely to befall E. I. Lonoff once his marriage had been wrecked by his love affair with young Amy. I wouldn't think that writers have any greater predisposition to irascibility than truck drivers or astrophysicists.

Likewise Zuckerman's obsession with Jamie Logan is by no means rooted in his being a writer, while the uses to which he puts the obsession (better, the uses to which the obsession puts him) have everything to do with his being a writer -- a writer, not a fantasist. I'm referring to the playlet "He and She," whose scenes are scattered throughout the novel. They're not scenarios created by Zuckerman to make up for a disappointing experience, not compensatory fantasies. They embody imagination brought to bear on reality -- everything that fantasy is not. *

Marc Weitzmann is a French novelist. Among his works are "Fraternite" and "Mixed Marriage."

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