Drive for hours through the tawny boscage and autumnal braes of New England, so deep into the haut-Yankee heartland of northwestern Connecticut that even the hitchhikers look like George Plimpton. And yet the face that peers cheerfully around the farmhouse door belongs to Philip Roth--known to millions for his portraits of urban Jewish life.
But then, he confounds contradictions, this millionaire in the well-worn running shoes and department-store digital watch, this placid and mannerly recluse whose irreverent ethnic stories cracked the conventions of a genre, and whose priapic yawp in "Portnoy's Complaint" convulsed a nation in outrage and glee. This native of Newark, N.J., whose 200-year-old farm, a gray frame cluster of buildings on 40 acres of stone-walled fields, looks as if it were designed for Grandma Moses by L.L. Bean.
The decor is aggressively spare, conspicuously lacking the normal detritus of human diversion: flower beds, sports gear, pet-food dishes. "There's a kind of chastity about it," says an old friend. "I think it was his way of creating a little Yaddo for himself." And for actress Claire Bloom, with whom he has lived since 1976, spending part of each year in London.
"You live where you have a good time or you live where you can get your work done,"says Roth, settled in his spartan wood-walled study. The faculty-lounge fussiness to his style--hands folded in his lap, thumbs restlessly twiddling--is at odds with the sharp scrutiny of his stare.
"His senses are absolutely alert," says Howard Stein, chairman of the Hammerstein Center for Theater Studies at Columbia and an old friend. "He came to my house for dinner one time. The next day I took a walk with him." And Roth began disgorging a catalogue of details and nuances from the meal--"everything I hadn't seen the night before. I was aghast! He saw all that while I was sitting right next to him."
But today the gaze seems muted. After all, he has just published "The Anatomy Lesson," the last volume in his seriocomic trilogy of novels about novelist Nathan Zuckerman. "I'm through with Zuckerman and I have no plans to go any further. The themes that were introduced have been exhausted." And so, it seems, has he. "I'm weary in a way--of writing. At the same time, I feel that I've just gotten started. That's the peculiar feeling at 50, strangely. It's a real landmark. So now I want to write. As if it's all been apprentice work in some strange way. I feel I'm in charge now, in tune with my talent."
Not so poor Zuckerman, Roth's fictional doppelga nger whose story, he says, explores "the unreckoned consequences of art." In "The Ghost Writer" (1979), he is a young writer racked between two fathers, two antipodes of conscience: his real parent, pleading in anguish that Zuckerman's satiric depiction of his family's life is anti-Semitic; and his venerable mentor, writer E.I. Lonoff, who in his austere self-denial embodies the competing claims of art. By "Zuckerman Unbound" (1981), the protagonist has become rich and famous by writing "Carnovsky," an erotic screed very like "Portnoy," and is paying an exorbitant price for notoriety: His identity and the meaning of his work are suddenly out of his control, he is assumed to be his own satyric character, his embittered father curses him from his deathbed. And his brother's indictment is worse: "You killed him, Nathan. With that book."
In "The Anatomy Lesson," Zuckerman, now 40 and a brooding, introspective writer, is suffering a terrible, mysterious pain in his neck and shoulders analogous both to hounding guilt and the gnawing entropy in his imagination: "My life as cud, that's what I'm running out on. Swallow as experience, then up from the gut for a second go as art." He yearns for immersion in the real ("I can't take any more of my inner life . . . Subjectivity's the subject, and I've had it"), vows to become a doctor and heads for Chicago and medical school where a spasm of violence reshapes his quest.
The trilogy has split the critics. Roth's partisans find him "a superbly endowed storyteller" whose voice is "surely one of the most distinctive and supple in contemporary American literature" (The New York Times Book Review) and an "exquisitist" whose "polarities between id and superego, Jew and goy, artistic honesty and human decency are as beautifully played upon as the melodies in a Bach fugue" (The New Yorker).
His detractors dismiss the recent novels as egocentric, self-indulgent dithering. The New Republic deplored a "passionate intensity for the scrutiny of himself or his fictional alter egos," lamenting that "the range of his interest should have become so narrow." Anatole Broyard sniped that "Mr. Roth is old enough now to be past some of these astonishments"; and The Nation said, "The life keeps getting in the way of the work."
Bum rap, says Roth, who is tired of having his work regarded as confessional autobiography. "I suppose I should be flattered at the power to convince"--except that people say, " 'How easy for Roth--he just writes things down and never has to make anything up.' " But the idea of a false confession, he says, "has never caught on in your country--down in the real United States."
Yes, he vests Zuckerman with "the tremendous desire to escape this world of cerebration, of imagination, of purposes that seem alien to those of others." And yes, he has such urges himself: "I've always felt them. They come and go. But I know by now that I'm locked up with writing."
And certainly Zuckerman's life limns the contours of Roth's own, and he calls the trilogy "kind of an appraisal of the past." And there is still ample hostility for his depiction of Jews. "It's gone on for 20 years, and I still get my share of letters. I don't think I'm out from under that rap at all. Alfred Kazin tells me he runs into that every time he brings my name up." But nothing like the vituperation over his first works. "The charges were several, and in defense of my accusers, it was only the lunatic fringe who said I was anti-Semitic. The more strong case was that I was lending fuel to the fires of anti-Semites." To think otherwise, friends said, was "being naive. It's a ticklish point, where your responsibilities lie." And the trilogy argues both sides. "I don't think it's a matter of a right position or a wrong position. It's two right positions colliding. That makes for comedy and comic drama."
Nor did he feel guilty about expropriating family material in fiction. "I never thought I was painting a picture" of specific incidents. "I was writing stories." And "far from getting a deathbed curse from my father, he'll be at my book party--and he'll be popping buttons with pride."
Roth calls the novels "hypothetical autobiographies." A sigh, a long pause. "It's very complicated. I have no great brief to make for my life as lived. In fact, it's basically sitting in a chair writing books. It's not very eventful. I don't know what I am--I'm a person who writes. But what excites my verbal life is imagining what I might be, what might befall someone like myself"--a chuckle is thickening into laughter--"imagining what kind of person I would be if I were a person." (Across the room on the mantlepiece are caricatures of Roth by a friend, the late artist Philip Guston. In them, a giant head surmounts tiny limbs and body--and where the face should be, there is nothing but an eerie blank.) "I'm really quite content to be what I am. I never entertained the idea of being a doctor in my life, but writing this book I had to. I don't have to do these things--I have people to do them for me."
"That's even true to go back to 'Portnoy's Complaint.' I don't have to be Portnoy--though I wouldn't mind if I were, and I'm not even saying I ain't, or was. But I have to sit here and write. I'm bound by habit, conscience, profession. All the obligations are the more ferocious for being self-imposed."
Growing up in the predominantly Jewish Weequahic section of Newark, Roth had no early intuition of his calling. A smart and smart-aleck kid with a talent for mimickry, he was "drawn to the rhetoric and postures of ridicule." An acquaintance once said that "being bad and being funny were much the same thing in Roth's mind. "But I was also a properly pious and propagandized little boy"--the psychic antipodes of his writing. And the origin, says Stein, of his obsessive self-scrutiny: "Jewish puritanism is very important" to understanding Roth. "He is possessed with living a civilized life while struggling to reconcile his own uncivilized feelings and urges" and keeping "a heart that is absolutely emphathic."
At WASPy Bucknell University, Roth was an exemplary student (even attending mandatory Christian chapel services, during which he ostentatiously read Schopenhauer). In those days, Roth says, "writing was secondary. First I really wanted to study literature and then teach it," a disposition still visible in his allusions to James and Mann, Joyce and Kafka, or in his way of turning a questioner's question back on him, reframed and sharpened. (He has an "extraordinary capacity as a teacher," says Joel Conarroe, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, where Roth taught until recently, and "a terrific rapport with students.")
So after a stint in the Army and an MA from the University of Chicago, he joined the PhD program to get a job teaching freshman English; and he began publishing stories. "I couldn't take it seriously--everybody did that." But his 1959 collection, "Goodbye, Columbus," won the National Book Award, a Guggenheim grant took him to Rome, he wrote "Letting Go" (1962) about the ethical quandaries of a young academic. Suddenly everything was very serious.
Critics elevated him to a Jewish triumvirate with Bellow and Malamud ("the Hart Schaffner & Marx of American literature," Bellow once cracked), but the definition chafes Roth somewhat. Bellow he calls "a tremendous inspirational presence, the most formidable American writer of our time." But he is equally enthusiastic about Updike: "an enormous figure, dazzling, a real wizard" and "the best critic in America." As for his friend Malamud, whom he deeply respects, "we work different sides of the street."
From 1962 to 1967, "I lost some time. I didn't publish a book." There was the pain of separation from the wife he married in 1958 and divorced in 1966. "And literary uncertainty--I didn't know what the hell to do. What do I write about? Do I pursue these Jewish subjects any further or get rid of them? So in the next two books, I did both--'When She Was Good' and 'Portnoy's Complaint.' Am I a comic writer, as in 'Goodbye Columbus,' or a tragic writer, as I was trying to be in 'Letting Go?' It was a debilitating disorder in my young life." During the same period he underwent psychoanalysis, without which "I don't know what my work would be like." Fortunately, "it became a subject of contemplation and itself a source of fiction." And it appears to have liberated Roth's comic confidence in his four books between 1969 and 1973--"Portnoy's Complaint," "Our Gang," "The Breast" and "The Great American Novel."
If the "Portnoy" phenomenon looms large in the Zuckerman trilogy, Roth says, "enough time had elapsed for me to get an angle on it, to see it as a large shaping experience." Very large: From book sales and movie rights to "Portnoy" (a hopeless turkey) and "Goodbye, Columbus" (a hit; Roth liked Ali McGraw, hated Richard Benjamin), the swan of Newark became a prudently invested millionaire. But the man who had, in Portnoy's phrase, "put the id back in Yid," suddenly found both his book and his personality vulnerable to misreading. His rumored reputation for female predation ran somewhere between Valentino and de Sade, and "it was hard for him to walk down the street or sit in a restaurant," says Conarroe, "without someone coming up and intruding themselves, often gracelessly." Hence in "Zuckerman Unbound," Roth says, the writer is "wrecked by success. That isn't how it looks on Channel 4."
And like Zuckerman, Roth was labeled a pornographer. "Truly, people shock too easily," Roth says. "Shock is pretty much a decision. You want to say to the reader, 'Don't make it so easy for yourself--c'mon now, you can do it! Just sit there and read it and you'll find out you're a big grown-up person." Outrage, after all, is "easier than just sitting there and watching it. Being shocked and bored: They're two ways of just cutting yourself off."
"I've never had that audience before or since--it's an anomaly in my career." How does he feel about that? "I don't care either way. This is enough trouble"--sweeping an arm toward his desk--"and it is not something you can have on your mind as you come in and do your work every day. I'll never have it again." He anticipates sales of about 30,000 for "The Anatomy Lesson."
After "The Great American Novel," a satire of baseball (Roth is a devout fan), his gaze turned inward for "My Life as a Man" (1974), in which a novelist creates hypothetical autobiographies of himself only to find they cannot dispel his real-life problems. This structure--art-life analogies nesting within each other like Chinese boxes--seemed to signal a profound shift in Roth's intent.
"But," he says, "it's not quite so neat as that." He had actually begun the gloomy "My Life" as early as '69, but it proved intractable--"much more intense and realistic and brooding than anything I had done"--and he reworked it between the comic novels, which "served as a release" from his agonies. In the end, it "probably was my least successful book, almost continuously out of print and it's out of print now," although Farrar, Straus & Giroux, his publisher, will issue a paperback edition soon. Anyway, "it sprang me into those introspective examinations of conscience"--"The Professor of Desire" (1977) and the trilogy.
And sprang him, too, into these Connecticut woods where he has lived for 10 years since abandoning New York, his pop-Lothario image and the company of all but a few close friends. "My life out here is almost entirely Claire and myself--when she's here." (Which hasn't been a lot lately: She's been acting in Roth's adaptation of "The Ghost Writer," slated for PBS in January, and working on a play about the late Jean Rhys at 83.) Aside from "infrequent" visits to New York or trips to see his father (his mother died recently), "I don't lead a sociable life," Roth says. "But I do socialize a lot in London, and that's terrifically important" for variety. For recreation, "I read a lot." He has to, as editor of Penguin Books' "Writers From the Other Europe" series. "I need the maximum amount of silence, and then I need a certain amount of boredom. I don't want distractions, anything to break the connections." To unwind he swims in his "Franklin Library Memorial Pool" (paid for by autographing books for the mail-order publisher) and walks up to eight miles a day.
Roth is as esthetically earnest as anyone in the history of letters, and friends praise his determined rectitude and moral scruple. But he is no ascetic; and at parties, his performances are legend. To his friends, says Conarroe, he's "a constant carnival." A reference to current events or literature "will set him off into wonderfully original kinds of routines"--miming Nixon or Carter, concocting long mock-Shakespearean speeches in Cockney accent. His taste for experience, says Stein, "is rich--why should you settle for anything less? He prepares his food that way, his wine."
The rest is silence and "a deeply solitary, self-conscious act of self-mining," punctuated by agonies. "The Anatomy Lesson," Roth says, "went through a crisis, like every book I've ever written. About a year into it, it seems to me ghastly. And it is ghastly. Dead. And then I've got to sit and look at it every day--six months of a difficult time," throwing out scenes and characters until he's left with "all the pieces that are alive. And I say, What is the connection between these living things? What is the real pattern of this book as opposed to the one I imposed upon it to get going?
"When I'm finished with a book, or as far as I can go, I have three or four friends whom I like to have read the manuscript." He gets a notebook, tape recorder or both and "I spend two or three hours with them after they've done it and listen to what they have to say. For me, that's the best I get out of publishing. That, to me, is being published." Of course, his first reader is Bloom. "Her responses are invaluable to me." Although "if there's something she doesn't like, I'll discount it if I think it's one of her biases. She'll say, 'Oh, Christ, that again!' And I'm not going to tell you what that is."
What keeps him persevering? "It's the desire to see if I can do it. Every book is a problem. You set the terms of the problem crudely in the first six months, and then you spend the next 18 months or three years saying can I solve this problem? It's far more of a psychological and emotional imperative than it is a moral responsibility. An intellectual imperative too--finally the whole person is being tested by the problem."
The problem for Zuckerman in "The Anatomy Lesson" is to reconcile his desperation to engage the real with the undeniable edicts of his nature. "The rage to be both those things does say something about the range of feeling that goes into writing," Roth says, now swiveling his chair slowly from side to side. "One is not the one thing or the other thing, but some explosive mix of the two. The tension creates the excitement, the fire, touches upon human contradictions that are life." Contradictions: London and Connecticut, life and art, guilt and ego, lust and decorum, engagement and reclusion.
As he explains what Zuckerman learns at last, Roth's voice slows and deepens as if reciting a credo. "I am myself. I am not my parents' dream of me, not my dream of me. I can't will myself, no matter how strenuously I work at it, no matter how terribly I no longer want what I have and what I am, to be anything other than this me who is me being me and none other. He comes up against the irreducible Zuckerman. He's like some crazy dog on a long chain, and he comes to the end and wacko!" Jerked back to the inexorable self.
And the irreducible Roth at 50? Is he comfortable at his core? The question draws only a dry laugh soughing with decades of hard-fought self-disdain. But later he points to a favorite passage in "The Anatomy Lesson." Zuckerman, condemned as a pornographer, has prowled Chicago obstreperously pretending to be one, defending the skin trade in a hot mock-tirade against repression. But the next morning, as Zuckerman reflects on his own creation, his empathy is suddenly engaged: "Yet, the moral stubbornness, the passionate otherness--maybe he is what makes one secretly proudest of being a Jew after all. The more he sits with me, the more I find to like."
Antithesis and resolution. Roth's smile arcs, widens. "I'm nuts about that scene."