Remembering Philip Roth, 1933-2018

RothSad to hear of the passing of one of America’s greatest writers, Philip Roth, who died Tuesday at 85. He was certainly one of my favorites and it was great honor when I had an opportunity five years ago to ask him a couple of questions.

He was doing some promotion, oddly enough, for a PBS profile on him and by then had discovered the joys of retirement at 80.

“Yeah, it’s great so far,” he said. “I get up in the morning. I go to the kitchen. I get a large glass of orange juice, and I go back to bed and read for an hour and a half. I never have done that in my entire life. So I’m doing fine without writing. Someone should have told me about this earlier.”

At that point in his life, he noted in the documentary, ”In the coming years, I have two great calamities to face — death and biography. Let’s hope the first comes first.”

Roth got his wish; Blake Bailey is still working on the official biography.

I asked him why he decided to participate in the documentary

“Well, time is running out, you know,” he said. “And if I didn’t do it now, when would I do it?”

Besides, in retirement, suddenly he had time. “I put it off because I had other things to do. You know, I’d been writing all these years, and I would write a very long day, and I wrote seven days a week,” he said. “But also I put it off because nobody asked me. But the process itself was quite it was wonderful. I had a good time.”

The retirement came as a surprise to readers as well as to himself.

After he finished writing his 2011 book “Nemesis,” Roth said, “I didn’t realize it was my last book. But it is now.”

Freed from the desk, he was enjoying doing a lot of reading — even of his own stuff.

“I’m particularly partial to a [1995] book called ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ which a lot of people hate,” Roth said. “That’s not the reason I like it. But I think it’s I think it’s got a lot of freedom in it.

“That’s what you are looking for as a writer when you’re working. You’re looking for your own freedom, to lose your inhibition to delve deep into your memory and experience of life, and then to find the prose that will persuade the reader,” he said.

“The other book I like very much is the book that followed ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’” he said, referring to what some think is his masterwork, 1997′s “American Pastoral.”

‘Sabbath’s Theater’ is about a kind of giant of disobedience,” Roth said. “Mickey Sabbath, he’s death -haunted, and he, yet, has great gaiety about his own death. He’s an interesting guy. But he wouldn’t be thought of as a conventionally virtuous man.

“And in ‘American Pastoral,’” he said, “I wanted to write about a conventionally virtuous man. I was sick of Mickey Sabbath, and I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum.”

Doing both books back to back, he said, “enabled me to write about the decade, the most powerful decade of my life, the ’60s, and the domestic turbulence of the ’60s, and I think I got a lot of that into the book.”

“History has worked its way into quite a few of my books,” Roth observed, ” most seriously beginning with ‘American Pastoral,’ which takes place in the about 1970 when the turbulence of the Vietnam War had interfered with all our lives, to put it mildly. And then I wrote ‘I Married a Communist,’ which takes place in the just the pre McCarthy anti-Communist crusade, 1945 to ’50, and then ‘The Human Stain’ I set in the late ’90s when the Clinton sex scandal aroused the sanctimonious America, and I wanted to write a book about that sanctimony. And then in my last book, ‘Nemesis,’ I wrote about what life was like during the terrible polio menace. And ‘Indignation,’ I wrote about the Korean War. So American history has stimulated me a great deal.

“Now, the problem is you just I’m not a historian,” Roth said. “I’m a novelist. So I have to find the story, the people, to come at the history obliquely and yet somehow get the power from it.”

Even so, he said, the toughest thing about writing the past 60 years was “coming up with a new subject: What shall I write about next? I’m not someone who had books ten books in mind to write. Maybe some writers do. I think most of them are more like me, which is I don’t know where to go after I’ve finished a book. I feel barren. I am barren. I put everything into the previous book, so I’ve got to search for a subject, and then I find it, or I search for a character, or I think of a character in a predicament, like the character in ‘American Pastoral.’

“And then I’ve got that’s all I’ve got are two sticks, you know, the character and the predicament, and I’ve gotta produce a whole world, world of language and a world, and so that’s a labor.”

Now the labor is behind him; the books will live forever.

 

This entry was posted in Books, Obit. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.