Philip Roth

This is an archive broadcast from May 12, 2006.

Philip Roth [David Miller]

This Memorial Day weekend we’re talking with Philip Roth about everything. It’s a free-range conversation that gets us beyond the books and into the mind, heart and soul of the Tolstoy of our times. In his latest work, Everyman, the hero bids farewell to vigor, lust and life but Roth himself remains as vital and persistent a writer as ever. With nearly 30 books under his belt, Roth’s approach to writing hasn’t changed:

If I can emerge from my studio with a page, I’m not downhearted. If I emerge with less, I’m pretty frustrated. If I emerge with nothing, then I want to slit my throat. I haven’t yet, but sometimes you can’t go any further. It’s not writer’s block, that’s not the right phrase to describe it — it’s that you are not penetrating the material in a way that will release whatever is strongest in you.

Philip Roth on Open Source

In Everyman, Roth paraphrases artist Chuck Close, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Part of the secret Roth offered, in an aside, may be his birth year 1933, the early depression. He’s conscious of entering the world at virtually the same moment with prolific writers he still admires: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Reynolds Price. We dropped many other names along the way: David Riesman, Sarah Vaughan, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, the several Henrys (Miller, James, Aaron, and Kissinger) and, yes, Tolstoy.

Don’t miss this—it is an hour to remember.

Update, 5/15/06, 11:25pm

On our comment thread Allison writes “I’m confused. Did you already have the conversation with him?” Yes, we did. Earlier this month Roth graciously invited us into his home, in rural Connecticut. We recorded over two hours of remarkable tape that we are now editing for Memorial Day.

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  • You made my day!

  • I’m confused. Did you already have the conversation with him?

  • avecfrites

    I’m looking forward to reading “Everyman”. I think we’re on the cusp of a new wave of literature as aging Boomers focus on, well, aging. Maybe we’ll get a new clutch of books that will eclipse the Mommy Wars and the Bastard On The Couch genres.

    It appears to me now that the best-sellers in this new genre will have to be optimistic, and will no doubt talk about unique individuals delaying the days of helplessness, much as these same imaginary individuals backpacked through Europe in their youth. It’s just too painful and realistic for most people, including me, to read much about hospital stays.

    Or maybe I underestimate us all. Maybe we’ll dine on an endless supply of Tuesdays With Morrie and bleak French noir.

    The aging of the boomers would be a great topic for extended treatment on Radio Open Source.

  • scribe5

    Great!

    I asked for the show and you guys made my week.

    I will be listening.

  • Jake Sterling

    Lot’s of meaning in the poetry on this show. What about sound? Is poetry an oral medium? Or has it become just literary? Whitman wrote “Song of Myself.” Somewhere I feel that the song part is getting lost. I want to know about meter, rhythm, alliteration, rhyme. What is its relationship to all that meaning?

  • peggysue

    I was in High School the day my Mom confiscated my marijuana and burned my copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. I havn’t read Philip Roth since but I just noticed in the May 21, New York Times Book Review cover article What Is The Best Work Of American Fiction Of The Last 25 Years? Philip Roth has more books mentioned that any other author. I’m looking forward to this show.

  • Chet Hertz

    Roth is a giant, and I am so grateful to him for his books, for the painstaking art and craft of them. He gets to the truths — the hilarious ones, yes, but also the difficult, dark, and painful truths. I devour his books, and they ring together in my head as I re-experience their truths day to day. Thank you Philip Roth, for the attention you pay.

  • I hear ya, Mr. Roth – I’m going to stop waiting for inspiration and hit the computer every day! Is there some brand of verbal laxative you can recommend? Coffee just doesn’t seem to do the trick. But if you have days when you don’t produce a page, I feel better already. I look forward to this show with enthusiasm.

  • calkol

    Chet Hertz values Philip Roth’s work in much the same way I do and expressed particular qualities of his writing with more precision and fewer words than I might have.

    Ever since Alex Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, et.al. came into my life, I have secretly believed that no one else could possibly have as refined an appreciation of Roth as I. It was a nice

    conceit while it lasted.

  • FedericoMuchnik

    He has mentored me more than I could have hoped for or imagined. From a distance, through his writing, I have learned about life, love, sex, humor and wit, the inevitable and inexorable passage of time and its effects on the body and psyche and – most of all – about the job of the novelist in our time.

    A random quote from Reading Myself And Others: “I read fiction to be freed from my own suffocatingly narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my own. It’s the same reason why I write.”

    It is his precision, his self-discipline, his own intellectual rigor, his capacity to respond intelligently, no brilliantly, to his worst critics that makes him an enduring and admirable figure.

    Elsewhere in “Reading Myself And Others” he writes (on the subject of his Judaism in his work): “What fiction does and what the rabbi would like to do are two entirely different things. The concerns of fiction are not those of a statistician – or of a public relations firm. The novelist asks himself, “What do people think?”, the PR man asks “What WILL people think?”…. But I believe this is what is actually troubling the rabbi when he calls for his “balanced portrayal of Jews”. What will people think? Or, to be exact, What will the goyim think?”

    As a Jew, I am always in awe of his intrinsically American perspective. Myself, having been born and raised between cultures (America and Europe), I must live my life saddled between two places – a situation with Roth, our “other” great novelist was – thankfully – deprived of.

  • zeke317

    I’m looking forward to this show, as I think Roth is one of the very best American novelists of the twentieth century no matter what survey one chooses to use for criteria. Having siad that, I was a bit let down by The Plot Against America; possibly a function of overly inflated expectations, which I am trying to avoid in the publicity run up for Everyman. Plot Against America seemed to suffer from the boundaries between its counterfactual history, the boy’s tale and the adult narrator’s perspective. Each was very good on its own, but they never meshed fully for me. Usually the narrative voice is Roth’s strength and dominates his books–which I am assuming will be the case again in Everyman.

    Speaking of Plot Against America, I recently heard of a previous counterfactual novel in which America is defeated in WWII. It’s called The Man in the High Castle and is by Phillip K. Dick. Anyone familiar with it? Thoughts?

  • reader

    It is a great privilege to hear this conversation with Philip Roth. He is a magnificent, acutely perceptive writer, and there is blazing light in his work.

    I wonder how he sees his readers, and whether he grasps just how much his books mean to them.

  • babu

    As a Jewish American feminist woman of similar age and East Coast origins as Roth, in my 20’s and early 30’s I found his Portnoy voice insufferable.

    It grated on me in precisely the same way as the then-famous (Village Voice ’67 or ’68?) image — the dirty refrigerator from the New York headquarters of the Weather Underground which had the message ‘CLEAN ME’ fingered into its heavy dust — grated on me and every other woman I knew.

    “Do me”, it said, whatever else you have to do. I heard that voice as a celebration of neurotic narcissistic entitlement, and I wasn’t alone. Women’s groups used Portnoy as a talking point for everything we finally rejected about the gender status quo. As the years went by I checked in on the next issue of that voice and found it recalcitrant, idling, self-congratulatory, self-flagellating, maddening. We were trying so hard to make some changes, why couldn’t you, too? Guys?

    It took me another thirty years to realize that there are other ways beside straight social realist agit-prop journalism to reach a generation of men — and the women orbitting around them. Someone has to tell the story from the inside, gender-centric,

    I loved the voice I heard on tape tonight. I dived right into the surf of the Jersey shore and rode on its back the same way I rode waves on the backs of my brother and all his friends all those summers before we grew up

  • babu,

    You just gave me some sympaty for my Mom (see my above post) though at the time, 68? 69? I thought she was acting like a Nazi storm trooper. (she was!) So much for Portnoy’s Complaint

    What was there at that time in the world of literature to represent the female voice regarding sexuality? What I remember is The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susanne. (Not exactly great role models but perhaps a good match for Portnoy) Finally in collage I discovered Anais Nin.

  • babu

    Nora Ephron’s ‘Zipless Fuck’ came popularly along, as grasping as Portnoy was opaque.

  • Wasn’t that from Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying?

  • babu

    I stand corrected; a double stram-of-consciousness typo, author and title. Funny but that’s what i was saying as I wrote. Apologies.

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  • Great conversation! I especially enjoyed hearing about Roth’s views of and experience regarding the creative process.

  • targetUser

    more! more!

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  • Finally, a corrective to that insulting ‘interview’ perpetrated against Mr. Roth by Martin Krasnick at the Guardian (which is fast becoming the voice of the Yob) way back in December of 2005…better late than never that I should stumble on this gracious conversation. Blather-free, instructive and (paradoxically?) reassuring. If anyone is interested in a concise rebuke against John Banville’s wrong-headed assault on “Everyman”:

    http://blaugustine.wordpress.com/2006/12/12/roth%e2%80%99s-everyman-vs-banville%e2%80%99s-the-sea-92006/

  • The above-mentioned rebuke to Mr. Banville’s assault on Everyman has been moved to:

    http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/2006/12/12/roth%e2%80%99s-everyman-vs-banville%e2%80%99s-the-sea-92006/