Remembering Philip Roth

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his last big counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. My reward was the chance to record what stands up very nicely here. Meantime, he’d written the slim late novella, Everyman, about an old New Jersey athlete with a failing heart, pondering broken relationships, physical decay and coming extinction.

Philip Roth spoke – not to mention: wrote — the American language like nobody else. From Newark, New Jersey and then the University of Chicago, Philip Roth had emerged in the nineteen fifties full of scandalous humor and classical ambitions as well – part Henny Youngman, part Henry James, as he said of himself in his youth. By 2006, he was wrapping up a bounteous late burst of novels. He was also down at heart on the turn of events from 9.11 into the war in Iraq: “an orgy of national narcissism,” in his view. At the age of 73, with us, he sparkled through his grim notes on the dimming of his energy, the paring down of his own rich life, and what it would mean to die. Even then Philip Roth was rehearsing his death. And hard at work, writing every day.

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.

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