Roth’s Slow End


Philip Roth

Philip Roth, who just two years ago retired—after previously claiming that he “could not conceive of a life without writing”—last night announced on BBC his intention to cease formal public appearances of any kind.

Since his first book Portnoy’s Complaint (1959), Roth has published a staggering 24, including American Pastoral (1997), for which he was awarded a Pulitzer. Argued to be the greatest living American writer, if not the greatest in the world, Roth’s last piece of work is a biography written by Blake Bailey whom Roth claims he is now in the employ of. Bailey told the BBC: “He has supplied me with literally thousands of pages of typed notes that are addressed directly to me. He has turned over all his personal papers to me.” In response to Bailey’s hopes at publishing the biography by 2022, Roth said, “I will do anything for you but I don’t know if I can stay alive …”

BACK IN ’84 ROTH DID AN INTERVIEW WITH THE PARIS REVIEW‘S HERMIONE LEE FOR  THE ART OF FICTION #84. READ A FEW OF HIS ANSWERS BELOW:

INTERVIEWER

Do you have painful feelings on looking back?

ROTH

Looking back I see these as fascinating years—as people of fifty often do contemplating the youthful adventure for which they paid with a decade of their lives a comfortingly long time ago. I was more aggressive then than I am today, some people were even said to be intimidated by me, but I was an easy target, all the same. We’re easy targets at twenty-five, if only someone discovers the enormous bull’s-eye.

INTERVIEWER

And where was it?

ROTH

Oh, where it can usually be found in self-confessed budding literary geniuses. My idealism. My romanticism. My passion to capitalize the L in life. I wanted something difficult and dangerous to happen to me. I wanted a hard time. Well, I got it. I’d come from a small, safe, relatively happy provincial background—my Newark neighborhood in the thirties and forties was just a Jewish Terre Haute—and I’d absorbed, along with the ambition and drive, the fears and phobias of my generation of American Jewish children. In my early twenties, I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid of all those things. It wasn’t a mistake to want to prove that, even though, after the ball was over, I was virtually unable to write for three or four years. From 1962 to 1967 is the longest I’ve gone, since becoming a writer, without publishing a book. Alimony and recurrent court costs had bled me of every penny I could earn by teaching and writing, and, hardly into my thirties, I was thousands of dollars in debt to my friend and editor, Joe Fox. The loan was to help pay for my analysis, which I needed primarily to prevent me from going out and committing murder because of the alimony and court costs incurred for having served two years in a childless marriage. The image that teased me during those years was of a train that had been shunted onto the wrong track. In my early twenties, I had been zipping right along there, you know—on schedule, express stops only, final destination clearly in mind; and then suddenly I was on the wrong track, speeding off into the wilds. I’d ask myself, “How the hell do you get this thing back on the right track?” Well, you can’t. I’ve continued to be surprised, over the years, whenever I discover myself, late at night, pulling into the wrong station.

INTERVIEWER

But not getting back on the same track was a great thing for you, presumably.

ROTH

John Berryman said that for a writer any ordeal that doesn’t kill him is terrific. The fact that his ordeal did finally kill him doesn’t make what he was saying wrong.

INTERVIEWER

Then what is the relationship between your experience of psychoanalysis and the use of psychoanalysis as a literary stratagem?

ROTH

If I hadn’t been analyzed I wouldn’t have written Portnoy’s Complaint as I wrote it, or My Life as a Man as I wrote it, nor would The Breast resemble itself. Nor would I resemble myself. The experience of psychoanalysis was probably more useful to me as a writer than as a neurotic, although there may be a false distinction there. It’s an experience that I shared with tens of thousands of baffled people, and anything that powerful in the private domain that joins a writer to his generation, to his class, to his moment, is tremendously important for him, providing that afterwards he can separate himself enough to examine the experience objectively, imaginatively, in the writing clinic. You have to be able to become your doctor’s doctor, even if only to write about patienthood, which was, certainly in part, a subject in My Life as a Man. Why patienthood interested me—and as far back as Letting Go, written four or five years before my own analysis—was because so many enlightened contemporaries had come to accept the view of themselves as patients, and the ideas of psychic disease, cure, and recovery. You’re asking me about the relationship between art and life? It’s like the relationship between the eight hundred or so hours that it took to be psychoanalyzed, and the eight or so hours that it would take to read Portnoy’s Complaint aloud. Life is long and art is shorter.

INTERVIEWER

Do you dislike New York?

ROTH

I lived there from 1962 until I moved to the country after Portnoy’s Complaint, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. New York gave me Portnoy’s Complaint in a way. When I was living and teaching in Iowa City and Princeton, I didn’t ever feel so free as I did in New York, in the sixties, to indulge myself in comic performance, on paper and with friends. There were raucous evenings with my New York friends, there was uncensored shamelessness in my psychoanalytic sessions, there was the dramatic, stagy atmosphere of the city itself in the years after Kennedy’s assassination—all this inspired me to try out a new voice, a fourth voice, a less page-bound voice than the voice of Goodbye, Columbus, or of Letting Go, or of When She Was Good. So did the opposition to the war in Vietnam. There’s always something behind a book to which it has no seeming connection, something invisible to the reader which has helped to release the writer’s initial impulse. I’m thinking about the rage and rebelliousness that were in the air, the vivid examples I saw around me of angry defiance and hysterical opposition. This gave me a few ideas for my act.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel you were part of what was going on in the sixties?

ROTH

I felt the power of the life around me. I believed myself to be feeling the full consciousness of a place—this time New York—for the first time really since childhood. I was also, like others, receiving a stunning education in moral, political, and cultural possibilities from the country’s eventful public life and from what was happening in Vietnam.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think you have influenced the environment, the culture, as a writer?

ROTH

Not at all. If I had followed my early college plans to become an attorney, I don’t see where it would matter to the culture.

Read the rest of this interview at the Paris Review website here.

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