Thursday, September 25, 2008


Roth: the outtakes

The Los Angeles Times ran my interview with Philip Roth on September 14. After the piece was published, though, I realized that I had plenty of unused material. What follows, then, is the stuff from the cutting-room floor, much of it quite interesting. We begin by discussing the diminutive scale of Indignation, Roth's latest novel, and proceed to touch on memoirs, inspiration, and the "dreadful state" of the nation.

James Marcus: You've now done three smaller, less panoptic books in a row. Is that a reaction to the previous books, or does the form simply feel congenial to you?

Philip Roth: I'd say the latter. About four or five years ago, I wondered if I could something about 125 to 150 pages long.

JM: As a formal challenge?

PR: As a formal challenge, yes. I don't write short stories, I don't know how to write them.

JM: Not anymore, anyway.

PR: Well, I did at the very beginning, but very few--maybe a half a dozen. This length is something I've done before, in The Breast, Goodbye, Columbus, and The Ghost Writer. I like it. It's a marriage, really, of the novel and short story. You have some of the depth of the novel, but you can use the effects, the means, of the short story.

JM: Meaning the compression?

PR: The compression, yes. The events are more telling. You have to pick the right event, of course--if you pick the wrong one, you're diminishing the power.

JM: Do you feel the itch now to write another big-canvas novel?

PR: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do. You're guessing very well. I've been thinking about it, I have to find the subject. I'm interested in finding a moment in twentieth-century American history that I haven't used either as background or something essential to the book.

JM: During this period of your career, you're inspired by historical moments, while your earlier books seemed to emerge from a personal urgency of one kind or another. Aside from that shift, how has writing changed for you?

PR: As I've gotten older?

JM: Yes.

: Well, it's given me a new subject, which is getting older. I couldn’t have begun to write about that earlier. Otherwise, I seem to have the same writing patterns.

JM: You still write seven days a week?

PR: Yes, unless I’m between books, as I am now. Then it's just a lot of reading, and a lot of struggling to come up with something, which is often fruitless.

JM: But it's not easier?

PR: I've always found it difficult, and it's just as difficult.

JM: Any major distractions? For example, do you watch much television?

PR: No, I don't. I watch the news, occasionally. I read the paper every day. In the summertime, I watch more innings of baseball than I should.

JM: That's a minor vice--if you must have one.

PR: There's a pleasure in that. I've been watching a few nights of the Olympics. But otherwise, the television set is off.

JM: Let's turn to Indignation. It seemed to me that the first fifty pages or so of the book were written in a more subdued style--

PR: More subdued than the remaining pages?

JM: Yes, exactly. Well, let me put it this way. Joseph Brodsky once said: "The real history of consciousness starts with one's first lie." Your protagonist's history of consciousness seems to start with his first blowjob.

: [Laughs] Brodsky would have liked that!

JM: But I wondered whether there was a deliberate effort to tamp down the prose until the book came alive in this way.

PR: There was no conscious attempt to do one thing or the other--just to tell the story.

JM: It's right after his first encounter with Olivia that we discover that Marcus is dead. In a certain way this unites him with, say, the postmortem protagonist of Everyman, as well as Zuckerman in Exit Ghost.

PR: My intention is that he dies twice, as it were. When he's under the morphine, he imagines he's dead: he's conscious of nothing around him, only his memory is active.

JM: And he feels like he's in the afterlife.

PR: That's right. He imagines he's in the afterlife. Then he actually does die, and the memory shuts down. That was just my conceit.

JM: And did that conceit precede the rest of the book, or did you discover it as you went along?

PR: Oh, I think I discovered a lot of it as I was writing drafts of the book. I had no plan. It just dawned on me as I was going along.

JM: So what did you start with?

PR: What did I start with? I started with the Korean War, and somebody coming of age during that period. And then I started with this place--the college--and rather quickly I thought of the butcher shop. I had those things, like pegs on a board, and then I came up with the character and the family.

JM: You've spoken of your interest in the catastrophic. Obviously Marcus Messner's fate in Indignation falls into that category. Is there a catastrophe in a book like Everyman?

PR: For the guy in Everyman, there's the long ordeal of illness, sporadic but continuous. I suppose the catastrophe for him is his isolation. It's very common with the elderly to be subjected to great solitude.

: Is Zuckerman's voluntary isolation any less catastrophic?

PR: That's a whole different story.

JM: In a way, it seems that coming back to other people is the catastrophic event of Exit Ghost.

PR: That's right, yes.

JM: Will we ever see Zuckerman again, or has he truly made his exit in that book?

PR: I think so.

: Have you been following the recent fuss about the veracity of memoirs such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces?

PR: I wasn't aware of it. I have published two memoirs, The Facts and Patrimony, and tried to be as accurate as possible. So I don't really know about this controversy.

JM: Have you thought about writing another memoir?

PR: No, that doesn't seem in the cards. But who knows?

JM: It must have been a profoundly different impulse that led you to write those books.

PR: Yeah, different ones in each case. With The Facts, I was between books, wasn't in a novel mode, and decided to pursue that. Patrimony really grew out of the incident itself. I was taking notes while my father was ill, and when he died, I thought, let's see if I can make this into a book.

JM: I recently reviewed David Rieff's Swimming in a Sea of Death. Have you read that?

PR: Yes.

JM: He makes it clear from the beginning that he did not take notes on his mother's ordeal. He didn't want to report on it. That's an entirely honorable decision. But it left him very little to put in the book, which seemed more like an prolonged expression of guilt for not doing the right thing toward his mother--which was basically impossible to begin with.

PR: I agree with you. David is a friend of mine, and he was going through hell, and I could never quite get to the bottom of this guilt that he had. Because it seems to me that he did everything he possibly could. And as you say, there wasn't anything to do, except make decisions. You can always make the wrong decision, but he didn't make any of those. Why he was so plagued with guilt is, in a way, the uninvestigated subject of the book. It's declared repeatedly, but not investigated.

JM: One last question. Do you feel pressure to grapple with the political here-and-now? It seems to me that you're more interested in the civic uproars of the past at this point.

: I took a little swipe at it in Exit Ghost, with Bush's reelection--but no, I follow it as a citizen. I don't follow it as a novelist.

JM: And as a citizen, how does the state of the nation strike you?

: These last eight years have been dreadful. And I hope it changes.

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