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Philip Roth: 2011 Man Booker International Prize winner

Philip Roth: 2011 Man Booker International Prize winner

Filmed in New York, the multi-award winning writer speaks for half an hour about his writing, the writers who have shaped him and the themes of his novels. The video interview is available for view on the Man Booker Prize YouTube channel here.

Philip Roth, winner of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, interviewed by Benjamin Taylor, New York, May 2011


Ben Taylor:

Congratulations, Philip Roth.

Philip Roth:

Thank you.


BT:

For more than half a century now, you have been the most protean of American fiction writers. The talented comic performer of Goodbye Columbus, your first book, gives way to the Jamesian craftsman of Letting Go and When She Was Good - the second and third books. That gives way in turn to the outlandish farceur of Portnoy's Complaint and it only gets more interesting from there; in the 70s we meet David Kepesh and Peter Tarnopol and then in the 80's the great sequence of the Zuckerman novels begins.


I wonder, looking back on this metamorphic career, this series of transformations, what it's like for you to re-read your books. Was it a feeling of dissatisfaction with what you'd accomplished that was driving you forward?

PR:

No, what was driving me forward, certainly in the beginning, was trying to figure out two things, one, how to write a novel; after all, nobody had taught me that in school, and two, where my talent was, I didn't know that either. And so I wrote three or four books at the beginning, each very different from the other, not so as to show off my expertise, but rather trying to find out where I could be strongest. What kind of subject would stir my verbal energy and what I sounded like on the page, I didn't know that. After that, things did change from time to time and I found myself, I guess, writing one book in response to another. To give you one example, I would say, two books that appeared successively in the 1990's were Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. Sabbath's Theater is a hellzapoppin book; has a very comical and mean main character and when I finished that book I'd had it with that, and I wanted to write about a good man, the opposite of my hero in Sabbath's Theater. So I came up with Levov, the hero of American Pastoral. Now, many more things went into it of course, having to do with primarily the subject - but I did bounce from one on to the other. I think what may happen is that when you finish a long book, that you stage a rebellion against that book and write a different kind of book.


BT:

You once said that you feel The Counter Life was, in particular, an important moment of renewal for you. I wonder if you can think back to that moment.

PR:

Yes I think The Counter Life was written and published in the 1980's. Yes, I had this character named Zuckerman who was the hero of a kind of comic quartet of books, beginning with Ghost Writer, going on to The Prague Orgy and he seemed useful to me but I only began to really use his intelligence, usefully, in writing The Counter Life. He began to be the mediating intelligence through which I could tell the story as opposed to the major actor in the story and that lead me to do American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and Human Stain in which there again he's the mediating intelligence, and he freed me.


BT:

When and why did history become a theme for you?

PR:

I suppose in the middle eighties when I wrote The Counter Life. Why? I don't know what happened, history...it isn't so much history became important as place became important and I wanted to see what people were like in these different places. London for one, Israel for another, Prague for a third, so place entered in, and then history yes. Why? Because I ‘d gotten to be 50 or 60 years old I think, and I can now look back on the time in my life with a historical perspective, you can't do that when you're young. I think it was a mixture then of getting older and being enlivened by certain places I'd been to.


BT:

We haven't yet spoken about The Plot Against America. A counter history.

PR:
The Plot Against America - the idea came to me from reading Arthur Schlesinger's first volume of his biography, there is only one volume, but it's the first. In it Schlesinger is writing about the 1940 presidential election in America and he says that the far right would have liked to have had Lindbergh as their candidate. And that's all - it's half a sentence and I remember noting in the margin while I was reading: ‘why not?' y'know? Then I had lunch with Arthur and I said tell me about the far right and Lindbergh and I began to get interested in the possibility of a book like The Plot Against America and then imagined Lindbergh becoming the President of the United States. Then I had to imagine a family who felt the extreme right wing lash on their backs and so I thought why not my own family. And so I tried to make the people in the book behave the way I imagined my immediate family, mother, father and brother, would have behaved in this situation. So, on the one hand the book is far out, in that it imagines Lindbergh as the President of the United States, on the other hand it's far in, because it imagined my family as being the victims.


BT:

Since that big book you've written a final Zuckerman volume, Exit Ghost, and also four Nemeses - can you say something about the Nemeses?

PR:

About ten years ago, I guess, I began to think about a short novel and short novels and read quite a few. Bellow was alive then and Saul had written three or four interesting short novels near the end of his life so I asked him ‘how do you do it?' and he did what Saul did, he laughed. So I started to do it. It's strange because you're fighting with one hand tied behind your back. How do you get the punch, the knock out punch, into this short book? How do you do it? I had to try and find out. Maybe I found out, maybe I didn't, I don't know.


BT:

Were you one of those people who knew from childhood you wanted to be a writer?

PR:

No, I didn't know what a writer was! I knew what books were because I would go to the branch library in our neighbourhood to get books following the example of my brother who had done it before. Come home with half a dozen books and read them, but they were kid's books, they were books about sports, books about the sea which I was somehow interested in. But I didn't know what an author was. I learned what an author was, I guess, in college because I began to read in my second year in college and taking the literature courses, and I was overcome. I was overcome. I entered college as somebody about to study law, and I assumed I would do that. I had taken constitutional history in college, political science and so on and then I discovered literature and I was overcome and that did it.


Then I suppose by my last year I wanted to write. I wrote college stories. They were as weak as anybody's college stories. Only a few years later, after graduate school, and I was drafted and went into the army. I had an office job in the army and at night I went back into the office and there was a typewriter there and I began to write the first stories that were OK. So it wasn't something I knew about, thought about doing and even when I began to do it I thought, ‘I'll never make a living from this'. Nobody, very few, did make a living then, and very few make a living now. So I thought I need a job and so I'll teach English. I'll be an English teacher, an English Professor, and then I'll write in those four or five months in the summer and so on. And that was my plan. And then I won a prize, the National Book Award for Goodbye Columbus and I got a Guggenheim grant for $3200 and I was on easy street!


BT:

How was your stint in the army?

PR:

My stint in the army? It was memorable only for one thing. I didn't mind it actually. It's fun to learn how to shoot a machine gun, y'know, use a bayonet. I hurt my back and eventually wound up in the hospital for two months and eventually was discharged. Then I've had back trouble off and on. It might have been more interesting had I been in longer but that was enough, I got the idea!


BT:

When you take up these themes of recent books, say, the Korean War or the perils of polio, am I right that you do a lot of research before or are you simply remembering?

PR:

I do my remembering while I'm writing. Usually I don't turn to the books until after I've got a first draft of my story. Why? I don't want to be caged in by the reality as it were. I want my imagination to go wherever it wants to go. If it's outlandish, if I find from the reading that what I've written is outlandish, then of course I can get rid of it. But after the first or second draft then I do begin to read books and talk to people. To go up to The Plot Against America - there's a cousin in the book, I forget his name now, one of the Roth family's cousins, and he loses a leg in the war, and he sleeps with young Philip in his bedroom and he has a stump and so on. I found somebody who had a stump and I could talk to him about how he got it, what it's been like to live with it. He let me touch it - which is amazing. I also walked on his crutches, a terrific fellow. It was helpful. It may not be that you use what the person says to you, though you might, but it stimulates you in the right direction; it launches your imagination in the right direction. So recently when I had a kosher butcher in one of the books, Indignation, you'd think it'd be easy not to have to consult books, to write about a kosher butcher shop - but I did. I found some interesting books about koshering meat and then I went over to Brooklyn. Someone had told me where to go, a few kosher butcher shops, and I went in and I walked around, talked to the guy and so on. Of course I'd been in kosher shops as a kid but I didn't remember that stuff - what it smelled was like.


BT:

These historically based books have sometimes, I gather, brought you poignant and sometimes uncanny letters from readers who were enmeshed in the events you describe - polio or the details of the summer camp in that era or veterans of the Korean War and so on. I'm curious about some of the remarkable letters you might have received.

PR:

The best and most interesting letters come from people who want to talk about the subject of the book and very often it's because they've been through a similar milieu or been through a similar hardship and so on. Most recently because of the publication of Nemesis, I have gotten, I don't know, three, four, five, six, letters from polio victims. They've all been men. They're men about my age, because polio stops victimising people in 1955 in America, so they all got their polio before that as youngsters. And they're heartfelt, they're descriptive, they make me feel validated in what I wrote - and yes I read those letters with zest because they're talking to what I'm talking about.


BT:

Can I ask you in particular about writers who in retrospect you realise now shaped you - there was a phase in your career where you were interested, above all, in Kafka for example?

PR:

There are some writers who have made an indelible impression. I don't know if they've shaped me as a writer. They shaped me as a reader and as a thinker, and as a literary person. If they've shaped me as a writer, I don't know. When I first started out, I was fresh from graduate school where I'd been dipped in, steeped rather, in Henry James and there was an "influence" not all for the good - and there was a tone that I'd picked up from James which didn't suit me at all but it's there in Letting Go. I think its best when that doesn't happen, but rather when your literary consciousness is expanded as you go through life by people like Kafka. Kafka made a very strong impression on me, these serious comedies of guilt touched me. So I think that Kafka - back in the 1970's when I was also teaching and I taught a lot of Kafka - I just was with a master. That's the wonderful thing to my mind about teaching - is that in order to teach a book you've got to read it very carefully and figure out a way of talking about it. Figure out language to describe it and you become intimate - you have as intimate involvement, as intimate involvement as you can have, with someone like Kafka.


I think Bellow of course has been a major figure in my imagination and in my mind all my life as a writer. Saul was born in 1918? [Ben Taylor: 1915] 1915, so he was 18 years older than I was, so therefore he was a figure of awe for me. But I read - when I got out to Chicago in 1955 to begin to go to the University of Chicago Graduate School - I read Augie March. Augie March was my guide book, I read it like Fodor's guide to Chicago y'know? Also it was so glamorous - it seemed to me, that I should be in this city that nourishes this guy. And so I read Bellow's books as soon as they came out, each book. I taught a lot of Bellow too, in fact I had a course which I taught for several years called ‘Kafka and Bellow', the hunger artist and the opposite, the abundant artist; the super abundant artist. And for a while when I was starting out Malamud had made a strong impression on me; he and Bellow made a strong impression at the same time - in about 1955, 1956 - because they were Jews, I was a Jew - they were Jews...and they didn't turn away from material that had been given to them; they didn't try to write like Lord Chesterfield - to put it mildly. And I could do the same with my stuff. I could do my best to make my Newark into what Malamud made his Brooklyn into; what Bellow made his Chicago into. It took me a while to figure that out. In Goodbye Columbus Newark is just sketched in, I didn't know what I was doing but later on when you get to American Pastoral I think it lives and I learnt that in a way from Bellow.


BT:

University of Chicago was all together a good thing in your life. That was two years right?

PR:

I took a year as a master's degree and I taught there for two years; so I was there for three years in the 1950's, middle 50's. I loved the University of Chicago. I'd gone to a small, mediocre college. I happened to get a very good, rigorous literary education there, but it was still a small, rural college - and this was in a great city and had a great faculty and it had very, very smart students. Yes I enjoyed it.


I often, in years later, wondered why I left Chicago to go to New York (when I got an $800 pay cheque from Esquire magazine to go to New York to make my fortune) because I so liked the city, the neighbourhood and the university...but that's what I did.


BT:

That training at Bucknell sounds formidable to me - I wonder if you can say something about the teachers you had there.

PR:

Bucknell was a very small school when I was there - I don't think there were more than 2000 students, if that many. The mood was decorous and polite - as if the 50's weren't decorous and polite enough. Then you went to Bucknell and it was even more decorous and polite. But that aside, I happened to land in the English department and there were four, maybe five, first class young professors, and the scheme for English majors was very rigorous. It was great. I read a lot, in English literature, I read no American literature at all, but I read everything. I had to write about everything, that was the way they did it. You had to write a summary of the thing, which is a good exercise, and then a critique of the thing, what ever it was. And by the time I got out of there I knew how to read and I knew a lot of stuff about English literature. So it served me well - it was right for me then to go on to a big place like Chicago, a big sophisticated place, intellectually sophisticated. But this was fine for a kid.


BT:

Has the theatre ever tempted you, as it did Henry James, as it has for a number of American fiction writers?

PR:

In the middle 60's the Ford Foundation had a programme to try to interest novelists and poets in writing plays and I got a grant from them, for what ever it was, to try to write a play. We were also affiliated with a theatre, each person was affiliated with a different theatre so you could see plays being produced and you could have your own play, if you wrote it, read or produced. Nobody has ever written worse plays than me, maybe Henry James! But, I couldn't figure it out! Maybe there is no way to figure it out and that's why there are so few good plays - but I couldn't figure it out. I couldn't get anything that resembled mind or mental-ness into the play. Anyway, it goes without saying everybody was stupid, it doesn't make any difference but I did that for about two or three years and it didn't work for me.


BT:

Among your exact contemporaries, there was John Updike, whose career runs alongside yours, I think the year you won the National Book Award he won the Rosenthal Award and you were very often contrasted along the way. You were yourself a reader of his work?

PR:

John is dead now two years and I slightly suspect that if he was alive he would be sitting in this chair, not me. And that would have been a good idea. He was a master; he was a great American master - surely the greatest man of letters of his period, of the second half of the 20th century. A brilliant writer, he could write any kind of sentence imaginable, you just asked for it and he could give it to you. His two great books to my mind, though he wrote quite a few great books, but the two greatest books are the last two of the Rabbit books, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. He is free as a bird, he can go anywhere, he can do any kind of comedy, he can do any kind of description, he's just free, he's completely free, he was always free but this is the freest he would ever be, I think, because he was so certain about the material, his Rabbit and central Pennsylvania. His fluency, fluidity was all there and as I say; he had his subject in his hand. So, he was a great writer.


BT:

Eastern Europe from the 1970's to the end of the Cold War was a particular interest of yours, both as the editor of an important series of translated books in America and in your own work. Could you say something more about that?

PR:

I kind of stumbled upon Eastern Europe as an interest. In 1972 in the spring I went on a trip and I included Prague in it because I'd never seen it. I was only there for three days I think, but while I was there I met my translators. They had translated Portnoy's Complaint and they couldn't get it published because there was now a Russian backed totalitarian regime in the driver's seat in Prague. But they told me about how awful things were and they and several other people began to introduce me to writers, among them Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Ludvík Vaculík and Miroslav Holub, the poet, and so on, and Jiří Mucha who wasn't a dissident but was a good writer. I began to go back annually for about a week or two to see all these people. I thought there was a lot of talent there that we knew nothing about and that it would do everybody some good if those books were put into print because it might furnish some little protection for those who were vulnerable to the government and the police. So with the aid of Penguin Books I edited a series called Writers from the Other Europe and there were some first class books in there, and then the series broadened out to have a book called This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentleman by Borowski and Bruno Schulz. Bruno Schulz was published almost for the first time in that series, his two books of stories and it was very impressive. I had many Czech exile friends during that period, wound up eating in many Czech restaurants and they made my life very interesting.


BT:

Thank you so much and again, congratulations.

An interview with Philip Roth: winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2011 © Nancy Crampton
An interview with Philip Roth: winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2011 © Nancy Crampton