Philip Roth talks to David L. Ulin
In Sunday’s Arts & Books, Times book critic David L. Ulin visits with Philip Roth, whose 31st book, the novel "Nemesis" -- which involves a polio epidemic in 1940s Newark, N.J. -- comes out Tuesday. During the conversation, Roth touched on a variety of subjects, from craft and process to his fascination with memory and imagination. Below are some additional comments from the interview.
Jacket Copy: Some readers considered your 2004 novel "The Plot Against America" a commentary on Bush-era excess, although you have said that this is not the case. Can we read "Nemesis" -- which, on one level, is about how fear and hysteria contaminate us -- as an allegory for our current circumstance?
Philip Roth: I can only tell you that I’m not conscious of it. I finished this book 13 months ago, in August ’09, and I began it in August ’08. Things weren’t so hysterical when I began.
I don’t tend to respond to what’s going on at the moment until about 30 years later. I think [my interest in polio] came out of my memory of the fear, and my memory of the parents on the street, the memory of their fear. Because the parents’ fear was much greater than ours. We knew that polio existed, we knew President Roosevelt had it; this was very important in the consciousness of polio. We knew that every summer was blighted by the threat of polio, and we knew somebody was going to get it. But even that we didn’t know. Very rarely did anybody get it in our neighborhood. So we would run off in the morning, hot summer day, to the playground. And there forgot completely, if we even thought about it, forgot completely about polio. It was a strange kind of menace. It was real and it was unreal. And when finally one friend of mine did get it -- I was about 10 -- then it was real to us.
In this way, it is like "The Plot Against America" because I wanted to think: What would it have been like for us if this had happened? It's a way I measure how lucky we were. I measure how much didn't happen to us. We heard about anti-Semitism, but aside from Father Coughlin being on the radio or something happening to one of our parents when they went out in the world, it was a huge menace that wasn't real. Polio also was a huge menace that wasn’t real.
Now I don’t know whether it's [that] old guys write about cataclysm or not... if you want to use that for your headline...
JC: Old guys writing about cataclysm. We've found our theme.
PR: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know. I don't know what John [Updike] was writing about when he died. Bellow wrote "Ravelstein," which is an exuberant book. I don’t like it very much, but it’s exuberant. Hemingway... well, he didn’t publish the last books he was writing -- he left them. He was writing “The Garden of Eden," which I think is a wonderful book, and "Islands in the Stream."
"Islands in the Stream" is very good. The first time Hemingway deals with having children, and it’s terrific. The kids come to visit him on his island. They’re all boys in their 20s, or 18 or 19, and the feeling between them is revealed and it’s so strong. He takes them out fishing, and the cataclysm occurs.
So I don’t know whether or not I'm going to do any more cataclysms.
JC: How has your work developed over the course of your career?
PR: When I was younger, in my 20s, earlier, I was very entertaining to my friends. I was not reluctant to be amusing and to produce scenarios and people. I could make people laugh. And when I got around to writing "Portnoy's Complaint" -- in those years, I had written "Goodbye, Columbus," "Letting Go" and "When She Was Good," and I hadn’t made anybody laugh -- I thought: 'Why don’t I do what I do when I’m among my friends, for their entertainment on the page?' And I learned, taught myself, how to perform on the page.
So for me, writing is a performance. "Portnoy's Complaint" was a performance. When you’re an actor who gives a performance, you have a false wig and a false mustache and a crooked back, and when you go backstage you take off those things and then you go out into the street and be yourself. But the problem for a writer is that he can’t take off those things, so when he goes out into the street it looks like that’s the same guy.
JC: What does this mean in terms of process?
PR: The process has changed in part because the machinery has changed. Working on a computer is very different from working on a typewriter.
JC: You typed? You didn't write longhand?
PR: No, I typed. Doing that, I tended to write through. Write through a chapter. Write through the chapters. So I would have many drafts. Because the changes involved... there was only so much you could write in the margins. You had to retype the changes, and rewrite as you retyped. That's why, I think, everybody had many more drafts.
But beginning with "Sabbath's Theater," I guess, or maybe "Operation Shylock," I began to work on a computer. Now I’m doing so much changing as I go along that the drafts disappear, as it were, into the rewrites.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Philip Roth in 2010. Credit: Nancy Crampton / Handout