Philip Roth

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Like many who’ve read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the novel during this terrible time of a demagogue reaching the White House. The writer imagined an alternative history in which the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, an actual spokesperson for the America First Committee and admitted white supremacist, was able to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Presidency, changing the course of history for much the worse. It seems to have unfortunate parallels with our own bleak moment.

Roth doesn’t exactly see it that way, however. In an email exchange with Judith Thurman of the New Yorker, he explained the key difference:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist.”

Yes, that’s true, Trump is merely a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, not a real-life superhero whose daring made the world smaller when foreign acres of the Earth still felt as distant as the dark side of the moon. But the book’s sense of foreboding, the feeling that we’ve drifted far and disastrously from our ideals, definitely resonates.

An article in the April 28, 1941 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Lindbergh’s abrupt resignation from his Army post in response to Roosevelt’s criticism of the flier’s speeches, in which he urged American isolationism, a belief which was fortified by his appreciation for Aryan superiority and feelings of anti-Semitism.

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James Salter’s sad 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime, has only grown in stature since its publication, but the book apparently didn’t make the author financially independent. Salter, who will turn 90 in June, picked up some paychecks writing articles for People in the 1970s, including a profile of a septuagenarian Graham Greene, who was then living a rather anonymous life in Paris. Judging from this piece, Philip Roth and China were among Greene’s dislikes. An excerpt:

Greene still reads a lot, three or four books a week, and notes them in his diary, putting down a little tick or cross in judgment. Among the Americans, he likes Kurt Vonnegut. Gore Vidal: “I like his essays.” Alison Lurie. Philip Roth, not much. Bellow, he finds rather difficult. As for his own work, even coming from a long-lived family it is not easy, he admits, to think of starting on a book these days. “The fears,” he says simply, “not knowing whether one will live to see the end of it.”

He has been a published writer since 1929 with his first novel, The Man Within. There have been novels, travel books, thrillers, films, plays, short stories and autobiography as well as essays and reviews. His output has been protean and the breadth of his travel and experience, vast. Many of his settings are foreign. The Honorary Consul, for instance, resulted from a three months’ trip to South America. Though his command of Spanish covers only the present tense, he was visiting in Argentina and saw the town of Corrientes one day while going up the river to Asunción. Corrientes became the scene of the book. He has been in Africa, Mexico, Russia and China (“I found it depressing”), served as an intelligence officer in Sierra Leone during the war, smoked opium in Indochina where he went as a correspondent regularly beginning in 1951 and flew in French bombers between Saigon and Hanoi. He has been an editor in a publishing house, a film reviewer, a critic, a life as varied and glamorous as that of André Malraux, another great literary and political figure. Like Malraux, he asks to be read as a political writer and has set his fiction firmly in that world. The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.•

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In a 1969 Holiday interview conducted by Alfred Bester, Woody Allen let it be known that he preferred Mort Sahl to Lenny Bruce and J.D. Salinger to Philip Roth. Dumb and dumber. An excerpt:

There were a couple of paperbacks on the make-up table: Selections From Kierkegaard and Basic Teachings of Great Philosophers, the sort of thing you’d expect to see a young intellectual reading on a bus. We discussed books. “I don’t enjoy reading,” Woody said. “It’s strictly a secondary experience. If I can do anything else, I’ll duck it. Maybe it’s because I’m a very slow reader. But it’s necessary for a writer, so I have to do it, but I don’t really enjoy it. The thing itself is boring.

‘The only thing I find interesting today is sporting events. They have everything that great theater should have; all the thunderous excitement and you don’t know the outcome. And when the outcome happens, you have to believe it because it happened. I need something crammed with excitement. I like things larger than life.’

He believes that Stendhal’s The Red and The Black is one of the great fath­ers of modern novels. He says that he hates Terry Southern and had to strug­gle through Philip Roth’s new novel. “I felt there were many passages that could have been done better. In the masturbation scenes Roth was reaching for wild effects; in fact, I feel that Roth was pandering to the public. His attitude was: ‘All right, I’ll give you what you want.’ Salinger didn’t do that in Catcher in the Rye. His whole book was on a much higher level.”

Woody is hipped on the subject of pandering. “I feel the same way about Lenny Bruce as I do about Roth. Bruce was not particularly brilliant. He pandered. He was and is idolized by the kind of people who must invent an idol for themselves. Nichols and May didn’t do that. Mort Sahl doesn’t do that; he doesn’t pander.”

The name of another prominent comic came up. I said, “Now there’s a no-talent for you.”

“He’s very successful,” Woody said quietly.

“And that’s what amazes me; the number of no-talents who are successful.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “These days everybody’s successful, talent and no-talent.”•

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I’m more sanguine about the future of the serious American novel than Philip Roth, even though I understand that literacy is changing in the Digital Age, that the term no longer refers to just reading words, that perhaps a world dominated by written matter was more exception than rule.

It’s been eight years since Sam Tanenhaus and A.O. Scott of the New York Times did their excellent survey of the best American novel from 1980-2005. Would they be able to do a good one 25 years from today? The first two paragraphs of Scott’s introductory essay, “In Search of the Best,” and the top selections from the list:

More than a century ago, Frank Norris wrote that ‘the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff,’ an observation that Philip Roth later used as the epigraph for a spoofy 1973 baseball fantasia called, naturally, The Great American Novel. It pointedly isn’t – no one counts it among Roth’s best novels, though what books people do place in that category will turn out to be relevant to our purpose here, which has to do with the eternal hunt for Norris’s legendary beast. The hippogriff, a monstrous hybrid of griffin and horse, is often taken as the very symbol of fantastical impossibility, a unicorn’s unicorn. But the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster – or sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people – not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation – claim to have seen. The Times Book Review, ever wary of hoaxes but always eager to test the boundary between empirical science and folk superstition, has commissioned a survey of recent sightings.

Or something like that. Early this year, the Book Review’s editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify ‘the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.’ The results – in some respects quite surprising, in others not at all – provide a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details.”




Toni Morrison (1987)



Don DeLillo (1997)

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels

John Updike (1995)

American Pastoral

Philip Roth (1997)

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Philip Roth, one of the top five American novelists ever, is done, done, done with the form and believes that all of civilization will soon be finished with it. One question from a Q&A he just did with the New York Times:


You belong to an exceptional generation of postwar writers, who defined American literature for almost half a century: Bellow, Styron, Updike, Doctorow, DeLillo. What made this golden age happen and what made it great? Did you feel, in your active years, that these writers were competition or did you feel kinship — or both? And why were there so few female writers with equal success in that same period? Finally: What is your opinion of the state of contemporary American fiction now?

Philip Roth:

I agree that it’s been a good time for the novel in America, but I can’t say I know what accounts for it. Maybe it is the absence of certain things that somewhat accounts for it. The American novelist’s indifference to, if not contempt for, ‘critical’ theory. Aesthetic freedom unhampered by all the high-and-mighty isms and their humorlessness. (Can you think of an ideology capable of corrective self-satire, let alone one that wouldn’t want to sink its teeth into an imagination on the loose?) Writing that is uncontaminated by political propaganda — or even political responsibility. The absence of any ‘school’ of writing. In a place so vast, no single geographic center from which the writing originates. Anything but a homogeneous population, no basic national unity, no single national character, social calm utterly unknown, even the general obtuseness about literature, the inability of many citizens to read any of it with even minimal comprehension, confers a certain freedom. And surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddamn thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.

Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.

You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.”


I’m starting to believe that Philip Roth is serious about his retirement from writing novels. Of course, he’s spoken recently about how he feels the novel itself is “retiring.” It’s kind of difficult to argue based on the evidence, based on how much storytelling has changed, how much more it will likely soon change. I still hold out hope, still think words will be everywhere. Maybe careers won’t be literary anymore, but I believe there will still be literature of high quality. The opening of Alison Flood’s new Guardian piece about the great novelist in (at least) repose:

A happily retired Philip Roth is spending his days swimming, watching baseball and nature-spotting, revelling in the fact that ‘there’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction,’ according to a new interview.

Reiterating his bleak view about the future of literature – that ‘two decades on the size of the audience for the literary novel will be about the size of the group who read Latin poetry’ – the 80-year-old Roth told Stanford scholar Cynthia Haven that his disengagement from the world of writing is still very much in evidence. Asked by Haven if he really believes his talent – which has won him the Man Booker International prize and made him a perennial contender for the Nobel – will ‘let [him] quit’ writing, Roth responded: ‘You better believe me, because I haven’t written a word of fiction since 2009.’

‘I have no desire to write fiction,’ said the Pulitzer prize-winning literary giant. ‘I did what I did and it’s done. There’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date.’

Instead: ‘I swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends. In the country I am keen on nature.’

He is also studying 19-century American history.•

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In Ian Thomson’s Financial Times piece about Claudia Roth Pierpoint’s new Philip Roth book, he includes a brief passage about the Roth-Primo Levi relationship. That segment mentions a 1986 New York Times article Roth write about Levi. A passage from each follows.

From Thomson:

Roth met Levi in the spring of 1986. If Levi was unprepared for Roth’s engagingly gentle presence, Roth found Levi surprisingly sociable. (‘With some people you just unlock,’ Roth recalled.) As they said goodbye outside the Italian Cultural Institute in London, Levi told Roth: ‘You know, this has all come too late.’ The encounter nevertheless proved to be one the most important in 20th-century literature. Roth afterwards interviewed Levi for the New York Times and helped to consolidate Levi’s reputation across the Atlantic. Accompanied by Bloom, Roth had called on Levi in September 1986 at the paint and varnish factory outside Turin where he had worked as an industrial chemist. The staff were warned not to mention Portnoy’s Complaint, as Roth was apparently no longer so fond of his ‘masturbation novel.’

Seven months later, Levi was dead. The effect on Roth of Levi’s suicide in 1987 was ‘staggering.’ Roth told Pierpont, adding: ‘It hit me like the assassinations of the sixties.’ Although Roth had cultivated friendships with other European writers, notably Ivan Klíma and Milan Kundera, his friendship with Levi, Pierpoint says, had gone ‘remarkably deep.'”


From “A Man Saved By His Skills,” by Roth:

ON the September Friday that I arrived in Turin – to renew a conversation with Primo Levi that we had begun one afternoon in London the spring before – I asked to be shown around the paint factory where he’d been employed as a research chemist and, afterwards, until retirement, as factory manager. Altogether the company employs 50 people, mainly chemists who work in the laboratories and skilled laborers on the floor of the plant. The production machinery, the row of storage tanks, the laboratory building, the finished product in man-sized containers ready to be shipped, the reprocessing facility that purifies the wastes – all of it is encompassed in four or five acres a seven-mile drive from Turin. The machines that are drying resin and blending varnish and pumping off pollutants are never really distressingly loud, the yard’s acrid odor – the smell, Levi told me, that clung to his clothing for two years after his retirement – is by no means disgusting, and the skip loaded with the black sludgy residue of the antipolluting process isn’t particularly unsightly. It is hardly the world’s ugliest industrial environment, but a very long way, nonetheless, from those sentences suffused with mind that are the hallmark of Levi’s autobiographical narratives. On the other hand, however far from the prose, it is clearly a place close to his heart; taking in what I could of the noise, the stench, the mosaic of pipes and vats and tanks and dials, I remembered Faussone, the skilled rigger in The Monkey’s Wrench, saying to Levi – who calls Faussone ‘my alter ego’ – ‘I have to tell you, being around a work site is something I enjoy.’

On our way to the section of the laboratory where raw materials are scrutinized before moving on to production, I asked Levi if he could iden-tify the particular chemical aroma faintly permeating the corridor: I thought it smelled a little like a hospital corridor. Just fractionally he raised his head and exposed his nostrils to the air. With a smile he told me, ‘I understand and can analyze it like a dog.’

He seemed to me inwardly animated more in the manner of some little quicksilver woodland creature empowered by the forest’s most astute intelligence. Levi is small and slight, though not quite so delicately built as his unassuming demeanor makes him at first appear, and still seemingly as nimble as he must have been at 10. In his body, as in his face, you see – as you don’t in most men – the face and the body of the boy that he was. His alertness is nearly palpable, keenness trembling within him like his pilot light.”

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