“Philip Roth Was His Own School of Writing”

Gary Shteyngart on meeting Roth, teaching Roth, and the novelist’s “humor from the edge of the blade.”

Philip Roth in New York in 2010.
Philip Roth in New York in 2010.
Eric Thayer/Reuters

On Tuesday, novelist Philip Roth passed away at the age of 85. I spoke by phone on Wednesday with Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-born writer and author whose new novel, Lake Success, will be released in September. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Roth’s unique blend of humor and seriousness, why he is considered a quintessentially male writer, and who among today’s novelists are his clearest descendants.

Isaac Chotiner: Why was Philip Roth important to you as a novelist or person or both?

Gary Shteyngart: Or both. There are very different strains in American writing, obviously. But his was one that I was completely enamored with, and it was one where the writing often seemed so effortless. It’s really somebody—a kibitzer—sitting down and talking to you, telling you what he saw. What can be simpler than that? He didn’t go for any of these gigantic, clever tricks. He didn’t go for any school of writing that was easily identifiable. I mean, Philip Roth was his own school of writing.

One thing I learned very quickly is that when you start writing, and you’re a young person, you are so desperate to be heard. You are so desperate to be clever. You are so desperate to try to reinvent everything. Sometimes those instincts bear fruit, but very often they don’t. And Roth was somehow able to channel his personality, because he is in everything. It’s not just the Zuckerman novels—there is always a Roth somewhere inside his books.

I teach writing at Columbia, and I tell my students: If you are somehow able to transmute yourself into your work, if that voice is that strong, then almost anything you do will come out OK. And Roth did that over and over and over again in a way that so many of us cannot. We struggle here. We struggle there. He famously threw out more pages than he kept, and I think that’s what he was doing. When he saw the truth on the page, he kept it, whereas many of us wish that that was our ideal as well, but it is very hard for us to do.

You said that young writers are so desperate to reinvent everything, and that can often lead to trouble. But wasn’t Roth seen, at least when he was a young man, as reinventing something?

Absolutely. There are stylistic ways in which he reinvented things, but he also did it in the spheres of politics, religion, society. He was going for all of these things, but he made it look easy. That is a cliché of really skilled writers and artists, but he did make it look easy. I remember finishing Goodbye, Columbus and thinking, OK, there are maybe some echoes, perhaps, of some of the early-20th-century writers, there are some slight echoes maybe of Hemingway or Dos Passos or any of those people, because he was obviously influenced by somebody. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was no school of writing that he felt like he belonged to. He was his own thing. And who else is like that in the second half of the 20th century? I can think perhaps of Saul Bellow, Grace Paley maybe, somebody who made it seem effortless but in their own ways reinvented storytelling.

And this was the important thing for me: storytelling. There is room for experimentalism of every stripe, of course, but we can’t forget that often the meat and potatoes of what we do is telling a story. Roth could channel these stories from his childhood. He kept them so close to him. He kept the past alive and aflame within him, and perhaps he was lucky in some way that his childhood wasn’t entirely awful by every indication, but he was able to capture the banality of growing up, but also the excitement of it, and of course the conflict within the Jewish family. And I think he did that brilliantly.

Bellow is the comparison that is made most—or at least they are grouped together the most. Do you think the things you have said about Roth apply to Bellow, and is the contrast at all illuminating?

I love Bellow, and am a huge Bellow fan of course, but there was still a kind of intellectual conversation with Europe. And it’s not that Roth wasn’t intellectual. He certainly was. But he was also from a different generation, and I don’t think he had to interrogate his work. Bellow was the whole person to break that whole thing of, “Are we Americans or are we Europeans? No, we are American writers.” And Roth took it one step further. He introduced a sensibility, a comic sensibility that I find even funnier than Bellow’s. I teach both of them in a class called The Hysterical Male at Columbia, and we read these writers from that generation: Bellow, Roth, Martin Amis turns up near the end, Nabokov is also represented. And at the end of the class, I ask which book has had the most profound impact on the students both in terms of craft and in terms of how they see themselves as writers or people or members of certain ethnic groups or immigrant groups. And there is always a very clear win, by many, many votes, and that is Portnoy’s Complaint.

I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that although this novel is one of the most complicated novels when it comes to identity ever written, it is also one of the most accessible. It is a stand-up routine in the very best sense of the word. It’s interesting: We live right now in a kind of era where stand-up comedy has gone from being a marginal art form to in some ways the central art form, when you look at all these comedians who have shows on television that are so influential. Roth captured that high-low way before that. Portnoy’s Complaint could be an amazing HBO stand-up showcase, and it could be him or someone else—he was, by the way, a very funny guy in person—reading that stuff aloud and it would be brilliant and it would be contemporary.

How was his sense of humor different than what we can read on the printed page?

He was a funny guy. I was not close friends with him, but the first time I met him, my first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, had come out. My safe space is the Russian Samovar in midtown. There is vodka and blini and I feel safe there. There are Russians. Somebody was giving a reading and Roth showed up. This was before I discovered the wonders of Ativan and Xanax, because I definitely needed both of them. I was maybe 29 or 30 and it was just too much to meet somebody who had done so much for my own work—just in terms of helping me discover voice, and deal with the taboos of writing about where I came from. When I started writing my first book, there weren’t any books by Russian immigrants of my generation. And just seeing someone like Roth do this for a previous generation of Jews, and be able to articulate in a voice that was funny and wry and compassionate, was a huge inspiration. He wrote about it and survived.

So when I met him I quickly went into full pretentious mode, as any 29- or 30-year-old writer will do. I started to declaim loudly about stuff. I’m sure it was very embarrassing. He changed the conversation very quickly and started talking about butter and the effects butter had on cardiovascular and, let’s say, other physiological symptoms. [Laughs]. Maybe it was his way of saying, “Alright buddy, calm down. Stop humping my leg and let’s talk about something colloquial.”

Do you find that men and women in your class react differently to Roth?

It’s interesting because I really do open this up in class and interrogate these books from not just a male perspective. After I posted my condolences on Twitter, several women wrote in, saying that, “Well, you can appreciate his work because you are a man.” That’s something I definitely try to bring out in class because I want to hear every perspective possible. I teach Portnoy’s Complaint. I don’t know how another book, like Sabbath’s Theater, would go over. My students veer toward the younger side—most probably in their early-to-late 20s. We talk about how things obviously would be written—how the perspective men have on women would change. But there is a feeling, and I can’t speak for every student honestly, but there is an appreciation for the voice and the craft and obviously the time in which it was written, of course. So overall, Roth gets a more positive read from my students than many of the writers in that cohort.

You said your class is called “The Hysterical Male.” You mentioned Grace Paley, but are there any other female writers you would compare to Roth?

One of my favorite writers, who has his far-ranging sensibility but is more of a global writer, is Zadie Smith. The intermixing of the humorous and tragic is something that reminds me of Roth. When I pick up a book by Zadie, that is one of the few times I think that no matter what the subject is, I know it will be handled with a certain amount of compassion and verve and intelligence, and that’s something I expect from Roth as well.

People would probably, or have probably, applied the adjective cosmopolitan to both of them, but how do you think the meaning of that word would differ in each case?

Part of the difference is that Roth was almost miraculous on focusing so much of his attention in this little [area] from Newark to, well, Newark, or perhaps down to Trenton at times. It was a very focused gaze. Obviously, I think of Zadie as a writer of London and New York and so many other places. Roth was not of New York, but he was not not of New York either. He was sort of at the periphery. I think that writers who write from a periphery are often the best writers, as opposed to writers who are born right in the center of things intellectually and socially and otherwise.

I am not going to say he was a humble writer or full of humility, but—I don’t want to bring up the word accessible again—he was human. Every single sentence of his is in one way a connection between [human beings], or a failed connection. There wasn’t a lot of abstract stuff in his works. I think it was because—and Saul Bellow used this term, a good noticer—he was an amazing noticer. He had an amazing memory. I wrote a memoir, and I was shocked by how difficult it was for me to come up with 300 pages of material on a pretty tumultuous life. And he had had a somewhat less tumultuous life, and yet he could generate thousands of pages about that experience, each one more brilliant than the next.

The one thing I have always somewhat resented about Roth is that it felt like he was perhaps trying to universalize his own way of looking at women, or objectifying them. We are all far from perfect, but maybe not all men objectify women to the degree he did. 

I sort of see what you are saying, but you look at his peers. You look at, say, Updike. Objectification of women was a standard M.O. for male writers of that generation. And it was considered a form of humor as well. I mean, what can be said? Today a writer approaching it from that stance would be, well, such writers don’t exist. And, of course, if you focus so much on your own libido, or male libido, you will possibly lose out. The female characters can at times seem to be peripheral. And I think a lot of people are guilty of that—I am sure I am as well. That is something that now we know and something that we work on, but I think, given the time, it was different. But then again, I look at his later work. I look at I Married a Communist. I think he was in his own way addressing these issues himself. I think he had just changed. This is really a two-part career. The older Roth had a lot to say to the younger Roth. They were really the same in a lot of ways, but there was real growth, I think.

You mentioned Milan Kundera. What did it mean for you or others that Roth gave a voice to so many central and Eastern European writers before 1989?

It was incredible. He went to Prague, I believe it was in the 1970s, and in many ways sparked the interest in Eastern European fiction for writers like Kundera in the United States. He wrote about it quite a bit and wrote a very slim book, but one that I think is still very representative of what it was like to be in Eastern Europe at that time, called The Prague Orgy. Of course, the word orgy had to appear in it. And I think there was a real kinship. His [family] came from Eastern Europe. The Yiddish-Jewish way of looking at things, the humor from the edge of the blade: “They are going to kill us, so let’s have a laugh or let’s make fun of ourselves before the gentiles make fun of us.” I think that kind of sensibility certainly connected him to the Eastern European lands from which he had come. This raucous, and at the same time fatalistic, brand of humor. I definitely think of him in some ways as a descendant of Eastern Europe.