At Home with Philip Roth

The author confesses he never reads fiction.

Philip Roth

In 1960 Philip Roth won the National Book Award, America’s prestigious literary prize, for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus. Last month he was awarded the Man Booker International, a biennial prize for a body of work. In the half-century between, for his astonishing output of 53 books, Roth has also gathered in every one of the important American laurels, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Gold Medal in fiction, the National Medal of Arts, some of them more than once—it’s hard to think that another prize will make much difference, or much impact.

“The first one did. Certainly. It plucked that book out of nowhere. After that, well, it’s better to win them than to lose them.”

It’s a typically laconic remark. He does not travel these days, and he will not be in London to receive his prize on Tuesday, preferring to stay put in his chosen seclusion. We are sitting in Roth’s study at his Connecticut home, a small wooden cabin detached from the tall grey clapboard house built in 1790, where he has lived since 1972—although the cold half of the year is now spent in Manhattan. A broad desk occupies most of the space and, right behind it a huge fireplace, empty now in summer, silently describes the winter weather here. There’s a reclining chair and a comfortable leather couch—it is an unostentatious space perfectly adapted for long solitary hours of work. Through the window are apple trees, an old barn, the huge branches of a 200-year-old ash tree creaking gently in the wind. I think of Swede Levov, the protagonist of Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral, a Jewish boy from Newark who managed to move his family from the city streets into deep rural peace, and his feelings of astonishment that you could own a tree.

Roth, now 78, owns many trees. The acres surrounding his Connecticut house fold around the property protectively, bringing peace and privacy and deep silence; he has lived here alone since the end of his second marriage in 1995 and, without the banging of the builders currently repairing the ravages of last winter’s bitter weather, it must get very quiet indeed. It’s a world away, if only a couple of hours away, from the furious turmoil of the city streets of Newark where he grew up in the 1930s, the child of Jewish immigrants. Time and again, his fiction debates escape from those city streets—the immigrant’s dream of success, of “owning a piece of America,” and the dangers of leaving to live among the goyim with their strange ways, their drink and their golf and their prejudices.

Yet those mean streets live in his head and to them his fictional world returns again and again, a psychological as well as a literal location. Newark is to Roth as Rosebud was to Citizen Kane: his emotional touchstone, locus of his all-important ethnic identity and springboard for his lifelong questioning of the American condition. It was his friend and mentor Saul Bellow, he says, who showed him that he could work from the local, from what he knew: Bellow used Chicago in that way. “I think [in those books] I am presenting America to myself,” Roth explains, “trying to make the moment come back to life, and remember. And what I don’t remember I go back to Newark and look for. I look at old newspapers. I get pleasure from doing that.”

“Well”—with a roar of easy laughter—”I have to get some pleasure.”

His most recent book, Nemesis, published last year, is a return to Newark and for many commentators a triumphant return to high form after its more lackluster predecessor, 2009’s The Humbling. Nemesis is set in Newark during the Second World War amid a polio epidemic that savagely attacks the children of the poor. Fear and panic start to kick away life’s fragile edifices and anti-Semitism raises its head.

“For me, the passing of time has provided me with subjects I never had before. Subjects I can now look at from a historical perspective. Like the anti-communist era in America. I lived through that, I was a boy, I didn’t find a way to write about it until many years later. The same with the Vietnam war. I started to try to write the book that became American Pastoral back in the 1970s, when the war was just ending, but I couldn’t do it. It took another 20 years. I wouldn’t know what to write [about Iraq and Afghanistan, or 9/11]. It does take me 20 years to figure it out.

“That book, Nemesis, began when I didn’t know what to write next and I made a list of events through which I’d lived and which I’d never examined in fiction, never presented in fiction. Polio was on the list and when I went back through the list I found I’d circled polio.”

“The polio epidemic in 1944 did not exist. It’s fictional. I knew one or two kids who had the disease, I heard the stories, but no one close.”

It is such a potent metaphor for attack on the home front, especially during wartime, that it evokes American Pastoral’s human terrorist, the adored daughter of a high-achieving family turned murderous bomb-throwing war protester. But Roth is disinclined to talk in terms of metaphor. In a New Yorker interview, he indicated that allegory was a form he disliked and, during our conversation, he more than once says of a work we are discussing: “Well, it’s about what it’s about.”

For a writer whose work has always played dark games with truth and illusion, with alter-egos and their doubles, with protagonists and narrators who both are and aren’t their author, with phoney confessions, fake biography, false history, with the laying of deceptive trails through the paths of narrative, this is a pretty clear way of saying: “Just read the books.”

That’s what the writer—who is regularly described as “famously private” or “reclusive,” yet might just be tired of questions—really does seem to want. As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended. Half a century of celebrity, since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 brought him money and a turbulent kind of fame at the age of 36, has made him a master of the polite no-go sign. The conversation I’d longed to have with him since I first read him many decades ago, a conversation about fiction itself, died an early death.

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

How so?

“I don’t know. I wised up …”

And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: That’s what I want you to write down.

So what did he wise up about? On a superficial level, and probably long ago, about the inadvisability of giving anything away when answering journalists’ questions, that’s for sure. His intentions for this or that book? “I don’t have a plan for the book that I’m working on, I just accrue pages. After a while I see that they do belong together.” His readership? “I have no reader in mind—the reader is me as I re-read. When I’m finished with a book, I have four or five readers, friends, whom I give it to. They are the first; then I listen to what they have to say. Other than that … I’m always astonished when I get mail. Occasionally there is an interesting letter. Sometimes, that provides me with a perspective.”

On a deeper level, though, is he telling me that he has wised up about the limits of fiction, including his own fiction? His recent productivity would not imply that. Roth’s career has been unusual not only in its length but in its shape: After the wild, savage and comedic Zuckerman and Kepesh novels (named after their protagonists) came a middle period that saw some of his masterpieces—among them the so-called American Trilogy of big novels on big themes, American Pastoral (1997, about Vietnam), I Married a Communist (1998, about McCarthyism) and The Human Stain (2000, about race). Then there has been the astonishing productivity of the past decade, which has seen eight books in 10 years. Now, though, he says: “My goal would be to find a big fat subject that would occupy me to the end of my life, and when I finish it I’ll die. What’s agony is starting, I hate starting them. I just want to keep writing now and end when it ends.”

Certainly the most recent four books, grouped (Roth tidies his own bibliography with care) as “Nemeses,” are deeply preoccupied with “the end,” with thoughts of death and how to manage it. How to achieve it, even: Here we have one post-mortem of an already-departed protagonist (Everyman, 2006), one tragic death of a deluded hero (Nemesis 2010), two suicides (Indignation2008 and The Humbling 2009), all in a more subdued and much more unevenly successful style than Roth’s readers are used to. Contrast this with the roaringly vital, priapic, and generally appalling life-force Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater (1995), a book of high Rothian exuberance and savage humor, one that still furiously divides Roth’s readers. Sabbath’s persistent thoughts of suicide are of a different order and we know he’ll never do it—his ego is way too big, he has way too much hating and schtupping still to do on earth.

Nemesis brought us a different leading man in Bucky Cantor, a gilded kind Jewish boy and gifted athlete—sport being an important touchstone in Roth’s persistent delving into the nature of American masculinity. Bucky rages against chance and an indifferent god who allows children to die; his dreams of escape center on his girlfriend, who lures him away from the polio plague and the boys in his care, and on the chance of being happy. The latter is not exactly a Rothian theme and, indeed, Bucky’s creator firmly tells me “No, not really, I have no special interest in happiness.” Yet it is a word that Roth uses often in the book and also to apply to his own life now, at least his life-in-writing. Asked if he needs to stay angry to fuel his creations, he says: “I’m not angry, I write about angry characters. When I’m doing that, I’m happy. Just like when I’m writing about Mickey Sabbath being lustful, I’m not feeling lustful, I’m happy.”

This separation of life and fiction, in someone who plays so skittishly and skillfully with his own story, is a measure of his art. Indeed, some of the controversy that has surrounded him over the years probably stems from a misunderstanding of this fictionalizing process. As we walk out across a grassy field towards the woodlands beyond the house, past the scented mock-orange and a scattering of tiny vivid purple wild irises (“and poison ivy”—Roth can’t resist), he does not seem like someone who has provoked such angry and extreme and passionate responses. Passionately devoted responses, from his (often, though certainly not always) male literary fans: one British critic, a writer himself, recently declared in a rush of breathless fandom that “having vigorously, unflinchingly, brilliantly and beautifully wrestled with the notions of nationhood, religion, love, death, belief, despair, destiny and the fundamental nature of human experience, I consider that [Roth] is entitled, if he so wishes, to bind and release his fridge magnets one letter at a time.”

But within the Jewish community, after the publication of his 240-page soliloquy on masturbation, Portnoy’s Complaint, meant that we would never look at a piece of raw liver in the same way again, he was dubbed a “self-hating Jew.” It’s a charge that seems somehow out of date: Being Jewish in America has changed in huge measure, Roth says, since he began writing. “It’s completely different. When I was growing up Jews couldn’t even go to medical school; now when there is a list of ‘minorities’ in the U.S., Jews aren’t even mentioned.” One of Roth’s most important themes, and his opponents’ criticism of his handling of it, therefore exists most powerfully in the lived experience of the past, in memory.

Trouble came to Roth, too, from the feminist lobby, who found multiple transgressions in his ways of portraying women and men’s views of them, especially in powerful sex scenes that pervade the books. And public opprobrium reared again after his second wife, the British actress Claire Bloom, published in 1996 a post-divorce tell-all memoir of their marriage that presented Roth in very damning terms—part of a war of words that may have enlisted the retaliatory character of Eve Frame in I Married a Communist, two years later.

Most recently, Carmen Callil, one of the three judges of the Man Booker International Prize, dissociated herself from the award after the event, saying she thought Roth was “no good” and would not prove a durable talent.

As part of Callil’s rather slenderly argued critique, she said Roth “writes the same thing over and over again.” Well, yes, if you consider “notions of nationhood, religion, love, death, belief, despair, destiny [see above for full list]” to be “the same thing.” As my car pulled out of the driveway into the deep rural lane, the builders had left and silence had descended in the evening light. I turned to see Roth walking back towards the house, alone, in the outward tranquility he has chosen. The next morning, like every morning, he would get up and go to his desk and write out all the furor in his head. It’s only visible on the page: Just read the books.

The Man Booker International prize for fiction will be awarded to Philip Roth at a ceremony in London on Tuesday.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.