Life writ large: the inspiration and indignation of Philip Roth
The 'Portnoy's Complaint' author, who died this week, talked about books, the army, history and fellow writers
American novelist Philip Roth has died at 85. He told The Telegraph what inspired him to be a writer in a rare interview given on receiving the 2011 International Man Booker Prize.
Were you one of those people who knew from childhood that you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t know what a writer was, but I knew what books were because I would go to the Blanche library in our neighbourhood [of Newark, New Jersey], following the example of my brother, who would come home with half a dozen books. They were kids’ books, books about sports, books about the sea. I learnt what an author was in college. I began to read in my second year. I had entered college thinking I would study law. And I assumed I would do that. I was taking constitutional history, political science.Then I discovered literature and I was overcome. I wrote college stories to start with, which were as weak as anyone’s college stories. A few years later I was drafted and went into the army.
At night when I went back to my office job I started writing stories that were okay. So [becoming a writer] wasn’t something I knew about and even when I did do it I never thought about it that much. Even when I started writing properly, I didn’t think I would make a living. Very few did make a living, and very few make a living now.I thought I needed to get a job, so I decided to teach English so I could write for those four or five months in the summer. That was my plan. Then I won a prize, the National Book Award, and got a Guggenheim Award and then I was on easy street.
How was your stint in the army?
Actually, I didn’t mind it. It’s fun to learn how to shoot a machine gun. Or use a bayonet. I hurt my back and wound up in hospital for two months and then eventually got discharged. My back still troubles me off and on. It might have been interesting had I been [in the army] longer. But that stint was enough. I got the idea.When did history as a theme come into your writing?
I suppose in the mid-80s when I wrote The Counterlife. I don’t know what happened. It’s not so much that history was important, but place became important. I wanted to see what people were like in different places. London for one, Israel for another, Prague for a third.
So place entered in and history came after. Why? Because I had gotten to be 50 or 60 and I could now look back on my life with historical perspective. You can’t do that when you’re young. It’s a mixture, then, of getting older and being enlivened by certain places that I’d been to.
When did you take up these themes of recent books: the Korean war in 2008's Indignation, or the perils of polio in 2010’s Nemesis? Do you do a lot of research or are you simply remembering?
I do my remembering while I’m writing. I don’t usually turn to the books until I’ve got a first draft of my story. I don’t want to be caged in by reality, as it were. I want my imagination to go wherever it wants to go. If it’s outlandish then of course I’ll get rid of it. Then, two or three drafts in, I begin to read books.
Take The Plot Against America (2004): there’s a cousin in the book, I can’t remember his name, and he loses a leg in the war. He sleeps in a room with young Philip and he has a stump. So I found someone with a stump and I talked to him about how he got on living with it. He let me touch it, which was amazing. I walked on his crutches. He was a terrific fella.You may not use what the person says to you, but it stimulates you in the right direction. It launches your imagination.
Or when I wrote about a kosher butcher in one of my books, Indignation, you’d think it would be easier not to consult books! But I did, I found interesting books about kosher meat. I also went to a kosher butcher in Brooklyn, went in and walked around and talked to the guys. I had been to them as a kid but I didn’t remember what it smelled like.Some of the historical books have brought you poignant letters, from readers enmeshed in the events, on subjects like polio or the Korean War.
The best come from people who want to discuss the subject of the book. And very often they have lived in a similar milieu or been through a similar hardship.Most recently, because of the publication of Nemesis [set during the Newark polio outbreak of 1944], I had gotten three or four or five or six letters from polio victims. All from men about my age because polio stopped with vaccinations of people in 1955 in America. These guys had got polio before that, as youngsters. And they’re so heartfelt and so descriptive, they made me feel validated in what I wrote.
Nemesis is the most recent in a series of four short novels. Can you say something about them?
About 10 years ago I began to think about short novels. I had read quite a few. Saul Bellow was alive then and Saul had written three or four interesting short novels near the end of his life and I asked him how he did it. And he did what Saul [usually] did – he laughed. So I started to [write one].It’s strange. With short stories, you’re fighting with one hand behind your back. How do you get the punch, the knockout punch, in a short book? I had to find out. Maybe I found out. Maybe I didn’t.
Which writers in particular shaped you?
There are some writers who have made an indelible impression. I don’t know if they shaped me as a writer, but they shaped me as a thinker and a reader and as a literary person.
When I first started out, at school, I had been steeped in Henry James and there was an “influence”, not all for the good, and there was a tone I picked up from James that didn’t suit me at all. But it’s there in Letting Go (1962).Kafka made a strong impression on me. His serious comedies of guilt touched me. I think Bellow, of course, has been a major figure in my mind and imagination all my life as a writer. Saul was born in 1915, so he’s 18 years older than me. Therefore, he was a figure of awe for me. When I got to Chicago in 1955 to go to grad school and I read Augie March; it was my guidebook to the city. It all seemed so glamorous to me, to be in the city that nourishes the sky. I read Bellow’s books as soon as they came out.
Has the theatre ever tempted you as it tempted writers like Henry James?
In the middle 60s the Ford Foundation had a programme to try to interest novelists and poets to write plays. I got a grant from them to try to write a play. No one has written worse plays than me. Maybe Henry James. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe there is no way to figure it out. Maybe that’s why there are very few good plays. But I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t get anything that resembled my mind into the plays. I did that for two or three years and it didn’t work.
Among your exact contemporaries was John Updike, whose career runs alongside yours. You won the National Book award, he won the Rosenfeld award. You were often contrasted.John has been dead for three years. And I slightly suspect that were he alive he would be sitting here in this chair [picking up the 2011 International Booker Prize], not me. He was a great American master, surely the greatest man of letters of his period in the second half of the 20th century. He was a brilliant writer. He could write any kind of sentence imaginable. You just asked and he would give it to you.
His two great books, to my mind, although he wrote quite a few great books, are the last two 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. Any kind of description. He was always free but in those two books he is the freest he’ll ever be.