The Liveliest Possibilities: An Interview with Philip Roth

Philip Roth

Philip Roth

The Art of Fiction No. 84

Interviewed by Hermione Lee

The Paris Review

INTERVIEWER

How do you get started on a new book?

PHILIP ROTH

Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

INTERVIEWER

How much of a book is in your mind before you start?

ROTH

What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you. You’re looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.

INTERVIEWER

Must you have a beginning? Would you ever begin with an ending?

ROTH

For all I know I am beginning with the ending. My page one can wind up a year later as page two hundred, if it’s still even around.

INTERVIEWER

What happens to those hundred or so pages that you have left over? Do you save them up?

ROTH

I generally prefer never to see them again.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work best at any particular time of the day?

ROTH

I work all day, morning and afternoon, just about every day. If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think other writers work such long hours?

ROTH

I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out “Is he as crazy as I am?” I don’t need that question answered.

INTERVIEWER

Does your reading affect what you write?

ROTH

I read all the time when I’m working, usually at night. It’s a way of keeping the circuits open. It’s a way of thinking about my line of work while getting a little rest from the work at hand. It helps inasmuch as it fuels the overall obsession.

INTERVIEWER

Do you show your work in progress to anyone?

ROTH

It’s more useful for my mistakes to ripen and burst in their own good time. I give myself all the opposition I need while I’m writing, and praise is meaningless to me when I know something isn’t even half finished. Nobody sees what I’m doing until I absolutely can’t go any further and might even like to believe that I’m done.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a Roth reader in mind when you write?

ROTH

No. I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, “How he is going to hate this!” That can be just the encouragement I need.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke of the last phase of writing a novel being a “crisis” in which you turn against the material and hate the work. Is there always this crisis, with every book?

ROTH

Always. Months of looking at the manuscript and saying, “This is wrong—but what’s wrong?” I ask myself, “If this book were a dream, it would be a dream of what?” But when I’m asking this I’m also trying to believe in what I’ve written, to forget that it’s writing and to say, “This has taken place,” even if it hasn’t. The idea is to perceive your invention as a reality that can be understood as a dream. The idea is to turn flesh and blood into literary characters and literary characters into flesh and blood.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say more about these crises?

ROTH

In The Ghost Writer the crisis—one among many—had to do with Zuckerman, Amy Bellette, and Anne Frank. It wasn’t easy to see that Amy Bellette as Anne Frank was Zuckerman’s own creation. Only by working through numerous alternatives did I decide that not only was she his creation, but that she might possibly be her own creation too, a young woman inventing herself within Zuckerman’s invention. To enrich his fantasy without obfuscation or muddle, to be ambiguous and clear—well, that was my writing problem through one whole summer and fall. In Zuckerman Unbound the crisis was a result of failing to see that Zuckerman’s father shouldn’t already be dead when the book begins. I eventually realized that the death should come at the conclusion of the book, allegedly as a consequence of the son’s blasphemous best-seller. But, starting off, I’d got the thing back to front, and then I stared at it dumbly for months, seeing nothing. I knew that I wanted the book to veer away from Alvin Pepler—I like to be steamrolling along in one direction and then to spring my surprise—but I couldn’t give up the premise of my earliest drafts until I saw that the novel’s obsessive concern with assassinations, death threats, funerals, and funeral homes was leading up to, rather than away from, the death of Zuckerman’s father. How you juxtapose the events can tie you up in knots and rearranging the sequence can free you suddenly to streak for the finish line. In The Anatomy Lesson the discovery I made—having banged the typewriter with my head far too long—was that Zuckerman, in the moment that he takes flight for Chicago to try to become a doctor, should begin to impersonate a pornographer. There had to be willed extremism at either end of the moral spectrum, each of his escape-dreams of self-transformation subverting the meaning and mocking the intention of the other. If he had gone off solely to become a doctor, driven only by that high moral ardor, or, if he had just gone around impersonating a pornographer, spewing only that anarchic and alienating rage, he wouldn’t have been my man. He has two dominant modes: his mode of self-abnegation, and his fuck-’em mode. You want a bad Jewish boy, that’s what you’re going to get. He rests from one by taking up the other; though, as we see, it’s not much of a rest. The thing about Zuckerman that interests me is that everybody’s split, but few so openly as this. Everybody is full of cracks and fissures, but usually we see people trying very hard to hide the places where they’re split. Most people desperately want to heal their lesions, and keep trying to. Hiding them is sometimes taken for healing them (or for not having them). But Zuckerman can’t successfully do either, and by the end of the trilogy has proved it even to himself. What’s determined his life and his work are the lines of fracture in what is by no means a clean break. I was interested in following those lines.

INTERVIEWER

What happens to Philip Roth when he turns into Nathan Zuckerman?

ROTH

Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift. Zuckerman is a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer. I am a writer writing a book impersonating a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer—who then, to compound the impersonation, to barb the edge, pretends he’s a well-known literary critic. Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade. Think of the ventriloquist. He speaks so that his voice appears to proceed from someone at a distance from himself. But if he weren’t in your line of vision you’d get no pleasure from his art at all. His art consists of being present and absent; he’s most himself by simultaneously being someone else, neither of whom he “is” once the curtain is down. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it—all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life. Millions of people do this all the time, of course, and not with the justification of making literature. They mean it. It’s amazing what lies people can sustain behind the mask of their real faces. Think of the art of the adulterer: under tremendous pressure and against enormous odds, ordinary husbands and wives, who would freeze with self-consciousness up on a stage, yet in the theater of the home, alone before the audience of the betrayed spouse, they act out roles of innocence and fidelity with flawless dramatic skill. Great, great performances, conceived with genius down to the smallest particulars, impeccably meticulous naturalistic acting, and all done by rank amateurs. People beautifully pretending to be “themselves.” Make-believe can take the subtlest forms, you know. Why should a novelist, a pretender by profession, be any less deft or more reliable than a stolid, unimaginative suburban accountant cheating on his wife? Jack Benny used to pretend to be a miser, remember? Called himself by his own good name and claimed that he was stingy and mean. It excited his comic imagination to do this. He probably wasn’t all that funny as just another nice fellow writing checks to the UJA and taking his friends out to dinner. Céline pretended to be a rather indifferent, even irresponsible physician, when he seems in fact to have worked hard at his practice and to have been conscientious about his patients. But that wasn’t interesting.

INTERVIEWER

But it is. Being a good doctor is interesting.

ROTH

For William Carlos Williams maybe, but not for Céline. Being a devoted husband, an intelligent father, and a dedicated family physician in Rutherford, New Jersey, might have seemed as admirable to Céline as it does to you, or to me for that matter, but his writing drew its vigor from the demotic voice and the dramatization of his outlaw side (which was considerable), and so he created the Céline of the great novels in somewhat the way Jack Benny, also flirting with the taboo, created himself as a miser. You have to be awfully naive not to understand that a writer is a performer who puts on the act he does best—not least when he dons the mask of the first-person singular. That may be the best mask of all for a second self. Some (many) pretend to be more lovable than they are and some pretend to be less. Beside the point. Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts. The question to ask about the writer isn’t “Why does he behave so badly?” but “What does he gain by wearing this mask?” I don’t admire the Genet that Genet presents as himself any more than I admire the unsavory Molloy impersonated by Beckett. I admire Genet because he writes books that won’t let me forget who that Genet is. When Rebecca West was writing about Augustine, she said that his Confessions was too subjectively true to be objectively true. I think this is so in the first-person novels of Genet and Céline, as it is in Colette, books like The Shackle and The Vagabond. Gombrowicz has a novel called Pornographia in which he introduces himself as a character, using his own name—the better to implicate himself in certain highly dubious proceedings and bring the moral terror to life. Konwicki, another Pole, in his last two novels, The Polish Complex and A Minor Apocalypse, works to close the gap between the reader and the narrative by introducing “Konwicki” as the central character. He strengthens the illusion that the novel is true—and not to be discounted as “fiction”—by impersonating himself. It all goes back to Jack Benny. Need I add, however, that it’s hardly a disinterested undertaking? Writing for me isn’t a natural thing that I just keep doing, the way fish swim and birds fly. It’s something that’s done under a certain kind of provocation, a particular urgency. It’s the transformation, through an elaborate impersonation, of a personal emergency into a public act (in both senses of that word). It can be a very trying spiritual exercise to siphon through your being qualities that are alien to your moral makeup—as trying for the writer as for the reader. You can wind up feeling more like a sword-swallower than a ventriloquist or impersonator. You sometimes use yourself very harshly in order to reach what is, literally speaking, beyond you. The impersonator can’t afford to indulge the ordinary human instincts which direct people in what they want to present and what they want to hide.

INTERVIEWER

If the novelist is an impersonator, then what about the autobiography? What is the relationship, for example, between the deaths of the parents, which are so important in the last two Zuckerman novels, and the death of your own parents?

ROTH

Why not ask about the relationship between the death of my parents and the death of Gabe Wallach’s mother, the germinating incident in my 1962 novel, Letting Go? Or ask about the death and funeral of the father, which is at the heart of “The Day It Snowed,” my first published story in the Chicago Review in 1955? Or ask about the death of Kepesh’s mother, wife of the owner of a Catskills hotel, which is the turning point in The Professor of Desire? The terrible blow of the death of a parent is something I began writing about long before any parent of mine had died. Novelists are frequently as interested in what hasn’t happened to them as in what has. What may be taken by the innocent for naked autobiography is, as I’ve been suggesting, more than likely mock-autobiography or hypothetical autobiography or autobiography grandiosely enlarged. We know about the people who walk into the police station and confess to crimes they haven’t committed. Well, the false confession appeals to writers, too. Novelists are even interested in what happens to other people and, like liars and con men everywhere, will pretend that something dramatic or awful or hair-raising or splendid that happened to someone else actually happened to them. The physical particulars and moral circumstances of Zuckerman’s mother’s death have practically nothing to do with the death of my own mother. The death of the mother of one of my dearest friends—whose account of her suffering stuck in my mind long after he’d told me about it—furnished the most telling details for the mother’s death in The Anatomy Lesson. The black cleaning woman who commiserates with Zuckerman in Miami Beach about his mother’s death is modeled on the housekeeper of old friends in Philadelphia, a woman I haven’t seen for ten years and who never laid eyes on anybody in my family but me. I was always entranced by her tangy style of speech, and when the right moment came, I used it. But the words in her mouth I invented. Olivia, the eighty-three-year-old black Florida cleaning woman, c’est moi.

As you well know, the intriguing biographical issue—and critical issue, for that matter—isn’t that a writer will write about some of what has happened to him, but how he writes about it, which, when understood properly, takes us a long way to understanding why he writes about it. A more intriguing question is why and how he writes about what hasn’t happened—how he feeds what’s hypothetical or imagined into what’s inspired and controlled by recollection, and how what’s recollected spawns the overall fantasy. I suggest, by the way, that the best person to ask about the autobiographical relevance of the climactic death of the father in Zuckerman Unbound is my own father, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I’ll give you his phone number.

INTERVIEWER

Then what is the relationship between your experience of psychoanalysis and the use of psychoanalysis as a literary stratagem?

ROTH

If I hadn’t been analyzed I wouldn’t have written Portnoy’s Complaint as I wrote it, or My Life as a Man as I wrote it, nor would The Breast resemble itself. Nor would I resemble myself. The experience of psychoanalysis was probably more useful to me as a writer than as a neurotic, although there may be a false distinction there. It’s an experience that I shared with tens of thousands of baffled people, and anything that powerful in the private domain that joins a writer to his generation, to his class, to his moment, is tremendously important for him, providing that afterwards he can separate himself enough to examine the experience objectively, imaginatively, in the writing clinic. You have to be able to become your doctor’s doctor, even if only to write about patienthood, which was, certainly in part, a subject in My Life as a Man. Why patienthood interested me—and as far back as Letting Go, written four or five years before my own analysis—was because so many enlightened contemporaries had come to accept the view of themselves as patients, and the ideas of psychic disease, cure, and recovery. You’re asking me about the relationship between art and life? It’s like the relationship between the eight hundred or so hours that it took to be psychoanalyzed, and the eight or so hours that it would take to read Portnoy’s Complaint aloud. Life is long and art is shorter.

INTERVIEWER

Do you direct yourself as you are writing to make distinctions between what is spoken and what is narrative?

ROTH

I don’t “direct” myself. I respond to what seem the liveliest possibilities. There’s no necessary balance to be achieved between what is spoken and what is narrated. You go with what’s alive. Two thousand pages of narrative and six lines of dialogue may be just the ticket for one writer, and two thousand pages of dialogue and six lines of narrative the solution for another.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever take long chunks that have been dialogue and make them into narrative, or the other way around?

ROTH

Sure. I did that with the Anne Frank section of The Ghost Writer. I had trouble getting that right. When I began, in the third person, I was somehow revering the material. I was taking a high elegiac tone in telling the story of Anne Frank surviving and coming to America. I didn’t know where I was going so I began by doing what you’re supposed to do when writing the life of a saint. It was the tone appropriate to hagiography. Instead of Anne Frank gaining new meaning within the context of my story, I was trying to draw from the ready store of stock emotions that everybody is supposed to have about her. It’s what even good actors sometimes will do during the first weeks of rehearsing a play—gravitate to the conventional form of presentation, cling to the cliché while anxiously waiting for something authentic to take hold. In retrospect, my difficulties look somewhat bizarre, because just what Zuckerman was fighting against, I was in fact succumbing to—the officially authorized and most consoling legend. I tell you, no one who later complained that in The Ghost Writer I had abused the memory of Anne Frank would have batted an eye had I let those banalities out into the world. That would have been just fine; I might even have got a citation. But I couldn’t have given myself any prizes for it. The difficulties of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?—was finally to become The Ghost Writer’s theme. But before it became a theme, it apparently had to be an ordeal. It often happens, at least with me, that the struggles that generate a book’s moral life are naively enacted upon the body of the book during the early, uncertain stages of writing. That is the ordeal, and it ended when I took that whole section and recast it in the first person—Anne Frank’s story told by Amy Bellette. The victim wasn’t herself going to talk about her plight in the voice of “The March of Time.” She hadn’t in the Diary, so why should she in life? I didn’t want this section to appear as first-person narration, but I knew that by passing it through the first-person sieve, I stood a good chance of getting rid of this terrible tone, which wasn’t hers, but mine. I did get rid of it. The impassioned cadences, the straining emotions, the somber, overdramatized, archaic diction—I cleared it all out, thanks to Amy Bellette. Rather straightforwardly, I then cast the section back into the third person, and then I was able to get to work on it—to write rather than to rhapsodize or eulogize.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think you have influenced the environment, the culture, as a writer?

ROTH

Not at all. If I had followed my early college plans to become an attorney, I don’t see where it would matter to the culture.

INTERVIEWER

Do you say that with bitterness or with glee?

ROTH

Neither. It’s a fact of life. In an enormous commercial society that demands complete freedom of expression, the culture is a maw. Recently, the first American novelist to receive a special Congressional Gold Medal for his “contribution to the nation” was Louis L’Amour. It was presented to him at the White House by the president. The only other country in the world where such a writer would receive his government’s highest award is the Soviet Union. In a totalitarian state, however, all culture is dictated by the regime; fortunately we in America live in Reagan’s and not Plato’s Republic, and aside from their stupid medal, culture is almost entirely ignored. And that is preferable by far. As long as those on top keep giving the honors to Louis L’Amour and couldn’t care less about anything else, everything will be just fine. When I was first in Czechoslovakia, it occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters. This isn’t to say I wished to change places. I didn’t envy them their persecution and the way in which it heightens their social importance. I didn’t even envy them their seemingly more valuable and serious themes. The trivialization, in the West, of much that’s deadly serious in the East is itself a subject, one requiring considerable imaginative ingenuity to transform into compelling fiction. To write a serious book that doesn’t signal its seriousness with the rhetorical cues or thematic gravity that’s traditionally associated with seriousness is a worthy undertaking too. To do justice to a spiritual predicament which is not blatantly shocking and monstrously horrible, which does not elicit universal compassion, or occur on a large historical stage, or on the grandest scale of twentieth-century suffering—well, that’s the lot that has fallen to those who write where everything goes and nothing matters. I recently heard the critic George Steiner, on English television, denouncing contemporary Western literature as utterly worthless and without quality, and claiming that the great documents of the human soul, the masterpieces, could only arise from souls being crushed by regimes like those in Czechoslovakia. I wonder then why all the writers I know in Czechoslovakia loathe the regime and passionately wish that it would disappear from the face of the earth. Don’t they understand, as Steiner does, that this is their chance to be great? Sometimes one or two writers with colossal brute strength do manage, miraculously, to survive and, taking the system as their subject, to make art of a very high order out of their persecution. But most of them who remain sealed up inside totalitarian states are, as writers, destroyed by the system. That system doesn’t make masterpieces; it makes coronaries, ulcers, and asthma, it makes alcoholics, it makes depressives, it makes bitterness and desperation and insanity. The writers are intellectually disfigured, spiritually demoralized, physically sickened, and culturally bored. Frequently they are silenced completely. Nine-tenths of the best of them will never do their best work just because of the system. The writers nourished by this system are the party hacks. When such a system prevails for two or three generations, relentlessly grinding away at a community of writers for twenty, thirty, or forty years, the obsessions become fixed, the language grows stale, the readership slowly dies out from starvation, and the existence of a national literature of originality, variety, vibrancy (which is very different from the brute survival of a single powerful voice) is nearly impossible. A literature that has the misfortune of remaining isolated underground for too long will inevitably become provincial, backwards, even naive, despite the fund of dark experience that may inspire it. By contrast, our work here hasn’t been deprived of authenticity because as writers we haven’t been stomped on by a totalitarian government. I don’t know of any Western writer, aside from George Steiner, who is so grandiosely and sentimentally deluded about human suffering—and “masterpieces”—that he’s come back from behind the Iron Curtain thinking himself devalued because he hasn’t had to contend with such a wretched intellectual and literary environment. If the choice is between Louis L’Amour and our literary freedom and our extensive, lively, national literature on the one hand, and Solzhenitsyn and that cultural desert and crushing suppression on the other, I’ll take L’Amour.

INTERVIEWER

But don’t you feel powerless as a writer in America?

ROTH

Writing novels is not the road to power. I don’t believe that, in my society, novels effect serious changes in anyone other than the handful of people who are writers, whose own novels are of course seriously affected by other novelists’ novels. I can’t see anything like that happening to the ordinary reader, nor would I expect it to.

INTERVIEWER

What do novels do then?

ROTH

To the ordinary reader? Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read. That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.

INTERVIEWER

But are there no other aftereffects?

ROTH

You asked if I thought my fiction had changed anything in the culture and the answer is no. Sure, there’s been some scandal, but people are scandalized all the time; it’s a way of life for them. It doesn’t mean a thing. If you ask if I want my fiction to change anything in the culture, the answer is still no. What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book—if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that’s otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn’t fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it’s not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading.

INTERVIEWER

Last question. How would you describe yourself? What do you think you are like, compared with those vividly transforming heroes of yours?

ROTH

I am like somebody who is trying vividly to transform himself out of himself and into his vividly transforming heroes. I am very much like somebody who spends all day writing.

From Wikipedia:

Philip Milton Roth (born March 19, 1933) is an American novelist.

He first gained attention with the 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus, an irreverent and humorous portrait of American-Jewish life for which he received the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. In 1969 his profile rose significantly after the publication of the (then) controversial Portnoy’s Complaint, the humorous and sexually explicit psychoanalytical monologue of “a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, filled with “intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language”.

Roth has been one of the most honored authors of his generation: his books have twice been awarded the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle award, and three times the PEN/Faulkner Award. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral, which featured one of his best-known characters, Nathan Zuckerman, the subject of many other of Roth’s novels. The Human Stain (2000), another Zuckerman novel, was awarded the United Kingdom’s WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. His fiction, regularly set in Newark, New Jersey, is known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, for its “supple, ingenious style” and for its provocative explorations of Jewish and American identity.Roth has been named winner of Spain’s 2012 Prince of Asturias Award for Literature in recognition of his formidable contribution to American literature.

 

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