As It Happens

'A great voice for our time': Friend remembers author Philip Roth

Friend and writer Hermione Lee says Philip Roth was open to criticism about his work, and was always pushing taboo subjects — like in his 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint.

Roth, the author of the scandalous novel Portnoy's Complaint and many others, died Tuesday at age 85

Novelist Philip Roth retired in 2010, after writing his final novel Nemesis. It was dedicated to his friend and longtime reader Hermione Lee. (The Associated Press)
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Philip Roth is being remembered by his friend Hermione Lee as a "gigantic imaginative factory."  

The award-winning author, who wrote fearlessly about sex, lust and death in novels like Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral, died Tuesday. He was 85.

His 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint — about a frustrated sex-obsessed young man — scandalized the literary world and caused many in his New Jersey Jewish community to denounce him.

Lee was Roth's longtime reader and a writer herself. Roth dedicated his final novel, Nemesis, to her. Lee spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what it was like to work with the author.

Here is part of that conversation.  

Ms. Lee, first of all I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.

Yes, the world is sorry I think.

I know that Philip Roth would send you his manuscripts and he got you to look at them and comment. That's a sensitive thing for an author. How open was he to getting criticism?

Yes, very. What seems on the page like a great spontaneous outflowing of energy was actually worked over and worked over and worked over. There were many many drafts of every book.

And he wanted his readers to be extremely brutal and frank with him. As he said to me once, "There's no point doing this if you're going to be polite." 

Everything was material to him wasn't it?

Everything was material. It was like a gigantic imaginative factory. The Philip Roth factory of the imagination.

I think he's a great voice for our time and will go on being so.- Hermione Lee 

Those of us at a certain age of course were first introduced to Philip Roth with Portnoy's Complaint and the story of this Jewish man and his obsession with sex and his masturbating in the strangest ways.

Did he ever talk about what he thought that novel was going to do to people's heads?

I think he didn't realize quite what a bomb of shock it was going to be. But of course it came as part of the whole 60s unravelling of taboos.

I think the one thing that's very interesting is that we for a long time all thought of him as the author of [Portnoy's Complaint] and then more lately he was thought of as the author of American Pastoral or the Plot Against America.

He was always pushing, pushing against taboos and conformity and proscriptions and people telling you what you must and mustn't say and censorship and in that sense I think he's a great voice for our time and will go on being so.

President Barack Obama presents a National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth, Wednesday, March 2, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (The Associated Press)

He often said that he did not like a hyphenated title. He didn't want to be a Jewish-American writer. He was an American writer. But at the same time Jews and Jewishness are just so much a part of the writing.

What was so important about Jewish life in America for him?

I think he's completely, nostalgically, and passionately in love with the world of his childhood.

Philip kept going back to Newark.

That community of Jewish immigrants, who were lucky, who were escaping what was happening in Europe, was where he forged his consciousness and identity.

Author Philip Roth's 2009 conversation with Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company 3:03

You interviewed him, you wrote about him, you knew him. What is it you liked about Philip Roth?

When you were with him, you felt more energetic than in your normal life. You just upped your level of concentration and interest and your rewards were an endless stream of interesting, obsessive, vituperative, extreme, funny and often grief stricken stories.

But there was never not a story.

But he was also criticized as being a misogynist. What was he like to you, as a woman?

I never had any experience of misogyny from him.

I would say about misogyny in his work: First of all there's his resistance to booze and censorship which I think forms part of his opposition to feminism.

The other thing to say about this is that he's not a novelist who writes about the victorious male. This is a novelist whose male characters are always in chaos. They don't get what they want. They are frustrated. They are in a muddle. They are tearing themselves apart.

It's the women characters who are in control and who are more calm, more sane, more determined than some of the men.

In this March 24, 1960 file photo, the three winners of the National Book Award, Robert Lowell, from left, awarded for the most distinguished book of poetry, Richard Ellmann, won in the nonfiction category, and Philip Roth, received the award in the fiction category for his book "Goodbye, Columbus". (The Associated Press)

He dedicated his last novel, Nemesis, to you. That was in 2010. And then to everybody's amazement he decided to stop writing, he was finished. Did he really not have another book in him?

I think he really wanted to stop. I think he just decided that was enough.

It was hard labour. Every time he started a book it did not come easily. It came through blood, sweat and tears.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from the Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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