Writers & Company·From The Archives

The incomparable Philip Roth: looking back on his life in fiction

From Goodbye, Columbus to The Plot Against America, in 2009 the award-winning novelist talked to Eleanor Wachtel about his remarkable career.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth wrote more than 30 books. He died of congestive heart failure on May 22, 2018. (Eleanor Wachtel/CBC)
Listen to the full episode54:31

Philip Roth, one of the most celebrated contemporary novelists, died on May 22, 2018 at the age of 85. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Roth wrote more than 30 books and received virtually every major honour in American literature ― some twice, and even three times. He is widely considered an American classic, and in 2011, Roth was awarded the $100,000 Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement.

Yet Roth is perhaps best known for the novel that didn't win any awards. Published in 1969, Portnoy's Complaint provoked controversy for its sexual candour and depiction of an overbearing Jewish mother. Detailing the intimate, comic confessions of a young man, the book was a commercial phenomenon, and it turned Roth into an unwilling celebrity.

Later works of Roth examined large social themes and the American identity. In the late 1990s he began what he described as a "loose trilogy," with American Pastoral, followed by I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. These too were received with critical and popular acclaim. New Jersey-born singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, who admired Roth for sustaining his creativity over the decades, said: "To be making work that strong and so full of revelations about love and emotional pain … that's the way to live your artistic life."

Eleanor Wachtel met Philip Roth at his Manhattan apartment in 2009, just after he'd published The Humbling ― his penultimate novel before retiring in 2012. Having turned his attention to the ravages of aging and mortality, he brought to the subject the same acerbic wit and incisive analysis that fuelled his earlier work. 

A portrait of the writer as a young man

"As a writer, I was raw — whatever I wrote came spontaneously out of me. I wasn't extremely reflective about what I was working on. How much can you know at 26? My experience had been limited because of my age and I had a protected upbringing. So those first attempts were spontaneous attempts at writing fiction. I wasn't prepared for any kind of reaction. I had studied literature in school and had no idea what happens when you publish and the work goes out to the world, not just to school children. The accusations that were made against me as a result of Defender of the Faith were that I was anti-Semitic and that I was a self-hating Jew. For a while I wasn't a favourite of certain Jewish establishment figures. That material gradually became a subject for me and I used it in The Ghost Writer. But I don't think it changed my writing at all — I was able to meet the challenge, but I was quite astonished."

Free writing

"In these first naive attempts, I wrote stories about things I didn't know anything about. Slowly I began to turn to my old neighbourhood. I was essentially writing about where I came from — people where I came from were Newark Jews. I think I may have been inspired in part by the fiction of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who had been able to take the Jewish world that was near at hand and convert it into distinctive fiction. Malamud was converting the stuff of Jewish jokes and folktale into a very resonant, superior fiction. 

"What Saul Bellow demonstrated with this material was freedom — he wasn't contained by the species of Jewish story that had existed before him and rather reinvented the whole thing with his tremendous freedom. This is the compensation — that you eventually make an object out of yourself, a book, all on your own and with no barriers. That's freedom. But you buy that freedom at a steep cost, which is the work itself."

The risks of reaching great heights

"I had written three respectable books prior to Portnoy's Complaint. In coming up with the situation of a man talking to his psychoanalyst, I gave myself a freedom that I value so much. In the game of psychoanalysis, the patient is invited to say anything. Portnoy is trying to shed his guilt. I had that same liberty as a writer because I was pretending to be the patient — and the result was explosive. No sooner did I publish it, I had to escape it because it was a colossal success. I was typecast as a result of Portnoy's Complaint as a crazed, sexual madman. I left New York and moved to the country, which I wouldn't have done had I not published that book. 

"If you use aspects of your life, it's because the familiarity excites your verbal energy — and whatever will do that, you use. So you exploit yourself just as ruthlessly as you exploit other people. The goal is to create excitement on the page."

Imagining a life without writing

"If I could live my life again I don't think I'd want to be a writer. There are many hard occupations to be sure ― this is one of them. It's very gruelling because you're always an amateur whenever you begin a new book. Yes, you've written before, but you didn't write this book before. The first six months are usually extremely frustrating ― everything goes to pot, your writing goes to pot, your imagination is insufficient. And then when you finish a book you have to start again and come up with another idea, which is also gruelling.

"You are alone, you are the only person who can make it happen, nobody can help you and you have to drag this thing out of you. I find it very difficult. I've often thought I would have been a good doctor, that I would have enjoyed the contact with my patients and gotten gratification from the work itself. The problem is I don't even think in the next life I'm going to be able to do the pre-med course. I'm going to be stuck writing."

Philip Roth's interview has been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast program: Written on the Sky by Max Richter