t was the last weekend of summer - the Democratic convention
looming; a late heatwave baffling the chills of fall - when I drove
upstate from New York City to meet Philip Roth at home in northwest
Connecticut. It's like Switzerland round here - sparkling streams;
plush, manicured properties; perfect meadows - with countless
American flags advertising an air of patriotic entitlement. Roth's
remote grey clapboard house, dating to the revolution, is high on a
hill down a quiet country road, not hard to find, but some miles
from the nearest village, which is really a nothing place with two
The tall figure who emerges from among the apple trees in greeting
wears grey tracksuit bottoms and a long-sleeved grey sweatshirt
that makes me think of prison garb in some progressive correctional
regime. Before I find the composure to take in the burning
intensity of his expression, the smooth grey features and
interrogative tilt of the head, reminiscent of an American eagle,
my first impression is that Philip Roth looks as much like a
Supreme Court judge on furlough as one of his country's most
In his own words, from the opening of The Ghost Writer, you could
'begin to understand why hiding out twelve hundred feet up in the
mountains with just the birds and the trees might not be a bad idea
for a writer, Jewish or not... Purity. Serenity. Simplicity.
Seclusion. All one's concentration and flamboyance and originality
reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling.' Like
his hero Zuckerman, Roth seems to have thought, 'This is how I will
We walk slowly across the cool, nicely rambling grass to a kind of
gauzy yurt, a converted fruit cage with garden chairs in which Roth
and his guests can enjoy bug-free conversation. Stepping into this
bubble feels like entering the outdoor jurisdiction of the writer's
'Let's work,' says Roth, stretching back on his sun-baked recliner
to signal the start of the interview. It sounds informal, but the
truth is that all conversations with the author of Portnoy's
Complaint are highly controlled: your questions submitted in
advance; the transcript scrutinised afterwards; the watchful eye of
agents and publicists along the way. Make no mistake: we are being
admitted into a well-defended environment.
In the American literary undergrowth, Philip Roth is a big beast as
fabulous as the hippogriff, rarely sighted, spoken of with awe, and
the subject of wild, sometimes scandalised, gossip. Ever since
Portnoy, he has endured the kind of attention that might drive you
to crave solitude, or into paranoia: incessant self-abuse jokes, a
persistent drizzle of hostility and the envious scrutiny of lesser
writers. Now, more than 50 years after he began to write, the
author of The Counterlife and American Pastoral might agree with
Peter De Vries, who observed of American literary life that 'one
dreams of the goddess Fame - and winds up with the bitch
This house in Connecticut represents the private, contemplative
Roth. His apartment in New York sponsors something more public.
There, as his literary biographer Hermione Lee has written, 'going
out with Philip Roth in Manhattan is like going out with Louis XIV
in Versailles: the king is in his kingdom'. The writer himself says
that his appetite for exposure lies somewhere between the
reclusiveness of JD Salinger and the self-advertising of the late
Flitting between the private and the public, Roth today is as much
of a literary celebrity as either of these near contemporaries. He
owes this to Portnoy of course, and also to his lifetime's writing:
Roth has never taken his eyes off the prize, or neglected the
artistic duty of work. Compared with his peers, and compared with
virtually any American writer of stature, Roth's output, for a man
in his seventies and with some 29 books behind him, is astonishing.
Never a day passes when he does not stare at those three hateful
words: qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, and zxcvbnm. 'I'm over in my studio
most of the day,' he says. 'I return to the house every night, like
a workman coming back from the fiction factory: "I'm home, honey."'
Except that now there's no honey at home. Divorced from his second
wife, Claire Bloom, in 1993, Roth lives totally alone out here,
cooking his own meals and keeping to himself. 'I've fallen out of
any kind of social world,' he says.
'I don't really know anybody up here any longer.'
Once, he lived here year round, but in old age he finds the winters
too brutal. He has 'a place in New York' and says that when he's
there 'I see people; usually I have dinner with somebody in the
evening.' But, either in the country or the city, he sticks to the
schedule he's always worked, morning, noon and night, 365 days a
year. 'I am,' he once said, 'very much like somebody who spends all
Now he's more isolated than ever. 'All my friends around here have
died,' he says, running through the honour roll. 'Richard Widmark?
Dick died about two months ago. Arthur Miller, he died; he lived
half an hour away. And Bill Styron. And I had a very good pal, a
doctor in the next town over who I was very close to. So I'm four
for four,' he says, sadly slipping into baseball jargon. Death,
observed WH Auden, is like the rumble of distant thunder at a
picnic. Roth's roll-call tells him that the picnic is drawing to a
close, that death is out there, waiting. 'It seems to creep into
one book after another,' he remarks.
'I don't think anybody's gotten out alive in my last five books.'
With Roth, art and life are strangely braided. 'I made a list of
people who've died in the past few years. It's staggering. The
funerals and the eulogies keep it all in mind.' Does he speak at
these funerals? 'I speak at some. It's not a genre I've mastered,
the eulogy. I find it very difficult.'
Similarly, Roth can't quite believe his age. 'I'm 75, a strange
number,' he volunteers. 'It's a strange discovery, for me at any
rate. In your early years you don't go to funerals every six
months.' Among his peers, there has been a steady winnowing: Arthur
Miller, George Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut, and most recently, Norman
Mailer. These were not all close friends, but he knows he's playing
in injury time.
Roth's place in American letters is not just a matter of seniority,
or productivity. The sequence of novels, well-wrought explorations
of his country's recent past, that began in 1997 when Roth was in
his mid-sixties - an age when many writers would have been content
to rest on their laurels - amounts to an extraordinary portrait
that has been saluted by critics on both sides of the Atlantic:
American Pastoral, an elegy for American family life set in the
Vietnam era; his blistering portrait of Eve Frame in I Married A
Communist (1998); The Human Stain (2000); The Dying Animal (2001);
The Plot Against America (2004); Everyman (2006) and finally, his
farewell to Zuckerman, Exit Ghost (2007). This list is testament to
as remarkable a late-season career surge as any in living memory
and leaves all his competitors standing in his dust.
And it's not over yet. His latest, Indignation, was published last
week. He knows it's short, and possibly slight. A volume of some
230 pages, Indignation narrates the morphine-induced recollections
of the young Marcus Messner, a fatally wounded conscript in the
Korean war. Messner will die in the closing pages of the novel, and
it is ambiguous how much his memories are actually posthumous or
feverishly imagined on the point of death.
Humorously, Roth says it stands somewhere between a novella and, 'a
worse word', a novelette. 'The publisher called it a novel. They
tell me "novel" is a better word to use.' In repose, Roth's
expression can be severe, even intimidating. When he smiles,
everything lights up, and for a moment the world becomes an easier
place to be.
People who are close to him, friends I spoke to in London and New
York, always say that, in the right mood, he can be one of the
funniest men alive. But today he is working, explaining how he made
his latest book from the discarded pages of another story, and the
occasional laugh lines in this conversation do not translate into
In American literature, the 'posthumous novel' is a rare device,
exploited most recently in Alice Sebold's bestseller The Lovely
Bones. Momentarily professorial, Roth is quick to acknowledge that
it's not original, pointing out that Epitaph for a Small Winner, by
the 19th-century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis,
employs the same narrative point of view. The truth is that it's
not wholly successful, though the prose seems undiminished; but
Roth is untroubled. 'In the morphine sleep he doesn't know where he
is, so he imagines he's dead... If it's ambiguous, that's OK, too.'
Anyway, Roth's real concern in Indignation is to explore the world
of a Jewish boy, born and raised in Newark in the Thirties and
Forties, a young man who flees his over-protective parents to enrol
in a liberal arts college away from home and come of age in the
America of the Fifties, a young man curiously similar, in outward
appearance, to Roth himself.
At this point veteran Roth readers will exclaim with a sigh, Here
we go again. But what did they expect? The point about Roth is that
he is the most interesting person he knows, and quite unabashed
about his extraordinary singularity.
Describing his own chapel attendances at Bucknell College in rural
Pennsylvania, which mirror those of Marcus Messner, he says he felt
'like a Houyhnhnm who had strayed on to the campus from Gulliver's
That is the writer's authentic voice. Roth, as Martin Amis says,
'is somehow inordinately unique. He is himself, himself, himself.'
To another of his many interviewers he declared, simply: 'I'm the
emergency.' Sitting here in the afternoon sunshine, he
instinctively frames himself as a character, almost in the third
person. 'I'm like an old man,' he says, as if not quite willing to
concede that he might actually be old. Friends confirm that there
is no one more competitive with himself than Roth. Similarly, if
there is one person who has celebrated Philip Roth and his legend
it must be Roth himself. What interests him, he writes in
Deception, 'is the terrible ambiguity of the "I", the way a writer
makes a myth of himself and, particularly, why'. One place to start
might be his origins.
Philip Roth was born into a family of second-generation Jews,
'before pantyhose and frozen food,' he says, in the year of
Hitler's rise to power, 1933. His parents were intensely, even
maddeningly, devoted to their son. 'To be at all,' he writes of his
mother and father in his autobiography, The Facts, 'is to be her
Philip, but in the embroilment of the buffeting world, my history
still takes its spin from beginning as his Roth.'
Roth's sensibilities will always be marked by the themes and tempo
of the 'low, dishonest decade' into which he was born, but just as
influential was his milieu: a lower middle-class Jewish community
in Newark, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, a suburban
city that occupies the kind of relation to the metropolis that,
say, Croydon does to London.
He was, and is, a passionate American, a baseball fanatic who at
one point cheerfully refers to himself as 'a Yank'. After himself,
the great, wounded republic is his subject. Years ago, in The
Facts, he wrote: 'It's hard to imagine that anyone of intelligence
growing up in America since the Vietnam War can have had our
unambiguous sense, as young adolescents immediately after the
victory over Nazi fascism and Japanese militarism, of belonging to
the greatest nation on earth.' Today, looking back at the Fifties
from a post-Bush perspective, he disputes this, saying, 'There
never was a golden age.' It is, nonetheless, a moment in American
history that dominates the brief narrative of Indignation
The Newark of Roth's childhood was 'still largely white', but
already in decline, which is perhaps why he remains so attached to
it. Today, the city is almost wholly black, with a black mayor and
the civic afflictions of drug-related criminality. 'My old
neighbourhood is bad, but the whole city is bad. Downtown, there's
lots of people selling stuff on the street, mostly stolen goods. I
wouldn't wander around the streets by myself. So it's pretty bad,
and very depressing, too.'
Newark and Newarkness shaped Roth's life profoundly, and continue
to do so, as though he has never left. He and his fellow Newark-ite
Paul Auster like to speculate about making a literary pilgrimage to
their roots. He says, half in jest: 'We'd have to take a cop with
us. It's very dangerous.' Indignation, indeed, opens in Newark and
celebrates its ethnic vitality with a thunderous crescendo:
'hard-working, coarse-grained, bribe-ridden, semi-xenophobic
Many of the great American writers are creatures of their
neighbourhood. Bellow has Chicago, Fitzgerald jazz-age Manhattan,
and Faulkner Yoknapatawpha County. Updike cleaves to Massachusetts,
and for Roth it's Newark. So much so that the city has named a
plaza for him. He's proud of this, in an ironical way. 'You'll
score better drugs on Roth Plaza than Malamud Plaza,' he jokes,
adding that 'the then mayor has now been indicted, tried, and
convicted on various illegalities.'
In old age, he recoils from urban extremism, but as a young man he
relished it. Roth has said his adolescent experience was 'about our
aggression, our going out into Newark, three or four of us,
wandering the streets at night, shooting crap in back of the high
school with flashlights, girls, going after your date to this
gathering place called Syd's on Chancellor Avenue and telling your
sex stories... Appetite. Maybe that's the word. It was the
appetites that were aggressive.'
In this highly verbal, frustrated and competitive hothouse the
young Roth incubated the wild, comic voice that would explode into
American consciousness with Portnoy's notorious 'complaint'. The
Jewishness of old Newark shaped Roth in another way, too. Through
all the subsequent phases of his literary life, there is a
consistent character thread, which many readers have found
intensely, almost viscerally, appealing. Perhaps it was this
psychic inheritance that inspired Roth to boast about 'my good
fortune in being born a Jew'. As much as he is infuriated by the
predicament in which it has landed him, he enjoys the originality.
'It's a complicated, interesting, morally demanding and very
singular experience,' he says, 'and I like that.'
The classic Roth protagonist, who surfaces once again in
Indignation, is painfully intelligent, self-aware and
over-protected. An instinctive aesthete, he is divided between mind
and body, sex and reason, family and self, desire and duty. A
martyr to neurasthenia, this troubled figure is tormented by
impossible (even mad) women, overweening parents and, worst of all,
a bad conscience. Over the years, Roth has had a hard time from
some feminists, and now strongly resists the suggestion that there
is - shall we say? - a strain of craziness in many of his fictional
'Well, let's see,' he replies equably, as if enunciating a
quasi-biblical exegesis. 'In Exit Ghost there isn't, I don't think.
There are two sane women there. And in Everyman the women are all
sane. There's a crazy one in When She Was Good (1967) and another
in My Life As a Man (1974). I think proportional to the population
I have the right number of crazy women.' So, there you are, QED.
Roth's novels brilliantly anatomise the manic carousel of
passionate feelings. Mixed with the volatile chemistry of his own
temperament, his Jewishness and an indefinable lower middle-class
awkwardness vis à vis that great unmentionable, American class,
seem to have inspired plenty of rage, to use a less genteel synonym
for 'indignation'. 'Rage', 'revenge', 'acrimony' - these words pop
up all over the landscape of Roth's work. Now, perhaps, in his
mid-seventies, there's a softening. The 'indignation' of his new
book may be 'the most beautiful word in the English language', but
it comes from the Chinese national anthem, the one we all heard
during the Beijing Olympics.
Like Marcus Messner, the young Roth was taught in grade school by
left-leaning teachers who, in addition to patriotic songs such as
'Anchors Away', at weekly assembly, encouraged their kids to learn
clunky Chinese propaganda:
Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!
Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen,
Arise! Arise! Arise!
In one of the more surreal scenes from America's wartime
mobilisation, Roth says that in Newark you had 'all these little
Jewish kids belting out the Chinese national anthem! The only
Chinese we knew was the laundryman.'
We agree, now, that this is a lost world, almost as remote as the
stagecoach or the silver dollar. Who, meeting the grade A student
Philip Milton Roth in 1953 (the year in which he locates the end of
Indignation) could have foreseen his literary life? The Roth of
myth was yet to come, and all but invisible.
In the Fifties, indeed, young Roth followed a career path that
might have fashioned him into the kind of literature professor you
might find in one of his novels - sombre, mildly lecherous,
immersed in literature. 'I thought I was going to be an English
professor, but six months into my PhD I couldn't stand it. So I
dropped out, and began to write. I got $800 from Esquire for a
Looking back on those times, he confesses to a pessimism now about
the future of what he calls 'aesthetic literacy'. There was then,
he says, 'a literary wedge in the culture'. He explains, 'There
were probably 30 literary quarterlies in America at that time. The
most famous were the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review and the Hudson
Review - most of them are now out of business - but there were 15
or 20 more. So if you wrote a short story, you'd get a publisher.
There was a truly literary culture, very small, but that culture's
gone. There were people who read seriously, and their numbers were
far greater than they are now. You can say, what's the difference
if you have 50,000 or 20,000 readers?'
In answer to the question, What is the difference? Roth tells the
story of his friend, the Romanian writer Norman Manea. 'Under
Ceausescu, Norman went to an older writer from the Party to
complain about his readership. The man said, "Norman, all a writer
needs are eight readers. Think about it. Why do you need more than
eight readers? That's enough. [Pause.] You, unfortunately, have
only three,"' Roth laughs. 'Well, we're down to three here, too.'
More soberly, he rejects the contemporary evidence of literary
striving as a sham, and has no patience with Creative Writing,
which he thinks is a waste of time. 'American college students
don't take expository writing, which they desperately need, but
they take Creative Writing, which is like taking doodling.'
Roth was never a doodler. There was always a moral seriousness to
his work. But then he discovered the cost of exploring his
Jewishness, and perhaps this is one source of the rage that
permeates his work. In April 1959, another early story, 'Defender
of the Faith', published in the New Yorker, so offended some Jewish
readers with its suggestion that a Jewish soldier might exploit the
Jewish sensitivities of his Jewish commanding officer to secure
preferential treatment that the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai
B'rith stepped in.
Suddenly 'Philip Roth' was the subject of synagogue gossip and
household arguments. His offence, which now seems impossibly
arcane, was compounded the following year by the inclusion of the
story in his debut volume, Goodbye Columbus. For much of the
Sixties he was declared a traitor to his people, abused and
denounced up and down as worse than anti-Semitic. 'I defended
myself,' he recalls, 'but I was thrown by it, a big assault at 26.
I could handle it, but I didn't like it.'
Of course, this tribal brouhaha was nothing compared with the
scandal of Portnoy's Complaint, which came out at the end of the
Sixties. Portnoy's Complaint, which made him a celebrity, is an
iconic book that changed everything, pitching him headlong into a
world of banal public curiosity.
Roth has often said he cannot identify any single experience from
which Portnoy's Complaint originated. In early drafts it was 'The
Jewboy'; then a play (workshopped by Dustin Hoffman); then
'Whacking Off'; then a short story, 'A Jewish Patient Begins His
Analysis', and finally, with the appearance of his psychoanalyst,
This 'wild blue shocker' (Life), a novel in the guise of a
confession, was an immediate bestseller. Taken by hundreds of
thousands of American readers as a confession in the guise of a
novel, it placed its author inexorably centre stage in the minds of
his audience. He's been there ever since.
To my suggestion that he might have unconsciously courted outrage
with Portnoy's Complaint, after his experience of the
Jewish-American persecution complex, he replies carefully, 'I don't
have any sense of audience, and least of all when I'm writing. The
audience I'm writing for is me, and I'm so busy trying to figure
the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing
I think of is: "What is X, Y or Z going to be thinking of it?"'
Whatever the motivation, there was no going back. 'Literature got
me into this,' says his character Peter Tarnopol in The Great
American Novel, 'and literature is gonna have to get me out.'
Perhaps writing literary fiction was hardly an ideal escape route,
but it was what he knew. Roth's work in the early Seventies seemed
to exhibit what one critic dubbed 'the perils of an over-literary
mind'. After the wild comedy of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth
experimented with satire (Our Gang), satirical fantasy (The
Breast), the chaotic fantasies of The Great American Novel, and the
'miraculous mess' of My Life as a Man. Finally, he settled, in
young middle age, into his exploration of the self, through
Tarnopol, through Kepesh (The Professor of Desire) and eventually
Zuckerman (The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound). This was the
middle period of Roth's career, and it coincided with his
relationship with Claire Bloom, who decided early on that she
wanted 'to spend my life with this remarkable man'.
When the British actress first met Roth in 1975, she says she found
him 'daunting and flattering', but within a year they were lovers,
and soon Bloom was visiting him here in Connecticut, becoming a
kind of muse. The Professor of Desire (1977) is dedicated to her,
and this mid-season ferment also yielded, among others, The Ghost
Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Counterlife (1986),
one of his very finest and most original novels.
By then, the Roth-Bloom liaison was so well-established on both
sides of the Atlantic that he was spending half the year in London
and had found a studio in Notting Hill. Despite an inevitable
struggle with what he felt to be English anti-Semitism, he says he
liked living in England. 'I met lots of people and made many
friends, more friends than I had in New York, strangely; and I
liked going back and forth.'
The intimacy of Roth's connection to England is captured in
Deception, a novel narrated entirely in dialogue, which imagines a
literary man's affair with, among others, a middle-class English
woman. The raw immediacy of this fiction, with its Rothian
declaration that 'In my imagination I am unfaithful to everybody',
provoked a crisis with Bloom, who writes in her memoir of this
episode that, 'I no longer gave a damn whether these girlfriends
were erotic fantasies. What left me speechless - though not for
long - was that he would paint a picture of me as a jealous wife
who is betrayed over and over again. I found the portrait nasty and
Almost simultaneously with this rift, Roth suffered a freak
breakdown (induced by the Halcion prescribed after knee surgery)
together with a new, and urgent, longing to come home. 'I began to
feel less and less connected to America. I began to feel I was
losing touch with American life. And so by 1989 I realised I
couldn't do this any more. So I came back. It was a wonderful
return home, because I rediscovered an old subject, which was this
country, and I began to write those books about America. It was the
best situation. I found a new subject which was an old subject that
I knew. All the old stuff was fresh for me.'
In 1993, there was a second renewal. He got divorced from Claire
Bloom and entered the phase that has culminated in Exit Ghost and
Indignation. 'Freedom, it's called,' he says, freighting the
sentence with an almost tangible exhilaration. Now he was in the
clear. He could come and go as he pleased. He could work where, how
and whenever he chose, read as he pleased, and revel in the
exploration of his many selves. So does he, I wondered, read his
'No, I don't, and it's not out of principle. I don't read very much
fiction any longer. If I'm going to read something I much prefer to
read non-fiction. And I do; I read every night. I re-read. That's
what I've been doing. Last month I was re-reading Camus. I haven't
read The Plague in 40 years.' Recently he's also re-read Turgenev
Which brings us to the re-reading of Roth himself. Portnoy's
Complaint is still a recklessly funny tour de force, but a young
man's book and a great comedy of its time. From his middle age,
many novels of Roth's literary self-obsession do not weather well.
They seem contrived, and rather lacking in humanity. At this point
in the game, perhaps the best you can say is that he still harbours
an ambition for simple greatness that has, thus far, seemed to slip
through his fingers.
Roth's prose, famously, displays the artifice of no artifice. On
the page, he achieves a voice that's plain, natural and close to
the everyday rhythms of speech. At its finest it is breathtaking,
lean, sleek and muscular, a downhill racer, with a mesmerising
momentum and demotic zest. Throughout his writing, he exhibits a
deep admiration for two English writers, Shakespeare and George
Orwell. It was Orwell who celebrated 'good prose' being 'like a
window pane', and I think Roth's clarity derives in part from
Orwell, whose great books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four,
were published in the Forties, at an impressionable stage of Roth's
But when you try to approach this tetchy, isolated man through his
books, the difficulties pile up. The lives in the novels, weighed
down with 'the terrible ambiguity of the "I"', lack the simplicity
of the prose. Rather, they hover in a no-man's-land between
imagination and reality. This is because the author himself is
elusive, indifferent and defensive towards vulgar efforts to locate
him. Like many comic writers, he seems troubled, and especially by
the attentions of the outside world. He prefers his solitary
confinement, and his library.
Enter Roth's world and you step into a hall of mirrors. Roth has
done himself in so many different voices that, facing the title
page of Indignation, 'books by Philip Roth', some 29, are now
catalogued as 'Zuckerman' (eight titles, including The Anatomy
Lesson), 'Roth' (five, including Operation Shylock and Deception),
'Kepesh' (three, including The Dying Animal, recently filmed as
Elegy, starring Penélope Cruz), as well as 'Other' (10, including
Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus.
His preferred critic, Hermione Lee, gives the best account of this:
'Lives into stories, stories into lives: that's the name of Roth's
double game.' The playfulness, if that's what it is, does not end
there. Roth's highly contrived 'novelist's autobiography' The Facts
opens with a letter to Nathan Zuckerman, his most celebrated alter
ego, asking for his verdict on the book, and it ends with
Zuckerman's 'reply': 'Dear Roth, I've read the manuscript twice.
Here is the candour you ask for: Don't publish.' In addition to
many, carefully scripted, interviews there is the memorable moment
of awesome solipsism in Reading Myself and Others (1976) when Roth
actually interviews himself! What on earth is going on? Critics
have been driving themselves into paroxysms over this for decades.
Is it authorial playfulness? A giant tease? Postmodernism run mad?
Neurasthenic insecurity? Or the desperate strategies of a writer
with insufficient material?
Roth himself hates to be asked about his many alter egos. He speaks
contemptuously of critics who get snared in the barbed wire of the
Rothian no-man's-land, gunning them down with: 'Am I Roth or
Zuckerman? It's all me... Nothing is me. I write fiction and I'm
told it's autobiography; I write autobiography and I'm told it's
fiction. So since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide
what it is or isn't.'
Roth will always be defensive towards any attempt to link him to
his protagonists. So when, rashly, I ask him if Marcus Messner is
'another of your alter egos?' he does not reply at once, and then
responds coolly with, 'Ask me another way.' Finally, after a bit of
sparring, he says, 'I'm not crazy about it [the alter ego]. It
suggests a stand-in for me, when it's a character who grew out of
the narration, and when none of those things happened to me. None
of those things happened to me. It's imaginary.' As well as the
continuing irritation about the alter ego question, however hard he
tries to break new ground, there will always be disappointed
readers harking back to 'the early work'.
Christopher Hitchens, who has lived as a reader through every phase
of Roth's writing and has also read Indignation, says he is enraged
by the new book: 'There was a time when Roth was falsely accused of
self-hatred by the elders of his own tribe (and defended from the
charge by men of the calibre of Ralph Ellison). But to see him
repeatedly fouling his own nest, and trying by vain repetitions
like Exit Ghost to drag down the level of his previous work, and
insulting us with Indignation is to wonder whether in some awful
way he isn't trying to vindicate the original accusation, as well
as to make his old age shame his youth.'
What any critic says now will have little traction with Roth. He
does not bother with reviews. 'I try to read as few as I can. It's
not really very rewarding, except in a few instances, and it
depends upon who's written it. If Frank Kermode reviewed my book I
would read the review.'
Novella, or novelette, or long short story, some of the material in
Indignation is recycled from previous books. But if there is here
an intimation of waning powers, there is also a new focus: a self
that recognises the approach of the end, and another that looks
back to the beginning. As well as reflecting on mortality,
Indignation is about a young man's coming-of-age.
'Coming and going, yes,' Roth replies, alluding to the death of his
protagonist. 'I was trying to get away from writing about old men
[Exit Ghost, Everyman, The Dying Animal]. I wanted to say I just
don't want to think about that stuff any more. I have nothing fresh
to say about it.'
Was he, I wondered, not tempted to write a comedy to dispel the
chill shadows of mortality? 'I would love to, but... [a beat] ...I
don't think I know how to be comic any more.'
Indignation argues against this. There's a comic set-piece at the
heart of the narrative in which Marcus Messner gets a blow-job from
his girlfriend. Roth acknowledges this, but seriously. 'What I
wanted to do in this book is, through a little incident in this
small place, depict sexual mores that have disappeared.'
As our conversation turns to the, strictly speaking, fabulous
experience of fellatio in the Fifties, we slide back to the world
of Roth's youth, and he's talking about the books he read as an
aspiring writer, 'sports books and adventure stories', Mark Twain,
Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. 'Every budding literary kid
fell on Thomas Wolfe [Look Homeward, Angel] with a passion. There
was this stream of rhetoric.' He begins to quote, happily. '"O
lost, and by the wind-grieved ghost, come back again...!" Whatever
that means.' A smile. 'Sounds good, though. As a kid, I wrote in
the margin, "Yes!"'
These half-remembered writers from the Twenties and Thirties haunt
the Roth of Indignation. Even the name of his fictional midwestern
town is taken directly from a collection of stories, Winesburg,
Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, a writer whose subject, like Roth's, is
'repression'. Roth's unconscious, inner dialogue with the American
writers of the past is perhaps more revealing than he will allow.
Curious, I turned up the opening pages of Anderson's 'book of
grotesques', and found this passage, which stands almost as an
epigraph to our conversation: 'Perfectly still he lay and his body
was old and not of much use any more, but still something inside
him was altogether young... It is absurd, you see, to try to tell
what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and
listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is
what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking
When Roth published The Dying Animal in 2001, I asked him about his
next book, and he replied, 'I hope it takes the rest of my life. I
can't take starting from scratch.' But the experience of real life
contradicts the writer's imaginative expectations. He's just
finished another book - 'it's probably a novelette' - about another
kind of death, a suicide. He insists this has 'no therapeutic
value. I just find it's an interesting subject. I wanted to see if
I could drive a character to that point where -' He stops. 'I'm
trying to drive somebody crazy,' he summarises, with his usual
So now he's looking for a new subject, and is once again in that
dreadful limbo between books. 'Starting a new book is hell. You
just flail around until something happens. It's miraculous. It
comes to you out of nothing and nowhere. That's the problem with
writing short books. You finish them too quickly. And that's what's
wonderful about a long book. So I've decided I've got to find a big
project that will take me right through to the end. Finish the day
before, and - exit ghost.'
The end of the tape comes with a 'click'. Our time is up. 'Would
you like the tour?' he asks, slipping into a belated hostly ritual.
When Roth stretches on his recliner, you see how painfully thin his
legs have grown. We step out of the bug-free tent and stroll
beneath a canopy of ancient oaks towards Roth's writing room, a
well-appointed wooden summer house at the top of the garden.
Inside, it's spartan but well-equipped, with the warm, comforting
smell of wood. There are two desks - one for writing, one for
'business', a Roberts radio and a lectern where Roth, who has a bad
back, likes to work standing up. On the mantelpiece over the empty
fireplace ('I used to light a fire, but then I discovered I was
spending all my time looking after it') there's a touching display
of faded family photographs going back to the turn of the century.
We inspect the sepia generations of Roths: his grandparents, his
parents, his elder brother, and his younger self. There's a notable
absence of wives or girlfriends, and almost the only outsider
appears to be Saul Bellow, a lovely photo of his friend in his
Does he, I wonder, regret not having children? 'Well, I don't seem
to go around regretting it, no. I was busy doing other things, you
know, and then the opportunity slipped away because of age and the
age of the women I was with.'
He still likes to exercise. Most days, while it's warm, he'll swim
in his pool at the bottom of the garden. Now, when summer ends, he
will go back to New York City, and the familiar routine of dinners
with friends and girlfriends.
When the tour is over, he signs a copy of Indignation and we say
goodbye. As I turn the car in the short driveway I see an old grey
man walking slowly through the trees back to his studio for the
inevitable rendezvous with his desk, a writer happily alone with
his many selves, all passion spent.