Sep 25, 2010

A slim volume loosing catastrophe

"Philip Roth stands over my shoulder as I sit at his desk, typing into his computer. Now 77, he is a little jowly of jaw, and stands a little stooped in a baggy brown cable-knit sweater, but still he towers over me — fabulously, pointlessly tall. If you were constructing him entirely from zoo animals you would choose a tortoise and a giraffe. I call up Google on his apple, and type in the words ‘The Daily Show.’ “They were doing a bit about that Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Qu’ran,” I explain as I type. “They read out the most obectionable parts of each other’s holy books. The stuff in the Bible about dashing children to pieces. Then they read the passage in Portnoy’s Complaint where Portnoy violates a piece of liver on the way to a bar mitzvah. They demanded Jon Stewart condemn the Jewish practise of ejaculating into dinner meat.”
Roth hoots with laughter at the thought of his most famous scene still causing a ruckus all these years later. “Is that right?” he asks, “Are they still going on about that?” There are several things to note about this scene. First: the Apple computer! An Apple Emac, circa 2002, but still. An Apple! The internet! TV! Jon Stewart! The outside world! I thought Roth was supposed to live a life of monkish asceticism, void of human contact and stimuli, counting down the days to oblivion with the haggard, laser-like fixity of someone beating Franz Kafka in a staring competition. “Philip Roth lives in a town that, strictly speaking, lacks a town,” wrote David Remnick in a recent New Yorker profile. “It is not easy to find... very few visitors… nothing gets in.. no telephone, no fax….. ‘Philip lives likes he’s at Fort Dix’…,” and so on and so forth. It is certainly true that the two-hour drive from New York to his house in Connecticut constitutes the exact geometric distance necessary to convince New Yorkers they have fallen off the face of the earth, but other than that, there is little about Roth’s existence in the country that isn’t covered by the term “country house”: a grey two-storey clapboard house, built in 1790, set back from the road on 200 acres of land, with a garage, a swimming pool in which Roth does laps every afternoon. After quintuple bypass surgery in 1989, he does everything he can to stay fit. He doesn’t drink much, watches maybe an hour of television a night. “I’ll watch Rachael Maddow” he says. “I get a kick out of her. Or I’ll watch baseball. Or whatever disaster is going on.” He’s even in a good mood, although it could just be all the talk of disaster. His latest novel, Nemesis
, his 31st, like all his recent novels, is a slim volume loosing catastrophe. In Indignation, the catastrophe was the Korean war. In The Humbling the catastrophe was a woman. In Everyman the catastrophe was death itself. And in Nemesis it is polio, sweeping through the children of wartime Newark, during a baking hot summer from Roth’s youth. Holding the line is their physical education teacher, Bucky Cantor, pugnacious, decent, determined to save every last one of his boys and thus destined to join that small but select band of Roth characters whose decency amounts to an invitation to be used as a touch football by that “sick fuck” and “evil genius” God. Roth, whose atheism has always seem to stem as much from professional rivalry as anything else, looks on like Prospero himself, the ageing magician summoning one last tempest from thin air. Late Roth, like late Shakespeare, late Turner and late Beethoven, is turning out to involve some particularly choppy weather. "I think it's true," he says in his soft, low voice, a mixture of sand and claret. "These last four books are all cataclysmic books. And so was Exit Ghost, which came before. And so was The Plot Against America, which came before that. Maybe I only write cataclysmic books, early, late or middle." He laughs. "But I think it's true to call these cataclysmic books. Why? The darkness is unavoidable. You don't die, but everyone else does. So you make your way though a cemetery of your friends and loved ones. That focuses you."

We are sitting in the small, two-room studio at the edge of his garden, which doubles as an office. There is a wall of books, a fireplace, a desk, a computer and a lectern, where he writes standing up, to ease his back. On the mantelpiece above the fireplace are pictures of his father and mother, both long gone, and his older brother, Sandy, who died last year. "Styron, Updike..." he says, continuing his roll call of the fallen. "That they are all gone and silenced, it's hard to take. It's hard to take."

All of which leaves Roth looking suspiciously like the Last Great American Writer. Not to say that great novels will not continue to be written by Americans, but that the days when they girded the globe like gladiators, going chest to chest with one another on chat shows while limbering up for their Nobel, rolling champagne bottles down Fifth Avenue by the light of a wanton moon, waking up with one another's wives, shrugging off their mastodon hangovers and pounding away at their typewriters to produce the Great American Novel, would seem to be drawing to a close. The Nobel committee has fallen out of love with America. The novel is in eclipse, crowded out by a thousand screens. "Every year, 70 readers die and two are replaced," Rothsays. "The novel has no audience. But aside from that, everything is fine."

He says this with the same half-smile he uses for all such gloomy oracular pronouncements. He's okay. Roth has been on a terrific tear since the mid-1990s, racking up awards for an exhilarating series of novels, each carving up an aspect of what Roth has called "the indigenous American berserk". He patrolled the home front of the Vietnam war in American Pastoral, tackled the McCarthy era in I Married a Communist and reimagined an America in which Hitlerian fascism has run rampant in The Plot Against America. After that fusillade, it was inevitable that there would follow a quieter period of attenuation — his recent novels are more like embers from a once raging fire — but they glow with same vivid sense of threat and the sense of history as a series of traps a man must negotiate or, having fallen into, escape. I ask Roth if that is how he sees his own life.

"I've stepped into a few traps, yes," he says after a long pause. "I've also been dragged into a few traps. And I seem to have made it out. I don't know that we know the traps in the immediate moment. You don't just get caught by the big, gaping trap; you get blindsided by something you weren't prepared for." He mentions the spinal injury he sustained in the army in the mid-1950s, which continues to plague him. "Then there's the trap of the unworthy person. I have fallen into the trap of the unworthy person a couple of times."

I assume he means his two marriages, the first to Margaret Martinson, a woman he so came to loathe that, when she died in a car crash in 1968, he whistled en route to her funeral, and the second to the English actress Claire Bloom, whom he divorced in 1995. Asked to elaborate, he demurs. "The other trap is writing," he says briskly. "I find it requires all my strength and more. It really is an exercise in frustration. It's my trap. I chose this trap. Nor did I know in the beginning that it was a trap. I thought it was a terrific thing to do. As the decades go on, it's become more demanding. More arduous. Harder. It's a trap because you can't get out... So there it is."

Interviewing Roth is a peculiar experience in force-field immersion, furnishing only the skimpiest of illusions that you are in any way directing the conversation. Some questions are met with a long pause, some are ignored in favour of the question just one inch to the left of them, others meet with a swift rebuttal. When I quote something he wrote about his fiction being in transit "between the good boy and the bad boy", to be found in his one autobiographical book, no less, he snaps, "That's complete horseshit", the twinkle in his eyes suddenly gone, replaced with a harder graphite glare. An audience with Roth is never entirely free of the sensation that you are being watched intently, and graded, by a formidable and exacting intelligence that is much more practised at repelling intruders than at yielding up the bosomy, Oprah-like confidences with which celebrities are required to endear themselves to their public. It's not his game.

"Someone who knew me at the time said that Portnoy's Complaint was driven by anger," he says. "And I said, no, it wasn't, it was driven by joy at discovering Portnoy's anger. You're not angry when he is being angry. You love it. When I was writing Sabbath's Theater, I didn't feel lust. I was enjoying Mickey Sabbath's lust. I didn't feel it. When I wrote The Plot Against America, I didn't feel fear. I discovered their fear. That's the difference."

Yet the great mystery of Roth's career — that late, great renaissance of the mid-1990s — did not just drop out of nowhere. By the end of the 1980s, Roth'sfiction had become a gamey hall of mirrors, in which alter egos and alter alter egos spooked each other with their own reflections, like Siamese fighting fish. "Where an Updike novel, for example, seems to drop out of its own special cloud, the latest Roth novel seems like a response to the reaction to the previous Roth," wrote the critic James Wolcott. Then, in 1987, a minor knee operation led to a prescription for the painkiller Halcion, addiction to which brought on "an extreme depression that carried me right to the edge of emotional and mental dissolution", Roth later wrote in The Facts, a slim volume of autobiography that confessed to an "exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions... fictional selflegends".

He appeared to have punched a hole through the thin membranous wall of his own fiction. He gave an account of it in 1993's Operation Shylock, another run around the rabbit warren featuring multipleRoths, but after that book met with a lukewarm critical reception — "There is too much of Philip Roth in this book," John Updike commented in The New Yorker — Roth fell into a second depression, this one exacerbated by a recurrence of his spinal injury and the break-up of his second marriage. It landed him briefly in hospital, and, when he left, his marriage was over. He hunkered down in his house in Connecticut, eating out of cans while he wrote Sabbath's Theater, an almost satanically vital book loosing all that was most lusty and disreputable in his fiction — a burp from the reptile brain of Mickey Sabbath, a 64-year-old puppeteer caught between multiple mistresses and the grave.

Roth describes the writing of that book as the happiest he has ever been. "It was another performance," he says, "my delight in Mickey Sabbath. I can be as enraged as any anybody else, but not very often. It was about my joy with Sabbath's rage. That's what produces that effervescence. That's what produces that joy."

"It seems more than a performance," I say. "It reads like the work of a man who has been freed."

"That's very true — I got rid of my wife," he answers, a smile on his lips. "Everything that happened was from being freed from my wife. I wrote Sabbath's Theater, I wrote American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, I wrote about four or five books... Free at last. Free at last."

There is something aweinspiring, but also a little frightening, about the story of Roth's life and the victory it represents of personal integrity over all the blandishments and contentments that seem to make life liveable for the rest of us. "I never wanted a family," he insists. "I haven't made any sacrifices. A long career asks a lot of you, but I haven't sacrificed anything." He has won just about every literary award under the sun, some of them twice: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner and the National Medal of Arts, wife, Claire divorced in 1995 pinned to his chest by President Clinton, no less. When I ask him if he feels satisfaction over his career, he thinks long and hard before answering. "I've followed things through to the end," he says finally. "I've followed a lot of books that were difficult to write through to the end. That's where the pride is."

He finished Nemesis 13 months ago. Ordinarily, the period between books is a fraught one for him, spent racked with anxiety that he's not going to be able to step back into the ring, but he has been able to step away with ease this time. He has spent the past summer going back through the many boxes of correspondence, photographs and effects that have accumulated in the 31 years he's been in the house. Originally, he was looking for ideas, but when none came, it turned into "an exercise in recollection", as he puts it, sounding like a character in a Beckett play.

"It's like a Beckett play in that it often feels pointless," he says, laughing. "I don't think any writing is going to come of it. Ordinarily, I would be very unhappy about that, but for some reason I am not this time. I've written about almost everything I know. It may be that there's something I've not considered that will occur to me, but for the moment... I don't feel pursued."

"Pursued by what?" "The writing furies," he says with a smile.

Before I go, he offers to walk me around his garden, a large, rolling lawn ringed by trees, their leaves rustling in the wind. "That maple is over 200 years old," he says, pointing proudly to one of them. I ask him if he is worried about dying halfway through a book.

"A lot of writers feel that. I've always thought that you couldn't die midway through a book. It supplies you with life energy."

"And what if Nemesis turns out to be your last book?" "I suppose there is always that possibility," he says calmly. "I've lived with that possibility with every book I've written in the past 30 years."

"And if it were?" "I might want to put a gun to my head. I would hope not. If this were really the end, which will have to come eventually, I would hope that I could learn to take it easy. The furies pursued me, and I pursued them. It would be nice to get the hell out of the way!"

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