Born – March 19, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey
Philip Milton Roth is an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960’s National Book Award), cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy’s Complaint, and has continued to write critically-acclaimed works, many of which feature his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. In May 2011, he won the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction.
Articles about the author:
By DANIEL SANDSTROM MARCH 2, 2014
“Sabbath’s Theater” is now being translated into Swedish, almost 20 years after its original release. How would you describe this book to readers who have not yet read it or heard of it, and how would you describe the main character, the unforgettable Mickey Sabbath?The following is an interview Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at Svenska Dagbladet, for publication in Swedish translation in that newspaper and in its original English in the Book Review.
“Sabbath’s Theater” takes as its epigraph a line of the aged Prospero’s in Act 5 of “The Tempest.” “Every third thought,” says Prospero, “shall be my grave.”
I could have called the book “Death and the Art of Dying.” It is a book in which breakdown is rampant, suicide is rampant, hatred is rampant, lust is rampant. Where disobedience is rampant. Where death is rampant.
Mickey Sabbath doesn’t live with his back turned to death the way normal people like us do. No one could have concurred more heartily with the judgment of Franz Kafka than would Sabbath, when Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”
His book is death-haunted — there is Sabbath’s great grief about the death of others and a great gaiety about his own. There is leaping with delight, there is also leaping with despair. Sabbath learns to mistrust life when his adored older brother is killed in World War II. It is Morty’s death that determines how Sabbath will live. The death of Morty sets the gold standard for grief. Loss governs Sabbath’s world.
Sabbath is anything but the perfect external man. His is, rather, the instinctual turbulence of the man beneath the man. His repellent way of living — he is a kiln of antagonism, unable and unwilling to hide anything and, with his raging, satirizing nature, mocking everything, living beyond the limits of discretion and taste and blaspheming against the decent — this repellent way of living is his uniquely Sabbathian response to a place where nothing keeps its promise and everything is perishable. His repellent way of living, a life of unalterable contention, is the best preparation he knows of for death. In his mischief he finds his truth.
Lastly, this Sabbath is a jokester like Hamlet, who winks at the genre of tragedy by cracking jokes as Sabbath winks at the genre of comedy by planning suicide. There is loss, death, dying, decay, grief — and laughter, ungovernable laughter. Pursued by death, Sabbath is followed everywhere by laughter.
I know that you have reread all of your books recently. What was your verdict? And what was your opinion of “Sabbath’s Theater” while reading it again?
When I decided to stop writing about five years ago I did, as you say, sit down to reread the 31 books I’d published between 1959 and 2010. I wanted to see whether I’d wasted my time. You never can be sure, you know.
My conclusion, after I’d finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe Louis. He was world heavyweight champion from the time I was 4 until I was 16. He had been born in the Deep South, an impoverished black kid with no education to speak of, and even during the glory of the undefeated 12 years, when he defended his championship an astonishing 26 times, he stood aloof from language. So when he was asked upon his retirement about his long career, Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I could with what I had.”
In some quarters it is almost a cliché to mention the word “misogyny” in relation to your books. What, do you think, prompted this reaction initially, and what is your response to those who still try to label your work in that way?
Misogyny, a hatred of women, provides my work with neither a structure, a meaning, a motive, a message, a conviction, a perspective, or a guiding principle. This is contrary, say, to how another noxious form of psychopathic abhorrence — and misogyny’s equivalent in the sweeping inclusiveness of its pervasive malice — anti-Semitism, a hatred of Jews, provides all those essentials to “Mein Kampf.” My traducers propound my alleged malefaction as though I have spewed venom on women for half a century. But only a madman would go to the trouble of writing 31 books in order to affirm his hatred.
It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control: You are not what you think you are. You are what we think you are. You are what we choose for you to be. Well, welcome to the subjective human race. The imposition of a cause’s idea of reality on the writer’s idea of reality can only mistakenly be called “reading.” And in the case at hand, it is not necessarily a harmless amusement. In some quarters, “misogynist” is now a word used almost as laxly as was “Communist” by the McCarthyite right in the 1950s — and for very like the same purpose.
Yet every writer learns over a lifetime to be tolerant of the stupid inferences that are drawn from literature and the fantasies implausibly imposed upon it. As for the kind of writer I am? I am who I don’t pretend to be.
The men in your books are often misinterpreted. Some reviewers make the, I believe, misleading assumption that your male characters are some kind of heroes or role models; if you look at the male characters in your books, what traits do they share — what is their condition?
As I see it, my focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired. I have hardly been singing a paean to male superiority but rather representing manhood stumbling, constricted, humbled, devastated and brought down. I am not a utopian moralist. My intention is to present my fictional men not as they should be but vexed as men are.
The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.
It is the social struggle of the current moment on which a number of these men find themselves impaled. It isn’t sufficient, of course, to speak of “rage” or “betrayal” — rage and betrayal have a history, like everything else. The novel maps the ordeal of that history and, if it succeeds, by doing so probes the conscience of the society it depicts.
“The struggle with writing is over” is a recent quote. Could you describe that struggle, and also, tell us something about your life now when you are not writing?
Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.
Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.
You belong to an exceptional generation of postwar writers, who defined American literature for almost half a century: Bellow, Styron, Updike, Doctorow, DeLillo. What made this golden age happen and what made it great? Did you feel, in your active years, that these writers were competition or did you feel kinship — or both? And why were there so few female writers with equal success in that same period? Finally: What is your opinion of the state of contemporary American fiction now?
I agree that it’s been a good time for the novel in America, but I can’t say I know what accounts for it. Maybe it is the absence of certain things that somewhat accounts for it. The American novelist’s indifference to, if not contempt for, “critical” theory. Aesthetic freedom unhampered by all the high-and-mighty isms and their humorlessness. (Can you think of an ideology capable of corrective self-satire, let alone one that wouldn’t want to sink its teeth into an imagination on the loose?) Writing that is uncontaminated by political propaganda — or even political responsibility. The absence of any “school” of writing. In a place so vast, no single geographic center from which the writing originates. Anything but a homogeneous population, no basic national unity, no single national character, social calm utterly unknown, even the general obtuseness about literature, the inability of many citizens to read any of it with even minimal comprehension, confers a certain freedom. And surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddamn thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.
Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.
You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.
Do you feel that there is a preoccupation in Europe with American popular culture? And, if so, that this preoccupation has clouded the reception of serious American literary fiction in Europe?
The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy. It is no longer, as it was for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian superstate that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union. Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.
I cannot see what any of this has to do with serious American literary fiction, even if, as you suggest, “this preoccupation has [or may have] clouded the reception of serious American fiction in Europe.” You know, in Eastern Europe, the dissident writers used to say that “socialist realism,” the reigning Soviet aesthetic, consisted of praising the Party so that eventhey understood it. There is no such aesthetic for serious literary writers to conform to in America, certainly not the aesthetic of popular culture.
What has the aesthetic of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous variety as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Reynolds Price, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster, William Vollmann, Richard Stern, Alison Lurie, Flannery O’Connor, Paula Fox, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty (and I have by no means exhausted the list) or with serious younger writers as wonderfully gifted as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer (to name but a handful)?
You have been awarded almost every literary prize, except one. And it is no secret that your name is always mentioned when there is talk of the Nobel Prize in Literature — how does it feel to be an eternal candidate? Does it bother you, or do you laugh about it?
I wonder if I had called “Portnoy’s Complaint” “The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,” if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.
In Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “Roth Unbound,” there is an interesting chapter on your clandestine work with persecuted writers in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. If a young author — a Philip Roth born in, say, 1983 — were to engage in the global conflicts of 2014, which ones would he pick?
I don’t know how to answer that. I for one didn’t go to Prague with a mission. I wasn’t looking to “pick” a trouble spot. I was on a vacation and had gone to Prague looking for Kafka.
But the morning after I arrived, I happened to drop by my publishing house to introduce myself. I was led into a conference room to share a glass of slivovitz with the editorial staff. Afterwards one of the editors asked me to lunch. At the restaurant, where her boss happened to be dining too, she told me quietly that all the people in that conference room were “swine,” beginning with the boss — party hacks hired to replace those editors who, four years earlier, had been fired because of their support for the reforms of the Prague Spring. I asked her about my translators, a husband-and-wife team, and that evening I had dinner with them. They too were now prevented from working, for the same reasons, and were living in political disgrace.
When I returned home, I found in New York a small group of Czech intellectuals who had fled Prague when the Russian tanks rolled in to put down the Prague Spring. By the time I returned to Russian-occupied Prague the following spring, I wasn’t vacationing. I was carrying with me a long list of people to see, the most endangered members of an enslaved nation, the proscribed writers for whom sadism, not socialism, was the state religion. The rest developed from that.
Yes, character is destiny, and yet everything is chance.
If you would interview yourself at this point in your life — there must be a question that you haven’t been asked, that would be obvious and important, but has been ignored by the journalists? What would that be?
Perversely enough, when you ask about a question that has been ignored by journalists, I think immediately of the question that any number of them cannot seem to ignore. The question goes something like this: “Do you still think such-and-such? Do you still believe so-and-so?” and then they quote something spoken not by me but by a character in a book of mine. If you won’t mind, may I use the occasion of your final question to say what is probably already clear to the readers of the literary pages of Svenska Dagbladet, if not to the ghosts of the journalists I am summoning up?
Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist.
The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make — their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized.
The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.
The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.