Philip Roth talks about his work

Many critics and reviewers persist in writing about Roth rather than his fiction. Why this persistence after all these years?

If that’s so, it may have to do with the intensity with which my fiction has focused upon the self-revealing dilemmas of a single, central character whose biography, in certain obvious details, overlaps with mine, and who is then assumed ‘to be’ me.

The Ghost Writer was automatically described in the press as ‘autobiographical’ – which means about Roth’s personal history – because the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is an American-Jewish writer, my age, born in Newark, whose earliest writing elicits a protest from some Jewish readers. But as a matter of fact, that about constitutes the similarity between my history and Zuckerman’s in that book. The unsettling opposition from his father that young Zuckerman confronts, and that propels the moral plot of The Ghost Writer, I happen to have been spared; the intelligent, fatherly interest taken in his work by a renowned, older writer whose New England houseguest he’s lucky enough to be at 23, resembles no experience of mine starting out in the Fifties; nor have I ever met a woman to whom I have been romantically drawn because she resembled Anne Frank, or whom I mentally transformed into Anne Frank and endowed with her status in order to try to clear myself of Jewish charges of self-hatred and anti-semitism.

Though some readers may have trouble disentangling my life from Zuckerman’s, The Ghost Writer – along with the rest of Zuckerman Bound and The Counterlife – is imaginary biography, an invention stimulated by themes in my experience to which I’ve given considerable thought but the result of a writing process a long way from the methods, let alone the purposes, of autobiography. If an avowed autobiographer transformed his personal themes into a detailed narrative embodying a reality distinct and independent from his own day-to-day history, peopled with imaginary characters conversing in words he’d never heard spoken, given meaning by a sequence of events that had never taken place, we wouldn’t be surprised if he was charged with representing as his real life what was an outright lie.

May I quote John Updike? Asked about my Zuckerman books, he said to an interviewer: ‘Roth’s inventing what looks like a roman à clef but is not.’

But if your books are misread, other than by John Updike, isn’t that more or less the fate of most good writing? Don’t you expect to be misread?

That novelists serve readers in ways that they can’t anticipate or take into account while writing doesn’t come as news to someone who spent eight years with Zuckerman Bound. That’s the story told on nearly every one of its eight hundred pages, from the opening scene, when Nathan the budding writer enters Lonoff’s living-room seeking absolution from sins committed by his juvenilia against his family’s self-esteem, to its conclusion on the day that, as an established writer in his forties, he is forced to surrender to the Prague police the wholly harmless Yiddish stories that they’ve decided to impound as subversive.

The only reading resembling the ideal reading that a writer sometimes yearns for is the writer’s reading of himself. Every other reading is something of a surprise – to use your word, a ‘misreading’, if what’s meant isn’t reading that’s shallow and stupid but that’s fixed in its course by the reader’s background, ideology, sensibility etc.

To be misread in any way that bears thinking about, however, a writer has to be read as well. But those misreadings, conferred by skilful, cultivated, highly imaginative, widely-read misreaders, can be instructive, even when quite bizarre – witness Lawrence’s misreadings of American literature; or Freud’s, the all-time influential misreader of imaginative literature. So are those misreaders, the censors, influential, though for other reasons. And are the Soviet censors necessarily misreading, in Solzhenitsyn’s fiction, his political aims? Though censors would appear to be the most narrow-minded and perverse of all misreaders, at times they may be more discerning about the socially-injurious implications of a book than the most tolerantly open-minded audience.

Serious misreading has nothing to do with a text’s impenetrability – geniuses misread nursery rhymes, all that’s required is for the genius to have his own fish to fry.

In the light of this, what about an audience? Do you think you have one, and, if so, what does it mean to you?

I’ve had two audiences, a general audience and a Jewish audience. I have virtually no sense of my impact upon the general audience, nor do I really know who these people are. By a general audience I don’t refer, by the way, to anything vast. Despite the popularity of Portnoy’s Complaint, the number of Americans who have read, with any real attention, half of my books – as opposed to those who may have read one or two – can’t number more than fifty thousand, if that. I don’t think any more about them when I’m at work than they think about me when they’re at work. They’re as remote as the onlookers are to a chess-player concentrating on the board and his opponent’s game – I feel no more deprived or lonely than he does because people aren’t lined up around the block to discuss his every move. Yet an unknowable audience of fifty thousand judicious readers (or inventive misreaders) whose serious, silent attention I freely command is a great satisfaction. The enigmatic interchange between a silent book and a silent reader has struck me, ever since childhood, as a unique transaction, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what the public side of the novelist’s vocation has to come down to.

Counterbalancing a general audience has been a Jewish audience, affording me, really, the best of both worlds. With the Jewish audience I feel intensely their expectations, disdain, delight, criticism, their wounded self-love, their healthy curiosity – what I imagine the writer’s awareness of an audience is in the capital of a small country where culture is thought to mean as much as politics, where culture is politics, some little nation perpetually engaged in evaluating its purpose, contemplating its meaning, joking away its shame, and sensing itself imperilled, one way or another.

Why do you irritate Jews so much?

Do I any longer? Certainly ‘so much’ must be an exaggeration by now, though one that I’ve helped unintentionally to perpetuate because of the writer’s predicament in Zuckerman Bound. After 15 books I myself may have become much less irritating than the Zuckerman I’ve depicted, largely because the Jewish generation that didn’t go for me is by now less influential, and the rest are no longer ashamed, if they ever were, of how Jews behave in my fiction.

Because it was shame – theirs – that had a lot to do with that conflict. But now that everybody’s more confident about the right of Jews to have sexual thoughts and to be known to engage in authorised and unauthorised erotic practices, I think that stuff is over. On the whole, Jewish readers aren’t nearly so responsive to other people’s ideas (real and imaginary) of what constitutes socially acceptable Jewish behaviour, and don’t appear to be obsessively worried that damaging perceptions of them can be indelibly imprinted on the public mind through a work of fiction, and that these will set off an anti-semitic reaction. American Jews are less intimidated by Gentiles than they were when I began publishing in the Fifties; they are more sophisticated about anti-semitism and its causes, and altogether less hedged-in by suffocating concepts of normalcy.

This isn’t because they have been socially blinded by the illusory gains of assimilation but because they are not so preoccupied as they once were with the problematical nature of assimilation, and are justifiably less troubled by ethnic disparities in the new American society of the last fifteen years – a society created by a massive influx of over twenty million people far less assimilable than themselves, 85 per cent of them non-Europeans whose visible presence has re-established polygenesis as a glaring and unalterable fact of the national life. When the cream of Miami is the Cuban bourgeoisie, and the best students at MIT are Chinese, and not a candidate can stand before a Democratic Presidential convention without flashing his racial or ethnic credentials – when everybody sticks out and doesn’t seem to mind, perhaps Jews are less likely to worry too much about their sticking out; less likely, in fact, to stick out.

In addition to the shame I fomented there was a menace I was said to pose by confirming the beliefs of the committed Jew-hater and mobilising the anti-semitism latent in the Gentile population generally. Years ago, the eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Sholem, published an attack on Portnoy’s Complaint in an Israeli newspaper, predicting that not I but the Jews would pay the price for that book’s imprudence. I learned about Sholem’s article only recently in Israel – a university professor from Tel Aviv summarised Sholem’s argument for me and asked what I thought of it. I said that history had obviously proved Sholem wrong: more than fifteen years had passed since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint and not a single Jew had paid anything for the book other than the few dollars it cost in the bookstore. His reply? ‘Not yet,’ he said: ‘but the Gentiles will make use of it when the time is right.’

The Jews I still irritate, who angrily disapprove of me and my work, are for the most part like the Israeli professor: for them, the danger of abetting anti-semitism overrides nearly every other consideration.

Of course there must be many Jews as well as many Gentiles who don’t care for my books because they don’t think that I know how to write fiction. Nothing wrong with that. I’m pointing rather to a unique psychological or ideological orientation, a view of politics and history that had to make Portnoy’s Complaint anathema to a certain group of Jewish readers. Though the example of the Israeli professor might appear to suggest otherwise, this particular Jewish orientation, seems to me to be disappearing just because of the existence of Israel and its effect upon Jewish self-consciousness and self-confidence in America.

I’m not referring to the pride that may be inspired in American Jews by Israeli military victories or military might – it’s not images of Israel triumphant or naive notions of Israeli moral infallibility that have signalled to American Jews that they needn’t any longer be too tightly constrained by protective self-censorship, but just the opposite, their awareness of Israel as an openly discordant, divisive society with conflicting political goals and a self-questioning conscience, a Jewish society that makes no effort to conceal its imperfections from itself and that couldn’t conceal them from the world even if it wanted to. The tremendous publicity to which Israeli Jews are exposed – and to which they’re not unaddicted – has many causes, not all of them always benign, but certainly one effect of unashamed, aggressive Israeli self-divulging has been to lead American Jews to associate a whole spectrum of behaviour with which they themselves may have preferred not to be publicly identified, with people perceived as nothing if not Jews.

To move to a more general subject, do you think of fiction as a way of knowing the world or of changing the world?

As a way of knowing the world as it’s not otherwise known. Clearly a lot can be known about the world without the help of fiction, but nothing else engenders fiction’s kind of knowing because nothing else makes the world into fiction. What you know from Flaubert or Beckett or Dostoevsky is never a great deal more than you knew before about adultery or loneliness or murder – what you know is Madame Bovary, Molloy and Crime and Punishment. Fiction derives from the unique mode of scrutiny called imagination, and its wisdom is inseparable from the imagination itself. The intelligence of even the most intelligent novelist is often debased, and at the least distorted, when it’s isolated from the novel that embodies it; without ever intending to, it addresses the mind alone rather than suffusing a wider consciousness, and however much prestige it may be accorded as ‘thought’, ceases to be a way of knowing the world as it’s not otherwise known. Detached from the fiction, a novelist’s wisdom is often just mere talk.

Novels do influence action, shape opinion, alter conduct – a book can, of course, change somebody’s life – but that’s because of a choice made by the reader to use the fiction for purposes of his own (purposes that might appal the novelist) and not because the novel is incomplete without the reader taking action. The 1967 conference near Prague, organised by Czech intellectuals around themes in Kafka, turned out to be a political stepping-stone to Dubcek’s reform government and the Prague Spring of 1968: it was not, however, something that Kafka invited, could have foreseen, or would necessarily have enjoyed. Ways of knowing the world that he entitled The Trial and The Castle – which to most people still look like no way of knowing anything – were exploited by these Czech intellectuals as a means of organising a perception of their world persuasive enough to augment a political movement already under way to loosen the bonds of Soviet totalitarianism.

You sound as though you really prefer that fiction should change nothing.

Everything changes everything – nobody argues with that. My point is that whatever changes fiction may appear to inspire have usually to do with the agenda of the reader and not the writer.

There is something that writers do have the power to change and that they work to change every day, and that’s writing. A writer’s first responsibility is to the integrity of his own kind of discourse.

Do you feel that the importance, if not even the integrity, of fictional discourse, is threatened by rivals like film and television and the headlines, which propose entirely different ways of knowing the world? Haven’t the popular media all but usurped the scrutinising function that you attribute to the literary imagination?

Fiction which has a scrutinising function isn’t merely threatened, it’s been swept away in America as a serious way of knowing the world, almost as much within the country’s small cultural élite as among the tens of millions for whom television is the only source of knowing anything. Had I been away twenty years on a desert island, perhaps the change in intelligent society that would have most astonished me upon my return is the animated talk about second-rate movies by first-rate people which has almost displaced discussion of any such length or intensity about a book, second-rate, first-rate or tenth-rate. Talking about movies in the relaxed, impressionistic way that movies invite being talked about is not only the unliterate man’s literary life, it’s become the literary life of the literate as well. It appears to be easier for even the best-educated people to articulate how they know the world from a pictured story than for them to confidently tell you what they make of a narrative encoded in words – which goes some way to explaining why what the verbal narrative knows has itself become less knowable. It requires a kind of concentrated thought that has become either too difficult or too boring or both.

The popular media have indeed usurped literature’s scrutinising function – usurped it and trivialised it. The momentum of the American mass media is toward the trivialisation of everything, a process presided over and munificently abetted during the last six years by the Great Trivialiser himself. The trivialisation of everything is of no less importance for Americans than their repression is for the Eastern Europeans, and if the problem does not seem to have achieved the same notoriety at the PEN club as political repression, it’s because it flows out of political freedom. The threat to a civilised America isn’t the censorship of this or that book in some atypical school district somewhere; it’s not the Government’s attempt to suppress or falsify this or that piece of information; it’s the super-abundance of information, the circuits burgeoning with information – it’s the censorship of nothing. The trivialisation of everything results from exactly what they do not have in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union – the freedom to say anything and to sell anything however one chooses.

There are now writers in the West tempted to think that it might really be better for their work if they were oppressed in Moscow or Warsaw rather than twittering away free as the birds in London, New York or Paris. There’s a perverse undercurrent of persecution-envy around, an envy of oppression and the compression of freedom. It’s as though without an authoritarian environment imaginative possibilities are curtailed and one’s literary seriousness is open to question. Well, unfortunately for writers who may be afflicted with such longings, the intellectual situation for free-thinking Americans in no telling way mirrors, parallels or resembles what is horrifying for thoughtful people in the Soviet orbit. There is, however, a looming American menace that evokes its own forms of deprivation and suffering, and that’s the creeping trivialisation of everything in a society where freedom of expression is anything but compressed.

The Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who now lives in Toronto, has said: ‘To be a bad writer in Eastern Europe, you really have to be bad.’ He means that in those countries the political origins of their suffering are plainly visible in everyday life and the predicament is constantly staring them in the face; personal misfortune is inevitably coloured by politics and history, and no individual drama is seemingly without social implications. What Skvorecky wryly suggests is that there is almost a chemical affinity between the consequences of oppression and the genre of the novel; what I’m saying is that in the unlikely, less graspable consequences of our unprecedented Western freedom, there may well be a subject for imaginative scrutiny of no less gravity, even if it doesn’t light up and flash ‘Serious! Significant!’ and ‘Suffering! Suffering!’ in everybody’s face. Our society doesn’t lack for imaginative possibilities because it isn’t plagued by the secret police. That it isn’t always as easy to be interesting in our part of the world as it is in Skvorecky’s occupied country may only mean that to be a good writer in the West and of the West, you have to be very, very good.

Was it not a problem for your generation of writers to establish the seriousness of your fiction without resorting to or falling back upon the established conventions of seriousness, be they the realism of James or the modernism of Joyce?

That’s a problem for every generation. Ambitious young writers are always tempted to imitate those verified by authority; the influence of an established writer upon a beginning writer has almost entirely to do with the search for credentials. However, finding a voice and a subject of one’s own entails making fiction that may well prompt the writer’s first readers to think, ‘But he can’t be serious,’ as opposed to ‘Ah, this is very serious indeed.’ The lesson of modernism isn’t encapsulated in a technique that’s ‘Joycean’ or a vision that’s ‘Kafkaesque’ – it originates in the revolutionary sense of seriousness that’s exemplified in the fiction of Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Céline – even of Proust – fiction which to an unknowing reader probably bears the earmarks less of seriousness than of high eccentricity and antic obsession. By now the methods of these outlandish writers have themselves become the conventions of seriousness, but that in no way dilutes their message, which isn’t ‘Make it new,’ but ‘make it serious in the least likely way.’

Has the ‘least likely way’ for you been your kind of comedy?

Comedy for me has been the most likely way. I could do it no other way, though it did require time to work up confidence to take my instinct for comedy seriously, to let it contend with my earnest sobriety and finally take charge. It’s not that I don’t trust my uncomic side or that I don’t have one: it’s that the uncomic side more or less resembles everyone else’s, and a novelist’s qualities have to have their own distinctive force. Through the expressive gradations of comedy I can best imagine what I know.

Yet isn’t Zuckerman, in ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, afraid that he is not ‘serious’ enough, afraid that for all his physical ailments he is not ‘suffering’ sufficiently? Isn’t that why he wants to enrol in medical school, and, in ‘The Prague Orgy’, travels to Eastern Europe?

Yes. His comic predicament results from the repeated attempts to escape his comic predicament. Comedy is what Zuckerman is bound by – what’s laughable in Zuckerman Bound is his insatiable desire to be a serious man taken seriously by all the other serious men like his father and his brother and Milton Appel. A stage direction that appears in The Prague Orgy could easily have been the trilogy’s title: Enter Zuckerman, a serious person. Coming to terms with the profane realities of what he had assumed to be one of the world’s leading sacred professions is for him a terrific ordeal – his superseriousness is what the comedy’s about.

Zuckerman Bound opens with a pilgrimage to the patron saint of seriousness, E.I. Lonoff; it ends, as you point out, at the shrine of suffering, Kafka’s occupied Prague. Imagining himself married to Anne Frank is the earliest escape that he attempts to contrive from the unseriousness that challenges his youthful illusions about a dignified role in the world. Judge Leopold Wapter, Alvin Pepler, the Czech secret police, a crippling and unexplained pain in the neck – all are representatives of impious life irreverently encroaching upon that seriousness he had once believed inherent to his high calling. But what most successfully subverts the high calling’s esteem is the irreverent nature of his sizable talent for depicting impious life: it’s Zuckerman who gives his dignity the most trouble.

The dénouement of the trilogy begins midway through the third volume, when, on the way to Chicago to become a doctor – for those American Jews who most disapprove of him, the embodiment of professional seriousness – Zuckerman adopts the disguise of a pornographer and, abandoning whatever claim he believes he still has to be taken seriously, transforms himself into a vessel of the profane (in every sense of the word). Well, it’s a long way from pretending to be the husband of Anne Frank in E.I. Lonoff’s sanctum sanctorum, to proclaiming himself a vice king, at one with the polluted, as publisher of Lickety Split. Like a good modernist writer, Zuckerman the pornographer imagines at last the least likely way to dramatise the serious lesson taught him by the chastening ordeal of unhallowed existence.

I realise that this sort of ordeal, especially as suffered by the high-minded, looks a little like an old, obsessional theme if you think of Gabe Wallach in Letting go or of David Kepesh in The Breast and The Professor of Desire. The ordeal of an unhallowed existence is really what Portnoy’s complaining about, too.

Are you complaining about it – is that why it’s an old, obsessional theme?

Obsessional themes evolve from astonishment as much as from enduring grievance – a writer is not so much beset by the theme as by his naivety in the face of it. The novelist suffers from serious ignorance of his obsessional theme. He lays siege to it time and again because the obsessional theme is the one he least understands – he knows it so well that he knows how little he knows.

My answer to the question is no: no complaint from me about unhallowed existence – it’s all you get and I’m not so refined as to feel defiled by it. Of course you come here to be insulted. It’s what they put on the tombstones – He Came Here To Be Insulted, carved in letters three inches deep. Lowly life, however, so long as it doesn’t tumble over into misery and horror, can still be entertaining, and, for all its grittiness, strangely uplifting. As young Zuckerman discovers in The Ghost Writer, what makes this a species of moving creatures isn’t the high purposes but the humble needs and cravings. Yet there are high purposes, and inappropriate as they may be to an unhallowed existence, they have been provided for some odd reason and just won’t seem to go away. My obsessional theme is calculating what it costs a creature of humble needs and cravings to be saddled with a high purpose as well.

We realise that you are reluctant to appear to be explicating a book prior to its publication. However, without ‘explaining’ it away, can you comment generally on the unusual form for ‘The Counterlife’, which is certainly unlike anything you’ve done before?

Normally there is a contract between the author and the reader that only gets torn up at the end of the book. In this book the contract gets torn up at the end of each chapter: a character who is dead and buried is suddenly alive, a character who is assumed to be alive is in fact dead, and so on. This is not the ordinary Aristotelian narrative that readers are accustomed to reading or that I am accustomed to writing. It isn’t that it lacks a beginning, middle and ending: there are too many beginnings, middles and endings. It is a book where you never get to the bottom of things – rather than concluding with all the questions answered, at the end everything is suddenly open to question. Because one’s original reading is always being challenged and the book progressively undermines its own fictional assumptions, the reader is constantly cannibalising his own reactions.

In many ways it’s everything that people don’t want in a novel. Primarily what they want is a story in which they can be made to believe: otherwise they don’t want to be bothered. They agree, in accordance with the standard author-reader contract, to believe in the story they are being told – and then in The Counterlife they are being told a contradictory story. ‘I’m interested in what’s going on,’ says the reader: ‘only now, suddenly, there are two things going on, three things going on. Which is real and which is false? Which are you asking me to believe in? Why do you bother me like this!’

Which is real and which is false? All are equally real or equally false.

Which are you asking me to believe in? All/none.

Why do you bother me like this? In part, because there’s nothing unusual about somebody changing his story. People constantly change their story – you run into that everyday. ‘But last time you told me –’ ‘Well, that was last time – this is this time. What happened was ... ’ There is nothing ‘modernist’ or ‘post-modernist’ or the least bit avant-garde about the technique. We are all writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to the truth.

Why do I bother you like this? Because life doesn’t necessarily have a course, a simple sequence, a predictable pattern. The bother-some form is intended to dramatise that very obvious fact. The narratives are all awry but they have a unity: it is expressed in the title – the idea of a counterlife, counterlives, counterliving. Life, like the novelist, has a powerful transforming urge.

Philip Roth was interviewed by Asher Milbauer and Donald Watson, professor of English at Florida International University.