Breathing life into fiction
In 1960 Philip Roth won the National Book Award, America's prestigious literary prize, for his first book, Goodbye Columbus. Recently he was awarded the Man Booker International, a biennial prize for a body of work. In the half-century between, for his astonishing output of 53 books, Roth has also gathered in every one of the important American laurels, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Gold Medal in fiction, the National Medal of Arts, some of them more than once — it is hard to think that another prize will make much difference, or much impact.
"The first one did. Certainly. It plucked that book out of nowhere. After that, well, it's better to win them than lose them," Roth says.
We are sitting in Roth's study at his Connecticut home, a small, wooden cabin detached from the tall grey clapboard house built in 1790, where he has lived since 1972 — although the cold half of the year is now spent in Manhattan. A broad desk occupies most of the space and, right behind it a huge fireplace, empty now in summer, silently describes the winter weather here. There is a reclining chair and a comfortable leather couch — it is an unostentatious space perfectly adapted for long, solitary hours of work. Through the window are apple trees, an old barn, the huge branches of a 200-year-old ash tree creaking gently in the wind. I think of Swede Levov, the protagonist of Roth's 1997 novel American Pastoral, a Jewish boy from Newark who managed to move his family from the city streets into deep rural peace, and his feelings of astonishment that you could own a tree.
Roth, now 78, owns many trees. The acres surrounding his Connecticut house fold around the property protectively, bringing peace, privacy and deep silence; he has lived here alone since the end of his second marriage in 1995 and, without the banging of the builders repairing the ravages of last winter's bitter weather, it must get very quiet indeed. It is a world away, if only a couple of hours, from the furious turmoil of the city streets of Newark, where he grew up in the 1930s, the child of Jewish immigrants. Time and again, his fiction debates escape from those city streets — the immigrant's dream of success, of "owning a piece of America" and the dangers of leaving to live among the goyim, with their strange ways, their drink, and their golf and their prejudices.
Yet those mean streets live in his head and to them his fictional world returns again and again, a psychological and a literal location. Newark is to Roth as Rosebud was to Citizen Kane: His emotional touchstone, locus of his all-important ethnic identity and springboard for his lifelong questioning of the American condition. It was his friend and mentor Saul Bellow, he says, who showed him that he could work from the local, from what he knew: Bellow used Chicago in that way. "I think [in those books] I am presenting America to myself," Roth explains, "trying to make the moment come back to life and remember. And what I don't remember, I go back to Newark and look for. I look at old newspapers. I get pleasure from doing that."
His most recent book, Nemesis, published last year, is a return to Newark and for many commentators a triumphant return to high form after its more lacklustre predecessor, 2009's The Humbling. Nemesis is set in Newark during the Second World War amid a polio epidemic that savagely attacks the children of the poor. Fear and panic start to kick away life's fragile edifices and anti-Semitism raises its head.
"For me, the passing of time has provided subjects I never had before. Subjects I can now look at from a historical perspective. Like the anti-communist era in America. I lived through that, I was a boy, I didn't find a way to write about it until many years later. The same with the Vietnam war. I started to try to write the book that became American Pastoral back in the 1970s, when the war was just ending, but I couldn't do it. It took another 20 years. I wouldn't know what to write [about Iraq and Afghanistan, or 9/11]. It does take me 20 years to figure it out.
"That book, Nemesis, began when I didn't know what to write next and I made a list of events through which I'd lived and which I'd never examined in fiction, never presented in fiction. Polio was on the list and when I went back through the list I found I'd circled polio.
"The polio epidemic in 1944 did not exist. I knew one or two children who had the disease, I heard the stories, but no one close," he says.
It is such a potent metaphor for attack on the home front, especially during wartime, that it evokes American Pastoral's human terrorist, the adored daughter of a high-achieving family-turned-murderous, bomb-throwing war protester. But Roth is disinclined to talk in terms of metaphor. In a New Yorker interview, he indicated that allegory was a form he disliked and, during our conversation, he more than once says of a work we are discussing: "Well, it's about what it's about."
For a writer whose work has always played dark games with truth and illusion, with alter-egos and their doubles, with protagonists and narrators who both are and aren't their author, with phoney confessions, fake biography, false history, with the laying of deceptive trails through the paths of narrative, this is a pretty clear way of saying: "Just read the books."
That is what the writer — who is regularly described as "famously private" or "reclusive", yet might just be tired of questions — really does seem to want. As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended. Half a century of celebrity — since the publication of Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 brought him money and a turbulent kind of fame at the age of 36 — has made him a master of the polite no-go sign.
The conversation I had longed to have with him since I first read him many decades ago, a conversation about fiction itself, died an early death.
"I've stopped reading fiction. I don't read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don't have the same interest in fiction that I once did."
"I don't know. I wised up ... "
And with those three words he gave me a long look and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: That is what I want you to write down.