January 16, 2013

Philip Roth picks favorites


You know, we all know, the New York Times made sure you know, that Philip Roth has retired. But luckily for us, he has not yet retired from public life.

Roth recently spoke at a Television Critics Association panel for the PBS American Masters special “Philip Roth: Unmasked”. Tim Molloy at The Wrap writes that when asked which of his books he thought were the most well written, Roth chose Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral.

Of Sabbath’s Theatre he said,

“I think it’s got a lot of freedom in it. That’s what you’re looking for as a writer when you’re working. You’re looking for your own freedom. To lose your inhibition to delve deep into your memory and experiences and life and then to find the prose that will persuade the reader.”

And of American Pastoral,

“I wanted to write about a conventionally virtuous man. I was sick of Mickey Sabbath [from Sabbath’s Theatre] and I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum. I think the book worked, enabled me to write about the most powerful decade of my life, the ’60s, and the domestic turbulence of the ’60s, and I think I got a lot of that into the book.”

He also offered some lovely anecdotes about the time when Portnoy’s Complaint was about to come out. Given the book’s sexual content, he knew there would be some controversy and wanted to prepare his parents. Molloy says,

“[H]e took his parents to lunch to warn them. Roth said he spent two hours telling his parents how to prepare themselves for reporters. “I told them that it was not against the law to hang up on a journalist”… After his mother died, Roth said, he asked his father what his parents talked about as they went home from that lunch. “She said, ‘He has delusions of grandeur,'” he remembered his father saying. “‘He was never that type of boy. He’s going to have his heart broken because this is not going to happen.'”

Besides speaking about his own work, Roth was still very much a spokesman for American literature. According to David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, he even had a little (and well-deserved) backhand for the Nobel Prize committee.

“I ran with some very fast horses,” he said, talking about postwar American fiction, and contemporaries such as William Styron, E.L. Doctorow, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. “Now, the Nobel Prize committee doesn’t agree with me. They think we’re provincial. But I suspect they’re a little bit provincial.”

There was no sign that he will be coming out of retirement, however. When asked how retirement was going, Roth said,

“great so far. Every morning I get up, go to the kitchen, get a large glass of orange juice … After that, I go back to bed for half an hour. I’m doing fine without writing. Someone should have told me about this earlier.

So, it’s going well then.




Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.