DATE April 11, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: In celebration of his 75th birthday, a collection of
excerpts of interviews with author Philip Roth
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Happy birthday, Philip Roth! OK, we know Roth's 75th birthday was actually
last month, but today is the big birthday tribute at Columbia University,
organized with the Library of America and the National Book Foundation. We're
going to do our part by listening back to highlights of our interviews with
Roth is one of the most honored living American writers. He's won all the big
prizes, starting with his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," which won a
National Book Award in 1960. At the end of that decade, he became a popular
success with "Portnoy's Complaint," a comic novel about a young Jewish man's
neuroses, sexual obsessions and problems with his parents. It was a new kind
of novel of Jewish identity.
We're going to start with the interview I recorded with Philip Roth in 2005,
after the Library of America published the first volume of his complete works.
That volume includes "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus."
Let's start with your first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," published in 1959.
Now, the novella in this book--it's like a novella, and short stories--the
novella in this book has so much to do with class. You know, the main
character comes from a very working-class family in Newark and he falls in
love with a suburban girl, a Jewish girl, who seems to be from another world
because, you know, she plays tennis, she wears cashmere sweaters, and it's a
world that, I think, in some ways, seems less intellectual, more materialistic
and shallow, but it's still so attractive to him.
Mr. PHILIP ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Could you talk about what encountering that class meant to you when
you were young?
Mr. ROTH: Well, I think...
GROSS: Because you came, like your character, from working-class Newark.
Mr. ROTH: Yeah. That's right. And not from the fancy suburbs. I think
when you're young, class comes as a great surprise. Most people, I guess,
begin to run into it, as a surprise, when they go to college. Because in
grade school and high school you're more--you're usually with boys and girls
who are from your own background. But when you go to college, there's a mix,
and you meet people who are either poorer than you were or richer than you
were, and I think one is very sensitive to that as a young person, someone,
say, between 17 and 22 or 23.
And I was not unusual in that respect. I, too, was stunned by wealth, or what
seemed to me to be wealth, and the differences between the way the wealthy
lived, or the privileged lived, and the way we had lived. Not that I ever
thought of my own background as poor. I think we were, actually, but I never
experienced it that way. The house--I had everything I ever wanted. And the
neighborhood was more or less homogeneous, but I think classes comes as a
great shock, yes.
GROSS: Perhaps the most talked about scenes from "Goodbye, Columbus" have to
do with the diaphragm. There's a scene in which the main character convinces
his girlfriend to buy a diaphragm, and she says, `Well, why do we need it?'
you know, `We're careful.' And he says, `For pleasure.' And it becomes clear
he's talking about for his pleasure because, you know, he'd prefer to use that
instead of a condom. And so they argue about this a little bit, but they
finally, you know, agree to go to the Margaret Sanger Clinic.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Which she's heard about through reading Mary McCarthy books.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
GROSS: And it seems very groundbreaking at this time to write about a sexual
relationship in this kind of candid way; to actually address that birth
control exists and that there are different kinds of birth controls and that
there are relative merits and disadvantages of each one. Did you feel like
this was, you know, outside of Mary McCarthy, entering new territory?
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. It just seemed to me to be what was; that this is all
takes place before Roe v. Wade, you know. There was no legalized abortion.
Young men and young women were extremely concerned with the young woman not
getting pregnant because there was no recourse. Recourse generally in those
years was marriage, especially between middle-class kids. So it was a crucial
issue because there was no remedy, short of something drastic, which was
either marriage for very young people or an illegal abortion, which was quite
terrifying, if one even knew how to go about doing it. Therefore, there's a
certain weight to that discussion that probably the book doesn't have any
longer for contemporary young people. But at the time it was truly a
monumental subject that arose between a young man and a young woman.
GROSS: Well, also, one of the first things she's asked, when she calls a
clinic, is, is she married? I mean, it was a really big step for a young
woman then who was not married to go to a clinic and admit that she was having
Mr. ROTH: Absolutely. It may seem like a small thing now, but it really
wasn't a small thing for Brenda, coming from her background, to do. It wasn't
a small thing for him to ask her to do. It wasn't a huge thing, but it has a
ripple on the surface there. Of course, they're undone by that because, as I
remember--correct me, Terry. You read this.
Mr. ROTH: I haven't.
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. ROTH: At the end--I'll try. If I...
GROSS: I'll grade you on your accuracy about your own book.
Mr. ROTH: Well, if I had written the book, I would have the diaphragm
discovered by the mother, who--because between the mother and the daughter in
that book there's a certain amount of hostility, ordinary sort of hostility
between mother and daughter at that age. But the mother--I believe it's the
mother--finds the diaphragm, and this precedes the sort of argument that ends
their affair. And Brenda feels that she can't--having been revealed--having
had her true sexual nature revealed to her family, she becomes timid, or you
might say she becomes sensible. I don't know. I don't interpret it myself.
And she says to him, `We can't go on with this,' and they don't.
So the diaphragm isn't introduced in the story just to have the requisite
diaphragm in the story. But the story turns on that decision and is resolved
because of that decision.
GROSS: And they both judge each other by how they've handled this.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: She judges him for bringing it up. He judges her for having left the
diaphragm at her parents' house while she goes to out-of-town college, left it
in a place where it could easily be discovered, and, in fact, it is
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And so, yeah--I mean, their whole personalities, their ways of looking
at each other, are all revealed through their behavior around the diaphragm.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Now you were pointing out that this was no small thing for an
unmarried couple in the late 1950s, when the novel is set. Was it a small
thing or a big thing for your publisher to have so much of the characters of
these two people revolve around birth control?
Mr. ROTH: No, not at all. It wasn't--you know, I wasn't Henry Miller. It
wasn't so taboo. But the moment had come where one could do this without
being alarmed. I wasn't offending the respectable, or I didn't think I was,
and nor did Houghton Mifflin think this. No, no, they behaved admirably and
like a good publisher.
GROSS: Let's move on to "Portnoy's Complaint," which is a book that so
defined you in the first part of your career. It was published in--was it
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm, yes, 1969.
GROSS: And the book is a novel, but it reads almost more like a really long
riff on the subject of a young man breaking away from an overprotective mother
and a kind of ineffectual father and becoming--you know, he was very absorbed,
if not obsessed, with his own sexuality. That's kind of generalizing much too
much and over-reducing...
Mr. ROTH: No, I would just add, Terry, that it's told in the form of a
monologue delivered to a psychoanalyst. And since sex is a central subject in
psychoanalysis, that's why they're talking about it. He's not in a bar or in
a classroom. So that's very important, where it takes place and to whom he's
GROSS: So what made you want to write it in that voice of, like, basically, a
long confession and complaint to a psychiatrist?
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Mm. Well, can I tell you a little bit of the history of
how the book was written?
Mr. ROTH: I think that'll answer...
Mr. ROTH: ...the question. In between 1960 and 1962, I was making a living
by teaching in the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City, and I had, among my
students, some Jewish students. And almost all of them--not all of them, but
almost all of them at one point would write a story in which there was an
overbearing mother and an ineffectual father and an angry daughter or son,
depending upon the sex of the writer. And I saw this thing repeated over and
over again, and I thought, `I'm face to face with folklore.' This is a
legend--a true legend perhaps, but the backgrounds of these people--and they
were probably people born in 1940; I wasn't much older than they were. The
backgrounds of these people all leading them to this legend, and I was
impressed by the story.
So I began by writing a short story which I called "A Jewish Patient Begins
His Analysis." And it was published in Esquire magazine. And what I'm trying
to get to is that there was not so much forethought in my writing this book,
nor did I know beforehand what the hell I was doing.
After I wrote that, I thought, `Go ahead. You've found something there.' What
had I found? That in talking to the invisible analyst, or at least using that
as the conceit, I had opened up my verbal floodgates, you know; that I could
go further. And not only that, but that the psychoanalytic session gave me
permission to speak freely of sex. At any rate, I wrote this story about a
character talking to his analyst about masturbating. And nobody wanted to
publish that, and--except a very unlikely magazine for me for that story,
which was a very elite journal called the Partisan Review.
And the response to that, which was tremendous, though it was a magazine with
a circulation of no more than 2,000, I think, and I think I got $50 for
it--that prompted a tremendous response from people around me, people in New
York--I was living in New York at this time--who read it, and that was when I
was encouraged to go away with a book and say, `OK, you've got the
beginnings.' I had to rewrite bits of the first two chapters once they became
chapters rather than stories. But, `this is the way to go. You're free.'
Well, there's no two words that are more precious to a writer, I mean, than
GROSS: This book also became famous because of what it said about Jewish
middle-class life, or Jewish working-class life. Like, for instance, in
writing about his father, he writes, "He drank, of course, not whiskey, like a
goy, but mineral oil and milk of magnesia and chewed on Ex-Lax and ate
All-Bran morning and night. He suffered--did he suffer--from constipation."
And the sense of, you know, that--like, his father wasn't, like, macho,
like--you know, he didn't drink whiskey. He drank milk of magnesia. I mean,
that's one of the themes through the book, and the sense of, like, some things
are goyish and some things are Jewish.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And some of the things that were goyish, not Jewish, seem much more
desirable and exotic and romantic and manly and so on. And, of course, you
took a lot of heat for that, you know, from Jewish critics and Jewish readers
who felt, you know, that you were insulting your own Jewishness and other
people's, too. Were you prepared for that, and was that something that you
were concerned about at all in writing it, or did you just want to like get
that voice right?
Mr. ROTH: Mm. With "Portnoy's Complaint," I can't say that I wasn't
prepared for something, because it was obviously, looked at in one way, an act
of provocation. But I just rode it out, really. It was very fierce. I was
called a lot of disgusting names that were false. I was called a Jew-hater.
I was called an anti-Semite. I was called a self-hater and so on. This was
offensive to me. The people who made those comments remain offensive to me.
I think I was talking about something that was, and which was this kind of
rage existed. This kind of defiance existed--this kind of anguish, by the
way. I think one thing that's in the book that must be noted is the anguish
of this character. This comedy is a form of suffering, and otherwise I
wouldn't be interested in it. It wasn't just a kind of stand-up routine or
anything like that.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Philip Roth from September,
2005. We'll continue our celebration of his 75th birthday with more interview
highlights after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's get back to our 2005 interview with Philip Roth. When we left
off, we were talking about the book that made him famous, "Portnoy's
Complaint." Part of what made it famous was his portrayal of an
overprotective, domineering Jewish mother.
Was your mother prepared for it? Because so many people must have assumed
that the mother in your book was based on your mother, and so many Jewish
mothers who didn't even read "Portnoy's Complaint" were offended by it. So
how did you mother...
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yes. I'm good at offending people who don't
read the book.
Mr. ROTH: That's probably the strongest thing I do. Well, my mother and
father were pretty good. I have to tell you, I had to prepare them--I felt I
had to prepare them--for the publication of this book. That was not something
I had done with the previous three books. But before "Portnoy's Complaint," I
did have to prepare them, I thought, because it became clear as publication
came upon us that it was going to be a big book.
And we had lunch, and I said, `Look, this book is going to come out and it
appears as though it's going to cause a sensation because it has the following
ingredients in it,' and I told them what they were. And I said, `And you are
going to be telephoned by journalists, and you have no experience with that,
and I want to prepare you for it. Number one is, you don't have to talk to
anybody. You can politely hang up or unpolitely hang up; they're just
journalists, you know. And they'll be very nice to you and they'll say
flattering things to try to get you to talk, but you don't have to.' I said,
`If you want to talk, that's fine with me, too. But I want you to know you
don't have to and that you won't give offense to anyone if you don't. And you
may be well-advised not to, but it's finally up to you.'
GROSS: So did they?
Mr. ROTH: Well, the story's better than that.
Mr. ROTH: Yeah. They left the restaurant, and I didn't know this till after
my mother died. My father and I were taking a walk--we took many walks after
that, and he was telling me lots of things. They got into the taxicab, and my
mother burst into tears. My father said, `What's the matter?' She said, `He
has delusions of grandeur.' And I've never known him to be like that. He's
not like that. But he's going to be terribly, terribly disappointed.' And my
father would say, `He knows what he's talking about,' or whatever. My mother
said, `No, I can't bear how hurt he's going to be when this doesn't happen.'
So that was her reaction.
In fact, what happened was that they did get numerous phone calls, and they
didn't--they were polite and didn't say anything. I think my mother said one
thing that was quoted by The New York Times. She just found it very difficult
to hang up on The New York Times, you know. It's really quite easy, but she
didn't know that. And she, in response to the question, the needling question
about Jewish mothers and herself, she said--it was worthy of Pascal, really.
She said, "All mothers are Jewish mothers." That shut them up. So she was
quoted in The New York Times as saying that. And I think there are many
Christian mothers around America who may have taken real exception to that.
GROSS: So I imagine that when she realized that this wasn't delusions of
grandeur, that the book was not only very noticed, it was a huge best
Mr. ROTH: Right.
GROSS: ...she must have been very, very proud?
Mr. ROTH: Oh, they were, except they took a certain amount of crap from
their friends about me and what a bad boy I was.
Mr. ROTH: And we had to have a second lunch about--we had a series of
lunches, and we had a second lunch about in which I said, `When they say to
you that he's--"How could he write this stuff?"--say to them, "You don't know
how bad it is."' I said, `Don't defend me. Don't defend, because it's a
losing game.' I said, `Say "You don't know what we've been through with this
boy. It's been a nightmare. Now everybody knows, thank God," and so on.'
Well, they didn't do it, but they did--you know, people were anxious to needle
them and--not everyone, needless to say.
So the answer is that, yes, they were very proud; they were also confused.
They were not literary people, by any means. They're weren't stupid, but
literature wasn't part of their lives. They were--so they were confused. And
when authority figures in their lives like rabbis and so on charged their son
with being an anti-Semite, they didn't know what to make of it. And my mother
did ask me--I put this line into the ghost writer, in fact, where the mother
says that--she said to me, `Philip, are you anti-Semitic?' And I said, `Ma,
what do you think?' `No!' I said, `OK, you got it. You know, there it is.'
GROSS: Philip Roth recorded in 2005, after the first volume of his complete
works was published by the Library of America. We'll hear more from Roth in
the second half of the show. Today is the day of his 75th birthday tribute at
Columbia University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Novelist Philip Roth is getting
a 75th birthday tribute today at Columbia University. We're celebrating by
listening back to excerpts of our interviews with him. Our next excerpt was
recorded in May of 2000 after the publication of "The Human Stain," which
completed a trilogy of novels about the impact of political and social events
on the lives of individuals. Each of the three novels, the Pulitzer
Prize-winning "I Married a Communist," "American Pastoral" and "The Human
Stain," is narrated by Roth's fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.
Newark, New Jersey, plays a big part in your trilogy. You grew up in Newark.
What was your immediate neighborhood, your immediately culture like when you
were growing up and...
Mr. ROTH: Mm. Well, I was born in '33, and so I guess by about '43 my eyes
were open. And the war was on, World War II, and that was an overwhelming
experience, though, needless to say, the war was not fought here. But the
whole country was at war, and the mood of the country was determined totally
by the war. And I felt that mood in our neighborhood, as everywhere else. My
neighborhood was really a kind of Jewish village, I would say, in a city that
was made up of ethnic villages, though the word "ethnic" did not exist. We
never thought of ourselves that way. I think ethic is a word that comes out
of the '60s, really. I mean, it existed, but it was not a word that we used
to describe ourselves.
And so I never thought of myself, by the way, as an American Jew. I think of
myself as an American or a Jewish American. These terms are utterly foreign
to me. I never felt anything but amused by the designation. But you can call
me a Newark Jew if you want to. There were Newark Italians. There were
Newark Poles. There were Newark Irish. I think, as kids, we experience these
differences locally, in the city, because we lived in neighborhoods that were
defined in that way. And there was a certain amount of xenophobia. There was
a certain amount of hostility. But once one left the neighborhood, one wasn't
a Newark Jew, one was an American.
So it was a Jewish neighborhood, a Jewish grade school, a Jewish high school.
Jews, Jews, Jews, Jews everywhere. Strangely, I was thinking the other day,
but I never saw a Jew in a skullcap on the street in my life growing up.
Someone asked me about that recently, did I wear a skullcap as a kid. I said,
`Outrageous. I wouldn't have thought of such a thing,' nor did anybody else
in the neighborhood. So here was this 100 percent Jewish neighborhood, and I
didn't know a single soul to wear a skullcap, which tells you a lot about the
fierce secularization, the fierce Americanization of my generation and my
GROSS: Now, in some of your books, your surrogate, your alter ego, is the
character of Nathan Zuckerman, and Zuckerman is now 67 in the latest novel.
Is that right? Sixty-five?
Mr. ROTH: In this book, I think he's something like 64 or 65.
GROSS: Yeah. And he's now living as a recluse, living alone in the country
and writing. He's had prostate cancer, and the surgery resulted in nerve
damage that left him incontinent and unable to have sex. I find it so
interesting, you know, at the beginning of your career with "Portnoy's
Complaint," you became an author who became famous for writing a character who
was so involved with sexual imagination, and now you've followed a different
character, the character of Zuckerman, to a point in his life where he is
physiologically unable to have sex and emotionally perhaps not that sorry
about it. He's tired of what you describe as that erotic professionalism.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And I'm wondering why you--I realize there might not be an answer to
this, but why you wanted to put him in that predicament, why you wanted to
explore that kind of physiologically-enforced celibacy?
Mr. ROTH: Right. When I was beginning this book--or not this book, I should
actually say go back to "American Pastoral" because the history of Zuckerman's
sexual retirement, as it were, begins in "American Pastoral." At about the
time I was writing that book, however many years ago it was, five or six,
there seemed to be to me a kind of epidemic of prostate cancer in the circle
of men who I was close to, and so I knew what men went through when they went
through this. And I suppose it's not too remote from what women go through,
with various gynecological surgeries or with a mastectomy. It's a tremendous
blow. It's a very, very difficult operation physically, forget the
consequences of it.
And I saw this being enacted in numerous places, and I thought, `Well, this
is--I've reached an age where this is now a kind of phenomenon of my
generation,' and so I decided to take it seriously. You know, it isn't the
plague, but it did seem to me a powerful blight on the sexuality and virility,
needless to say, of these men I know. It's a very mysterious and enigmatic
business, sexual activity. And that's why I've been interested in the sexual
lives of men. I'm not out to titillate anybody. I'm not out to try to figure
out what it is and to represent it as best I can.
Philip Roth, recorded in May of 2000. We'll continue our 75th birthday
tribute with an excerpt of our 2006 interview with him after a break. This is
GROSS: Our next interview excerpt with Philip Roth was recorded in 2006,
after the publication of his novel "Everyman." It begins at a grave in a
run-down cemetery in New Jersey, where the main character is about to be
buried near his parents' graves. The novel ends with the character's death in
his 70s. In between those pages, we're told the story of his life through the
story of his slow physical decline.
Reviewing the book in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote, "Of all the
subjects that Philip Roth has tackled in his career--the Jewish family, sex,
American ideals, the betrayal of American ideals, political zealotry, personal
identity--none have proved as inexhaustible as the human body in its strength,
its frailty and its often ridiculous need."
The novel opens at a funeral service, where we learn a little bit about all
this character's connections to his family. He's buried where his parents are
buried, and the cemetery is run-down, you're right. Things have rotted and
toppled over. The gates are rusted, the locks are gone. There's been
vandalism. Now, in other books, you've written about, like, you know, the old
neighborhood being run-down, and this is kind of like the parallel. The old
cemetery is run-down.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: I wonder what your feelings are about cemeteries. Like, do you visit
like your parents' graves? Do you feel closer to the dead when you're at the
Mr. ROTH: Yes, I do visit the gravesite of my mother and father. And, yes,
I do feel closer to--if not to the dead, to their memories when I'm there.
I'm rather glad that my parents were buried in the ground in a box and not
cremated and their ashes scattered somewhere. It gives me a place to go. I
don't believe they're present. I know they're dead. But somehow, the place
has a significance. It focuses your thinking. It allows you to be alone and
uninterrupted, and you're thinking about them and your past with them and who
they were. And I don't do it more than once a year, but I do do it regularly,
and it does mean a great deal to me.
GROSS: So do you have like a plot picked out? Do you know what kind of
cemetery where you'd want to be buried?
Mr. ROTH: Where would it be easiest for you to visit my grave? And I'll
pick out a plot that's convenient, and we can continue this interview series
on into eternity.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. But do you want to be buried? I mean...
Mr. ROTH: In time, yes.
GROSS: I have this sense that like cemeteries in their own way are almost
outdated. You know, because people are so scattered all over the place
geographically, friends and family, and they're not tied together in a
physical community anymore. And cemeteries--I don't know, they seem like--you
need to like take care of the neighborhood. You know, you go in there, and
it's as if, like, you bought this home for somebody, and the neighborhood, is
it like, is it a nice neighborhood? Is the neighborhood being kept up? What
are the neighbors like? And it's just like a weird way sometimes of thinking
of the dead.
ROTH: Well, I feel differently. As recently as last February, I guess, I
visited the gravesite of my mother and father. And also buried there are
many, many members of my mother's family, my grandmother, my grandfather on
her side, their brothers and sisters--those are great aunts and great
uncles--one of my mother's sisters and so on. So I wander around, and I find,
to repeat what I said earlier, that my attention is focused, by virtue of
those gravestones and those dates that I see. They're very powerful, they're
very powerful, those dates you see on a gravestone. It's just four numbers
and a hyphen and four more numbers, but they pack a punch, you know.
And especially the older parts of the cemetery, I find quite interesting. In
fact, I write about that in the book. There's quite a bit of history in those
gravestones. You see how long people lived in a certain era. You see, as I
did, the bunching together of deaths in 1918. You realize it was the
influenza epidemic. You see the graves of children and even infants, which
you rarely see in our era, but they were more than plentiful, alas, in the
beginning of the 20th century. So I find cemeteries quite interesting, and
what isn't outdated?
GROSS: There was an article about you recently in The New York Times by Chip
McGrath, and there's a quote that you said to him that I really want to read
here. You said, "If you're lucky, your grandparents will die when you're,
say, in college. If you're lucky, your parents will live until you're
somewhere in your 50s or 60s. And your children will never die before you.
That's the deal. But in this contract, nothing is written about your friends.
So when they start dying, it's a gigantic shock."
When did that shock start happening to you?
Mr. ROTH: Hm. Well, probably some 25 years ago with friends who died
relatively young, but it's gathering momentum in recent years because usually
one's friends vary in age from maybe being 15 to 20 years older than you and
being 15 to 20 years younger than you. So the people I knew, say, when I was
in my 30s who were in their 50s are now people in their 90s or they're dead.
And those deaths begin to pile up, and the death of friends is a very, very
difficult thing to come to grips with. I think every--I'm not the first
person to notice this, by the way, there's a line in a Yeats poem where he's
speaking about some of the harsher experiences of old age, and he speaks of
the death of friends. So I think that it isn't so much when it began, because
sure, there's someone who unfortunately dies young, but when you reach your
60s and your 70s, then the winnowing out takes place.
GROSS: What are some of the things that strike you as emotionally different
about the death of friends than the death of family?
Mr. ROTH: Hm. Well, I think we could begin with what I said to Chip. We
all know that the scheme is grandparents go and then parents go, and then as I
said to him, one thing you left out, we don't die so--and then--but one's
children certainly never go before you. That's the fairy tale. The actuality
is that there's no rhyme nor reason to the dying.
But in my thinking, friends never figured in it. Your friends are your
friends for life, as it were. You're all in this thing together. You have a
kind of feeling for friends, unlike the feeling you have for family, and
you're quite astonished, I think, by the depth of the feeling when someone
dies. And also the re-estimation which happens when someone dies happens all
the time with friends, I think. I don't mean that you suddenly think, `Gosh,
he was a wonderful fellow, and I always thought he was a son of a bitch.' Not
that. Nothing as crude as that. But rather you suddenly see them clearly,
vividly, and it's very strong medicine.
GROSS: You know, in previous interviews, we've talked a lot about how you've
written about male sexuality over the years. And many of your characters have
had very active libidos. This character had a very active libido, and it kind
of led him out of a good marriage and into a bad one. And he still has a
sexual urge, but he doesn't have much of a sexual life. What was it like for
you to write about this character towards the end of life, kind of taking
account of what his sexual life had been like? And like the sexual mistakes
he'd made over the years, and what it's like to kind of leave that part of
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Hm. Well, painful, as I represent it, to leave that part
of life behind. You know, Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won the Nobel
Prize some 10 or 15 years ago, lived into his 90s. I think he only died a
year or two ago. Wrote some brilliant poems near the end of his life--he's a
man in his 90s and not entirely well--about his lust. There's an education in
reading those poems of Milosz that just because when you look at this
90-year-old man, you don't see necessarily the vessel that would carry lust,
it doesn't mean that the lust isn't still there. Or the great poems of Yeats
about being an old man, and the lust that's in him despite his incapacity. So
this isn't a subject that's a new one for contemplation by a writer or by
anyone who ages. I just wanted to turn my attention to it. It's part of the
subject. The subject after all is age and loss.
GROSS: Since your book is so much about mortality and one man's process of
slowly reaching death, I'm wondering if you believe in that expression "a good
death." Do you think that there's such a thing as a good death?
Mr. ROTH: What does that mean exactly?
GROSS: Well, I guess, I would think that it means--I mean, to me it means
probably not dying this really long, painful kind of death, but also kind of
facing it with some degree of, you know, acceptance, and--I don't know.
Mr. ROTH: Well, I don't know that I can answer that question. Each death is
Mr. ROTH: And each person suffers death differently. For some, it's
physically agonizing, but for some it's not physically agonizing. I'd be
hesitant about the adjective. There are different deaths, I would say, rather
than a good one or a bad one. I mean, of course, I can recognize if someone's
in great physical agony. That's not what one would choose. But as for the
second thing you talk about, which is accepting, oh, boy. That's asking a
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. ROTH: You're confronting--after all, one is confronting that which one
has feared all one's life. Think of all the things you've feared in life and
add them up and then multiple it by 1,000, and now you're confronting that.
So I wouldn't judge anyone's response to dying by words like--I know you
didn't suggest these words, but "courage" or "cowardice" or--I reserve
judgment on that. It's the hardest thing of all to face. Didn't Henry James
say when he was dying, "Here it is, the great thing"?
GROSS: Your main character dismisses religion as being superstition, as being
childish. Is there any part of you that ever wishes that you were a believer,
that you were like a man of faith and believed in some kind of, you know,
like, eternal spirit after death and believe...
Mr. ROTH: I have no desire to be irrational.
GROSS: But a lot of people say it would be, you know, like, well, it might be
irrational but it doesn't make it--like, rationality only goes so far in this
Mr. ROTH: If only it went further in this world.
GROSS: So there isn't any part of you at all that like wishes you could
Mr. ROTH: I have no taste for delusion.
GROSS: And was it always that way, that you never had a taste for...
Mr. ROTH: Delusion, yes.
GROSS: Your parents, did they believe?
Mr. ROTH: I don't know really. They deeply identified themselves as Jews
for historical, genealogical, social reasons and family reasons and community
reasons. They were powerfully identified as Jews. But theologically, I
wonder. I wonder, really. I don't know.
GROSS: Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ROTH: You're welcome.
GROSS: Philip Roth, recorded in 2006, after the publication of his novel
Today Columbia University is hosting a 75th birthday tribute to Roth. The
National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards and
co-presenter of today's event, has a tribute to Roth on its Web site. You'll
find a link on our Web site, where you can also download podcasts of our show.
That's freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: David Edelstein on the film "Flight of the Red Balloon"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The classic 1956 film "The Red Balloon" will be released on DVD for the first
time later this month as part of the Criterion Collection. By coincidence, a
new film inspired by the French original is playing in cities across the
country. "Flight of the Red Balloon" is directed by Hou Hsia-hsien, the
acclaimed 51-year-old Taiwanese filmmaker. The film is in French and stars
Juliet Binoche. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the past few years, we've seen many pointless
remakes of old movies, but what we haven't seen enough of are fictional films
that engage in a kind of dialogue with the movie past. I don't mean Quentin
Tarantino's amusing homages to the grindhouse ecstasies of his youth. I mean
something like Hou Hsia-hsien's new "Flight of the Red Balloon," a masterpiece
that uses as its springboard another masterpiece, Albert Lamorisse's 1956 "The
Red Balloon," that lyrical fantasy of a French boy followed around Paris by a
devoted balloon with a mind of its own.
Hou is a Taiwanese filmmaker who tells slow, meditative stories, often
centering on the act of storytelling itself, his narratives looping around in
time, yet his transitions so seamless you might mistakenly think you're
watching slice-of-life realism. Many critics regard him as one of the world's
greatest directors, yet his work has rarely been commercially distributed in
the US. And the only reason you have a shot at catching "Flight of the Red
Balloon" is that it's Hou's first film in another language and features an
international star, Juliet Binoche. Binoche plays Suzanne, the divorced
mother of a seven-year-old boy named Simon, played by Simon Iteanu.
The boy is adrift in the world, yet Hou doesn't rub your nose in his
loneliness. It takes a while to grasp that his only real connection, apart
from an older sister who lives abroad, is the red balloon that follows him
around. You even see it hovering outside the window of his chaos-ridden flat.
The balloon's movements are set to a plaintive piano score and have the
delicacy of Balinese puppetry. Its motion reinforces a feeling of life as a
series of currents and crosscurrents.
Suzanne runs a puppet theater and chants the accompanying narration, tales of
mythical characters who interact with gods and are transfigured. Yet her own
life is miserably untranscendant. We see her sprawled amid piles of paper,
wailing into her phone at a lover who's gone to Canada and shows no signs of
coming back. Even her peroxided hair seems clenched.
Binoche improvised her lines, reportedly fumbling her way along like her
character; and if you think you love her as an actress, you have to see her
here. She's barely controlled, yet at the height of her art. As she searches
through the mess for a lease agreement with an intrusive tenant, her son
practices piano off screen. Another director might hold on him, but Hou
reinforces the neglect by keeping him out of the frame altogether.
To this mix comes a new nanny, Song, played by Song Fang, a quiet, attentive
film student who, possibly inspired by the child in her care, decides to make
her own version of "The Red Balloon" and even shoots Simon in front of a
building with a huge balloon painted on its side.
There's something magical about Hou's transparency. He even has Song explain
to Suzanne how in her film she'll use a computer to remove the person
controlling the balloon, knowing the technology doesn't diminish our sense of
wonder. The red balloon of Hou's movie has the impishness of one of the many
meddlesome spirits in the films of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki,
who made "Spirited Away."
At the risk of overgeneralizing, "The Flight of the Red Balloon" brings a
classical Asian point of view to Lamorisse's original, a steadiness of the
camera's gaze as the characters' world falls apart. It's not a detached
perspective, it's merely helpless to intervene.
But the very presence of that camera--both Hou Hsiao-hsen's and the one held
by Song, the filmmaker within the film--is comforting. The camera, the
balloon both watch over the child. It's the transforming power of art that
makes you look to the sky and hope.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross, and this is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.