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Deepen Your Appreciation of P.D. James.

Book Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new autobiography by P.D. James.

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Other segments from the episode on May 8, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 8, 2000: Interview with Philip Roth; Review P.D. James's memoir "Time to Be In Earnest."

Transcript

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Interview: Philip Roth, author, talks about his new book
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Novelist Philip Roth first became known in the late '50s and '60s for writing
a new kind of story of Jewish identity. In books like "Portnoy's Complaint"
and "Goodbye Columbus," he wrote comically about young Jewish men who were
alienated from their culture and families. He just completed a trilogy that
not only explores personal identity but looks at how larger political and
cultural events affect the lives of individuals. "American Pastoral," which
won a Pulitzer Prize, is about the father of a radical activist opposed to the
war in Vietnam. "I Married A Communist" is set in the McCarthy era.

The new novel, "The Human Stain," is about life in the age of political
correctness. The main character, Coleman Silk, is a classics professor at a
small liberal arts college who was forced out after using a word that is
misinterpreted as a racial slur. A little later in the story, we learn his
secret, which reveals the paradox of his situation. Although everyone
believes he is Jewish, he is really a light-skinned African-American who
pretended to be Jewish after deciding to pass as a white man. I asked Roth to
read a scene in which Silk remembers the emotional impact of telling his
mother that he was going to pass and disassociate himself from his black
family.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Author): `He was murdering her. "You don't have to murder
your father. The world will do that for you. There are plenty of forces out
to get your father." The world will take care of him, as it had, indeed,
taken care of Mr. Silk. Who there is to murder is the mother, and that's
what he saw he was doing to her, the boy who'd been loved as he'd been loved
by this woman, murdering her on behalf of his exhilarating notion of freedom.
It would have been much easier without her, but only through this test can he
be the man he has chosen to be, unalterably separated from what he was handed
at birth, free to struggle at being free like any human being would wish to be
free. To get that from life, the alternate destiny on one's own terms, he
must do what must be done. Don't most people want to walk out of the lives
they've been handed? But they don't. And that's what makes them them and
this was what was making him him. Throw the punch, do the damage and forever
lock the door.'

`You can't do this to a wonderful mother who loves you unconditionally and has
made you happy. You can't inflict this pain and then think you can go back on
it. It's so awful that all you can do is live with it. Once you've done a
thing like this, you have done so much violence, it can never be undone, which
is what Coleman wants.'

GROSS: That's Philip Roth reading from his new novel, "The Human Stain."
Most of your main characters have been Jewish, and some of them have felt kind
of choked by Jewish culture. The idea of writing a character who's
African-American trying to pass as Jewish--how did that come to you for the
novel?

Mr. ROTH: It's a long process, which is hard for me to recapitulate and it's
hard to remember--especially months after you've finished a book, it's hard to
remember all the strands that went into the inspiration. However it came to
me, I was certainly made nervous by the notion. I wasn't delighted to have
had this idea in the beginning.

GROSS: What was the problem?

Mr. ROTH: What do you think the problem was? I was going to write a book
about a black man; not only a black man, but I was going to write about a
black man who becomes a white man. It was a kind of daunting notion. But one
sits down and one applies oneself to it. But it turned out I wasn't as
ignorant as I thought I was, and after a while, I hit it--in fact, the very
scene I just read, the scene in which Coleman repudiates his mother, this
marvelous mother he's had--I think it was in writing that scene that I came to
grips with the man, and I'd say the reason I came to grips with him or how I
came to grips with him was because I ceased defending him. I let the
brutality of the act come through.

I, myself, as the writer, came to understand the brutality that such a choice
entailed, and I think I was able to dramatize fully, vividly, the nature of
that brutality by having a scene in which he repudiates his mother's love.
And the brutality registers on her, and he sees it registering on her right
before his eyes, so he's fully conscious, Coleman, of what he's doing. And as
much as this character, I think, has a kind of dignity, I think his dignity
arises from the fact that he's never deluded about the price others may pay
for what he's doing, and he faces as well the price that he pays. I suppose
his dignity or his integrity or even his heroism comes from his consciousness
of what he's doing.

GROSS: Now the character of Coleman Silk, the African-American professor
who's passing as white, is also a victim of political correctness. He calls
two students who have never come to class spooks. He says, `Does anyone know
these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?' And the two students who
have never come to class, it turns out, are African-American, which the
professor didn't know, and they, in turn, accuse him of racism, of having
referred to them with the racial slur of spooks. And as a result of this, he
ends up losing his job. Now one of the previous book in your trilogy, "I
Married A Communist," is about how lives are affected by McCarthyism. I'm
wondering if you see political correctness today as a kind of new McCarthyism,
as the new ideology of the day, similar to McCarthyism and how actions and
motives can often be misinterpreted, how group thinking can blow things out of
proportion, how a life can be ruined as a result?

Mr. ROTH: I think what joins those two political moments--the McCarthy
moment and the present moment--is what Hawthorne called in the "Scarlet
Letter" the persecuting spirit. My book is set in 1998, a great year for the
persecuting spirit if ever there was one. That was the year in which the
presidential impeachment took place and everything surrounding it. What
interested me about the inquisition on the college campus that does in Coleman
Silk was it seemed to me, the more I thought about it, an extension of the
general mood of the inquisition that had sort of begun to run wild in the
public life of the country. To be sure, that also was what was going on
during the McCarthy era, which I lived through as a college kid.

GROSS: In "I Married A Communist," I think it's Nathan Zuckerman who remarks
on the ideologies that fill people's heads and undermine their observation of
life--actually, it might be his teacher who says that--and I'm wondering if
you were ever caught up in an ideology, say, as a young man, if it ever seemed
like intellectual and romantic to you before you saw beyond the ideology?

Mr. ROTH: I don't think I'm an ideological type. I think it's hard for a
serious novelist who knows what novel writing is about to be an ideologue,
because writing fiction is founded in observation, and you can't observe
through the opaque presence of an ideology. The ideology observes for you.
So I think that writers, on the whole, tend to be anti-ideological and that,
to my mind, novels are assaults on generalizations, not endorsements of
generalizations.

GROSS: I think the answer to this is going to be `yes.' Have you made...

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. I'll say it right now, yes.

GROSS: Have you made observations as a novelist that you feel you were
punished or harshly criticized for writing or speaking?

Mr. ROTH: No, not at all. You have to be specific, I think.

GROSS: Well, I was thinking...

Mr. ROTH: You have something in mind.

GROSS: Well, I was thinking of your early literature with Portnoy when people
referred to you as a self-hating Jew and stuff.

Mr. ROTH: Oh, right, right. Oh, yes. Well, sure, I thought that those were
vicious, malicious and stupid epithets to attach to me, just contrary to all
the evidence. So, yeah, I felt assaulted by those kind of stupid
generalizations. But there's nothing you can do about just stupid
generalizations really. You can feel wounded by them, and you do, and you can
fight them, and you do, but in the end, the world grinds these things out the
way they make corn flakes at the Kellogg's plant, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel, "The Human Stain," completes
a trilogy.

You know, in some of your books, your surrogate, your alter ego, is the
character of Nathan Zuckerman, and in your latest book, "The Human Stain," the
professor seeks out Zuckerman so he can tell Zuckerman his story in the hopes
that Zuckerman will tell it and set the record straight. Zuckerman is also
the scribe for the other two books in your trilogy. Why use him as the
narrator? Why not, say, let the main character tell the story? Why not let
the professor in "The Human Stain" just tell his story? Or why not have,
like, the omniscient third person, unnamed narrator tell the story? What
narrative problems do you solve by having Zuckerman the narrator?

Mr. ROTH: Well, the biggest problem I solve is nothing stands between me and
my spontaneous reaction to the material. That is, it's not just a cunning,
strategic process, you know. What you're trying to do when you write is find
your freedom as a writer. It's what every writer's trying to find. Maximally
deploy your powers. And I just feel this is a way I can maximally deploy my
powers. By this point in my career, I should be able to spontaneously land on
that voice, which will give me the most verbal freedom, imaginative freedom,
and that's what Zuckerman does for me. There's something about his
intelligence that awakens mine.

GROSS: Zuckerman is now, I think, 67 in the latest novel. Is that right?
65?

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. There's a short
passage spoken by Zuckerman that I'd like you to read.

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm, sure.

GROSS: It's on page 36.

Mr. ROTH: OK. `I want to make clear that it wasn't impotence that led me
into a reclusive existence. To the contrary, I'd already been living and
writing for some 18 months in my two-room cabin up here in the Berkshires
when, following a routine physical exam, I received a preliminary diagnosis of
prostate cancer, and a month later, after the follow-up tests, went to Boston
for the prostatectomy. My point is that, by moving here, I had altered
deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul. And not because the
exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened
by time, but because I couldn't meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could
no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the
irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience or the toughness or the
shrewdness or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic
professionalism, to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory
meanings.

As a result, I was able to lessen a little my post-operative shock at the
prospect of permanent impotence by remembering that all the surgery had done
was to make me hold to a renunciation to which I had already voluntarily
submitted.'

GROSS: Philip Roth, 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 sex
and very creative approaches to masturbation, and now you 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.
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, the 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. So that's what interested me in it to
begin with. Shall we go on, Terry?

GROSS: Sure. Well, you know, I'm wondering, too, if, in following through on
that, it made you think in a different way about a certain type of virility, a
certain type of almost hyperactive male sexuality?

Mr. ROTH: Well, now we're going to get into who's going to measure what.
What's hyper...

GROSS: I'm the host of the show, I'll do the measuring.

Mr. ROTH: What's hyperactive down in Philadelphia, you know, may not be
hyperactive in Manhattan.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ROTH: Well, you know, I think that a blow of that kind to a virile
heterosexual man is brutal. It has nothing to do with hypersexual activity,
if I may say so, but to one's sexual identity and to one's sense of physical
strength and completeness. It's a serious business. As for hyperactivity--to
take seriously what I said jokingly a moment ago, what is hyperactivity?
There are no sexual norms that an adult can take seriously. Just think about
the history of norms and how cruel they now seem. Think of the norm of
heterosexuality as opposed to homosexuality. That was a norm, was it not?
And it's no longer a norm.

So we don't know what the norms are. 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.

GROSS: Now at the same time, you explore the opposite side, which is the
71-year-old professor in your novel that's taking Viagra and having an affair
with a much younger woman. And he thinks that he'd never be able to do this
if it wasn't for Viagra. So he's had this kind of sexual resurgence in his
70s.

Mr. ROTH: Well, the Viagra seems to be also a kind of phenomenon that a
novelist ought to take seriously and not just have gags about it on late-night
television. It's gigantic social change, gigantic moral changes in the
society. So like prostate cancer, the introduction of this drug in the last
five years seem to me to signal a gigantic change in the culture, and,
therefore, it seems to me that's what a novelist is interested in, which is
the deep influences that are at work in a country, which determine the mood of
the country, determine the lives of people.

GROSS: There's also a wonderful paragraph that I think I will read about the
vulnerability that you expose yourself to in sexual intimacy, and this is said
by the African-American professor who's passing as white. And for him, the
sexual act kind of exposes him to the possibility of discovery. He says, `You
take off your clothes and you're in bed with somebody, and that is indeed
where whatever you (technical difficulties), your particularity, whatever it
may be, however encrypted, is going to be found out. And that's what the
shyness is all about and what everybody fears. In that anarchic, crazy place,
how much of me is being seen, how much of me is being discovered?' I really
like that a lot.

Mr. ROTH: Good. Good. Well, I'm delighted that you do, and I'm delighted
that you read it. This book is about the things we've already talked about,
to be sure: the inquisitorial spirit, the persecuting spirit, what's called
political correctness, the "passing"--quote, unquote--of this man from one
culture to another. But I also wanted to investigate, represent the
transforming power of sex, the transforming power of the erotic. And there's
another passage--I don't think I could find it if I was searching for it now,
but when Zuckerman is recounting this sexual reawakening in this 71-year-old
man, and he says, `Who could be against it?'

GROSS: Philip Roth. His new novel is called "The Human Stain." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Philip Roth. His new
novel, "The Human Stain," completes his trilogy about the impact of political
and social events on the lives of individuals. "American Pastoral" is about
the father of a radical activist who opposes the war in Vietnam. "I Married A
Communist" is set in the McCarthy era. The new novel, "The Human Stain," is
about life in the age of political correctness. The three novels are narrated
by Roth's fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

Two of the novels in your trilogy are about Zuckerman's boyhood heroes, and in
"I Married A Communist," the story revolves around two brothers. One of those
brothers was Zuckerman's English teacher when he was in high school. The
other is a working man who became a well-known radio drama star and a
Communist. And about Mr. Ringold, the English teacher, Nathan Zuckerman
says, `Mr. Ringold taught us thinking is the greatest transgression of all.
Critical thinking--there is the ultimate subversion. Seeing it demonstrated
by him provided the most valuable clue to growing up that I had clutched at as
a provincial, protected, high-minded high school kid yearning to be rational
and of consequence and free.'

Did you have such a teacher who--who really taught you the value of critical
thinking?

Mr. ROTH: I was lucky. I think I had more than one, though one is often
enough. And I think that most sort of bright American kids are fortunate
enough, usually, along the way to run into that man or woman who teaches you
to think. It's kind of an amazing thing, isn't it? I fell under the
influence of some people, largely in college--more in college than in high
school. I don't really think I knew how to think in high school. Once again,
Zuckerman's smarter than I was.

GROSS: Zuckerman also says he really liked men who could talk about baseball
and boxing and also talk about books, as if they really mattered. Did you,
too, when you were young, wanting to find that combination?

Mr. ROTH: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think for American boys growing up, as
I did, in the '30s and '40s, it was very hard to make the association between
one's--and I use this word in its widest sense--one's virility, one's
appetite, one's aggression and learning. And it was certainly very important
to make that association because without it, learning seems sort of
schoolmarmish, you know? And, by the way, I grew up in the era when 95
percent of the teachers were women. We were little boys raised in school, as
it were, by women. Some of them were quite wonderful teachers. Some of them
were just ordinary teachers, of course.

But to have a male teacher who brought a certain flavor into the classroom,
who was also intellectually demanding, so that when he brought the flavor of
his masculinity and the sternness of his rigorous ...(unintelligible) into the
classroom, that was, indeed, a great blessing. And I do remember a couple
such men from my high school years, excluding, say, gym teachers. That was
something else.

GROSS: Who were the people in your life that first exposed you to a life that
was different from the life of your parents?

Mr. ROTH: I suppose a couple teachers did. I think that, as boys, we brought
each other. I mean, the circle of friends one had as a kid. I think what
happens is the country brings you up, in a strange way, or to put it another
way the culture brings you up. And the richer the culture, the more strange
there are in the culture that aren't totally vulgar and stupid, the better
educated you get in becoming something new and becoming a new generation. So
one's parents give one plenty, but when you leave them--yes, you're perfectly
right--you need mentors. And I would, again, say I think there's something
in the larger society that educates you, and then there is the circle of one's
friends. And you educate each other, and you evolve into a new social or
cultural type through this sort of effort and--team effort almost.

GROSS: 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: Hmm. 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 a, really, kind of Jewish village, I would say, in a city
that was made up of ethnic villages. 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 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 never would 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 parents' generation.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel is called "The Human Stain."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. Like most novelists, he has drawn on his
life for his fiction. He was written about, often in an unflattering way, in
a 1996 memoir by his ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, but that's a subject
he declines to talk about.

This is a quote that you said back in 1987 that was published in US News &
World Report. You said, "I wouldn't want to live with a novelist. Writers
are highly voyeuristic and indiscreet. But the writer should be no more
ruthless with others than with himself. The same intensity of focus should be
turned inward as outward." Do you feel that friends of yours have ever felt
betrayed by you as a writer because you've tried to be honest? And we all
have secrets, and we don't want to be honest about our secrets. We want to be
secretive about our secrets.

Mr. ROTH: Let me counter with an anecdote about Czeslaw Milosz, who won a
Novel Prize for poetry, I guess, about 10 years ago. Milosz was asked a
similar question. I'll tell you what he said. He was asked about
the--because he also writes prose, and he'd written memoirs and so on, he was
asked about the relationship between a writer and his family and about this
issue of revealing his secrets and betrayal. And Milosz said, `When a writer
is born into a family, the family is finished.' So the defense rests.

GROSS: Is that tough to live with?

Mr. ROTH: For the others?

GROSS: Well, for you, the writer, who, in being honest in your own way,
betrays the others?

Mr. ROTH: Well, you know, I don't know if it has so much to do with being
honest. You give us too much credit. I think it's just fascination. There's
no novelist worth his or her salt who isn't fascinated by the real and whose
job is founded and grounded in this fascination with the real thing. There's
an awful lot of stupid, childish awe in writers. People may think that you're
trying to reveal their secrets. You're sort of dumbstruck by their secrets
and by your own, of course, too. And there's far less vindictiveness than is
imagined on the part of the writer who writes about somebody's secret than
just this sort of stupid, childish awe of the human factor there.

So it isn't so much that one is pious about oneself or pious about being a
writer and saying, `Well, I have to be honest.' It's not that at all. It's
you're hypnotized, you're mesmerized, you're fascinated by the thing in
itself, and you want to present it. Now the other people may see it
otherwise. You know, they get hurt, I guess.

GROSS: Are there writers who you read or who you've known who, as a young
writer, gave you permission to write like yourself instead of trying to write
like the people you most admired of other generations or other eras?

Mr. ROTH: Sure. Sure. I have a great debt to several people. I suppose my
largest debt would be to Bellow, Saul Bellow, and I'm not alone in that, by
the way. And you don't have to be Jewish to be indebted to Saul Bellow
either. I suspect that half a dozen of my colleagues of my generation or a
little younger, a little older--a little younger, I would say--had their eyes
opened to literary freedom by Bellow, particularly by a book that appeared in
1954, "The Adventures of Augie March."

One doesn't write like, as you say--as you suggest, one doesn't write like
Bellow as a result, and it isn't that you then imitate this person. They
provide you with a kind of example of freedom, just as a youngster growing up
may admire some other kid, some older kid because of his or her freedom. I
think we all have had that experience. Likewise with a writer, you feel not
just the freedom, but the energy and, needless to say, the genius. Without
the genius, none of these things mean anything. But this genius has a kind of
freedom which inspires you.

The opening line of "Augie March" is rather famous--or was then. Nothing in
literature is famous any longer. But the opening line of Bellow's book is, `I
am an American, Chicago born.' What's interesting is that doesn't begin, `I'm
an American Jew, Chicago born,' or, `I'm an American-born Jew in Chicago.'
Bellow, in a single sentence, freed of a whole generation of Jewish writers
who came after him to write of the thing which was so powerful in their lives,
which was their Americanness. Now I'm speaking just thematically of his
importance. One can also speak of his verbal freedom, too, which was equally
inspiring.

GROSS: Philip Roth is my guest. Within the past decade or a little more than
that, you've had bypass surgery and also suffered a bad depression. I think
for a lot of people, when you go through something that's very kind of
physically life-changing, you look around at the rest of your life and figure,
`Well, what else do I want to change?' Did you make big changes in your life
after that?

Mr. ROTH: Let me think. I had quintuple bypass surgery back in 1989, now 11
years. It was sort of out of the blue, and then all I knew was I was swimming
in my pool one day, and the next day I was having an operation. And I was
exhilarated by the operation. First of all, they'd saved my life. Very
exhilarating that is. And I walked around exhilarated for about six months.
And I think it re-energized me, strangely.

I did have a brutal depression seven or eight years ago, and, gee, all you
want to do is climb out of the hole, you know. And you're so content. You're
in a deep hole, and there are no rungs on the side to climb out with, and it's
a terrible experience. It descends almost like the other thing, out of the
blue, and you think you'll never get out. You feel like you're in a
straitjacket, except it's a mental straitjacket. And somehow you fight your
way out.

And after that, I think--I don't know, Terry, if I could really say that I
decided I would live differently. I'd just been through the damn ringer,
that's all, and you're glad to have survived and you just want to go on. You
just want to go on.

GROSS: Did it leave you any more or less of a believer in either
pharmaceutical therapy or talk therapy for a really brutal depression?

Mr. ROTH: I don't know that talk therapy helps. It's nice to have
sympathetic friends. That is a help. As far as professional talk, I don't
know that if you've had the real thing, that matters. Yeah, the drugs are
great, Prozac and those things. They can get you out of it, which is better
than the old days. You know, 25, 30 years ago people just sort of sat around
with these things, and it was pretty grim. It's pretty grim altogether. My
advice is not to have it.

GROSS: Thanks. We'll do our best. In "American Pastoral," Nathan Zuckerman
says, about the character whose story he's telling, he had learned the worst
lesson that life can teach: that it makes no sense. Do you feel that that's
the lesson of life, or that that's only the lesson of life when you're going
through a really bad depression or...

Mr. ROTH: Well, that line that you read is a telling one, to be sure, but
it's not about a character who's in depression. It's about Swede Levov
after his daughter blows up a building to protest the Vietnam War...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ROTH: ...and his life is ruined, as though she's set the bomb off not at
the local post office, but in their living room. So I was talking about a
life that's overtaken by what I call elsewhere the uncontrolability of real
things, and I wasn't speaking then about depression.

GROSS: Right. But is that, do you feel like, life's lesson, or that only
some people are stuck in that predicament that life seems to make no sense?

Mr. ROTH: I suppose everybody has those minutes, hours and days when it
seems to make no sense, and you're blessed if you can escape those feelings.
I think it makes no sense, but you have to believe otherwise.

GROSS: You think life makes no sense?

Mr. ROTH: Not to me, it doesn't, but I pretend it does.

GROSS: And maybe try to give it sense in novels or explore the no sense that
it seems to have?

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Both.

GROSS: Both.

Mr. ROTH: Yes. Quite seriously, both. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ROTH: My pleasure.

GROSS: Philip Roth's new novel is called "The Human Stain."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new autobiography by British mystery
writer P.D. James. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Analysis: Review of P.D. James' autobiography
TERRY GROSS, host:

Mystery writer P.D. James has a new autobiography called a "Time To Be In
Earnest." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says the memoir doesn't solve all the
mysteries of James' life, but it will deepen her readers' appreciation of the
woman considered by many to be the greatest living detective writer, a writer
of detective fiction.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN (Georgetown University):

Reading this diary in the year of the life of mystery master P.D. James will,
no doubt, make her legions of devoted fans, of which I am one, want to give
her a good throttling. `Stay home,' I hissed in exasperation about halfway
through a "Time To Be In Earnest." Sit still at your desk for a few days and
begin a new novel for, if we learn one thing about James in this memoir, it's
that she doesn't like to stay put. Like some hardy Victorian lady explorer,
whose carpetbag is always packed and ready, James is an enthusiastic
party-goer, lecturer and junketeer.

In the course of a few short weeks, she trundles off to Norway, jets off on an
American book tour that includes one-night stands in Pittsburgh and Dayton and
gainly goes to sea on the QEII as a guest speaker. This dizzying schedule
barely leaves James time for socializing with her two daughters and their
families or with her fellow mystery writer pals, like Dick Francis, Ruth
Rendell and John Mortimer. Like most English ladies of a certain age, James
fixates in her diary on flowers, ecclesiastical architecture and her cat, but
strangely about the act of writing we hear nary a mention.

Perhaps this is just as well. Writing can be a frustrating and messy
enterprise. To read a diary entry by James that confess something like,
`Saturday, 16 June, sat at my desk for hours scratching my forehead and
watching dandruff motes drift by in the sunlight,' well, that would spoil the
atmosphere of competent good cheer this diary radiates.

Despite or perhaps because of this book's unprepossessing subtitle, "A
Fragment of Autobiography," implicitly warns readers not to expect too
much. James' diary is very entertaining and very calming, like reading a
Barbara Pym novel about English gentlewomen. In her prologue, James says that
one of her motives for undertaking this record of one year from her 77th to
78th birthday was to have her own say on her life before posthumous
biographers began feasting on it. In these entries, James reveals herself to
be resolutely unself-pitying, kind--there's no dirt dished here--and socially
conservative. For example, James tells a feminist lawyer she meets at a
literary dinner that she's tired of women presenting themselves as victims
because, as James admits at the outset, her diary will inevitable catch on the
threads of memory as burrs stick to a coat.

We hear about her parents and their melancholy marriage; her traditional
schooling, where the curriculum was heavy on the memorization of poetry, which
James thinks was a good thing; her career as a civil servant in various
government offices, her belated start as a detective fiction writer and her
musings on why women are particularly suited for the literary art of murder.

Even in an autobiographical fragment like this one, however, themes inevitably
emerge, themes that James herself seems largely unaware of. She makes
constant references here to the wars that transformed her world. Reflecting
on World War I, James eloquently states, `My generation was born under a pall
of inarticulate grieving.' James gave birth to her second daughter as German
Buzz Bombs were raining down outside the hospital. She writes of the daily
deprivations and culinary horrors of wartime as vividly as she describes the
workings of Adam Dalgleish's overactive brain in her extraordinary mystery
series.

James also returns over and over to the enduring loss that World War II
inflicted on her life. In the very first entry here, she describes a dismal
railway ride back from a weekend at a seaside hotel, where she attended a
golden wedding anniversary party for Dick Francis and his wife. That initial
image of a solitary James standing apart and observing other people's
apparently happy marriages is one that reoccurs throughout this diary. James'
own marriage was terribly diminished when her young husband, Connor,
returned from World War II a different man, one who would suffer from mental
illness and be in and out of asylums, until his death in the early 1960s at
the age of 44.

About him, James simply states, `I shan't write about my marriage in this
incomplete diary, except to say that I have never found or, indeed, looked for
anyone else with whom I have wanted to spend the rest of my life.'
Nonetheless, her husband, or his absence, haunts these pages. It's glib to
say, but maybe his absence has enabled them to be written, too. The tragedy
of her husband's death seems to have placed a pane of glass between James and
the world she observes. And her characteristic stance, James' way of talking
about herself as being apart, even in the midst of the most congenial crowd,
is, after all, the quintessential writer's position.

James' title comes courtesy of Dr. Johnson. At 77, it is time to be in
earnest. Judging by her own no-nonsense account of her industrious and
thoughtful life, there never seems to have been a time when James wasn't.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed a "Time To Be In Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography" by P.D.
James.

(Credits given)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.

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