DATE May 8, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Novelist Philip Roth discusses his new novel "Everyman"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Philip Roth's new novel "Everyman" 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
bodily decay, starting with the hernia surgery he had as a boy in 1942.
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.'
Roth has won two National Book awards, two National Book Critic Circle awards,
and a Pulitzer Prize. Last week he added to his honors a Lifetime Achievement
award from Pen, the international literary organization. Let's start with a
reading from "Everyman." The main character is thinking back to his father's
Mr. PHILIP ROTH: (Reading) "His father had become religious in the last 10
years of his life, and after having retired and having lost his wife, had
taken to going to the synagogue at least once a day. Long before his final
illness, he'd asked his rabbi to conduct his burial service entirely in
Hebrew, as though Hebrew were the strongest answer that could be accorded
death. To his father's younger son, the language meant nothing. He'd stopped
taking Judaism seriously at 13, the Sunday after the Saturday of his bar
mitzvah and he had not set foot since then in a synagogue. He'd even left the
space for religion blank on his hospital admission form, lest the word
"Jewish" prompt a visit to his room by a rabbi come to talk in the way rabbis
Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all
religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless,
childish, couldn't stand the complete unadultness, the baby talk and the
righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death
and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies,
born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died
before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for
himself, that was it. He'd come upon it early and intuitively, and however
elemental, that was the whole of it. Should he ever write an autobiography,
he'd call it "The Life and Death of a Male Body." But after retiring, he tried
becoming a painter, not a writer, and so he gave that title to a series of his
But none of what he did or didn't believe mattered on the day that his father
was buried beside his mother in a run-down cemetery just off the Jersey
GROSS: That's Philip Roth reading from his new novel "Everyman."
Philip Roth, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your
PEN/Nabokov Award. Now, you know, the title that this man in your novel would
have given his autobiography had he written one was "The Life and Death of a
Male Body," and it's kind of the title you could have given your book, if you
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Because your book is about the slow deterioration of one man and his
body, starting with his hernia surgery as a boy, and it's also about the
sexual urges of that body, which sometimes lead him in the wrong direction.
And the body is kind of a real problem for him. It's, of course, the symbol
of his mortality, but what did you want to write about a life as the story of
one man's mortal body?
Mr. ROTH: Mmm. Well, first of all, it occurred to me, these ideas arise
spontaneously, you know, but to add to that, I didn't know of a book which was
formulated out of a medical history, as this one is. I knew of some books
that were about illness and disease, though very few by the way, that I could
think of, maybe others can think of more, but the great ones we know, Mann's
"Magic Mountain," which is about a tuberculosis sanatorium, and Solzhenitsyn's
great work "Cancer Ward" and Tolstoy's short novel, masterpiece really, "The
Death of Ivan Ilyich." But beyond that, there are very few books I knew of
that were about ailments to begin with. But none that I knew of where the
narrative line was really a medical history. And for so many people
especially as they age, in our society, today, their medical biography is
their biography, so that's what gave me the idea to just stick to his medical
history and see his progress through life in terms of that.
GROSS: In the reading that you just did, the main character, Everyman,
explains that he considers religion "superstitious folderol," meaning
meaningless and childish, but there's nothing in his life to replace religion.
Like, he discards religion but there's nothing real to hold onto in his life.
There's no real larger philosophy or even passion that he can hold onto as his
body starts to diminish. Do you see that as a problem for people who reject
religion, like what do you find to replace it with?
Mr. ROTH: No, I personally think religion is the problem. So I don't see it
as the problem. No, I wanted to write about what seemed to me far from
unordinary, which is the secular life. I think that probably despite the
period we're going through in America now, that essentially it is a secular
country and that people lead deeply secular lives, and in many ways, the glory
of America is its secularism, to my mind. But I was neither glorifying him
nor assailing him or doing anything in terms of his beliefs. I wanted this
man to face death the way I think most people do, and it is without the
consolation or comforts that come from religious beliefs. He faces it head on
with no belief in divine presence, no belief certainly in an afterlife, but
death is there, and it is oblivion.
GROSS: Your character describes the process of becoming less and less as he
gets older and older. The aimless days and the uncertain nights and the
impotently putting up with the physical deteriorating and the terminal sadness
and the waiting and waiting for nothing. And I think what emphasizes for him,
this period of waiting for nothing and this process of becoming less and less,
is that after he retires, he has this kind of vacuum in his life, you know.
He's no longer married. He's divorced. Two of his three children really
don't like him. He always fantasized that when he retired, he'd paint, and
he'd have all this like uninterrupted time to paint, but after doing that for
a while, he decides he's not very good and he's not really enjoying it. He's
lonely. He tries life in a retirement community but he doesn't like that.
But when he moves out, he's lonely. So, you know, I think the book is in part
about that, that part of life after retirement, like what do you do with it?
Or what does he do with it? Have you been thinking about that a lot? You're
not from a profession from which you retire. You're still writing.
Mr. ROTH: I'm still doing it. You just drop dead at the computer, and they
carry you away. Well, I haven't been thinking about it in any personal way,
no, because I intend to write for as long as I possibly can. But other people
are not so fortunate, or unfortunate, in their professions, and it's very
common that men and women who have been working all their lives suddenly stop
at age 65 or 70 or 72, whatever, and they are confronted with a huge problem,
which is, what will life be filled with. And I did want to think about that.
He does have an ambition, as you say, to paint, which he wants to fulfill
after retirement, and he begins with great enthusiasm. In fact, as you know
in the book, he even gives a class or two, I think, in painting to other
members of his sort of affluent retirement community. But that peters out for
reasons that are explained in the book, and there is a great void, there is a
great emptiness, and the problem with the void isn't the void itself, it's
that it's accompanied by this medical deterioration, so you have to see the
two things together, I think, in the story of this man.
By the way, you call him "Everyman," which is perfectly all right with me, but
as you know, in fact, he--I don't call him Everyman. That's the title,
indeed, we can talk about that. But he's nameless throughout, and a very good
friend of mine, who's a very good reader, called me to tell me she didn't know
he's nameless until I mentioned it on a radio program that she was listening
to. So I think it can go unnoticed, the fact that he has no name. It isn't
something that I emphasize. It's just there. But he isn't called Everyman.
Now, his father, as you know, has a jewelry store in Elizabeth, New Jersey,
and rather than using his own Jewish name on the jewelry store, whatever name
that might have been, he finds--he feels that he can have more success in
Elizabeth if he calls it Everyman's Jewelry Store.
GROSS: Why didn't you give your main character a name?
Mr. ROTH: Mmm. Well, to be--really be honest with you, Terry...
GROSS: No, I prefer you lie.
Mr. ROTH: OK.
GROSS: Make up something.
Mr. ROTH: All right. I save the making-up for my work hours. First time
round writing a story, I didn't have a name for the character. It just didn't
occur to me to give him a name. I was struggling with the story. And you
know you take things in stages, and I wrote, I don't know, 60 or 70 pages,
which was the entire story but was only a rough first draft and there was no
name. And then on rereading it, it seemed to me it was a good idea to have
him nameless, not for any spectacular reason, you know, but rather he's
defined more by the matrix of relationships with others than he is by a name,
that is to say, he's his parents' child, he's his brother's brother, he's his
wife's husband, he's his daughter's father, he's his boss' worker, etc. So
he's defined by his relation to others, and it seemed to me as I was writing
that indeed that's the way we are defined, really. Our names are convenient
handles. But I wanted to emphasize that, and I thought if he didn't have a
name, that would be helpful.
In addition, the Everyman aspect came into it, too. I don't mean that he's a
universal figure. I don't mean he's an allegorical figure by any means. But
rather, he is Everyman inasmuch as he signs the contract, the bad contract we
all sign and fulfill, which is that you're born to live and you die. And in
that sense, he is Everyman and Everywoman. And as you would know, by the way,
Everyman is the name, title of a 15th-century English play, part of that genre
called morality plays. It's probably the greatest piece of writing in the
medieval period, and it's deeply allegorical, and the main character is called
Everyman and death appears as Death and other characters such as Fellowship,
and Kindred and Knowledge and Beauty, etc., appear. So the virtues and the
vices are all personified in the old play Everyman. My book is not an
allegory. I have no allegorical intentions, but I did borrow the title of
that allegory for my realistic novel.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel is called "Everyman." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Roth, and his new novel
is called "Everyman." The novel opens at a funeral service, where we learn a
little bit about all of 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 cemeteries--is run-down. 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 cemetery?
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: What--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
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 that 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 age--you see children--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: Did you have to put yourself into a certain mood to write this book?
I mean, every time I'd pick up this book, it would really get me into that
mood of just thinking about, you know, mortality, my own, my friends, you
know, families. It's just so drenched in that. I can only imagine what it
must have been like to actually sit and write this book. So did you have to,
like, go into a certain frame of mind each day when you sat down to continue
Mr. ROTH: Well, not much different from the frame of mind I have to enter
into with any book, really. I wasn't living the experience. I was trying to
make a literary object out of it. And I had the same problems to deal with
that I would deal with in writing any book, which is to see the thing as
clearly as I could, to find the incidents and events that would most vividly
deal with mortality, to make a family, to invent a family, to invent the
relationships, to invent, invent, invent, invent, invent, that's what I would
say. The subject doesn't change the task. And was--did I--I guess in a way,
was I particularly grim and gloomy and despairing when I wrote it? Only when
the book was going badly was I those things. So it was an act of writing, it
wasn't an act of grieving.
GROSS: No, I know, but still to get into the subject that you're writing
about. I'd imagine that you'd have to focus your thoughts a lot on mortality,
on death, on the slow diminishment of the body over time, on pain, illness.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: I mean, that's what you were writing about, you had to be thinking
Mr. ROTH: Well, sure, but it's all around one, isn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Yes.
Mr. ROTH: You see it every day, and people who aren't writers have other
tasks and their task is not necessarily to look at that. This is no judgment
on the way people go about their lives. But it's really the task of the
writer to look at this stuff that is not so pretty.
GROSS: Philip Roth. His new novel is called "Everyman." He'll be back in the
second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Philip Roth, one of the
most acclaimed living American writers. His books include "Portnoy's
Complaint," "The Human Stain" and "The Plot Against America." His new novel,
"Everyman," follows one man's life and death through the story of his body and
its breakdowns and failures.
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 your 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: Hmm. 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 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: Hmm. Well, I think we could begin with what I said to Chip. We
all know--we don't think about it, but 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're
equals. We call them your peers, your contemporaries. I don't know what
fosters this illusion. I'm not saying it's not stupid to think this way, but
it's one of those human illusions you have, and 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. What you felt for a
friend 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. And he's, you know, we
can guess, during this book that he's probably not going to.
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 life behind?
Mr. ROTH: 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. So 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: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel is called "Everyman." We'll
talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The author of "Portnoy's Complaint," "The
Human Stain" and "The Plot Against America." His new novel is called
When you're writing a book, do you have everything mapped out before you
start? Do you know the fate of all the characters? Do you know what urges
will lead them astray and where their fulfillment will be if they ever find
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And how they'll interconnect? And what surprises are going to happen
and overturn their expectations?
Mr. ROTH: I know that when I hand the book into the publisher.
GROSS: But not before?
Mr. ROTH: No, I don't know anything in the beginning, which makes it great
fun to write, you know. You don't know anything. You don't even know how to
write. So you begin every book as an amateur and as a dummy, and in the
writing, you discover the book. Of course, you're in charge, but gradually,
by writing sentence after sentence, the book, as it were, reveals itself to
you through your language, rather. So each sentence is a revelation. I'm not
exaggerating. Each and every sentence is a revelation. And what you're
trying to do is hook one sentence to the sentence before and the next one to
that sentence. And as you do, you're building a house, you know, and the
architect and the contractor, they know what the house is going to look like
when it's done, and that's the big difference. I don't have any idea what it
will look like when it's done. I don't have any idea whether it will even be
done, because you don't know what you're doing when you're at work, which is
to say that I don't know the answers to those questions that you've raised.
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 believe 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
lot. 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 1000, 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: In the reading that you did at the beginning of our interview, 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: Well, 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
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: 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 were--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: Are you working on a new book?
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
Mr. ROTH: And I know as little about it as I knew about this book when I
GROSS: Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ROTH: You're welcome.
GROSS: Philip Roth's new novel is called "Everyman."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Linguist Geoff Nunberg discusses the English language
TERRY GROSS, host:
How many words are in the English language? Five hundred thousand? A
million? Our linguist Geoff Nunberg says there's no way to really count all
the words, and he wonders why people even care.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: At any one moment there are hundreds of made-up
statistics floating around in the media and fully 37 percent of them have to
do with language. There are 40 million Americans who speak no English,
communication is 93 percent nonverbal, Eskimo has 87 different words for
"snow." If you believe any of that, I've got an Inuit Thesaurus I'd like to
But the media have an endless and uncritical appetite for these nuggets,
particularly when they seem to confirm some cherished linguistic lore. Take
one Paul J.J. Payak, a California marketing executive who runs an outfit
called the Global Language Monitor and who has a gift for concocting appealing
factoids about language trends. Back in February, for example, Payak
announced that using a secret algorithm, he had determined that the English
language contained exactly 986,120 words and that it would pass the million
mark this fall. The item got wide coverage. It was picked up by sources from
The New York Times to Reuters to NPR, and it does have a certain Googlish
plausibility to it.
With all this stuff out there on the Web, you might conclude that you can
count pretty much anything. But not even the Web allows you to eavesdrop on
every conversation in every nook and cranny of the English-speaking world, and
even if you could, there's no easy way to tell how many different words you're
dealing with. Is "play" the same word when it refers to a theater play, a
baseball play, fair play or a stock market play? Is "player" the same word
when it refers to Barry Bonds or Puffy Combs?
When it comes to the crunch, trying to put an exact figure on the size of
English is as futile as trying to determine exactly how many socks Americans
lost in 2005. But Payak's claim bestows a satisfyingly statistical patina on
a familiar story about the glorious amplitude of English. People never tire
of boasting that English has more words than any other language, and they
invariably go on to praise the openness and flexibility of the language and
the marvelous expressiveness and richness of vocabulary that has made it the
envy of lesser tongues.
Granted, our dictionaries can lick their dictionaries. Merriam-Webster's
Third International clocks in at around half a million words, against a mere
150,000 for the biggest dictionaries the French or Russians can come up with.
But that doesn't mean we have more words for the things that matter. Once you
get past 50 or 60,000 words, you're strictly in crossword puzzle territory.
And I mean the hard ones that The New York Times runs towards the end of the
week. There are about 120 entries on the page of Webster's Third that
contains the word "OK," for example. But only half a dozen or so are words
that anybody could actually work into a conversation, like "ointment," "oink"
and "old." The rest are items like "oinochoe," "oka" and "oke," which if
you'll cast your mind back, are the names for an ancient Greek wine pitcher, a
cheese made by Canadian Trappist monks and a unit of weight used in Turkey and
There's something bizarre about the satisfaction we take in our swollen word
books, as if English speakers in Des Moines are enriched every time the people
in Dublin or Delhi coin a new slang word for "ne'er-do-well." It's really the
last residue of the imperial pride that used to swell in British bosoms at the
contemplation of all the bits of the map that were colored pink. Of course,
nowadays, it's only the English language that the sun never sets on. And
we're more likely to take that as a tribute to our charm than to our global
That explains the appeal of another of Mr. Payak's factoids. According to
his algorithms, he says, the most frequently spoken word on the planet is
"OK." More humbug. It isn't easy to say what the most frequently spoken word
on the planet is. Most likely it's a toss-up between English "the" and the
Chinese particle "du." But it's clear that "OK" wouldn't even make the top
thousand. In fact, OK is far from being the most widely used English word.
That honor would probably go to either Coca-Cola or CIA.
But there's something comforting in the idea that OK is America's most
successful linguistic export. It lets us believe that the triumph of English
reflects the allure of our popular culture rather than our economic or
political clout. This is a story about Tom Hanks, not Halliburton.
Whatever the world may think about our policies, they like us, they really,
really like us. And we've got statistics to prove it.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley.
Coming up, "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Dames," "42nd Street" and "Footlight
Parade." Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD box set of Busby Berkeley films.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD collection of
Busby Berkeley films
TERRY GROSS, host:
Director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was noted for his Hollywood
musicals, featuring lots of scantily clad showgirls, filmed from overhead in
intricate kaleidoscopic patterns. After seeing some of these films again in a
new DVD collection, critic Lloyd Schwartz noticed a connection between
Berkeley and the avant garde artists of an earlier generation.
Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: There's a striking photograph taken in 1920 by the avant
garde photographer Man Ray, a close-up of a woman's face, upside down, with a
cigarette in her mouth. It's both erotic and sinister. In 1920, it was still
a novelty to see a woman smoking. Fifteen years later, Busby Berkeley used
that very image in one of his greatest dance numbers, in "Gold Diggers of
1935." As Winifred Shaw starts to sing, the camera gets closer and closer to
(Soundbite of "Lullaby of Broadway")
Ms. WINIFRED SHAW: (Singing) "Come on along and listen to the lullaby of
Broadway. The hip hooray and bally hoo, the lullaby of Broadway. The rumble
of the subway train, the rattle of the taxis. The daffy-dills who entertain
at Angelo's and Maxie's. When a Broadway baby says "Good night," it's early
in the morning. Manhattan babies don't sleep tight until the dawn: Good
night, baby. Good night, milkman's on his way. Sleep tight, baby. Sleep
tight, let's call it a day. Hey! Come on along and listen to the lullaby of
Broadway. The hidee hi, the boopa doo, the lullaby of Broadway. The band
begins to go to town, and everyone goes crazy. You rock-a-bye your baby
'round 'til everything gets hazy. Hush-a-bye, `I'll buy you this and that,'
You hear a daddy saying. And baby goes home to her flat to sleep all day.
Good night, baby. Good night, milkman's on his way. Sleep tight, baby.
Sleep tight, let's call it a day. Listen to the lullaby of old Broadway."
Mr. SCHWARTZ: The camera suddenly swings around and her head is upside down,
just as in that Man Ray photo. Then the outline of her face morphs into an
outline of Manhattan Island, with a cigarette sticking up like the Empire
Berkeley takes us into the life of the city. A policeman is walking down a
deserted street, casting a long shadow in front of him, as in one of George de
Chirico's surrealist paintings. Maybe with a name like Busby, he had a hard
time being taken seriously. But for all their frivolity, his best films are
also trenchant depictions of the Depression, especially show business, one of
the few businesses that didn't collapse after the stock market crash. Show
people were desperate to put on shows. Berkeley's plots involved their
schemes to raise money and having to face social snobbery and censureship.
Berkeley always maintains a snappy pace. The dialogue crackles, the
performers--Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, Zasu Pitts, Ruby
Keeler--are amusing, attractive and appealing.
And there are terrific songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren. "Lullaby of
Broadway," "42nd Street," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Shuffle Off to
Buffalo." The song that compares love to drug addiction, "You're Getting to Be
a Habit with Me." The moving Depression anthem, "Remember My Forgotten Man."
And "We're in the Money," with Ginger Rogers dressed only in silver dollars
and singing in pig Latin.
(Soundbite of "We're in the Money")
Ms. GINGER ROGERS: (Singing) "Er-way in-hay the oney-may. Er-way in-hay the
oney-may. Eve-way ot-gay lay ot-lay of at-way it akes-tay to et-gay
lay-ong-well. Er-ay in-hay the oney-may. E-thay y-skay is unny-say. Old Man
Epression-day ou-yay are Ough-thray, ou-yay un-day us ong-wray. Oh! E-way
ever-nay ee-say an ead-hay ine-lay about ed-bray ines-lays oto-ay-day. And
en-way ee-way ee-say the and-lay ord-lay ee-way an-cay ook-lay that eye-gay
ite-ray in the eye-aye. We're in the money, oh-oh-oh, come on, my honey.
Let's lend it, spend it, send it rolling around."
Mr. SCHWARTZ: It's rarely acknowledged how closely Berkeley evolved from
avant garde art. His famous kaleidoscopic dances, shot from above, are right
out of Marcel Duchamp's optical experiments. In "I Only Have Eyes for You,"
Ruby Keeler emerges through the iris of her own eye.
Almost all the dances are production numbers in stage shows and nightclubs,
but they're so elaborate they couldn't possibly take place on any stage but a
vast sound stage. So they become the shows we imagine in our heads, our dream
theater. Isn't that what all films are?
"Lullaby of Broadway" is actually quite scary. The phalanxes of tap dancers,
all in black and white, are more like storm troopers than pleasure seekers,
yet they're dwarfed by an ominously empty space. The heroine dances with
them, but when she tries to escape, they chase after her, and in their rush to
force her to join them again, they push her off a balcony, and she falls to
The camera pulls back to that earlier view of Manhattan, which then morphs
back into Winifred Shaw's face as she finishes her song. This is a disturbing
view of the desperation to find pleasure.
Busby Berkeley has once again put us through much more than we bargained for
in a musical comedy.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He reviewed the
six-DVD "Busby Berkeley Collection" on Warner.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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