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Philip Roth Discusses His Latest Accolade

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth has been a favorite of readers since his memoir Goodbye, Columbus emerged to help define the culture of postwar America. Now the Library of America is releasing Roth's books — a rare step for a living author.



DATE September 27, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Philip Roth discusses his writing career and the
Library of America publishing his collected works

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Philip Roth has just become the third living author to have his or her
collected works published by the Library of America, a non-profit organization
dedicated to keeping in print authoritative editions of the best American
writing. The first two volumes of the projected eight-volume series have just
been published. They span the years 1959 to '72 and include the books that
made Roth famous: "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint," along with
"When She Was Good," "Our Gang" and "The Breast." You can't accuse Roth of
resting on his laurels. Last year, his novel, "The Plot Against America,"
received great reviews, then became a best-seller. It's just come out in

I spoke to Philip Roth about the Library of America editions, but he declined
to do a reading. He's happy to talk about his early work but he doesn't want
to re-read it.

It must be such a relief to know that, like, your early works that have just
come out, you know, and two of those books are particularly famous, "Goodbye,
Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint"--it must be so good to know that that's
your early work, the work remains still very admired. But you've gone on to
write a lot of other things, which have won a lot of awards, and received
great reviews and become best-sellers so a lot of writers who have early
success worry about resting on that success for the rest of their career and
some of them are kind of forced to. So that's one worry you don't have. Do
you know what I mean? So that must be very reassuring as these early works
come out.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Novelist): Well, it's quite pleasant to think they're going
to come out in those handsome editions. I've forgotten those books. Truly.
I mean, I know vaguely what they're about and I know vaguely the way they're
written, but I haven't read them in I don't know when--30 years? And I did
not read them when the editor was working on them and asked me for--questions
about bits and pieces. I answered his questions about the bits and pieces,
but I didn't go back and re-read the books. They just seem very, very distant
to me.

GROSS: Is there an element of discomfort, too, not just being distant, that
would make you uncomfortable to read it, that it would hurt somehow?

Mr. ROTH: Probably I wouldn't like them. This--I don't think I'm alone in
that kind of reaction. I think many writers, when they read their apprentice
work, which is what I consider this stuff to be, are made uncomfortable by how
young they were. And you shouldn't be uncomfortable about how young you were
when you were young, but, nonetheless, that can happen.

GROSS: I think I've read some of your old work more recently than you have so
I do have some things I want to talk with you about about that.

Mr. ROTH: Were you made uncomfortable by it?

GROSS: No. No. I can handle it just fine.

Mr. ROTH: OK. Great.

GROSS: 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. 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 are or richer than you are,
and I think one is very sensitive to that as a young person, someone, say,
between 17 and 22 or 23. So--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
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, yeah.

GROSS: The main character lives with his Aunt Gladys and she says, about his
girlfriend, `Since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills? They couldn't
be real Jews. Believe me.' Did you hear that kind of attitude about more
upper-middle-class Jews?

Mr. ROTH: No. I don't--I just--that's a bad line I wrote back in 1959.

GROSS: Oh, this isn't a bad line. That's why you didn't want to read it.
This is why you didn't want to read it...

Mr. ROTH: Are you going to keep reading these bad...

GROSS: ...because you're going to be self-conscious about your early writing.

Mr. ROTH: And you're going to read them to me, instead. This is going to be

GROSS: No, I made you feel like I invited you for this torture session. No,

Mr. ROTH: Keep going.

GROSS: Well, let's talk a little bit about finding a voice for this, then.
You know...


GROSS: ...because in some ways I think "Goodbye, Columbus" is a little bit
like "The Great Gatsby" in the sense that it's in part about class. It's
about looking at a class that's a more privileged class than your own, and
seeing how they live, and seeing both the materialism of it, but also what's
appealing about it. Did you feel influenced by that book at all?

Mr. ROTH: Not particularly, though, to some degree. I think when you speak
about finding a voice, that, of course, is the big problem when you begin.
You don't quite know that's the problem but that is what you're doing. You're
trying to find a voice and you don't know what your voice is. It doesn't come
spontaneously the way a voice comes out of an infant or a two-year-old or
maybe it does come out the way it comes out of a two-year-old. But you don't
know what your natural writing voice is and you don't know where your freedom
lies as a writer, where you can find your verbal freedom. I certainly didn't
know. What I was trying to find in that novella, "Goodbye, Columbus," was a
kind of colloquial, loose voice that could accommodate both ordinary speech and
a little bit of a lyricism, and when you speak of "The Great Gatsby," I
suppose, one of the things I admired in that book when I was young was the
lyrical undertone of many of his sentences.

I--and the other stories in that volume, there are different voices. You
know? The first four books, if you think of "Goodbye, Columbus," the first,
and "Letting Go," my second book, which is my first novel, "When She Was
Good," and "Portnoy's Complaint," could have been written by four different
people, I think. There's no consistent voice. There's no--this is not a bad
thing, by the way. There's no consistent voice. There's no consistent
approach. There's no way in which I've mastered writing a novel. I hadn't
mastered it. I was trying to figure out what a novel was, what a short story
was. I rapidly gave up on short stories. I found that really I liked the
bigger thing, the novel. But it's a search. It's a search for just that
thing that you called the voice.

GROSS: And the fact that you were writing different books and different
stories in different voices, did that make you feel phony because you didn't
find your voice as like one, you know, voice, or did you feel like this is
fine to try on different things and to--because each character has a different
voice, too. I mean, theoretically, you should be able to write in a lot of
different voices.

Mr. ROTH: I think it made me feel anxious. Not phony, no. Because each time
I started the book, I didn't know how to do it. Now that's not changed. All
these years later, each time I begin a book, I don't know how to do it,
there's no--there are no rules laid down for that book, for that story, for
these people, for this subject. So each time you attack a book, or it attacks
you, you're looking for the voice in which to tell it, so, no, not phony but
certainly anxious and curious and willing to work and willing, grudgingly
willing to fail.

Between 1962 and 1967, I didn't publish anything. And the rest of my career,
I published a book--during the rest of my career, I published a book at least
every two years, sometimes one a year. But in that early period, '62 to '67,
'62 I was 29 years old, till '67, I was struggling to find how to write my
next book. I started several, and abandoned them, which is always a very
crushing experience because you work for a month, two, three, four, five, even
six months, and you realize you can't go anywhere because you've taken the
wrong first 10 steps, you know? And they lead you to an impasse.

So in that period, I struggled with just this problem, which is `What do I
sound like? What do I want to sound like?' And where can I find my freedom?'
And so I tried the "Goodbye, Columbus" approach, which was a kind of mildly
arch irony founded on social observation, I suppose. And then in "Letting
Go," I took a bigger bite out of the apple and I wanted to do big--a big book
where things added up, where people were denser in their representation and
where the language was richer and when the story had--where there was more at
stake for everyone. So there's a certain earnest quality to that second book.

GROSS: Where is that point where you decide or where you decided back then
to, like, give up on a book? It--once you've invested that much in a book, it
must be really hard to say, `It's not working. I'm throwing it out and
starting all over again.' But at some point you know that you're--you know,
you're just going further down a blind alley so can you talk a little bit
about what it's like to decide--like how far you have to get against that
brick wall before you're willing to abandon the novel and try something else?

Mr. ROTH: Well, usually it's about two months after you should have done it.
And you struggle. You go in--this hasn't happened to me, by the way, in many
years. But in the beginning it did happen. And you go in every day and you
sit down and struggle with it and what you write is crap. And you know it's
crap; it's dead. It's dead on the page. And--or you write nothing, which is
quite agonizing, or you fall asleep. I got a lot of sleep between 1962 and
1967. But you do--sometimes a strange tiredness comes over you as you sit
there and you think `Didn't I sleep last night? Haven't I slept for nights?
And then you--there's a sofa there or a couch, which is a bad thing to own.
You lie down for a minute, and, blessed living, you awaken and it's lunchtime,
you know. But there I think actually--it's a kind of depression. You can't
face this undoable thing any longer.

GROSS: But were people worried about you then?

Mr. ROTH: (Laughs) Not enough, no.

GROSS: (Laughs) Were you worried about yourself, that this was it? That
maybe you really weren't a good writer?

Mr. ROTH: No, I wasn't--I didn't know if I was a good writer. I just wanted
to be a writer. No, I wasn't worried. I had a lot of tenacity, and I could
take the disappointment, though, I mean, I hated it and it made me feel awful.
But I was determined. And so I don't think anybody was worried.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of a projected eight-volume collection of his works.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of his collected works. They include "Portnoy's
Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus."

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's 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, which she's
heard about through reading Mary McCarthy books. 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--birth control methods 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: 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. And he's very proud of her for that reason, is he
not? I think. He thinks that--the world of her when she does that. And
she's very pleased with herself, with her courage. And it was. It took--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 least 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 is 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 is the--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 then, `We can't go on with this,' and they

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. 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 discovered. And so,
yeah--I mean, their whole personalities, their ways of looking at each other,
are all revealed through their behavior around the diaphragm.

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. Publisher of my first book is my publisher once
again. I was away for a while, then I came back to Houghton Mifflin. And
they certainly were--stayed firm in 1959 and 1960. And a man named Paul
Brooks was in charge, and my editor was a wonderful poet named George
Starbuck, who was a friend of mine from the University of Chicago. And no one
said anything other than, `We would like to publish this.' So 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
respectables, 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: Philip Roth will be back in the second half of the show. The Library
of America has just published the first two volumes in a projected
eight-volume collection of his works. And his latest novel, "The Plot Against
America," has just been published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, writing "Portnoy's Complaint" and preparing his parents for
the many sexually explicit passages. We continue our conversation with writer
Philip Roth. His early work has just been republished by the Library of

This is FRESH Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Philip Roth. The Library of
America has just published the first two volumes in a projected eight-volume
series of his collected works. The first two cover the years 1959 to '72 and
include "Portnoy's Complaint." A heads-up to parents: In this part of the
interview, we'll talk a bit about how Roth approached the subject of sex in

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 1969?

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 overreducing...

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: I know you don't want me to read from your book, but allow me to just
read a couple of lines from his monologue to his psychiatrist. "Look, am I
exaggerating to think it's practically miraculous that I'm ambulatory? The
hysteria and the superstition, the watch-its and the be-carefuls. `You
mustn't do this, you can't do that. Hold it! Don't! You're breaking an
important law.' What? Whose law? Doctor, these people are incredible. These
people are unbelievable. These two"--he's talking about his parents. "These
two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time. They
render it from me like fat from a chicken. `Call, Alex.' `Visit, Alex.'
`Alex, keep us informed.' Don't go away without telling us, please. Not
again.'" And so on. And he says to his psychiatrist, "I can't stand anymore
to be frightened like this over nothing. Bless me with manhood. Make me
brave. Make me strong. Make me whole. Enough being a nice Jewish boy,
publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putts. Enough."

So what made you want to write it in that voice of, like, basically, a long
confession and complaint to a psychiatrist?

Mr. ROTH: Well, can I tell you a little bit of the history of how the book
was written?

GROSS: Please.

Mr. ROTH: I think that'll answer...

GROSS: Yeah.

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 lead them to this legend, and I was impressed by the story.

When--in 1967, I had just finished a book called "When She Was Good," which is
in every way the antithesis of "Portnoy's Complaint" except for one thing.
It's about a daughter's rage against her family. She happens to be a
Midwestern girl, gentile, not Jewish. And her rage is against an alcoholic
father; a grandfather, who she thinks of as ineffectual and a husband who she
can't bear. And eventually she's destroyed by her own rage against them. I
think that set me up to write "Portnoy's Complaint." And so I began by
writing a short story which I called "A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis."
And I wrote it, 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. When you go back to "Goodbye Columbus,"
though, the diaphragm figures in it; that's a very indirect way of speaking of
their sexual activity, and that was fine with me. I was no more rambunctious
than anybody else. I needed an opening that would permit me to write about
things I knew about that I knew I could be interesting about, but where was I
going to get the permission to do it? Reading Henry Miller gave me a certain
kind of permission. He was marvelous, I thought, in "The Tropic of Cancer."

But aside from all that--maybe "Lolita" in some small way--I didn't know
anything in American literature where there was an open representation of the
madness, say, of masturbation. It's mad. And so I wrote the second
chapter--again, I didn't know it was the second chapter; I thought it was
another story--which was called "Whacking Off." Now I couldn't even have said
that on the radio back in 1969, and look how far we've come. At any rate, I
wrote this story about a character talking to his analyst about masturbating.
And I was--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 Philip Rahv, who was the editor, who was a wonderful critic and
literary critic and a very sardonic man, and maybe he took it as a joke; I
don't know. I mean, he published it as a joke. But there it was in the
Partisan Review, and on the cover of Partisan Review, it said: Whacking Off.

And that--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 `You're
free,' and...

GROSS: Well, it's interesting that despite heading toward a taboo, that you
felt you're free. Do you know what I mean? Because what's more taboo or what
was more taboo then than writing about masturbation? I mean...

Mr. ROTH: Well, I would--no, I don't think it was the most taboo subject. I
think it was writing about masturbation in a domestic Jewish situation that
was taboo.

GROSS: Right. Yeah, and all that to it, yeah.

Mr. ROTH: Sure. Because if you think of Henry Miller, the book was banned
here for many years, "Tropic of Cancer," but there are things far more taboo.
There's trafficking with whores, there's all kinds of stuff. This isn't
anybody trafficking--although I think he does it at one point I remember.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ROTH: But this was--the freedom came not from being a wild man. I was
free because I'd found the vessel into which to put this stuff. That is, the
vessel was the psychoanalytic session. There was my freedom, because he's
tried to solve the problem. And the problem has to do with something larger
than masturbation. You didn't think you'd ever hear me say that, did you?

GROSS: So what is the problem, as you see it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: Well, it has to do with brutality, I think, the discovery of one's
own brutality. I think that was most shocking and alarming about the book to
people, and, of course, you know many people were shocked and alarmed; many
people were outraged, and others were delighted and admiring, to be sure. But
among those who were shocked and outraged, I think they were shocked and
outraged by the revelation of brutality, brutality of feeling. I don't
necessarily mean physical brutality--there is some of that in the
book--brutality of feeling, brutality of attitude, brutality of anger and the
excesses that--`You say all this takes place in a Jewish family?' That was
what was shocking. That was the revelation that was shocking, not
masturbation per se.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of a collected eight-volume series of his collected
works. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
first two volumes, collecting his works from 1959 to '72 and including
"Portnoy's Complaint." A little earlier, he told us that he was teaching when
he got the idea for the characters of Portnoy, his domineering mother and
ineffectual father.

Now you mentioned that this was almost like folklore to you, 'cause you were
teaching and you'd read so many stories by your Jewish students about the...

Mr. ROTH: That's right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...domineering mother, the ineffectual father and the angry child. So
when you wrote this, inspired in part by seeing that this was, like, the
zeitgeist at the time, did you feel like you were writing in partly your own
voice, or did you feel like you were channeling, like, a voice of that
zeitgeist, a voice that was really not your own?

Mr. ROTH: Well, I felt that it was a performance, but I feel that about most
books. I don't mean a performance of a character; I mean the whole book is a
performance. This form I've found, this freedom I've found gave me the
opportunity to give a performance. It was a performance which had a comic
surface, a satiric surface and a grave underside. The comedy we know; it's in
the voice, but the grave underside is about the--not just the burden of
respectability but the burden of transgression, because he's raging against
his own transgressive self. You know, he's actually there to be cured. What
is it he wants to be cured of? Both. He wants to be relieved of the burden
of respectability and all that goes with it and convention and obedience. At
the same time, he wants to be relieved of the burden of transgression and
defiance and rage. And this is the pickle that he's in. And the brutality
that's depicted flows out of that clash, you know, between defying, as it
were, opposites: defying respectability and defying transgression.

I think that's what produced the energy. I think the book has that driving
it, which is energy. It also has a lot of social observation driving it. I
think the chapters I worked on after "Whacking Off," whose titles--one is "The
Jewish Blues" and the other I think I still can't say on the radio.


Mr. ROTH: And they're dense really with observation of the world, the
society he comes from, and its attitudes, and--I mean, the book had, after
all, had to have some body to it, too. It couldn't just be a rant. You have
to rant--to be interesting, you have to rant about something. I have to know
what you're ranting about. And it also has, I would say, genuine lyric
interludes because there's also a love song to the mother as well, and that's
the undercurrent really. There's a love song to the father as well. So it
isn't just--it's not written in one note, I don't think.

And then there's the ending, which I had my doubts about when I wrote it, and
I'd just as soon you wouldn't read from it now.

GROSS: Oh, OK. This book also became famous because of what it said about
Jewish middle-class life or Jewish working-class life. And--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. 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: I have to admit truly to never being prepared for anything in
terms of responses to my work. And I don't know whether other writers have
the same experience or not. And so the so-called controversies always take me
by surprise, and that--even in the case of the first book, in "Goodbye
Columbus," there was story called "Defender of the Faith" that appeared in The
New Yorker, and I was, of course, thrilled that I had a story in The New
Yorker. I was 24 or something, and I lived in New York in a little basement
apartment on East 10th Street, and I kept running out to 14th Street to the
magazine stands saying, `You got The New Yorker yet?' And the guy's saying,
`Leave me alone, will you?' I must have been out there 10 times that day to
get it. I was very excited. Finally it came in and I took it home and looked
at it 17 different ways. I held it upside down and so on. And lo and behold,
I got a call from the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League telling me that they
had had angry responses from lots of people, and could they meet with me?
Well, I was so delighted just to see the story in The New Yorker, the next
thing I knew I had these angry responses. That has happened to me more than
once, but I wasn't prepared then.

With "Portnoy's Complaint," I can't say that I wasn't prepared for something,
but 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
and remains--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

So I wasn't prepared for the size of the dose I got, but I understood it, and
I lived with it.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of a collected eight-volume series of his works. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
two volumes, collecting his works from 1959 to '72, including "Portnoy's
Complaint." When we left off, we were talking about how "Portnoy's Complaint"
dealt with sex and life within a neurotic Jewish family, which proved to be
very controversial.

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: I'm good at offending people who don't read the book.

GROSS: Yeah.

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. I didn't know that for a
while, but then I knew it from my publisher, Random House, the number of books
they were publishing and so on.

And so I was living in New York City at the time, and I invited them over to
have lunch with me. I invited my mother and father to come over from
Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they lived, to have lunch with me. And it wasn't
the first time that I invited them to come over to have lunch, but this was
special. I said I wanted to talk to them about something. 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 you and
they'll say they know your--their aunt knows your brother who knows their
cousin 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

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. That--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.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: `And he's--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 of
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

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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROTH: And I--and we had to have a second--we had our second about--we had
a series of lunches...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: ...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."'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: 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 the lives like rabbis and so on charged their son
was 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 ghostwriter, 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: I imagine one of the real big problems of "Portnoy's Complaint" was
figuring out what to do afterwards, because you were so identified with it and
it was written in such a strong voice and it was both so popular and so
objected to at the same time.

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How hard was that?

Mr. ROTH: It wasn't hard, actually, because the mode had come to interest
me, which was a kind of what I called a hyperealistic farce, and I was very
curious to see what I could do with it, with this kind of comedy. I had been
launched into this comedy by "Portnoy's Complaint," and I said to myself, `Go
with it. See what it yields.' I had no idea--you know, it was all new to me,
too. And so I wrote a long story called "On the Air," which I hadn't re-read
in many years, and then I wrote "Our Gang" and "The Breast" and "The Great
American Novel," all of which continued to see what I could mine using this
sort of comic sledgehammer, you know. And I went as far as I could, and I
don't know what it all adds up to, but I was very much in the mode and I
stayed in the mode.

GROSS: Well, Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us about some of
your early work. And I hope that as these volumes from the Library of America
continue to be published, we can continue to talk about your work and how it's
evolved. I've really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. ROTH: Good. Thank you.

GROSS: Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published the first two
volumes in a projected eight-volume collection of his works. And his latest
novel, "The Plot Against America," has just been published in paperback.


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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