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Monday, 22 December 2008

My Website

My website is temporarily disabled for reasons I can't quite identify, but will do soon. Thanks for your patience.


Theodore Roethke


by Theodore Roethke

In purest song one plays the constant fool
As changes shimmer in the inner eye.
I stare and stare into a deepening pool
And tell myself my image cannot die.
I love myself: that’s my one constancy.
Oh, to be something else, yet still to be!

Sweet Christ, rejoice in my infirmity;
There’s little left I care to call my own.
Today they drained the fluid from a knee
And pumped a shoulder full of cortisone;
Thus I conform to my divinity
By dying inward, like an aging tree.

The instant ages on the living eye;
Light on its rounds, a pure extreme of light
Breaks on me as my meager flesh breaks down—
The soul delights in that extremity.
Blessed the meek; they shall inherit wrath;
I’m son and father of my only death.

A mind too active is no mind at all;
The deep eye sees the shimmer on the stone;
The eternal seeks, and finds, the temporal,
The change from dark to light of the slow moon,
Dead to myself, and all I hold most dear,
I move beyond the reach of wind and fire.

Deep in the greens of summer sing the lives
I’ve come to love. A vireo whets its bill.
The great day balances upon the leaves;
My ears still hear the bird when all is still;
My soul is still my soul, and still the Son,
And knowing this, I am not yet undone.

Things without hands take hands: there is no choice,—
Eternity’s not easily come by.
When opposites come suddenly in place,
I teach my eyes to hear, my ears to see
How body from spirit slowly does unwind
Until we are pure spirit at the end.

Theodore Roethke, “Infirmity” from Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Copyright © 1963 by Beatrice Roethke, Administratrix of the Estate of Theodore Roethke. Reprinted with the permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Source: The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1961).

For more on Roethke - a summary guide - and further poems.

Monday, 13 October 2008

James Baldwin & Barack Obama

Colm Toibin's article on James Baldwin and Barack Obama, at its best, serves to remind one of how very fine a writer Baldwin was, how unique his position in American society, and how needful it is to be reminded of both his life and his work. It also has the effect of making one eager for Obama's presidential autobiography eight years hence, or, less eagerly, should he not succeed, his account of this year's election: out of his failure might come a better book, but it's one I hope we never get to read. The article in full can be found at The New York Review of Books.

Colm Tóibín

It seemed important, as both men set about making their marks on the world, for them to establish before anything else that their stories began when their fathers died and that they set out alone without a father's shadow or a father's permission. James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, published in 1951, begins: "On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died." Baldwin was almost nineteen at the time. Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, begins also with the death of his father: "A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news."

Both men quickly then established their own actual distance from their fathers, which made their grief sharper and more lonely, but also made clear to the reader that they had a right to speak with authority, to offer this version of themselves partly because they themselves, through force of will and a steely sense of character, had invented the voice they were now using, had not been trained by any other man to be the figure they had become.[1] "I had not known my father very well," Baldwin wrote.

We got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized that I had hardly ever spoken to him. When he had been dead a long time I began to wish I had.

Of his father, Barack Obama wrote:

At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man. He had left Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two years old, so that as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told.

Both men then, using photographs and memories, commented on their fathers' blackness. In both cases it seemed important to state or suggest that the father was more black than the son. Baldwin wrote that there was something buried in his father which had lent him

his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty.

When Obama was a child, he wrote, "my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk."

In both cases too, the writers sought to make clear that their fathers' pasts were not their own pasts, but the past as a different country, a country they did not share. "He was of the first generation of free men," Baldwin wrote.

He, along with thousands of other Negroes, came North after 1919 and I was part of that generation which had never seen the landscape of what Negroes sometimes call the Old Country.

Obama's father was from a place even more distant: "He was an African, I would learn, a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a place called Alego."

Although Obama mentions in passing in Dreams from My Father that he had read Baldwin when he was a young community activist in Chicago, there is no hint in the book that he modeled his own story in any way on Baldwin's work. In both of their versions of who they became in America and how, there are considerable similarities and shared key moments not because Obama was using Baldwin as a template or an example, but because the same hurdles and similar circumstances and the same moments of truth actually occurred almost naturally for both of them.

Baldwin and Obama, although in different ways, experienced the church and intense religious feeling as key elements in their lives. They both traveled and discovered while abroad, almost as a shock, an essential American identity for themselves while in the company of non-Americans who were black. They both came to see, in a time of bitter political division, some shared values with the other side. They both used eloquence with an exquisite, religious fervor.

As Northerners, they both were shocked by the South. They both had to face up to the anger, the rage, which lay within them, and everyone like them, as a way of taking the poison out of themselves. It is almost as though, in their search for power—Baldwin becoming the finest American prose stylist of his generation, Obama the first black nominee for president of the United States—they would both have to gain wisdom, both bitter and sweet, at the same fount, since no other fount was available. Their story is in some ways the same story because it could hardly have been otherwise.

In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote about rage:

There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.

In his speech on race in March 2008, Barack Obama, in tones more measured, more patient, but no less urgent, dealt with the same issues as they were experienced more than fifty years after Baldwin's essay appeared:

That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations—those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

In his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, Baldwin wrote with remarkable intensity about the power of prayer and preaching for an otherwise powerless community, the sense of time spent in church as a time filled with soaring possibilities in contrast to the bitter world outside. It was as though that very bitterness offered the congregation a unique insight into the suffering of Christ and made the congregation for that time of prayer and preaching a chosen people whose spiritual exaltation, in all its fiery rhetoric and colorful abandon, could never be experienced by white people.

Baldwin matched his novel with an essay, "Down at the Cross," published in 1962, where he wrote about his own conversion as an adolescent filled with doubts and fears and ambitions and a sharp sense of exclusion:

One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me.

Baldwin made it clear that the black experience in America could not be described using merely political terms; it could not be dealt with as a set of demands that could simply be satisfied by legislation. Because black suffering had been transformed so secretly and so completely by black religious leaders into spiritual suffering, what happened in black churches would have to be fully understood, dramatized, and explained before any solution would be possible. His first novel and his essay "Down at the Cross" sought to let white America into the secret that was Sunday for the black community:

The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I really never have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord.... Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they say, "the Word"—when the church and I were one.

Out of oppression then came a freedom that only the church could offer and that gave the church a special, defining power for black communities, which was both beyond politics and deeply political, a power the Catholic Church in Poland and Ireland would also have. "Perhaps we were, all of us," Baldwin wrote,

bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama described finding religion in Chicago, hearing about the history of the black church in America, the

history of slave religion,...Africans who, newly landed on hostile shores, had sat circled around a fire mixing newfound myths with ancient rhythms, their songs becoming a vessel for those most radical of ideas—survival, and freedom, and hope.

He described attending a sermon given by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago:

People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years swirl about me.... The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.

The sermons heard in those churches preached not only about eternal life and the ethereal life of the soul, but about the sufferings of the soul on this earth, in this America, and the emotions to which this suffering gave rise, including despair and anger. In March 2008 Obama would try to explain that anger as one of the many essential parts of the religious services that black people had been attending all of their lives, the services that Baldwin had dramatized and described, and that the white majority had been excluded from. "The fact," Obama said,

that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

Obama's church was like the one that Baldwin described in Go Tell It on the Mountain, a place where "all the men seemed mighty," that "rocked with the Power of God," that offered the community a sort of nobility and unity and sense of transcendence not available elsewhere. "That has been my experience at Trinity," Obama said in March 2008.

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety—the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

Baldwin was a child preacher, and that tone never left his system, just as it is part of the rhetoric he came to use later on. Since both men made clear that the church was not a place where arguments were held, but rather where souls were lifted up by grace as much as by language, where voices rose not in reason but in pure denial of reason for the sake of a great salvation, then to isolate some of Reverend Wright's views as expressed in his sermons and ask Obama to distance himself from them was to miss the point.

Had their ambitions been less focused and their personalities less complex, Baldwin and Obama could easily have become pastors, preachers, leaders of black churches. But for both of them there was a shadow, a sense of an elsewhere that would form them and make them, eventually, more interested in leading America itself, or as much of it as would follow, than merely leading their own race in America. Both of them would discover their essential Americanness outside America, Baldwin in France, the home of some of his literary ancestors, Obama in Kenya, the home of his father.

There is a peculiar intensity in the quality of their engagement with these foreign countries. Indeed, there are very few American writers born in the twentieth century whose level of involvement with another country equals Baldwin's with France; and it is impossible to think of another American politician who has been involved in the life of another country as Obama has been with Kenya.

Baldwin and Obama did not merely observe these countries, finding out much about foreign morals, manners, and social problems. What is crucial in both cases is that what they most fruitfully observed in the end was themselves. What they found within themselves changed them profoundly and made them different from everyone else around them; what they found gave these two fatherless men, already possessed of an eloquence which came from a source hidden from most Americans, a new power and a freedom and a sense of a destiny to fulfill.

Baldwin moved to Paris in November 1948 when he was twenty-four. "I left America," he wrote in 1959,

because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here.... I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.

In these years it occurred to him that while he was a stranger in Europe, he was not, as he had supposed, such a stranger in his own country. In one essay, describing life in a Swiss village, he wrote:

No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa.

In his introduction to Nobody Knows My Name, published in 1961, Baldwin wrote of his stay in France: "The question of who I was had at last become a personal question." In one of the essays in that book he described attending the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956 and finding an enormous gap between himself and the writers who had come from Africa:

For what, at bottom, distinguished the Americans from the Negroes who surrounded us, men from Nigeria, Senegal, Barbados, Martinique...was the banal and abruptly quite overwhelming fact that we had been born in a society, which, in a way quite inconceivable for Africans, and no longer real for Europeans, was open, and, in a sense which has nothing to do with justice or injustice, was free. It was a society, in short, in which nothing was fixed and we had therefore been born to a greater number of possibilities, wretched as these possibilities seemed at the instant of our birth. Moreover, the land of our forefathers' exile had been made, by that travail, our home.

Baldwin summed up the result of his experience in France: "I found myself, willy-nilly, alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil."

The realization that he was an American, albeit one who came into being through alchemy, had a profound impact on Baldwin not only as a political thinker and essayist, but as an artist. It allowed him to write two masterpieces—Giovanni's Room and Another Country—in which the souls of white people are examined with sympathy and tenderness; it allowed him to formulate a credo, as an artist who wrote also about black people, that their fate should not be predetermined by their color but by the intimate spaces hidden in their souls. Our failure to love with due care became his subject; his genius was to spread that failure wide, make it an existential problem, almost a religious one, rather than one which could be solved, for example, by liberal legislation. It also allowed him to realize that the history of black America belonged to whites as much as to blacks and that the

black-white experience [in America] may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

Thus when William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967 and was attacked by African-American critics for stealing the voice of a slave for his fiction, he was defended by Baldwin: "He has begun the common history—ours." Later, Baldwin told The Paris Review:

I admired him for confronting it, and the result.... He writes out of reasons similar to mine—about something that hurt him and frightened him.[2]

Although there are moments in Baldwin's speeches and writings that are more bitter and more sectarian than the main body of his writing, his work seems astonishingly wise and forgiving, constantly ready to include the other side, insisting that the complex fate of being an American involved America in its both rich and hidden diversity and its both gnarled and noble history. It appears that such wisdom and sense of forgiveness came from how he lived, from his walking the streets of European cities knowing that he was not at home and slowly realizing where home was. Home, oddly enough, was the United States.

On his first trip to Kenya, before he went to Harvard Law School, Barack Obama, who was twenty-seven, sensed his father's ghostly presence in the streets of Nairobi:

I see him in the schoolboys who run past us, their lean, black legs moving like piston rods between blue shorts and oversized shoes. I hear him in the laughter of the pair of university students who sip sweet creamed tea and eat samosas in a dimly lit teahouse. I smell him in the cigarette smoke of the businessman who covers one ear and shouts into a pay phone; in the sweat of a day laborer who loads gravel into a wheelbarrow, his face and bare chest covered with dust. The Old Man's here, I think, although he doesn't say anything to me. He's here, asking me to understand.

In these chapters of his autobiography, as Obama attempted to make sense of his Kenyan heritage, there is a sharp feeling that this was an interlude in the life of an earnest American, at times a form of tourism, at other times a serious effort to resolve the most complex matters of identity and selfhood. There is a moment when he sat by the graves of his ancestors and wept:

When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close.... I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain. My questions were my brothers' questions. Their struggle, my birthright.

This passage displays the great difference between Baldwin's sensibility and that of Obama. Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don't need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted. Whereas Baldwin longed to disturb the peace, create untidy truths, Obama was slowly becoming a politician.

Despite his best effort to reconcile his own life at home with that of his Kenyan father, the chapters about Kenya in Dreams from My Father show Obama puzzled and ill at ease. Later, in his book The Audacity of Hope, he moved closer to the truth when he described his wife's admission on a flight back from Kenya to Chicago that

she was looking forward to getting home. "I never realized just how American I was," she said. She hadn't realized just how free she was—or how much she cherished that freedom.

Just as Obama, in his increasing urge to inspire, a necessary aspect of his calling perhaps, often seeks a rhetoric free of bitterness and high on healing, Baldwin, in his urge to speak difficult truths, to tell white people what they least wished to hear, sometimes moved toward a tone which was almost shrill. In his great good humor, however, he would perhaps enjoy more than anyone else reading this passage from an essay written by him in 1965:

I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted.... We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.

Obama, running for President forty-three years later, just three years too late to fulfill what Robert Kennedy saw as conceivable, as Baldwin saw as far too late, ends Dreams from My Father with the phrase, "I felt like the luckiest man alive." Later, when he won his first election to the US Senate, he wrote:

Still, there was no point in denying my almost spooky good fortune. I was an outlier, a freak; to political insiders, my victory proved nothing.

Similarly, Baldwin in 1985 wrote about his own unique position and attitude in the formative years in Greenwich Village: "there were very few black people in the Village in those years, and of that handful, I was decidedly the most improbable." More than twenty years earlier he had written:

To become a Negro man, let alone a Negro artist, one had to make oneself up as one went along.... My revenge, I decided very early, would be to achieve a power which outlasts kingdoms.

Both men set about establishing their authority by exploring themselves and how they came to make it up as they went along, as much as by exploring the world around them. In Obama's own mixed background and complex heritage he saw America; out of his own success, he saw hope and a new set of values. Out of his own childhood Baldwin produced a number of enduring literary masterpieces and out of his efforts to make sense of his own complex, playful personality and his own unique place in history he produced some of the best essays written in the twentieth century. Reading these essays and Obama's speeches, especially the ones that are high on inspiration and short on policy, one is struck by the connection between them, two men remaking the world against all the odds in their own likeness, not afraid to ask, when faced with the future of America as represented by its children, using Baldwin's wonderful phrase, questions that are alien to most politicians: "What will happen to all that beauty?"


[1]John McCain's Faith of My Fathers (Random House, 1999), on the other hand, sets out on page one to establish levels of continuity between generations of men in his family: "My grandfather loved his children. And my father admired his grandfather above all others."

[2]Styron's wonderfully wise and affectionate obituary of Baldwin is included in a recently published collection of Styron's personal essays: Havanas in Camelot (Random House, 2008). He wrote:

James Baldwin was the grandson of a slave. I was the grandson of a slave owner.... We both were writing about the tangled relations of blacks and whites in America, and because he was wise Jimmy understood the necessity of dealing with the preposterous paradoxes that had dwelled at the heart of the racial tragedy.... I think our common preoccupation helped make us good friends.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Philip Roth at 75 - Indignation

Philip Roth's latest work Indignation is getting respectful but grudging reviews. His greatness seems inarguable and the late flowering from Sabbath's Theatre onwards is near miraculous in its certainty, surprise and ambition, but most of the reviews for Indignation have been sniffy about its length and seeming slightness - note the dismissive use and discussion of 'novella' and 'novellette' in Mcrum's otherwise excellent article that follows this.
I remember similar muted praise greeting The Dying Animal, suggesting that, Roth, when not working on the full canvas of The Human Stain or American Pastoral, is offering something more terminal and vaporous and hurriedly done, but slightness and brevity are the the short novel's virtues, and the terminal and vaporous apt qualities for this short, sustained and tender work.
McCrum's interview is interestingly complicated in its response to both the man and his work, and a good thumbnail sketch of his work as a whole, and worth reading in full. The Observer link above will lead to other Roth and McCrum related articles.

From Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral, Philip Roth's jostling alter egos have provided the literary world with some of the great masterpieces of the past half-century. Here, as he celebrates his 75th birthday, the novelist talks to Robert McCrum about losing friends, living alone and why the next book will be his last

It was the last weekend of summer - the Democratic convention looming; a late heatwave baffling the chills of fall - when I drove upstate from New York City to meet Philip Roth at home in northwest Connecticut. It's like Switzerland round here - sparkling streams; plush, manicured properties; perfect meadows - with countless American flags advertising an air of patriotic entitlement. Roth's remote grey clapboard house, dating to the revolution, is high on a hill down a quiet country road, not hard to find, but some miles from the nearest village, which is really a nothing place with two antique stores.

The tall figure who emerges from among the apple trees in greeting wears grey tracksuit bottoms and a long-sleeved grey sweatshirt that makes me think of prison garb in some progressive correctional regime. Before I find the composure to take in the burning intensity of his expression, the smooth grey features and interrogative tilt of the head, reminiscent of an American eagle, my first impression is that Philip Roth looks as much like a Supreme Court judge on furlough as one of his country's most admired writers.

In his own words, from the opening of The Ghost Writer, you could 'begin to understand why hiding out twelve hundred feet up in the mountains with just the birds and the trees might not be a bad idea for a writer, Jewish or not... Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one's concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling.' Like his hero Zuckerman, Roth seems to have thought, 'This is how I will live.'

We walk slowly across the cool, nicely rambling grass to a kind of gauzy yurt, a converted fruit cage with garden chairs in which Roth and his guests can enjoy bug-free conversation. Stepping into this bubble feels like entering the outdoor jurisdiction of the writer's mind.

'Let's work,' says Roth, stretching back on his sun-baked recliner to signal the start of the interview. It sounds informal, but the truth is that all conversations with the author of Portnoy's Complaint are highly controlled: your questions submitted in advance; the transcript scrutinised afterwards; the watchful eye of agents and publicists along the way. Make no mistake: we are being admitted into a well-defended environment.

In the American literary undergrowth, Philip Roth is a big beast as fabulous as the hippogriff, rarely sighted, spoken of with awe, and the subject of wild, sometimes scandalised, gossip. Ever since Portnoy, he has endured the kind of attention that might drive you to crave solitude, or into paranoia: incessant self-abuse jokes, a persistent drizzle of hostility and the envious scrutiny of lesser writers. Now, more than 50 years after he began to write, the author of The Counterlife and American Pastoral might agree with Peter De Vries, who observed of American literary life that 'one dreams of the goddess Fame - and winds up with the bitch Publicity'.

This house in Connecticut represents the private, contemplative Roth. His apartment in New York sponsors something more public. There, as his literary biographer Hermione Lee has written, 'going out with Philip Roth in Manhattan is like going out with Louis XIV in Versailles: the king is in his kingdom'. The writer himself says that his appetite for exposure lies somewhere between the reclusiveness of JD Salinger and the self-advertising of the late Norman Mailer.

Flitting between the private and the public, Roth today is as much of a literary celebrity as either of these near contemporaries. He owes this to Portnoy of course, and also to his lifetime's writing: Roth has never taken his eyes off the prize, or neglected the artistic duty of work. Compared with his peers, and compared with virtually any American writer of stature, Roth's output, for a man in his seventies and with some 29 books behind him, is astonishing. Never a day passes when he does not stare at those three hateful words: qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, and zxcvbnm. 'I'm over in my studio most of the day,' he says. 'I return to the house every night, like a workman coming back from the fiction factory: "I'm home, honey."'

Except that now there's no honey at home. Divorced from his second wife, Claire Bloom, in 1993, Roth lives totally alone out here, cooking his own meals and keeping to himself. 'I've fallen out of any kind of social world,' he says.

'I don't really know anybody up here any longer.'

Once, he lived here year round, but in old age he finds the winters too brutal. He has 'a place in New York' and says that when he's there 'I see people; usually I have dinner with somebody in the evening.' But, either in the country or the city, he sticks to the schedule he's always worked, morning, noon and night, 365 days a year. 'I am,' he once said, 'very much like somebody who spends all day writing.'

Now he's more isolated than ever. 'All my friends around here have died,' he says, running through the honour roll. 'Richard Widmark? Dick died about two months ago. Arthur Miller, he died; he lived half an hour away. And Bill Styron. And I had a very good pal, a doctor in the next town over who I was very close to. So I'm four for four,' he says, sadly slipping into baseball jargon. Death, observed WH Auden, is like the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic. Roth's roll-call tells him that the picnic is drawing to a close, that death is out there, waiting. 'It seems to creep into one book after another,' he remarks.

'I don't think anybody's gotten out alive in my last five books.'

With Roth, art and life are strangely braided. 'I made a list of people who've died in the past few years. It's staggering. The funerals and the eulogies keep it all in mind.' Does he speak at these funerals? 'I speak at some. It's not a genre I've mastered, the eulogy. I find it very difficult.'

Similarly, Roth can't quite believe his age. 'I'm 75, a strange number,' he volunteers. 'It's a strange discovery, for me at any rate. In your early years you don't go to funerals every six months.' Among his peers, there has been a steady winnowing: Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut, and most recently, Norman Mailer. These were not all close friends, but he knows he's playing in injury time.

Roth's place in American letters is not just a matter of seniority, or productivity. The sequence of novels, well-wrought explorations of his country's recent past, that began in 1997 when Roth was in his mid-sixties - an age when many writers would have been content to rest on their laurels - amounts to an extraordinary portrait that has been saluted by critics on both sides of the Atlantic: American Pastoral, an elegy for American family life set in the Vietnam era; his blistering portrait of Eve Frame in I Married A Communist (1998); The Human Stain (2000); The Dying Animal (2001); The Plot Against America (2004); Everyman (2006) and finally, his farewell to Zuckerman, Exit Ghost (2007). This list is testament to as remarkable a late-season career surge as any in living memory and leaves all his competitors standing in his dust.

And it's not over yet. His latest, Indignation, was published last week. He knows it's short, and possibly slight. A volume of some 230 pages, Indignation narrates the morphine-induced recollections of the young Marcus Messner, a fatally wounded conscript in the Korean war. Messner will die in the closing pages of the novel, and it is ambiguous how much his memories are actually posthumous or feverishly imagined on the point of death.

Humorously, Roth says it stands somewhere between a novella and, 'a worse word', a novelette. 'The publisher called it a novel. They tell me "novel" is a better word to use.' In repose, Roth's expression can be severe, even intimidating. When he smiles, everything lights up, and for a moment the world becomes an easier place to be.

People who are close to him, friends I spoke to in London and New York, always say that, in the right mood, he can be one of the funniest men alive. But today he is working, explaining how he made his latest book from the discarded pages of another story, and the occasional laugh lines in this conversation do not translate into print.

In American literature, the 'posthumous novel' is a rare device, exploited most recently in Alice Sebold's bestseller The Lovely Bones. Momentarily professorial, Roth is quick to acknowledge that it's not original, pointing out that Epitaph for a Small Winner, by the 19th-century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, employs the same narrative point of view. The truth is that it's not wholly successful, though the prose seems undiminished; but Roth is untroubled. 'In the morphine sleep he doesn't know where he is, so he imagines he's dead... If it's ambiguous, that's OK, too.'

Anyway, Roth's real concern in Indignation is to explore the world of a Jewish boy, born and raised in Newark in the Thirties and Forties, a young man who flees his over-protective parents to enrol in a liberal arts college away from home and come of age in the America of the Fifties, a young man curiously similar, in outward appearance, to Roth himself.

At this point veteran Roth readers will exclaim with a sigh, Here we go again. But what did they expect? The point about Roth is that he is the most interesting person he knows, and quite unabashed about his extraordinary singularity.

Describing his own chapel attendances at Bucknell College in rural Pennsylvania, which mirror those of Marcus Messner, he says he felt 'like a Houyhnhnm who had strayed on to the campus from Gulliver's Travels'.

That is the writer's authentic voice. Roth, as Martin Amis says, 'is somehow inordinately unique. He is himself, himself, himself.' To another of his many interviewers he declared, simply: 'I'm the emergency.' Sitting here in the afternoon sunshine, he instinctively frames himself as a character, almost in the third person. 'I'm like an old man,' he says, as if not quite willing to concede that he might actually be old. Friends confirm that there is no one more competitive with himself than Roth. Similarly, if there is one person who has celebrated Philip Roth and his legend it must be Roth himself. What interests him, he writes in Deception, 'is the terrible ambiguity of the "I", the way a writer makes a myth of himself and, particularly, why'. One place to start might be his origins.

Philip Roth was born into a family of second-generation Jews, 'before pantyhose and frozen food,' he says, in the year of Hitler's rise to power, 1933. His parents were intensely, even maddeningly, devoted to their son. 'To be at all,' he writes of his mother and father in his autobiography, The Facts, 'is to be her Philip, but in the embroilment of the buffeting world, my history still takes its spin from beginning as his Roth.'

Roth's sensibilities will always be marked by the themes and tempo of the 'low, dishonest decade' into which he was born, but just as influential was his milieu: a lower middle-class Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, a suburban city that occupies the kind of relation to the metropolis that, say, Croydon does to London.

He was, and is, a passionate American, a baseball fanatic who at one point cheerfully refers to himself as 'a Yank'. After himself, the great, wounded republic is his subject. Years ago, in The Facts, he wrote: 'It's hard to imagine that anyone of intelligence growing up in America since the Vietnam War can have had our unambiguous sense, as young adolescents immediately after the victory over Nazi fascism and Japanese militarism, of belonging to the greatest nation on earth.' Today, looking back at the Fifties from a post-Bush perspective, he disputes this, saying, 'There never was a golden age.' It is, nonetheless, a moment in American history that dominates the brief narrative of Indignation

The Newark of Roth's childhood was 'still largely white', but already in decline, which is perhaps why he remains so attached to it. Today, the city is almost wholly black, with a black mayor and the civic afflictions of drug-related criminality. 'My old neighbourhood is bad, but the whole city is bad. Downtown, there's lots of people selling stuff on the street, mostly stolen goods. I wouldn't wander around the streets by myself. So it's pretty bad, and very depressing, too.'

Newark and Newarkness shaped Roth's life profoundly, and continue to do so, as though he has never left. He and his fellow Newark-ite Paul Auster like to speculate about making a literary pilgrimage to their roots. He says, half in jest: 'We'd have to take a cop with us. It's very dangerous.' Indignation, indeed, opens in Newark and celebrates its ethnic vitality with a thunderous crescendo: 'hard-working, coarse-grained, bribe-ridden, semi-xenophobic Irish-Italian-German-Slavic-Jewish-Negro Newark'.

Many of the great American writers are creatures of their neighbourhood. Bellow has Chicago, Fitzgerald jazz-age Manhattan, and Faulkner Yoknapatawpha County. Updike cleaves to Massachusetts, and for Roth it's Newark. So much so that the city has named a plaza for him. He's proud of this, in an ironical way. 'You'll score better drugs on Roth Plaza than Malamud Plaza,' he jokes, adding that 'the then mayor has now been indicted, tried, and convicted on various illegalities.'

In old age, he recoils from urban extremism, but as a young man he relished it. Roth has said his adolescent experience was 'about our aggression, our going out into Newark, three or four of us, wandering the streets at night, shooting crap in back of the high school with flashlights, girls, going after your date to this gathering place called Syd's on Chancellor Avenue and telling your sex stories... Appetite. Maybe that's the word. It was the appetites that were aggressive.'

In this highly verbal, frustrated and competitive hothouse the young Roth incubated the wild, comic voice that would explode into American consciousness with Portnoy's notorious 'complaint'. The Jewishness of old Newark shaped Roth in another way, too. Through all the subsequent phases of his literary life, there is a consistent character thread, which many readers have found intensely, almost viscerally, appealing. Perhaps it was this psychic inheritance that inspired Roth to boast about 'my good fortune in being born a Jew'. As much as he is infuriated by the predicament in which it has landed him, he enjoys the originality. 'It's a complicated, interesting, morally demanding and very singular experience,' he says, 'and I like that.'

The classic Roth protagonist, who surfaces once again in Indignation, is painfully intelligent, self-aware and over-protected. An instinctive aesthete, he is divided between mind and body, sex and reason, family and self, desire and duty. A martyr to neurasthenia, this troubled figure is tormented by impossible (even mad) women, overweening parents and, worst of all, a bad conscience. Over the years, Roth has had a hard time from some feminists, and now strongly resists the suggestion that there is - shall we say? - a strain of craziness in many of his fictional women.

'Well, let's see,' he replies equably, as if enunciating a quasi-biblical exegesis. 'In Exit Ghost there isn't, I don't think. There are two sane women there. And in Everyman the women are all sane. There's a crazy one in When She Was Good (1967) and another in My Life As a Man (1974). I think proportional to the population I have the right number of crazy women.' So, there you are, QED.

Roth's novels brilliantly anatomise the manic carousel of passionate feelings. Mixed with the volatile chemistry of his own temperament, his Jewishness and an indefinable lower middle-class awkwardness vis à vis that great unmentionable, American class, seem to have inspired plenty of rage, to use a less genteel synonym for 'indignation'. 'Rage', 'revenge', 'acrimony' - these words pop up all over the landscape of Roth's work. Now, perhaps, in his mid-seventies, there's a softening. The 'indignation' of his new book may be 'the most beautiful word in the English language', but it comes from the Chinese national anthem, the one we all heard during the Beijing Olympics.

Like Marcus Messner, the young Roth was taught in grade school by left-leaning teachers who, in addition to patriotic songs such as 'Anchors Away', at weekly assembly, encouraged their kids to learn clunky Chinese propaganda:

Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!

Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen,

Arise! Arise! Arise!

In one of the more surreal scenes from America's wartime mobilisation, Roth says that in Newark you had 'all these little Jewish kids belting out the Chinese national anthem! The only Chinese we knew was the laundryman.'

We agree, now, that this is a lost world, almost as remote as the stagecoach or the silver dollar. Who, meeting the grade A student Philip Milton Roth in 1953 (the year in which he locates the end of Indignation) could have foreseen his literary life? The Roth of myth was yet to come, and all but invisible.

In the Fifties, indeed, young Roth followed a career path that might have fashioned him into the kind of literature professor you might find in one of his novels - sombre, mildly lecherous, immersed in literature. 'I thought I was going to be an English professor, but six months into my PhD I couldn't stand it. So I dropped out, and began to write. I got $800 from Esquire for a story.'

Looking back on those times, he confesses to a pessimism now about the future of what he calls 'aesthetic literacy'. There was then, he says, 'a literary wedge in the culture'. He explains, 'There were probably 30 literary quarterlies in America at that time. The most famous were the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review and the Hudson Review - most of them are now out of business - but there were 15 or 20 more. So if you wrote a short story, you'd get a publisher. There was a truly literary culture, very small, but that culture's gone. There were people who read seriously, and their numbers were far greater than they are now. You can say, what's the difference if you have 50,000 or 20,000 readers?'

In answer to the question, What is the difference? Roth tells the story of his friend, the Romanian writer Norman Manea. 'Under Ceausescu, Norman went to an older writer from the Party to complain about his readership. The man said, "Norman, all a writer needs are eight readers. Think about it. Why do you need more than eight readers? That's enough. [Pause.] You, unfortunately, have only three,"' Roth laughs. 'Well, we're down to three here, too.' More soberly, he rejects the contemporary evidence of literary striving as a sham, and has no patience with Creative Writing, which he thinks is a waste of time. 'American college students don't take expository writing, which they desperately need, but they take Creative Writing, which is like taking doodling.'

Roth was never a doodler. There was always a moral seriousness to his work. But then he discovered the cost of exploring his Jewishness, and perhaps this is one source of the rage that permeates his work. In April 1959, another early story, 'Defender of the Faith', published in the New Yorker, so offended some Jewish readers with its suggestion that a Jewish soldier might exploit the Jewish sensitivities of his Jewish commanding officer to secure preferential treatment that the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith stepped in.

Suddenly 'Philip Roth' was the subject of synagogue gossip and household arguments. His offence, which now seems impossibly arcane, was compounded the following year by the inclusion of the story in his debut volume, Goodbye Columbus. For much of the Sixties he was declared a traitor to his people, abused and denounced up and down as worse than anti-Semitic. 'I defended myself,' he recalls, 'but I was thrown by it, a big assault at 26. I could handle it, but I didn't like it.'

Of course, this tribal brouhaha was nothing compared with the scandal of Portnoy's Complaint, which came out at the end of the Sixties. Portnoy's Complaint, which made him a celebrity, is an iconic book that changed everything, pitching him headlong into a world of banal public curiosity.

Roth has often said he cannot identify any single experience from which Portnoy's Complaint originated. In early drafts it was 'The Jewboy'; then a play (workshopped by Dustin Hoffman); then 'Whacking Off'; then a short story, 'A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis', and finally, with the appearance of his psychoanalyst, Portnoy's Complaint

This 'wild blue shocker' (Life), a novel in the guise of a confession, was an immediate bestseller. Taken by hundreds of thousands of American readers as a confession in the guise of a novel, it placed its author inexorably centre stage in the minds of his audience. He's been there ever since.

To my suggestion that he might have unconsciously courted outrage with Portnoy's Complaint, after his experience of the Jewish-American persecution complex, he replies carefully, 'I don't have any sense of audience, and least of all when I'm writing. The audience I'm writing for is me, and I'm so busy trying to figure the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I think of is: "What is X, Y or Z going to be thinking of it?"' Whatever the motivation, there was no going back. 'Literature got me into this,' says his character Peter Tarnopol in The Great American Novel, 'and literature is gonna have to get me out.'

Perhaps writing literary fiction was hardly an ideal escape route, but it was what he knew. Roth's work in the early Seventies seemed to exhibit what one critic dubbed 'the perils of an over-literary mind'. After the wild comedy of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth experimented with satire (Our Gang), satirical fantasy (The Breast), the chaotic fantasies of The Great American Novel, and the 'miraculous mess' of My Life as a Man. Finally, he settled, in young middle age, into his exploration of the self, through Tarnopol, through Kepesh (The Professor of Desire) and eventually Zuckerman (The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound). This was the middle period of Roth's career, and it coincided with his relationship with Claire Bloom, who decided early on that she wanted 'to spend my life with this remarkable man'.

When the British actress first met Roth in 1975, she says she found him 'daunting and flattering', but within a year they were lovers, and soon Bloom was visiting him here in Connecticut, becoming a kind of muse. The Professor of Desire (1977) is dedicated to her, and this mid-season ferment also yielded, among others, The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Counterlife (1986), one of his very finest and most original novels.

By then, the Roth-Bloom liaison was so well-established on both sides of the Atlantic that he was spending half the year in London and had found a studio in Notting Hill. Despite an inevitable struggle with what he felt to be English anti-Semitism, he says he liked living in England. 'I met lots of people and made many friends, more friends than I had in New York, strangely; and I liked going back and forth.'

The intimacy of Roth's connection to England is captured in Deception, a novel narrated entirely in dialogue, which imagines a literary man's affair with, among others, a middle-class English woman. The raw immediacy of this fiction, with its Rothian declaration that 'In my imagination I am unfaithful to everybody', provoked a crisis with Bloom, who writes in her memoir of this episode that, 'I no longer gave a damn whether these girlfriends were erotic fantasies. What left me speechless - though not for long - was that he would paint a picture of me as a jealous wife who is betrayed over and over again. I found the portrait nasty and insulting.'

Almost simultaneously with this rift, Roth suffered a freak breakdown (induced by the Halcion prescribed after knee surgery) together with a new, and urgent, longing to come home. 'I began to feel less and less connected to America. I began to feel I was losing touch with American life. And so by 1989 I realised I couldn't do this any more. So I came back. It was a wonderful return home, because I rediscovered an old subject, which was this country, and I began to write those books about America. It was the best situation. I found a new subject which was an old subject that I knew. All the old stuff was fresh for me.'

In 1993, there was a second renewal. He got divorced from Claire Bloom and entered the phase that has culminated in Exit Ghost and Indignation. 'Freedom, it's called,' he says, freighting the sentence with an almost tangible exhilaration. Now he was in the clear. He could come and go as he pleased. He could work where, how and whenever he chose, read as he pleased, and revel in the exploration of his many selves. So does he, I wondered, read his contemporaries?

'No, I don't, and it's not out of principle. I don't read very much fiction any longer. If I'm going to read something I much prefer to read non-fiction. And I do; I read every night. I re-read. That's what I've been doing. Last month I was re-reading Camus. I haven't read The Plague in 40 years.' Recently he's also re-read Turgenev and Conrad.

Which brings us to the re-reading of Roth himself. Portnoy's Complaint is still a recklessly funny tour de force, but a young man's book and a great comedy of its time. From his middle age, many novels of Roth's literary self-obsession do not weather well. They seem contrived, and rather lacking in humanity. At this point in the game, perhaps the best you can say is that he still harbours an ambition for simple greatness that has, thus far, seemed to slip through his fingers.

Roth's prose, famously, displays the artifice of no artifice. On the page, he achieves a voice that's plain, natural and close to the everyday rhythms of speech. At its finest it is breathtaking, lean, sleek and muscular, a downhill racer, with a mesmerising momentum and demotic zest. Throughout his writing, he exhibits a deep admiration for two English writers, Shakespeare and George Orwell. It was Orwell who celebrated 'good prose' being 'like a window pane', and I think Roth's clarity derives in part from Orwell, whose great books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were published in the Forties, at an impressionable stage of Roth's adolescence.

But when you try to approach this tetchy, isolated man through his books, the difficulties pile up. The lives in the novels, weighed down with 'the terrible ambiguity of the "I"', lack the simplicity of the prose. Rather, they hover in a no-man's-land between imagination and reality. This is because the author himself is elusive, indifferent and defensive towards vulgar efforts to locate him. Like many comic writers, he seems troubled, and especially by the attentions of the outside world. He prefers his solitary confinement, and his library.

Enter Roth's world and you step into a hall of mirrors. Roth has done himself in so many different voices that, facing the title page of Indignation, 'books by Philip Roth', some 29, are now catalogued as 'Zuckerman' (eight titles, including The Anatomy Lesson), 'Roth' (five, including Operation Shylock and Deception), 'Kepesh' (three, including The Dying Animal, recently filmed as Elegy, starring Penélope Cruz), as well as 'Other' (10, including Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus.

His preferred critic, Hermione Lee, gives the best account of this: 'Lives into stories, stories into lives: that's the name of Roth's double game.' The playfulness, if that's what it is, does not end there. Roth's highly contrived 'novelist's autobiography' The Facts opens with a letter to Nathan Zuckerman, his most celebrated alter ego, asking for his verdict on the book, and it ends with Zuckerman's 'reply': 'Dear Roth, I've read the manuscript twice. Here is the candour you ask for: Don't publish.' In addition to many, carefully scripted, interviews there is the memorable moment of awesome solipsism in Reading Myself and Others (1976) when Roth actually interviews himself! What on earth is going on? Critics have been driving themselves into paroxysms over this for decades. Is it authorial playfulness? A giant tease? Postmodernism run mad? Neurasthenic insecurity? Or the desperate strategies of a writer with insufficient material?

Roth himself hates to be asked about his many alter egos. He speaks contemptuously of critics who get snared in the barbed wire of the Rothian no-man's-land, gunning them down with: 'Am I Roth or Zuckerman? It's all me... Nothing is me. I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography; I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction. So since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or isn't.'

Roth will always be defensive towards any attempt to link him to his protagonists. So when, rashly, I ask him if Marcus Messner is 'another of your alter egos?' he does not reply at once, and then responds coolly with, 'Ask me another way.' Finally, after a bit of sparring, he says, 'I'm not crazy about it [the alter ego]. It suggests a stand-in for me, when it's a character who grew out of the narration, and when none of those things happened to me. None of those things happened to me. It's imaginary.' As well as the continuing irritation about the alter ego question, however hard he tries to break new ground, there will always be disappointed readers harking back to 'the early work'.

Christopher Hitchens, who has lived as a reader through every phase of Roth's writing and has also read Indignation, says he is enraged by the new book: 'There was a time when Roth was falsely accused of self-hatred by the elders of his own tribe (and defended from the charge by men of the calibre of Ralph Ellison). But to see him repeatedly fouling his own nest, and trying by vain repetitions like Exit Ghost to drag down the level of his previous work, and insulting us with Indignation is to wonder whether in some awful way he isn't trying to vindicate the original accusation, as well as to make his old age shame his youth.'

What any critic says now will have little traction with Roth. He does not bother with reviews. 'I try to read as few as I can. It's not really very rewarding, except in a few instances, and it depends upon who's written it. If Frank Kermode reviewed my book I would read the review.'

Novella, or novelette, or long short story, some of the material in Indignation is recycled from previous books. But if there is here an intimation of waning powers, there is also a new focus: a self that recognises the approach of the end, and another that looks back to the beginning. As well as reflecting on mortality, Indignation is about a young man's coming-of-age.

'Coming and going, yes,' Roth replies, alluding to the death of his protagonist. 'I was trying to get away from writing about old men [Exit Ghost, Everyman, The Dying Animal]. I wanted to say I just don't want to think about that stuff any more. I have nothing fresh to say about it.'

Was he, I wondered, not tempted to write a comedy to dispel the chill shadows of mortality? 'I would love to, but... [a beat] ...I don't think I know how to be comic any more.'

Indignation argues against this. There's a comic set-piece at the heart of the narrative in which Marcus Messner gets a blow-job from his girlfriend. Roth acknowledges this, but seriously. 'What I wanted to do in this book is, through a little incident in this small place, depict sexual mores that have disappeared.'

As our conversation turns to the, strictly speaking, fabulous experience of fellatio in the Fifties, we slide back to the world of Roth's youth, and he's talking about the books he read as an aspiring writer, 'sports books and adventure stories', Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. 'Every budding literary kid fell on Thomas Wolfe [Look Homeward, Angel] with a passion. There was this stream of rhetoric.' He begins to quote, happily. '"O lost, and by the wind-grieved ghost, come back again...!" Whatever that means.' A smile. 'Sounds good, though. As a kid, I wrote in the margin, "Yes!"'

These half-remembered writers from the Twenties and Thirties haunt the Roth of Indignation. Even the name of his fictional midwestern town is taken directly from a collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, a writer whose subject, like Roth's, is 'repression'. Roth's unconscious, inner dialogue with the American writers of the past is perhaps more revealing than he will allow.

Curious, I turned up the opening pages of Anderson's 'book of grotesques', and found this passage, which stands almost as an epigraph to our conversation: 'Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but still something inside him was altogether young... It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.'

When Roth published The Dying Animal in 2001, I asked him about his next book, and he replied, 'I hope it takes the rest of my life. I can't take starting from scratch.' But the experience of real life contradicts the writer's imaginative expectations. He's just finished another book - 'it's probably a novelette' - about another kind of death, a suicide. He insists this has 'no therapeutic value. I just find it's an interesting subject. I wanted to see if I could drive a character to that point where -' He stops. 'I'm trying to drive somebody crazy,' he summarises, with his usual deadpan delivery.

So now he's looking for a new subject, and is once again in that dreadful limbo between books. 'Starting a new book is hell. You just flail around until something happens. It's miraculous. It comes to you out of nothing and nowhere. That's the problem with writing short books. You finish them too quickly. And that's what's wonderful about a long book. So I've decided I've got to find a big project that will take me right through to the end. Finish the day before, and - exit ghost.'

The end of the tape comes with a 'click'. Our time is up. 'Would you like the tour?' he asks, slipping into a belated hostly ritual. When Roth stretches on his recliner, you see how painfully thin his legs have grown. We step out of the bug-free tent and stroll beneath a canopy of ancient oaks towards Roth's writing room, a well-appointed wooden summer house at the top of the garden.

Inside, it's spartan but well-equipped, with the warm, comforting smell of wood. There are two desks - one for writing, one for 'business', a Roberts radio and a lectern where Roth, who has a bad back, likes to work standing up. On the mantelpiece over the empty fireplace ('I used to light a fire, but then I discovered I was spending all my time looking after it') there's a touching display of faded family photographs going back to the turn of the century. We inspect the sepia generations of Roths: his grandparents, his parents, his elder brother, and his younger self. There's a notable absence of wives or girlfriends, and almost the only outsider appears to be Saul Bellow, a lovely photo of his friend in his prime.

Does he, I wonder, regret not having children? 'Well, I don't seem to go around regretting it, no. I was busy doing other things, you know, and then the opportunity slipped away because of age and the age of the women I was with.'

He still likes to exercise. Most days, while it's warm, he'll swim in his pool at the bottom of the garden. Now, when summer ends, he will go back to New York City, and the familiar routine of dinners with friends and girlfriends.

When the tour is over, he signs a copy of Indignation and we say goodbye. As I turn the car in the short driveway I see an old grey man walking slowly through the trees back to his studio for the inevitable rendezvous with his desk, a writer happily alone with his many selves, all passion spent.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Wyatt Mason and Guy Davenport

I'm not, at heart - and certainly not in practice - a blogger, and I seem to be using this space almost entirely as some sort of commonplace book, but, increasingly, I find it's the blogs, and not the print media, that best serves my appetite for the literary essay or review that not only offers me new and different voices, but also reminds me of voices I have either forgotten or to which I have never sufficiently attended.

Wyatt Mason's latest entry in his intelligent and contentious blog, Weekend Read, was a thoughtful pointer to the work of essayist, Arthur Krystal, but a previous entry in July reminded me of how much I enjoyed and admired the essays of the late Guy Davenport. Mason's entry also reproduced the essay, 'Findings' from Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination.

Weekend Read:

“A difference of imagination”

By Wyatt Mason

The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.

So begins one of the twentieth century’s most varied, diverting, probing and re-readable works of thought and prose, Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagation. First published in 1980 by Jack Shoemaker’s late great North Point Press, its forty essays on literature and art have provided a generation of writers and readers a continuing education on how to look, think, write, feel.

As Hugh Kenner wrote in the pages of this magazine, 28 years ago:

this review was scheduled when The Geography of the Imagination was announced, and it was not to be aborted by the discovery, when the review copy arrived, that the name on the book’s dedication page was my own. If having known a man for twenty-five years is to disqualify one from talking about his work, then our literary culture will have to be left to hermits.

It is telling of a culture in which the best of what we have is often drowned beneath waves of things much worse that Guy Davenport’s friends have so often felt duty-bound to argue for his uncommon and commonly underknown virtues. Erik Reece, the poet, essayist, activist and, soon, memoirist, wrote the epic and all but unknown study of Davenport the all but unknown painter, in A Balance of Quinces (New Directions). John Jeremiah Sullivan, the critic, essayist and memoirist, conducted an unusually sensitive and probing Paris Review interview with Davenport, in 2001. And, in these pages, I wrote about the last book Davenport published before his death, in 2005. All three of us were fortunate to befriend and be befriended by Davenport in the last part of his life, and have, in our different ways, seen it not as an act of friendship to Davenport but to readers that we might try to see that his work continue to find them.

To that end, as a 4th of July Weekend Read, I propose a personal essay of Davenport’s called “Finding,” from The Geography of the Imagination. For those who believe that memoir, as a form, has become little better than a huckster’s paradise, see in “Finding,” that no form is exhausted when cunningly designed to hide its intentions—in this case a primer on the quality of attention required for critical enterprise to succeed (posing as personal history). And, anyway, “Finding” fulfills the ancient requirements for any piece of writing: that it move, that it teach, that it delight.

With thanks to David R. Godine publishers, for permission to reprint.


Every Sunday afternoon of my childhood, once the tediousness of Sunday school and the appalling boredom of church were over with, corrosions of the spirit easily salved by the roast beef, macaroni pie, and peach cobbler that followed them, my father loaded us all into the Essex, later the Packard, and headed out to look for Indian arrows. That was the phrase, “to look for Indian arrows.” Children detect nothing different in their own families: I can’t remember noticing anything extraordinary in our family being the only one I knew of that devoted every Sunday afternoon to amateur archaeology.

We took along, from time to time, those people who expressed an interest in finding Indian arrows. Most of them, I expect, wanted an excuse for an outing. We thought of all neighbors, friends, and business associates in terms of whether they were good company or utter nuisances on our expeditions. Surely all of my attitudes toward people were shaped here, all unknowing. I learned that there are people who see nothing, who would not have noticed the splendidest of tomahawks if they had stepped on it, who could not tell a worked stone from a shard of flint or quartz, people who did not feel the excitement of the whoop we all let out when we found an arrowhead or rim of pottery with painting or incised border on it, a pot leg, or those major discoveries which we remembered and could recite forever afterward, the finding of an intact pipe, perfect celt, or unbroken spearhead elegantly core-chipped, crenulated and notched as if finished yesterday. “I’ve found one!” the cry would go up from the slope of a knoll, from the reaches of a plowed field, a gully. One never ran over; that was bad form. One kept looking with feigned nonchalance, and if one’s search drew nigh the finder, it was permissible to ask to see. Daddy never looked at what other people found until we were back at the car. “Nice.” he would say, or “That’s really something.” Usually he grunted, for my sister and I would have a fistful of tacky quartz arrowheads, lumpish and halfheartedly worked. Or we would have a dubious pointed rock which we had made out to be an arrowhead and which Daddy would extract from our plunder and toss out the car window.

These excursions were around the upper Savannah valley, out from places like Heardmont, Georgia, a ghost town in the thirties; Ware Shoals, South Carolina; Coronaca (passing through which my grandmother Davenport always exclaimed, “Forty years come on Cornelia!” and to my knowledge no one ever asked her why, and now we shall never know), Calhoun Falls, Abbeville, and a network of crossroads (usually named for their cotton gins), pecan groves, and “wide places in the road” like Iva, Starr, and Good Hope Community. The best looking was in autumn, when crops were in and frost had splintered the fields. It was then that arrowheads sat up on tees of red earth, a present to us all. A stone that has worked its way to the surface will remain on a kind of pedestal, surrounding topsoil having been washed away. These finds were considered great good fortune. “Just sitting right up there!” was the phrase. But these were usually tiny bird arrowheads in blue flint. Things worth finding were embedded, a telltale serif only showing. It was Daddy who found these. My best find was a round stone the size of a quarter, thick as three quarters, with Brancusi-like depressions on each surface, as if for forefinger and thumb. I’d thought it was the stone on which Indians twirled a stick with a bowstring, to make fire, yet the depressions did not seem to have been designed for that, or caused by it.

Years later, at Harvard, I took the stone, at Daddy’s suggestion, around to an Indianologist at the Peabody Museum. He looked at it and laughed. Then he pulled open a drawer full of similar stones. What were they for? “We don’t know,” sighed the Indianologist. My father’s guess that they were counters for some gambling game was probably right. The Cherokee whose stone artifacts we collected from their hunting grounds and campsites were passionate gamblers, and would stake squaw and papoose on a throw of the dice if all else were lost.

These Sunday searches were things all to themselves, distinctly a ritual whose sacrum had tacit and inviolable boundaries. Other outings, long forays into the chinquapin and hickory forests of Abbeville County, were for the pleasure of the walk and the odd pineknot, rich in turpentine, that one might pick up for the fire. There were summer drives for finding hog plums, wild peaches, and blackberries on the most abandoned of back dirt roads, autumn drives in search of muscadines and scuppernongs, the finding of which, gnarled high in trees like lianas, wanted as sharp an eye as an arrowhead. We were a foraging family, completely unaware of our passion for getting at things hard to find. I collected stamps, buttons, the cards that came with chewing gum, and other detritus, but these were private affairs with nothing of the authority of looking for Indian arrowheads.

Childhood is spent without introspection, in unreflective innocence. Adolescence turns its back on childhood in contempt and sometimes shame. We find our childhood later, and what we find in it is full of–astounding surprises. As Proust has shown us, and Freud, its moments come back to us according to strange and inexplicable laws. If there is a penny on the sidewalk, I find it; I normally pick up seven or eight cents a week (I walk everywhere, rejecting the internal combustion engine as an effete surrender to laziness and the ignoble advantage of convenience), together with perfectly good pencils, firewood, and the rare dime. At Fiesole, when I should have been admiring the view, I unearthed with my toe a Mussolini nickel.

It is now shocking to me that I realized so few connections between things as a child. I vividly remember reading a book about Leonardo, and remember the important detail of his finding seashells in the mountains, but I thought that wonderful, wholly beyond my scope, failing to see any similarity between my amateur archaeology and Leonardo’s. What controlled this severe compartmentalization of ideas was my sense of place. Books were read by the fire or by the Franklin heater in the kitchen; in the summer, under the fig tree, and what one read in books remained in the place where one read them. It did not occur to me that any of my teachers at school had ever heard of Leonardo da Vinci any more than of Tarzan, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, or the Toonerville Trolley, all of which were lumped together in my head as privacies in which no one else could be in the least interested.

The schoolroom was its own place, our home another, the red fields of the Savannah valley another, the cow pasture another, uptown, the movies, other people’s houses: all were as distinct as continents in disparate geological epochs. The sociology of the South has something to do with this, I think. All occasions had their own style and prerogatives, and these were insisted upon with savage authority. At Grannyport’s (thus her accepted name after its invention by us children) one never mentioned the moving pictures that played so great a part in my life, for Grannyport denied that pictures could move. It was, she said, patently illogical (she was absolutely right, of course, but I didn’t know it at the time), and no dime could ever be begged of her for admission to the Strand (Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers) or the Criterion (Flash Gordon, Tarzan) for these places were humbug, and people who went to them under the pitiful delusion that pictures can move were certainly not to be financed by a grandmother who knew her own mind.

Nor could the movies be mentioned at Grandmother Fant’s, for attending them meant going into public, a low thing that the Fants have never done. The Fants were French Huguenots, from Bordeaux. They were a kind of Greek tragedy in the third of a great trilogy. Once they were rich with two ships that bore South Carolina cotton from Charleston to France. The United States Navy sank them both in the time of the War–there was a tale we heard over and over of Grandfather Sassard going down with the Edisto, standing impassively on her bridge, a New Testament clutched to his breast, his right arm saluting the colors of the Confederacy, which were soon to follow him beneath the waves of the Atlantic. His brother wore a friendship ring given him by Fitzhugh Lee, and this sacred ornament would be got out of a kind of jewel casket and shown to us. I don’t think I ever dared touch it.

After the War my grandmother, born and raised in Charleston (she never said “the Yankees,” but “the stinking Yankees,” the one unladylike locution she ever allowed herself), married a Fant, who took her to Florida to homestead. There my uncles Paul and Silas were born with teeth, it was always pointed out, two tiny pink teeth each, for this was the signum of their fate. As they lay in their cradle a catamount sprang through the window and ate them. Sometimes it was an alligator that crawled into the house and ate them. As Granny Fant reached a matriarchal age, her stories began to develop structural variants. She used to ask me never to forget that we are descended from Sir Isaac Davis though I have never been able to discover who Sir Isaac Davis was. Through him we were related to Queen Anne. And the stinking Yankees stole her wedding ring and gave it to the Holmans’ cook, who wore it a day of glory and then returned it to Miss Essy.

Nor could I sing “The Birmingham Jail” at Granny Fant’s, as Uncle Jamie had once spent a night in that place. Nor could we (later on, in adolescence) mention new births in Uncle Jamie’s presence, for at forty he still did not know the facts of life, and Granny fant was determined to keep up the illusion that humanity is restocked by the stork. She was, as my father and I discovered to our amazement, wrong. It turned out that Jamie thought pregnancy came about by the passage of a testicle into some unthinkable orifice of the female. He remarked reflectively that if he’d married he could only have had two children. “And I don’t think I could have stood the pain.”

Nor could we mention looking for arrowheads–the thought that her daughter, son-in-law, and their children walked all over fields and meadows in public would have sent Granny Fant to her bed with a vinegar rag across her forehead. My point is that throughout my childhood place determined mood and tone. My schoolteachers knew nothing of our archaeology. Certainly the Misses Anna and Lillie Brown would somehow disapprove; they were genteel. I cannot remember any mention whatever of history in grammar school. All we learned of the Civil War is that our principal, Miss May Russell, was taken from her bed and kissed as an infant by the notorious renegade Manse Jolly, who had, to Miss May’s great satisfaction, galloped his horse down the length of a banquet table at which Union officers were dining, collapsing it as he progressed, emptying two sixshooters into the Yankees and yodeling, “Root hog or die!” This was the rebel yell that Douglas Southall Freeman gave for a recording and dropped dead at the end of. This grotesque fact would not have fazed Miss May Russell; what finer way would a gentleman wish to die? We all had to learn it: the root is pitched on a drunken high note in the flattest of whining cotton-planter’s pronunciation, the hawg is screamed in an awful way, and the aw dah is an hysterical crescendo recalling Herod’s soldiery at work on male infants. We loved squawling it, and were told to remember how the day was saved at Bull Run, when Beauregard and Johnson were in a sweat until the Sixth South Carolina Volunteers under Wade Hampton rode up on the left flank (they had assembled, in red shirts, around our own court house and marched away to Virginia to “The Palmyra Schottische”).

But school was school, as church was church and houses were houses. What went on in one never overflowed into any other. I was perfectly capable in Sunday school of believing all the vicious bilge they wallowed in, and at home studying with glee the murders in the old Sunday American, and then spending the afternoon hunting arrowheads. After which came Jack Benny, and a chapter or two of Sir Walter Scott. To have mentioned religion while hunting Indian arrows would have been a breach of manners beyond conception or belief, insanity itself.

The rule was: everything in its place. To this day I paint in one part of my bouse, write in another, read in another; read, in fact, in two others: frivolous and delicious reading such as Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner in one room, scholarship in another. And when I am away from home, I am somebody else. This may seem suspicious to the simple mind of a psychiatrist, but it seems natural enough. My cat does not know me when we meet a block away from home, and I gather from his expression that I’m not supposed to know him, either.

Shaw has Joan of Arc say that if everybody stayed at home, they would be good people. It is being in France that makes the English soldiers such devils. She and Shaw have a real point. A dog is a Turk only in his own yard. I am a professor only when I arrive in the classroom; I can feel the Jekyll–Hyde syndrome flick into operation. I have suffered the damnation of a heretic in rooms uncongenial and threatening. It takes a while to make a place for oneself in unfamiliar surroundings. It can be done; man can do anything. I have read Mann’s Joseph novels beside the world’s loudest jukebox in the recreation room of the XVIII Airborne Corps. A colleague remembers reading Tolstoy behind the field guns on Guadalcanal; another finished reading all of Shakespeare at the Battle of Kohima. Scholars took their work with them to the trenches in the First World War; Apollinaire was reading a critical journal when the shrapnel sprayed into his head. He saw the page all red before he felt the wound. Napoleon took a carriage of books with him to Waterloo. Sir Walter Scott, out hunting and with some good lines suddenly in his head, brought down a crow, whittled a pen from a feather, and wrote the poem on his jacket in crow’s blood.

How capable we are off our turf (”far afield,” “lost,” “no place for me,” the phrases run) may be one of the real tests of our acumen. I am a bad traveller. Even away from home with my family I could suffer acute nostalgia as a child. I know of no desolation like that of being in an uncongenial place, and I associate all travel with the possibility of uncongeniality—the Greyhound bus terminal in Knoxville with its toilets awash with urine and vomit, its abominable food and worst coffee in the universe (and their rule is that the more unpalatable the food, the higher the price), its moronic dispatchers, and the hordes of vandals in tight pink trousers and sleeveless T-shirts who patrol the place with vicious aimlessness; all airports; all meetings of any sort without exception; cocktail parties; lawn parties; dinner parties; speeches.

Some slackness of ritual, we are told, that hurt the feelings of the dii montes, the gnomes of the hills, allowed Rome to fall to the barbarians. These gods of place were genii, spirits of a place. All folklore knows them, and when a hero died who had wound his fate with that of a place, he joined its genii and thereafter partook of its life. Our word “congeniality” means kinship with the soul of a place, and places have souls in a way very like creatures.

In hunting Indian arrowheads we were always, it seemed, on congenial territory, though we were usually on somebody’s land. We could trust them to know we were there; country people have suspicious eyes. My father was raised in the country and knew what to do and what not to do. Rarely would a farmer stroll out, in the way of peering at the weather or the road, and find out what we were up to. Likely as not, he would have some arrowheads back at the house and would give them to us. Never sell, give. He would be poorer than poor, but he would not sell a piece of rock.

Here at these unpainted clapboard sharecropper houses we would be invited to have a dipper of water from the well, cold, clean and toothsome. Sometimes a sweet-potato biscuit would be served by the lady of the house, a tall woman in an apron and with the manners of an English lady from the counties. We children would ask to see the pigs. Country people were a different nation, both black and white, and they exhibited mores long remembered. There was once an elder daughter who retired to a corner and tied herself into a knot of anguish. We assumed idiocy, as country people do not send their demented off to an asylum. But the mother explained, with simplicity, “She has been lewd, and she thinks you can see it in her.”

And once we found a black family with our name, and traded family histories, blacks being as talkative and open as poor whites are silent and reticent, until we discovered that their folk had belonged to ours. Whereupon we were treated as visiting royalty; a veritable party was made of it, and when we were leaving, an ancient black Davenport embraced my father with tears in his eyes. “O Lord, Marse Guy,” he said, “don’t you wish it was the good old slavery times again!”

What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoudy in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums.

Thoreauvian, because these outings, I was to discover, were very like his daily walks, with a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty. Thoreau, too, was an Indian-arrowhead collector, if collector is the word. Once we had found our Indian things, we put them in a big box and rarely looked at them. Some men came from the Smithsonian and were given what they chose, and sometimes a scout troop borrowed some for a display at the county fair. Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.

When, in later years, I saw real archaeologists at work, I felt perfectly at home among them: diggers at Mycenae and at Lascaux, where I was shown a tray of hyena coprolites and wondered which my father would have kept and which thrown away, for petrified droppings from the Ice Age must have their range from good to bad, like arrowheads and stone axes.

And I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known. People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing. My family, praises be unto the gods, never inspected anything that we enjoyed doing; criticism was strictly for adversities, and not very much for them. Consequently I spent my childhood drawing, building things, writing, reading, playing, dreaming out loud, without the least comment from anybody. I learned later that I was thought not quite bright, for the patterns I discovered for myself were not things with nearby models. When I went off to college it was with no purpose whatsoever: no calling in view, no profession, no ambition.

Ambition was scorned by the Fants and unknown to the Davenports. That my father worked with trains was a glory that I considered a windfall, for other fathers sold things or processed things. If I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures), I am even more grateful, in an inconsequential way, for my father’s most astounding gift of all: being put at the throttle of a locomotive one night and allowed to drive it down the track for a whole five minutes. I loved trains, and grew up with them. I had drawn locomotives with the passion of Hokusai drawing Fujiyama. My wagon had been an imaginary locomotive more than it had been a rocket ship or buckboard. And here we were meeting the Blue Ridge one summer evening, and my father must have seen the look in my eyes as I peered into the cab of the engine. Suddenly I was lifted onto the step, and helped by the engineer—I believe his name was Singbell—into the ineffably important seat. The engine was merely switching cars in the yard, but it was my ten-year-old hand on the throttle that shoved the drivers and turned the wheels and sent plumes of steam hissing outward. Life has been downhill ever since.

But this is not the meaning of looking for Indian arrowheads. That will, I hope, elude me forever. Its importance has, in maturity, become more and more apparent—an education that shaped me with a surer and finer hand than any classroom, an experience that gave me a sense of the earth, of autumn afternoons, of all the seasons, a connoisseur’s sense of things for their own sake. I was with grown-ups, so it wasn’t play. There was no lecture, so it wasn’t school. All effort was willing, so it wasn’t work. No ideal compelled us, so it wasn’t idealism or worship or philosophy.

Yet it was the seeding of all sorts of things, of scholarship, of a stoic sense of pleasure (I think we were all bored and ill at ease when we went on official vacations to the mountains or the shore, whereas out arrowhead-looking we were content and easy), and most of all of foraging, that prehistoric urge still not bred out of man. There was also the sense of going out together but with each of us acting alone. You never look for Indian arrows in pairs. You fan out. But you shout discoveries and comments (”No Indian was ever around here!”) across fields. It was, come to think of it, a humanistic kind of hunt. My father never hunted animals, and I don’t think he ever killed anything in his life. All his brothers were keen huntsmen; I don’t know why he wasn’t. And, conversely, none of my uncles would have been caught dead doing anything so silly as looking for hours and hours for an incised rim of pottery or a Cherokee pipe.

I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons. It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer. My father became so good at spotting arrowheads that on roads with likely gullies he would find them from the car. Or give a commentary on what we might pick up were we to stop: “A nice spearhead back there by a maypop, but with the tip broken off.”

And it is all folded away in an irrevocable past. Most of our fields are now the bottom of a vast lake. Farmers now post their land and fence it with barbed wire. Arrowhead collecting has become something of a minor hobby, and shops for the tourist trade make them in a back room and sell them to people from New Jersey. Everything is like that nowadays. I cherish those afternoons, knowing that I will never understand all that they taught me. As we grew up, we began not to go on the expeditions. Not the last, but one of the last, afternoons found us toward sunset, findings in hand, ending up for the day with one of our rituals, a Coca-Cola from the icebox of a crossroads store. “They tell over the radio,” the proprietor said, “that a bunch of Japanese airplanes have blowed up the whole island of Hawaii.”