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
- The Observer,
- Sunday September 21 2008
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.