In 1988, when I was beginning my career as a reporter, the U.S. edition of Vogue sent me to interview Philip Roth. The occasion was the publication of The Facts, his first memoir. I had read almost all of his novels, some of them two or three times. The exuberance of his prose, his bittersweet relation with the Jewish education he’d received, his sexual frankness, his unbridled rage and, most of all, his manic sense of humor, made him, in those days, the writer I most admired.
In the periodicals room of the New York Public Library, I read all the articles about him I could find. In the interviews, it appeared to me that there was some kind of contradiction. The novels were amusing and entertaining, no matter how serious their themes. When his friends spoke about Roth, the first adjective they used was “funny.” But when he spoke with reporters, he tended to use the fussy language of a strict and meticulous professor. It was as if he were afraid that the world would not take seriously the creator of Alexander Portnoy, who, in what is certainly the most notorious scene in all of Roth’s 33 books, masturbates with the liver that will later become the family dinner.
You could say that publishing autobiography was, for Roth, a provocation. A common criticism of him was that the cycle of novels he had published before The Facts — The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Counterlife, and The Prague Orgy — were nothing more than rehashes of his own existence. The protagonist of these novels was Nathan Zuckerman, who — like Roth — was a novelist who grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Like Roth, he wrote stories in his youth that delighted readers but alienated him from conservative sectors of the Jewish community. Like Roth, Zuckerman had published a sexually explicit bestseller.
Roth was 55 when we met. He was slender, in good shape, and to a certain degree elegant, calling to mind the most glamorous professor of a university. He was charming, polite, patient, and subtly controlling. Before answering a single question, he wanted to know what kind of an article I intended to write and how long it would be. He would only grant me the interview on the condition that, after finishing it, I would show him all of his quotes, with the possibility of his intervening with the goal of “strengthening the language.”
Once we began to chat, he made me laugh. We spoke of the differences between him and his fictional counterpart, and he said, “I’m not the same schmuck that Zuckerman is.” When I asked him if he had ever wanted children (he never had any), and to describe the nervous breakdown that he barely mentioned in his memoir, he said, feigning annoyance, “I shouldn’t have written The Facts. What you want is The Dirt.”
He was an expert at avoiding the answers to personal questions. His most famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, is the monologue of a man speaking to his psychoanalyst, and analysis is also peripheral to some of his other novels. I asked him about his own experience in therapy and he told me that he went — once, during a week in the beginning of the 1960s. He only had one session.
“You don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“How long the analysis lasted, how often you went, and if the analyst was a strict Freudian.”
“How many times a week do you go?” he asked me, and then how much I paid, and if the analyst spoke with a foreign accent. After answering, he concluded that I paid too much, without revealing any of his own data. When I continued to pry into his personal life, Roth asked about my previous two girlfriends, the frequency with which I used condoms, and the life story of my mother, without saying anything about himself that he didn’t want to.
I interviewed him again a couple of years later, for Harper’s Bazaar, when he published a novel called Deception. Life had surprised him in the interval. He had recently recovered from a quintuple bypass operation — the same disaster that, three years earlier, he’d chosen for Nathan Zuckerman in The Counterlife.
In Deception, Roth got rid of Zuckerman and in his place “invented” a novelist named Philip, who resembled his author in many ways. The greater part of the book was about an affair between Philip and a young woman. it was impossible to ignore the gossip factor. At the time, Roth was married to the British actress Claire Bloom (they would divorce a few years later). When I asked him why he chose the name “Philip” for the protagonist, with a straight face he said that, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of another name.
After Deception, Roth would write Operation Shylock, a novel in which the main character is a writer named Philip Roth, who finds that an impostor — a spy in Israel — is also passing himself off as Philip Roth. Then he would abandon his game of Chinese boxes, beginning a cycle of novels exploring the disgrace and hypocrisy of politics and society in the United States. Among those are American Pastoral, The Human Stain, I Married a Communist and The Plot Against America. Some critics believe they’re his best work.
He also published Sabbath’s Theatre, a masterpiece about an unrepentant dirty old man, and a series of short novels that explore the humiliation of the aging process. Many readers believe that the Nobel Prize committee robbed Roth because they never gave him the award. But he won almost all other imaginable literary prizes, some of them several times. He died on May 22, a couple of weeks after the announcement that there would be no Nobel Prize for literature this year, due to a sex-abuse scandal. I guess we’ll never know what the author — so famous for the sexual content of his novels — thought of that irony.
The first time I interviewed him, in an elliptical way he indicated that he was coming to the end of his self-referential work. “I’ve been hiding and working for ten years,” he said. “I’ve finished a lot of work but finally it can drive you crazy. It’s a very austere life, very lonely.
“I’m a little out of it,” he continued. “For the last ten years I’ve been writing the Zuckerman books and I’ve been absolutely preoccupied. Eventually it caught up with me and I began to long for the unwritten world. I want to rediscover America.” In the course of a long career, I believe he did.