Remembering Roth

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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 FactsThe 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.

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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.

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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.

Weather

image mxcity.mx

Years ago I saw a TV interview with the actor Robert Vaughn, who said that he had moved to Connecticut because he wanted his children to experience the change of seasons, rather than suffer the monotony of continuous sunny days in Los Angeles. Vaughn spoke with a priggish mid-Atlantic accent, and I remember thinking, What an unbearable snob. It’s as if he believes one kind of weather is morally superior to another.

I’ve written before about this time of year in Mexico City. Although climate change is making weather less predictable all over the world, it’s still my favorite season — the hottest time of year before the rains begin in full force, usually in late May or early June.

foto Julio García Castillo

Even though Mexico City has a temperate climate, we do have markedly different seasons, even if they’re not the same as they are in Vaughn’s cherished Connecticut. Between February and June, when the rains begin, it’s “spring,” with jacaranda, bougainvillea and other flowers blooming. (By the time you read this, the jacarandas, pictured here, which shed their petals after two or three months, will be mostly nude.) It’s the hottest time of year (although not unbearably so), going up to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 or 27 Celsius) most days. 

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During the rainy season, from June through September, there’s usually a downpour for a couple of hours in the afternoon (with more at night from time to time). The rain cools things off, especially on cloudy days. October and November tend to be sunny and a little cooler, and during the winter — from December through more or less mid-February — it can go up to 70 degrees (21 Celsius) during the day, and on some nights down to about 40 (4 or 5 degrees Celsius). Homes in Mexico City don’t have central heating, so you need to wear a sweater inside, and lay on an extra blanket when you sleep. To hear people around here complain, you’d think we were living in the North Pole.

It’s what I consider a privileged climate, and has truly spoiled me. When I’ve had to travel to places of extreme heat and cold for work, I wonder how people survive a life there. I cannot imagine what it would possibly take to get me to move to Connecticut.

Vote early, vote often?

Raw Story

Raw Story

I’ve been in Mexico for almost thirty years, and in all that time I’ve only been impressed by one politician: Marcelo Ebrard. Mayor of Mexico City between 2006 and 2012, he took some steps to turn Mexico City into a progressive, contemporary capital. Among the initiatives in his administration were making first-trimester abortions legal and available, a law allowing same-sex marriage, and a shared-bike program that today has 444 stations and 6,000 bicycles. Sadly, after the end of his term, he disappeared from view after political rivals leveled unsubstantiated charges of scandal against him, about corruption during the implementation of the city's twelfth subway line.

As for the rest of the politicians, notwithstanding on which party’s ticket they’ve been elected, they all strike me as cut from the same cloth. Left, right and center designations don’t mean much any longer. The supposedly leftist PRD and Morena parties may throw a few more crumbs at the poor to buy their votes. The right-wing PAN may be the most oriented toward business. And the PRI — the National Revolutionary Party, which has been in power for all but 12 of the last 87 years — has distinguished itself by sinking corruption to its lowest, most heinous levels. 

Mexico News Daily

Mexico News Daily

But no matter who is in power here, the wealth remains scandalously distributed. Mexico has a GDP of $18,535 per capita, making it the 14th highest in the world. Yet the wealthiest one per cent of the population owns 43 per cent of the wealth, and four people make up nine per cent of the GDP. Needless to say, the distribution of goods and services works a lot better for people with money than for everyone else. Since I arrived in 1990, about half the people in the country have lived at or below the poverty level, and poverty has been increasing in the past few years under the current administration. Mexico City has been listed as the eighth-wealthiest city in the world, yet more than half of the working population survives through the underground economy.

On July 1, Mexicans will vote for the person who will be their president from 2018 to 2024. According to all the polls, the front-runner is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate for the Morena party. He makes a lot of noise that makes him sound like a populist, and indeed, when he was mayor of Mexico City (from 2000 to 2005), he gave out gift cards that could be spent at supermarkets to senior citizens, single mothers, and the disabled. But he was actually pro-business and his most notable projects benefited people with money more than the poor. Here’s a link to a nuanced and even-handed article about him published in Dissent, co-written by Mexican and U.S. academics. It’s a long piece but well worth reading if you want to know about the man — known as AMLO and sometimes as el peje, short for el peje lagarto (a grey freshwater gar common in his home state of Tabasco) — who is likely to be Mexico’s next president.

I have no confidence that López Obrador will make a good president. But neither do I feel he would be a substantially worse one than any whose administrations I've lived through in the past 28 years. What's more, Anaya and Meade, the candidates postulated by the opposing parties this year, are so ludicrous that I'm not going to waste your time writing about them. 

Grupo Rivas

Grupo Rivas

The level of hysteria in the public discourse coming from those against AMLO is disarming. His enemies paint him out to be Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, and Donald Trump rolled into one. He has certainly has demonstrated tendencies toward demagoguery. Like Trump, he responds to criticism with tendentious insult rather than considered rebuttal. He has seldom traveled outside Mexico and speaks no languages besides Spanish. But I believe that, on a conscious or unconscious level, many of those who are against him simply don’t believe that he looks or speaks like their conception of a politician (white, patrician, by preference technocratic and foreign-educated). There are hints of racism and classism in the criticism against AMLO. For those who read Spanish, here’s a link to what I believe is a provocative reflection.

My mother, my father, Miami ...

Image: Birds and Blooms

Image: Birds and Blooms

I remember from childhood when some of my aging Jewish relatives described Miami as the true Promised Land. What could Israel possibly have over a territory where, according to my Aunt Sadie, grapefruits the size of basketballs drooped from the trees, ripe (I imagined) for clandestine plucking by any passerby?  I will be in Miami Beach next week for events about my novel ONE LIFE. On Wednesday, March 7th, I will be speaking at the Galbut Family Jewish Community Center, 4221 Pine Tree Drive, at 12:30 pm. This event costs $36 and includes lunch. If you prefer free and open to the public, on Thursday, March 8th, I'll be at the Miami Beach Regional Library, 227 22nd Street, at 6:30 pm. More exact details are on the Events Page. Please spread the word to anyone you know there who might need a break from grapefruit pilfering.

Image source: Wrightslaw

Image source: Wrightslaw

Does anyone read blogs any longer?

You may notice that after a long hiatus, my web site was recently renovated (by the talented, eagle-eyed and economical designer Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey). Now that I am a little more animated to contribute to this more frequently, I have been told that blogs are passé, having been entirely supplanted by Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Twitter tweets written by people as odious and reprehensible as the current POTUS. I'd like to know what you all think: Shall I continue to post? Is anyone out there reading anything longer than 140 characters?