Philip Roth, 72, on kicking the bucket
'It no longer feels a great injustice that I have to die'
In a rare interview, Philip Roth, one of America's greatest living authors, tells Danish journalist Martin Krasnik why his new book is all about death - and why literary critics should be shot:
Philip Roth rarely gives interviews, and I quickly find out why. It is not that he is unpleasant or rude; he just cannot be bothered with answering the same questions, over and over again. "What do you want to talk about?" Roth asks, as he sits down. Already I sense that this will be a difficult job. In September, the New York Times interviewed Roth about his work being published by The Library of America. Only two other authors (Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow) have achieved this honour while still alive. But Roth would say practically nothing to the Times's increasingly desperate journalist.
My photographer's name is Flash Rosenberg, and she really tries to help me. She says that she just returned from Berlin, where they called her Blitz (German for flash). Roth does not laugh. He looks at her with an empty stare while she jumps around taking pictures. She takes a Polaroid photo of him and inserts it into one of those souvenir snow globes. Roth turns it upside down, and the snow falls silently upon his head.
"It looks like I have a huge dandruff problem," he says in a low, slow voice. "That poor guy really needs a strong dandruff shampoo."
"I always use that trick to make people smile," Flash says.
"I don't smile."
There is a long, agonising pause.
"Why don't you smile?" I ask.
"There once was this photographer from New York. 'Smile,' she always said. 'Smile!' I couldn't stand her or the whole phenomenon. Why smile into a camera? It makes no human sense. So I got rid of both her and the smile."
"Do you ever smile at all?"
He looks at me. "Yes, when I'm hiding in a corner and no one sees it."
We are sitting in a backroom of Roth's literary agency in midtown New York. The room is full of books by Salman Rushdie. "It's probably wisest to place the Rushdie room in the back," Roth says - without smiling. He has arrived from his home in rural Connecticut to give an interview about The Plot Against America, which was published in America and Britain a while back, but is only just being published in my home country of Denmark. The book imagines Charles Lindbergh, king of the skies, winning the presidential election in 1940 and establishing an alliance with Hitler.
"I got the idea when I read an autobiography by an American historian. In a footnote he mentioned that the right wing of the Republican Party had made an attempt to nominate Lindbergh in 1940. I didn't know that. I remembered that my family supported Roosevelt, and that everyone around me hated Lindbergh. The whole neighbourhood was Jewish, and everyone worried about his extremely critical attitude towards Jews."
Jews appear everywhere in Roth's books, but this one seems to be Roth's great Jewish history. "Jewish?" he says. "It's my most American book. It's about America. About America. It's an American dystopia. You would never tell Ralph Ellison that Invisible Man is his most Negro book, would you?" He looks at me. "Would you?"
"Maybe not ..."
"Those kinds of considerations are newspaper cliches. Jewish literature. Black literature. Everyone who opens a book enters the story without noticing these labels."
"But you are seen as an American-Jewish writer. Does that mean anything to you?"
"It's not a question that interests me. I know exactly what it means to be Jewish, and it's really not interesting. I'm an American. You can't talk about this without walking straight out into horrible cliches that say nothing about human beings. America is first and foremost ... it's my language. And identity labels have nothing to do with how anyone actually experiences life."
I am now talking as quietly as him. Whispering, I say that he himself writes about identity in his books. In Operation Shylock it is about who is a Jew. In The Plot Against America, it is about who is American.
"But I don't accept that I write Jewish-American fiction. I don't buy that nonsense about black literature or feminist literature. Those are labels made up to strengthen some political agenda."
It takes all my strength to ask the next question: about Roth - and Roth. He appears in many of his books - as a boy or an adult author. And then there is his alter ego, the author Nathan Zuckerman. So where does the real Philip Roth end, and where does literature begin? The real Philip Roth looks at me, impatiently, as if I am being stupid.
"I just don't understand that question," he says. "I don't read or perceive books in that way. I'm interested in the object, the ... the thing, the story, the aesthetic jolt you get from being inside this ... thing. Am I Roth or Zuckerman? It's all me. You know? That's what I normally say. It's all me. Nothing is me."
Then the ice breaks. I have brought to the interview copies of The Dying Animal and The Human Stain - two books about the relationship between an older man and a young woman. Why does that interest him? "Because it exists," he says. I tell him about a huge scandal in Denmark in which a 68-year-old author has just been stripped of all honour. His crime: he wrote openly about a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old black girl in Haiti - the daughter of his servant. Punishment: public crucifixion, which can be really nasty, even in progressive Denmark. Roth wants to know everything about the story, every little detail. Then he says: "That author asked for it. Did he really write about how he had sex with the girl in his master bedroom? Yes, that's interesting. It turned political. If it was an affair with a 25-year-old student at the university in Port-au-Prince, it wouldn't have been a problem."
I tell him that interviewing him can be extremely difficult - like climbing an iceberg without clothes on.
"Well, I wasn't put on this earth to make your life easy. Ha!" His laughter is like a proclamation - no smile, just "Ha!"
"Maybe we shouldn't be talking about literature at all," I say.
"Ha, ha," he says. "Now you're talking! I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two."
Roth goes and fetches a small black plate - the cover for his new book. It is completely black with a narrow red line framing the title: Everyman. "What do you think about it? It's getting approved today," he says. "It looks as if it's about death," I say. "Yes, you get your money's worth, if you want death. Everyman is the name of a line of English plays from the 15th century, allegorical plays, moral theatre. They were performed in cemeteries, and the theme is always salvation. The classic is called Everyman, it's from 1485, by an anonymous author. It was right in between the death of Chaucer and the birth of Shakespeare. The moral was always 'Work hard and get into heaven', 'Be a good Christian or go to hell'. Everyman is the main character and he gets a visit from Death. He thinks it's some sort of messenger, but Death says, 'I am Death' and Everyman's answer is the first great line in English drama: 'Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.' When I thought of you least. My new book is about death and about dying. Well, what do you think?"
"It's black," I say, and ask him if the publisher isn't worried that people won't want to buy it because of the colour. "I don't care," he says. "I just want it my way."
I tell him it looks like a bible. "Ha! Wonderful. Perfect. I think it looks like a tombstone." He waits for me to ask the next question.
"Are you afraid of dying?"
He thinks for a long time before answering. Maybe he thinks of something else. "Yes, I'm afraid. It's horrible." He adds. "What else could I say? It's heartbreaking. It's unthinkable. It's incredible. Impossible."
"Do you think a lot about death?"
"I was forced to think about it all the time when I wrote this book. I spent two whole days in a cemetery to see how they dig the holes. For years I had decided never to think about death. I have seen people die, of course, my parents, but it wasn't until a good friend of mine died in April that I experienced it as completely devastating. He was a contemporary. It doesn't say so in the agreement I signed, I didn't see that page in the contract, you know. As Henry James said on his deathbed: 'Ah, here it comes, the big thing.'"
"Are you satisfied with your life?" I ask.
"Eight years ago I attended a memorial ceremony for an author," he says. "An incredible man full of life and humour, curiosity. He worked for a magazine here in New York. He had girlfriends, mistresses. And at this memorial ceremony there were all these women. Of all ages. And they all cried and left the room, because they couldn't stand it. That was the greatest tribute ..."
"What will the women do at your funeral?"
"If they even show up ... they will probably be screaming at the casket." He looks out of the window, across the buildings of midtown. "You know, passion doesn't change with age, but you change - you become older. The thirst for women becomes more poignant. And there is a power in the pathos of sex that it didn't have before. The pathos of the female body becomes more insistent. The sexual passion is always deep, but it becomes deeper."
"You said that you're afraid of dying. You're 72 years old. What are you afraid of?"
He looks at me. "Oblivion. Of not being alive, quite simply, of not feeling life, not smelling it. But the difference between today and the fear of dying I had when I was 12, is that now I have a kind of resignation towards reality. It no longer feels like a great injustice that I have to die."
I ask him if he is religious. "I'm exactly the opposite of religious," he says. "I'm anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It's all a big lie. Are you religious yourself?" he asks.
"No," I say, "but I'm sure that life would be easier if I was."
"Oh," he says. "I don't think so. I have such a huge dislike. It's not a neurotic thing, but the miserable record of religion. I don't even want to talk about it, it's not interesting to talk about the sheep referred to as believers. When I write, I'm alone. It's filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety - and I never needed religion to save me."
I ask him why he keeps writing then, if it's so lonely and full of anxiety? He sighs - loudly.
"There are some days that compensate completely," he says. "In my life I have had, in total, a couple of months of these completely wonderful days as a writer, and that is enough ... It's actually a good question [at this point I silently jump with joy]. You know, it's a choice to be occupied with literature, like everything else is a choice. But you quickly identify with the profession. And that's the first nail in the coffin. Then you struggle across the decades to make your work better, to make it a bit different, to do it again and to prove to yourself that you can do it."
"But you know that you can do it now, right?"
"I have no idea that I can do it again. How can I know? How do I know that I won't run out of ideas tomorrow? It's a horrible existence being a writer filled with deprivation. I don't miss specific people, but I miss life. I didn't discover that during the first 20 years, because I was fighting - in the ring with the literature. That fight was life, but then I discovered that I was in the ring all by myself."
He gets up. "It was the interests in life and the attempt to get life down on the pages which made me a writer - and then I discovered that, in many ways, I am standing on the outside of life".