Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Character is destiny, and yet everything is chance" -- Philip Roth

An absolutely fascinating, revealing, brilliant interview was given by Philip Roth to a Swedish journalist, Svenska Dagbladet, for publication there on the occasion of his novel, Sabbath’s Theater being translated into Swedish. The interview appeared in the March 18 New York Times Book Review as well.  It is almost unsuitable to quote any part of it without the whole, but I do so with the hope that by quoting the most salient points (to me), any reader of this will be motivated to read the full unexpurgated version on the NYT's web site.

Roth like Updike are in the pantheon of the authors I've followed most closely, having read nearly everything they've written.  Updike was silenced by his death a few years ago, a great loss and now Roth has decided not to write fiction any more.  I've felt his last few novels presaged that decision, being very-end-of-life focused.  Hopefully, Roth will long be a commentator on the literary scene and on the state of our nation for years to come, as evidenced by this interview.

About the main character in the novel, Sabbath, Roth says  Mickey Sabbath doesn’t live with his back turned to death the way normal people like us do.  No one could have concurred more heartily with the judgment of Franz Kafka than would Sabbath, when Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

When asked about his decision to stop writing, he said When I decided to stop writing about five years ago I did, as you say, sit down to reread the 31 books I’d published between 1959 and 2010. I wanted to see whether I’d wasted my time. You never can be sure, you know.....My conclusion, after I’d finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe Louis. ..... So when he was asked upon his retirement about his long career, Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I could with what I had.”

About the often heard accusation that misogyny runs deeply in his works, he replies:  Misogyny, a hatred of women, provides my work with neither a structure, a meaning, a motive, a message, a conviction, a perspective, or a guiding principle....My traducers propound my alleged malefaction as though I have spewed venom on women for half a century. But only a madman would go to the trouble of writing 31 books in order to affirm his hatred.....It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control: You are not what you think you are. You are what we think you are. You are what we choose for you to be. Well, welcome to the subjective human race. .... Yet every writer learns over a lifetime to be tolerant of the stupid inferences that are drawn from literature and the fantasies implausibly imposed upon it. As for the kind of writer I am? I am who I don’t pretend to be.

On the subject of the men in his books, As I see it, my focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired. I have hardly been singing a paean to male superiority but rather representing manhood stumbling, constricted, humbled, devastated and brought down. I am not a utopian moralist. My intention is to present my fictional men not as they should be but vexed as men are.

The interviewer then asks “'The struggle with writing is over'” is a recent quote. Could you describe that struggle, and also, tell us something about your life now when you are not writing?"
Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace....Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.

Asked about his generation of writers and the state of contemporary American fiction, he morphs from fiction to his feelings about the world we now inhabit.  His observations on today's world are particularly profound:  Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever....You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.

His comments on American popular culture are priceless: The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy....Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

His final thoughts in the interview are about the nature of writing itself and what it may or may not reveal about the writer.  Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist....The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.

May we hear again and again from Philip Roth, perhaps not in imaginary literature, but in interviews such as this and essays.  To me he is still the reigning dean of American literature and intellectual thought.