Philip Roth, the late novelist, may hold the record for “most ways to tell his own story,” in fiction and fact; in his psychiatric farce around a boy’s solo sex in Portnoy’s Complaint, then a tender meditation on the making of an artist in The Ghost Writer, plus barely veiled memoirs of two miserable marriages, then epic fiction in American Pastoral and his counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. Thirty-one books in all. What more was there for a biographer to reveal except that the Philip Roth contradictions were all real, inside him. The lonely monk at his writing desk was one Roth, the grotesquely hyper-sexual Mickey Sabbath was a fantasy version. “Let the repellent in” was the Roth mantra that will mark him in history, a key to what keeps him interesting still.
Philip Roth was a giant of the literary profession who changed the job for readers as well as writers. It turns out in Blake Bailey’s 800-page biography, that Philip Roth, who died of heart disease three years ago, is still nearly alive, still embattled with his second wife Claire Bloom, still hurt and angry, funny and loving as well, still angling for the last word, still happy to be contradictory. This is a bold self-studying soul who could write through his favorite alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman that he was “frightened of everything, frightened of being known, frightened of being forgotten, frightened of being bizarre and frightened of being ordinary, frightened of himself and his instincts, and frightened of being frightened, unconsciously suppressing his talent for fear of what it might do next.” That’s pure Roth, and we’ll hear more in his own voice this hour – from a long conversation we recorded at his farm in Connecticut 15 years ago.
Thanks to Chelsea Merz and David Miller for their work with the original Philip Roth recording in 2006.
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