Listen Now

Philip Roth And His Millions Of Words

May 26, 2018
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Philip Roth wrote millions of words, 29 novels and scores of short stories and essays. My God, exclaims his signature character Alexander Portnoy in the 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint." (Reading) The English language is a form of communication. Conversation isn't just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at, where you've got to duck for your life and aim to kill. Words aren't only bombs and bullets. No, they're little gifts containing meanings.

The comic monologues in "Portnoy's Complaint" can still make you laugh and gasp about things more polite novels didn't explore so explicitly. But his praise for the power of language might also make you wince today when cruel words can be so meanly flung in public life.

Portnoy, Zuckerman, Neil Klugman in "Goodbye, Columbus" - Philip Roth's best-known characters were Jews, beginning at a time in the 1950s when the Holocaust and American anti-Semitism had animated Jewish identity. But he didn't want his work to be consigned to any category. I have never conceived of myself for the length of a single sentence as an American-Jewish or Jewish-American writer, he wrote in The New Yorker.

(Reading) As a novelist, I think of myself - and have from the beginning - as a free American and, though I am hardly unaware of the general prejudice that persisted here against my kind till not that long ago, as irrefutably American, fashion through my life to the American moment, under the spell of the country's past, partaking of its drama and destiny and writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed.

We interviewed Philip Roth five years ago when he announced he was done with writing and just wanted to be free to ruminate and nap. But he used to send us emails about what he heard and liked - older authors he thought had been overlooked and new authors he thought we should read. He sounded like a man who had poured everything from his heart onto the page until there was no more to add.

What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book, Philip Roth once told The Paris Review. (Reading) Then let them return just as they were to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, temp and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise - to have set loose in them the consciousness that's otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn't fiction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.