Philip Roth: ‘It was my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me….’
When I’m feeling disheartened by the fiction I’ve been reading (it happens), I reach for something by Philip Roth. He never lets me down.
It’s not that his books are all masterpieces of the order of Sabbath’s Theater or The Counterlife, but that, even when he misfired (Our Gang, the Nixon satire, or the disastrous all-dialogue Deception), he was still worth reading. Even in his flaws, he was open, generous and interesting.
I Married a Communist was, in my opinion, derailed in the writing by the publication of his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir – derailed by the author’s personal rage. All the same, it contains a rumination by his character Leo on the difference between literature and politics which has always stayed with me:
‘Politics is the great generaliser, and literature the great particulizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to one another – they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, that makes no sense and really oughtn’t to be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, à la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself – for life as it might prefer to be publicized… Literature disturbs the organization. Not because it is for or against, or even subtly for or against. It disturbs the organization because it is not general.’
It was not just Roth’s books that mattered. The way he conducted himself, as a writer and a man, seems to me exemplary and honourable. Down the years, I have collected his remarks, taken from novels, memoirs and interviews, in my Writer’s Rules. Here are a few of my favourite Rothisms.
About the need to write:
‘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.’ (2014)
About persecuted writers, like those in Czechoslovakia in 1972:
‘They made me very conscious of the difference between the private ludicracy of being a writer in America and the harsh ludicrousness of being a writer in eastern Europe. These men and women were drowning in history. They were working under tremendous pressure and the pressure was new to me – and news to me, too. They were suffering for what I did freely and I felt great affection for them, and allegiance; we were all members of the same guild.’ (2004)
About the distractions of our culture:
‘The elevation to celebrity [for a writer] is just another obstacle that most readers have to overcome to achieve a direct perception of his work.’ (1975)
‘Receiving a prize excites the child in you, and then you go back to work the next day.’ (2013)
Because he refused to play the games that authors are expected to play, he was routinely attacked by idiots who wilfully misunderstood his writing. And, because he wrote with ferocious, naked honesty about male desire (an unpretty thing at the best of times), he was often accused of inappropriate attitudes. Here is his view of all that:
‘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. The imposition of a cause’s idea of reality on the writer’s idea of reality can only mistakenly be called “reading.” And in the case at hand, it is not necessarily a harmless amusement. In some quarters, “misogynist” is now a word used almost as laxly as was “Communist” by the McCarthyite right in the 1950s — and for very like the same purpose.’ (2014)
About giving up writing:
‘There’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date.’ (2014)
For me, the most vivid portrait of Philip Roth was in a novel – and not one of his. Janet Hobhouse, who died in 1991 of cancer at the age of 42, had an affair with Roth and, in her novel The Furies, published posthumously in 1992, based her central character of Jack on him. These extracts give a sense of what he was like:
‘I was also in large part seduced by the dullest thing about him, which was how he actually lived, the monkish habits of his solitude, the grim, even depressive minimalism of his life.
I admired his fasting. I admired his stony separateness and self-sufficiency. I admired the smallness of his needs, the steadiness of his routines: his exercise weights, his evening runs, his early nights. All the symptoms of his current loneliness I read as choices, heroic and exemplary. I admired the way he organised his existence around the two pages a day he set himself to write, the way he kept out intruders and had an answering machine to protect him, to take his messages like a psychiatrist’s in August… I admired the sparseness of his living arrangements, the just so and no more of his furnishings, the blandness of what he had on his walls….’
‘… Maybe I knew enough about the costs of Jack’s spartan life, though it wasn’t until much later that I knew it up close: the purposeful deprivation that allows you to work, the cultivation of dullness so that writing can be an escape from it, the only pleasure in an unpleasured world, really only the cessation of pain being there, that place you have pulled down around you, made empty and ugly with loss.’
Thank you, Philip Roth. You made our world more interesting, vivid and funny. May your spirit of courage live on – we need it these days.
I put two or three Writer’s Rules on Twitter most weekdays at @TerenceBlacker, #writersrules.