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Philip Roth, Who Dominated U.S. Literature For Decades, Dies At 85


Philip Roth has died. The novelist was 85. And he was one of a handful of writers who dominated American literature for decades. He was a New Jersey guy from the city of Newark, an American Jew. And as a writer, he explored both his background and his interest in sex.


PHILIP ROTH: I was very curious, as a writer, as to how far I could go. What happens if you go further? It's best, certainly in the early stages of a book, to abandon self-censorship.

INSKEEP: Philip Roth's friend and biographer Blake Bailey is on the line. Mr. Bailey, thanks for joining us, and sorry for your loss.

BLAKE BAILEY: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.

INSKEEP: How long do you know Philip Roth?

BAILEY: I first met Philip six years ago. I had just finished my most recent biography. I wanted to do him next. So I wrote him a note. And he gave me a call.

INSKEEP: And you ended up spending a lot of time together, I guess.

BAILEY: We did, we did. That very summer, I went and spent about a week out in Connecticut. And we had long conversations in his studio. And he was the best company in the world.


BAILEY: He was the funniest man in the world.

INSKEEP: You said his studio. What was his routine as a writer? Where was he writing? And how did he go about it?

BAILEY: Well, when he was out in Connecticut, he had this old, you know, 18th-century farmhouse. And it had a two-room outbuilding, which he had immaculately refurbished which was a sort of writer's paradise. And he would get up every morning, eat his breakfast, do his exercises, do his stretches. He had a bad back.

And then he would walk about 100 yards to that outbuilding. And he'd get to work. And when he was really at the height of his productivity, which was in the '90s, when he was in his 60s and writing his masterly "American Trilogy," he would - you know, he would work through dinner. And then he'd go have dinner. And then he'd go back out there and work at night.

INSKEEP: So I want to ask something about Philip Roth. When you look at his novels, there's often a main character who's a novelist. Sometimes the main character who's a novelist is named Philip. Sometimes it's somebody from Newark, N.J. Was it just writing about himself all this time?

BAILEY: No, no. That's a terrible misconception. You know, Phillip was both appalled and, I think, tickled by how people perceived him based on what he wrote in his fiction, you know, because he wrote "Portnoy's Complaint" about this compulsive masturbator. People thought he was this antic sex fiend. Because he occasionally wrote about unsympathetic women characters, they thought he was a misogynist. Because he satirized certain Jewish mores, they thought he was a self-hating Jew. So he said, OK, I'll give you a character - Nathan Zuckerman or Philip Roth (laughter). And, you know, let's see what you make of that. But, you know, one example - after "Portnoy's Complaint" was published, he was constantly accosted in public by people who would say things like, hey, Portnoy, leave it alone (laughter). So...

INSKEEP: So people confused the fiction with the real thing. But he wasn't - you're saying he wasn't quite writing about himself, even if he kind of put himself in there.

BAILEY: No, absolutely not, you know? I mean, Nathan Zuckerman publishes a "Portnoy"-like book called "Carnovsky," OK? And...

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a novelist who's a character in one of Roth's books. OK, go on.

BAILEY: Right, right, who everyone said is just Philip Roth writing about himself. And Nathan becomes, you know, terribly estranged from his family. And his father curses him from his deathbed, OK? Well, Philip Roth's father, Herman, was very much still alive and far from being inclined to curse his son. He was constantly handing out copies of "Portnoy's Complaint" to his friends...


BAILEY: ...Signed, from Philip Roth's father, Herman.

INSKEEP: Wow, that's great. I want to ask about one of Roth's novels that certainly has been commented upon in political circles the last couple of years. It's a book called "The Plot Against America." It's from 2004. Franklin Roosevelt is defeated for re-election in 1940 by Charles Lindbergh, the real-life hero pilot who said America First and who becomes a president who’s friendly with dictators and discriminates against Jews. What did Philip Roth say, if anything, when this came back into the political conversation in the time of Donald Trump?

BAILEY: I mean, Philip, who used to as a young man be appalled that someone like Eisenhower, a philistine, a butcher of the language like Eisenhower, was president, came to regard that as very quaint indeed, you know, when a casino operator suddenly became president without qualification and, you know, without human qualification, as Philip saw it.

INSKEEP: Was he OK with his book being invoked in the same breath as Donald Trump?

BAILEY: He was thrilled, and he kept hoping that he would be vilified in one of Trump’s tweets. I’m not sure it happened, but he would’ve been delighted if it had.

INSKEEP: OK, we’ll leave it there. Blake Bailey, who’s currently working on a biography of Philip Roth, thanks very much.

BAILEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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