Philip Roth Told Me not to Write about Him and I Didn’t Listen

Interview with Livia Manera, literary journalist and author of a book in which she recounts her encounters with some of the most important American writers. Among them, Philip Roth with whom the author has been friends for years and who told her not to write about him / Leggi in italiano

Literature is a territory where even among readers ferocious battles can be fought. Battles however as long as they are not foolishly ideological can often be healthy and vital, when inspired by a passion for the quality of the writing.For the last few years, every autumn when the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature is approaching, the question arises in the mass-media (and among readers too) “but at last this year they’ll give it to Philip Roth, won’t they?â€￾

No, not even this year, 2015, has this monumental writer, born in Newark into a Jewish family in 1933 (82 years old), the author of American Pastoral (Pulitzer Prize 1998), Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain, The Anatomy Lesson, The Dying Animal, who seems to have all the requisites and qualifications to embody Literature itself, been awarded the Prize. Inevitably, the next step is to wonder why (without bringing into question the actual award winning writer!).

First of all, Roth has to carry the burden of somewhat awkward fame of being a novelist who writes about sex, only about sex, explicitly and in a sexist way (fame that was initially tied to the scandal of Portnoy, 1969). And if we add to this the confusion between the literary identity of the author and his biographic identity as a man, as well as that between the writer and his characters – whether due to naiveté or in bad faith – the result is catastrophic. In order to clarify all these different perspectives, Roth also made the titanic effort that produced The Facts. A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988), in which, thanks to his brave intellectual honesty, he tried to disentangle the mysterious ways the autobiographic material and the existential experience of an individual is transformed through writing into something universal which everyone can relate, into something different and separate: that is to say into literature.

It isn’t hard to imagine the weariness of this great author, when we think of the depth of his view of reality (which precisely for this reason is demystifying), of his extraordinary ability to investigate the human condition in all its implications and of the richness of the themes he dealt with in his more than thirty books. Together with sexuality – which is after all structurally at the core of our humanity – stands the centrality of one’s lifelong relationship with parents, the building of one’s own identity, the theme of work, of pain, the management of the imponderable and the unexpected (we are never ready for life), the relationship with Time that goes by inexorably, the transformations brought on with age, the terrible familiarity with the thought of approaching death and the excruciating pietas that brings all of us together as human beings.

Roth, who has the reputation of being a man who dislikes gossip, has said many times that he finds the recurring comments and polemic about his missed Nobel Prize very irritating.

Though this might have discouraged us, we nonetheless talked about all this with Livia Manera, literary journalist at the Italian daily newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, an Anglo-American literature specialist who has maintained a privileged relationship with the writer, proverbially difficult to approach and get close to. She has consequently had the chance to make two documentary films about him, in addition to interviewing him several times. Thus she has become a dear friend and confidant of his which is why he ordered her “You’ll never write about me again!â€￾. This command was completely disregarded later and became the title of the book (Non scrivere di me) in which Manera recounts her meetings with some of the protagonists of Anglo-American literature, published by the Italian Feltrinelli in April 2015. Alongside Roth (whose portrait in English appeared in the Believer a few months earlier), we can get to know better Mavis Gallant, Judith Thurman, David Foster Wallace, Joseph Mitchell, Richard Ford, James Purdy and Paula Fox.

livia manera

Author Livia Manera

Once again this year Philip Roth hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize. Why hasn’t this reward been given to one of the greatest writers of the 20th-21st centuries? Has this something to do with his reputation as a non-politically correct author? Roth has even been charged with misogyny. Some biases encrust on a writer’s reputation and then it’s very difficult to scratch them off.

“I think there are many different reasons. Usually the Nobel Prize is given to high quality writers, but perhaps not well known worldwide, to provide them with greater exposure. Roth on the other hand is already very well known. There are also rumours, but it’s impossible to check them, according to which there is insurmountable hostility within the Sweden Academy, precisely due to the alleged misogyny of Roth. But we also have to say that there is a sort of reluctance to award an American, who writes in English, since American culture is considered already predominant and subsequently it doesn’t have any particular need to be promoted or helped by a Nobel Prize for Literature. While the case of Toni Morrison, for example, is different. This great American writer thanks to her work has become an authoritative spokeswoman for the demands and needs, both civil and political, of Afro-American culture.â€￾

“Shouldn’t the Nobel Prize to Literature be the recognition of the high quality of the literary writing par excellence, apart from every other observations pertaining to different fields, included the language the author writes in? Shouldn’t it consider solely the contribution given by a writer to literature?â€￾

“Actually the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature brings to light a cultural climate. However it’s true that Roth has had to struggle painfully all his life long against a public image of himself that he didn’t choose. At the time of Portnoy’s Complaint he was even harassed, he was recognised and reproached in the streets, everywhere. And he’s really fed up with all of this now.â€￾

Is it true that Roth doesn’t write anymore? Not even for himself?

“It’s true that he doesn’t write anymore. I think that deciding to quit has been a real relief, which in fact he has told me many times. The example of Saul Bellow, who couldn’t quit and when he was in his eighties wrote a book like Ravelstein which is in no way as good as his previous work, must have been a warning. But it’s possible that after saying he would quit writing fiction, he has written some notes for himself – and for his biographer. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. He‘s a man who loves to be in charge. He’s a man who loves to be in control of everything. And there is a biography being written right now.â€￾.

Your portrait of Roth in Non scrivere di me is also the brave account of how your relationship has developed over the years and culminates in the last precious sentence with which you close your book: his declaration that you should have met twenty-five years earlier, because this would have changed your lives.

“I wrote and re-wrote six different finals, before understanding what I would do. Deciding to publish that sentence wasn’t easy at all. It was my son who encouraged me not to be reticent, to be coherent with the setting of the book, handling the writers and myself with the same honesty.â€￾

The entire book seems to be permeated by a research into the origin and source of writing, that is to say, into what it is that makes a particular individual with their singular story (almost always difficult and painful) become a writer, despite the heterogeneity of the authors you talk about.

“It’s one of the themes I care most about in my work, one of the fundamental questions. That’s also why the nature of the book is necessarily hybrid. It isn’t a collection of interviews of writers, nor a text of literary criticism according to more traditional schemes. I had to personally put myself on the line and tell things about myself in order to be able to talk about them in this wayâ€￾.

You have met so many authors throughout the many years of your work. How did you choose who to write about?

“It depended on their stories. I wanted to tell particular and even very different stories. It definitely had nothing to do with their fame.”

In your book we discover, among other things, the masculine beauty of Richard Ford and the generosity of his friend Carver, we get to know a very female and stubborn-in-the-face-of- misfortune Mavis Gallant, we find James Purdy nearly buried alive in Brooklyn Heights in his integrity which borders on the absolute, we see New York through Philip Roth’s eyes, we’re admitted into the intimacy of his houses and experience his exhausting dialectic challenges. And we meet a tormented Edgar Foster Wallace in a Mc-Donald’s in a highway service station two hours from Chicago.

“I wrote down our conversation, every passage, with absolute accuracy. Wallace was suffering profoundly, from a pathological and very apparent affliction. A disease made evident also by the choice of our meeting place. After his suicide I couldn’t reread his books any more. Purdy was a courteous but decrepit gentleman, whose decadence was in incredible contrast with the fairy-tale beauty of Brooklyn Heights that day under the snowâ€￾.

Is there an American author you still haven’t had the chance to interview and you would like to meet?

“Among the most well-known, Don De Lillo. Among the younger writers there are certainly many interesting onesâ€￾.

Considering the extraordinary pluralism and variety of individual voices, that constitute American literature, do you think there is something we can call “Americanityâ€￾? How would you define it?

“Yes, I do believe it exists. It’s the thing that moves me above all when I meet it in the style of the writer: the way every writer, as an immigrant – of first or second generation – has contaminated the English language he writes in with the language and culture of his origins, thereby (greatly) enriching it. In some cases you can see it above all in the lexicon, but in others even in the deconstruction of the syntax that reproduces the movement of another language. I am particularly thinking of Aleksandar Hemon, of Bosnian extraction, of Junot Diaz, born in Santo Domingo, and of Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, an Irishman who lived in Holland for years and then graduated in Law in Cambridgeâ€￾.

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