The New Statesman
Philip Roth crosses swords with a fearless interviewer
The extended pre-recorded interview with Philip Roth on the highbrow late-night arts programme Night Waves (15 September, 9.15pm, Radio 3) was brilliant. The long-time Night Waves presenter and academic Philip Dodd certainly didn't fear Roth, whose reputation for ferocity is in fact as unfounded as his reputation for inaccessibility - the way some journalists carry on, you'd think he lived on a crag instead of in Connecticut. Dodd started many of his questions, or responses to Roth's answers, with the order "Listen!" - a fabulously fascistic, trademark Doddian trope.
"Listen, I'm interested in what America makes use of you for," said Dodd, before launching into a list of the influences one might detect in Roth's work - Cummings, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Rilke, Yeats, Keats, Swift, Orwell, Joyce. "When I was younger I read a lot of stuff that wasn't always American," said Roth, "but to be described as an American writer suits me." "It's not a good enough description!" needled Dodd. "I'm a literate American!" said Roth, amused that such a concept could seem so alien, and then gave an order of his own: "Let's go on."
Dodd said that he found the description of a blowjob in Roth's new book, Indignation, particularly compelling, and asked where it had come from. "Are you asking me to say how I found out about blowjobs, on the radio?" asked Roth. "I don't really need that on Radio 3," said Dodd (thanks, Philip), "but I am interested in the way you describe it. Makes it sound very generational." This is prime Night Waves waft. "Generational" is a word that doesn't mean anything, like the über-bullshitty "identity". Pulling his Night Waves jumper tightly over his stomach and hips, Dodd then asked: "Do you know what it is that's drawn you to the subjunctive?" "No," said Roth. "I don't know what it is. Do you know what it is?" "Listen," said Dodd, "if I knew what it was I'd be sitting in your chair . . ." Roth laughed. This was going well.
Now and again Roth would read passages from Indignation in his magically ageless voice: "In death what is turns out to be what was. You're not just shackled with life while you're living it. You continue to be stuck with it when you're gone. Or maybe I do. I alone."
Although Roth's books feel all voice (he reads everything back to himself out loud, only stopping rewriting when something seems "alive"), he actually performs his own work in an exquisitely unpractised, interested way, like someone treading carefully across the gravel.
The exchange continued, fluid and friendly. Roth said he firmly supported Obama but understood he'd fail. Dodd told a story about being informed by a doctor that he wasn't going to make it to 80. Roth said he believed Hemingway could not be beaten for clear description. Dodd quoted Marx. Roth admitted that he calms himself in moments of block by telling himself he's not inventing, but merely remembering. Dodd rambled ("It's history, isn't it . . . like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern . . ."). Roth said: "Hu-hum. Hu-hum." A feather-light plastic bag on the table rustled, discreetly. The hour hand edged towards ten: the time hospital wards throw out their visitors and pilots switch off the lights in the cabin. The best time of the day. Radio like this makes me happy to be alive.