Philip Roth Blows Up

Isn’t that…Philip Roth? It’s Christmas Day, 1997, and George Stephanopoulos is pretty sure it is as he stares at a lean, intense man on the corner of Columbus and 79th, and the man stares back. For a split second, the two just stand there, suspended in a halo of mutual recognition, before Stephanopoulos breaks the spell. What a coincidence, he tells Roth. I just saw the President. He’d just gotten off the phone with Chelsea. She’s writing a paper about you for a class at Stanford. Roth seems pleased. They exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, then part ways. Before leaving, Stephanopoulos extends his hand and tells Roth it was a pleasure speaking to the finest writer in America. * There’s some dispute about what happened next. Stephanopoulos remembers simply walking away. But the way Roth tells the story – or at least the way he told it to Roy Blount Jr. – he waited a beat, then corrected Stephanopoulos.

“Living,” Roth said.

Did Stephanopoulos just forget the punch line? Or was it a fillip of Philip’s imagination? And does it even matter, considering that Roth takes a professional interest in making the line between fact and fiction one giant, fetching blur?

Ten years ago, Roth was still considered a literary troublemaker, a gleeful misogynist, a self-absorbed rake who made it impossible for an entire generation to look at liver the same way again. He was just too Jewish, too oversexed, too funny to be taken as seriously as Pynchon or Updike or DeLillo. But over the past decade, something magical has taken place. While his peers have slipped quietly into their literary dotage, Roth’s powers have steadily waxed. Since 1991, he has pumped out six books with metronomic, superhuman regularity, winning five major awards, including a Pulitzer. Now, with the imminent publication of his new novel, The Human Stain, the unthinkable has occurred: Portnoy is a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize.

“Ten years ago, I would have said it was a toss-up between Updike and Roth,” says Joel Conarroe, the president of the Guggenheim Foundation. “Today, I’d say he’s certainly the most deserving of the Nobel Prize in America. I put him in a class with Bellow, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. I know that sounds extreme. But both in terms of quality of work and productivity, he simply has no peer right now. He’s the king of the cats.”

“Whether I will ever persuade the Nobel Prize people – and I have tried – I don’t know,” sighs Harold Bloom. “He’s not terribly politically correct, you know. And they are.”

William Styron says the 67-year-old author has recently “possessed his writing like someone possessed.” Harold Bloom, the professional gray eminence, recently teased Roth about being a modern Anthony Trollope, who used to complete one novel and start the next on the same sheet of paper. (In fact, says Bloom, he’s pretty certain Roth has already finished a new 120-page novella.) “It’s almost a Shakespearean outburst of creativity,” marvels Bloom. “And it can only be described as extraordinary genius. There’s DeLillo, there’s Pynchon, there’s Cormac McCarthy … but in terms of total design and inventiveness and originality, I’m not sure if Philip isn’t the closest we have to being the best there is.”

Saul Bellow, himself a Nobelist, eagerly concurs. “His writing has been different in the last few years,” he says. “He seems to have organized a great many subjects in his mind, and he has prepared them quite carefully. It’s just astonishing that he brings these books out one after the other, so serious and so well developed in the construction. I wish I understood it. I’m very impressed.”

Back in the eighties, no one would have been bathing Roth in this kind of sunshiny praise. No one would have predicted that President Clinton, in 1998, would be handing him the National Medal of the Arts, declaring, “What James Joyce did for Dublin, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Philip Roth has done for Newark.” No one would have imagined that the Library of Congress, on its 200th anniversary, would pronounce him a living legend, along with Isaac Stern and Julia Child. A living legend? It would have made the young Nathan Zuckerman do pirouettes.

Actually, during the eighties, most of Roth’s readers were getting a little sick of Nathan Zuckerman, the author’s self-pitying, relentlessly introspective alter ego who made less progress after five books than the Malaspina Glacier has in five millennia. Roth himself thought he’d broken out of his rut with Operation Shylock in 1993. It was his bid for immortality, the crown jewel in his new three-book contract with Simon & Schuster, for which he got paid a handsome seven figures. But it landed with a thud. Michiko Kakutani called it “energetic” but concluded that the comic scenes were “overshadowed by the author’s tiresome games with mirrors”; John Updike wrote a pointedly restrained review in The New Yorker, noting, “Some readers may feel there is too much Philip Roth in the writer’s recent books.” That hurt. A few months later, according to Leaving a Doll’s House, the lurid tell-all by his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, Roth checked himself into Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital. He told the doctors he was near suicide. They prescribed high doses of Prozac and lithium to subdue whatever dybbuk had possessed him.

Then something happened. When he left the hospital, Roth hunkered down and unleashed Sabbath’s Theater, which won the 1995 National Book Award. In 1997, he published American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer. In 1998 came I Married a Communist. Twenty months later, there’s The Human Stain.

Many of Roth’s friends and peers believe that this novel, the story of a professor ruined by the idiocies of political correctness, is his best and bravest yet. In a Roth first, one of the central characters is black. “He finally broke out of this ongoing segregation of American fiction,” says culture critic Stanley Crouch. “You know – black people writing about black people over and over again, Jews writing about Jews. Brother Roth decided to climb the fence. It’s a good sign not only for him but for American fiction.”

Still, it wouldn’t be a work by Roth if it weren’t also driven forward by some old-fashioned, vindictive fury. “What certainly comes through in The Human Stain,” says Ted Solotaroff, author of the beautiful memoir Truth Comes in Blows, “is the kind of rage that he was carrying around from the whole affair with Claire Bloom and her book. He’s found a very strong fire hose for all that pressure.”

Today, the only prize left for Roth to win is the one that dares not speak its name. He doesn’t actively campaign for it, as Theodore Dreiser supposedly did, but it’s certainly on his mind. Just over two years ago, a friend called Roth and asked him if it was a good time to talk. I guess, Roth sighed. The winners of the Nobel Prize were just announced on the radio, and once again, I didn’t get one.

“He plainly has mentioned it,” says Styron, “but his take on the Nobel Prize is sort of ambivalent, in the sense of it going to people that sometimes don’t deserve it.” Indeed, as long as multicultural and feminist concerns prevail in Stockholm, most of his supporters remain skeptical. “Whether I will ever persuade the Nobel Prize people – and I have tried – I don’t know,” sighs Harold Bloom. “He’s not terribly politically correct, you know. And they are.”

Roth has one advantage, though: In Europe, he’s become the biggest American export since David Hasselhoff. On the Continent, he has squadrons of devotees who have been arguing Roth’s – for lack of a better term – Nobeligibility. He’s already an honorary citizen of the United Kingdom, having lived part-time in London for more than a dozen years with Claire Bloom. And Roth has been the subject of at least three European documentaries: France’s Philip Roth, England’s Philip Roth: My True Story, and Germany’s The Roth Explosion: Confessions of a Writer (first two lines: “Who am I? I am he who writes the books”).

The Roth Explosion was also the name of a four-day Roth festival in Aix-en-Provence last October, which drew Zuckerman experts from all over the Continent, including one Caj Lundgren, whose native city happens to be Stockholm. It was quite a scene: For weeks, an exhibition on Roth’s hometown (“What Is Newark, Where Is Newark?”) ran at the Galerie Zola, and photographs of Roth’s face, emblazoned on a background of fire-engine red, flew on banners throughout the tiny, medieval town. Roth told his friends they made him feel like Chairman Mao.

The next batch of Nobel Prizes won’t be announced until October. Until then, Roth would be content with a best-seller. Houghton Mifflin is printing a very optimistic 100,000 copies of The Human Stain, and though he wouldn’t talk to New York – an old cover story on his split with Bloom still irks him – the normally press-shy Roth has been coaxed into all kinds of other press appearances, including an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, a chat with the New York Times Book Review, and a profile for The New Yorker by its editor-in-chief, David Remnick. Roth will even have his own Web page.

So what is it that brought on this decade-long virtuoso outpouring? Part of it, obviously, can never be explained. But his friends all agree that his triple-bypass surgery in 1989 must have at least intensified his sense of urgency. “At a certain point, I think he thought he was getting old and had a lot more to say,” says writer David Plante. “And he was going to devote himself to saying it.”

Even as far back as 1986, there were hints of a sea change in Roth’s fiction. Solotaroff traces it back to chapters two and three of The Counterlife. “In those two chapters,” he says, “he wrote about Israel in this fresh, penetrating, and very brave way. It was as if he regained the world as a subject. He started going back to the past with a purpose beyond ‘Let’s see what it was like when I was 30.’ “

Instead, Roth began delving into the past in order to tackle the great events and issues of the day: the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, Vietnam. His novels assumed an almost reportorial quality, dense with the kind of far-flung research one associates with the dispatches of Tom Wolfe. Roth journeyed to Gloversville, New York, to take notes on the old glove-making industry for American Pastoral. He interviewed a harpist for I Married a Communist. In The Human Stain, he demonstrates an unlikely familiarity with the challenges of ice fishing.

So what turned him outward in his fiction? A retreat inward in his personal life, maybe: In 1993, he separated from Bloom, and there have been far fewer emotional distractions ever since. “He says solitude is good for him,” says Bellow. “And that he feels liberated when he has these long stretches of uninterrupted writing.”

Today, Roth lives alone in his eighteen-century farmhouse in Warren, Connecticut. Each morning, he rises early, takes a long walk, then goes to his writing studio, just a few hundred feet from his home, and writes, writes, writes. Occasionally, he sees other writers who live in the Berkshires, like Styron. He also speaks with a number of people on the phone. (He and Harold Bloom go through stretches of kibitzing every single evening, often in a mixture of English and Yiddish – “He knows a fair amount of mama-loshen,” the professor happily reports.) But Roth has gotten rid of the Manhattan apartment he and his ex-wife shared. He kept only his writer’s studio on the Upper West Side, which friends say he visits once or twice a week.

“He recently said something so perceptive about himself,” says Plante. “He said he needs to see people, but when he does, he becomes very intense – Philip’s the greatest entertainer in the world. So he said to me: ‘At a certain point, I can’t bear my own intensity. I have to leave. I have to get back to Connecticut.’ “

The exquisite solitude, the undivided rigor: Roth predicted all of this in The Ghost Writer more than twenty years ago. Back then, readers saw Roth in the young Nathan Zuckerman – a horny, guilt-ridden aspirant visiting the home of his literary god, E. I. Lonoff. Today, Roth has moved into that house. And like Lonoff, he’s living in self-imposed rural exile, spending his final days turning sentences around.

“He’s transcended that low word career,” says Cynthia Ozick. “He’s the Ding an sich – the thing-in-itself. That’s what writers marvel at. Where does it come from? How deep is this well of character and incident? Who possesses so much of this? It’s uncanny. After all, he’s not a supernatural being. He’s flesh and blood.”

Philip Roth Blows Up