Philip Roth and #MeToo
In 2009, Marie Lundström arrives at Philip Roth’s isolated Connecticut country house to record an interview for Swedish Radio.
“Are you alone?” he asks.
She is. The taxi just left.
Before they settle down in his studio, Roth telephones a neighbor who promises to drive her back to the train station. His voice is reassuring, soft.
Roth, at the time, is 75 years old. He has been called a giant of American literature, audacious and original, although often reviled for his sexist portrayal of women. His personal life has been attacked as well. In 1996, Claire Bloom wrote a scathing memoir about her four-year-marriage to a misogynistic and self-centered Roth. Even now, as I reread him, there are passages that make me cringe.
Lundström, still a young woman, asks about his craft, the natural quality of his prose.
“It takes work to be natural,” he says. “I have to go over many drafts, so that what appears to be natural is actually the result of work.”
“What do you change?”
“The sentences. That’s the unit you’re working with.”
“Could you explain?”
“The book teaches you about itself, the book works itself toward a certain style, towards a certain form, towards a certain structure as you proceed with it. That’s what your gift is, such as it is, your gift is to ferret out the shape and structure of the project as you’re working on it, because in the beginning it’s nothing.”
“What about the ending?”
“The ending is fun, because you’re almost done. It’s also not fun because it means you’re going to have to start again. And that’s the nature of this damn thing, it’s just one damn book after another. I get fearful when I have to start another one, so I don’t want to say goodbye, because I’m leaving somebody for nobody, I’m leaving something for nothing.
Roth writes every day. He begins around 9:30 and stops at 4:30. After exercising “in some fashion or another,” he watches baseball and the evening news. He reads from about 9 to 11:30, when he turns out the light and goes to sleep.
“Very structured,” Lundström says.
“It’s designed to work. If I can write one page a day, I’m content. If I can write more, it’s wonderful. If I write something and tear it up at the end of the day, then you don’t want to have dinner with me that night because I’m depressed.”
The telephone rings. The neighbor can’t drive Lundström to the station after all.
Roth delivers the news. “You may end up living here.”
The large house broods. Her laughter seems to stick in her throat.
He, on the other hand, sounds thoroughly amused, as if imagining what people will say. “She stayed for twenty years! She buried him. It was very nice of her.”
She recognizes his dark sense of humor from his many books. It takes the edge off what she calls his gubbsjuka, which loosely translates into “geezer’s ailment,” the effect of a young woman on a lustful but likely impotent older man. Still, the notion of staying is not one she cares to pursue.
“So you live here by yourself?” she asks.
“Right now, yes, but I’ve had companions and pets.”
“It’s a big house for companions and pets.”
He laughs. “Yes, I could put the pets and companions in another room and not even see them.”
At this point, the interview takes a more serious turn. He talks about death, not his own as much as that of his friends. John Updike, for one, has died. Roth can no longer look forward to getting his novels in the mail. He says he feels about death as he feels about life. He doesn’t know what he wants. He both dreads and welcomes the idea of nothing.
“So what am I going to do about you?” he says, perhaps to banish the ghosts. No taxi can be reached, so Roth fires up his Volvo and drives her to the station himself. Just before she boards the train, he asks if there are many feminists in the Royal Academy, the institution in charge of the Nobel Prize. Lundström tells him no. The Academy has snubbed him for decades, and whether or not she thinks that feminism may have had something to do with it, she seems unwilling to say.
In 2012, as he approached 80, Roth announced that he would no longer write. By then he had won just about every honor a great writer can win, in the case of the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award more than once. The Nobel Prize would always elude him.
With #MeToo, the charges of sexism and misogyny intensified. In 2018, a few months before his death, he spoke to the New York Times about some of his male characters, possibly also about himself. “I’ve tried to be uncompromising in depicting these men each as he is, each as he behaves, aroused, stimulated, hungry in the grip of carnal fervor and facing the array of psychological and ethical quandaries the exigencies of desire present. I haven’t shunned the hard facts in these fictions of why and how and when tumescent men do what they do, even when these have not been in harmony with the portrayal that a masculine public-relations campaign – if there were such a thing – might prefer.”
I admire his refusal to back down. He was true to himself and his times. I myself came of age when women were expected to cater to men. I know of invitations, spoken and unspoken, and I know about being pressed against a wall and managing to duck. Not that much has changed. Aggression still poses as virility, a no can still be interpreted as a yes, women still use their looks and bodies to get what they want. Gender isn’t the problem. Power is. I can’t think of anything more dangerous than that.
The Royal Academy is in trouble these days, a sordid affair, yet another scandal brought about by #MeToo. One insider called it a rat’s nest, a shocking epithet for an institution that has existed for almost three hundred years. One can only hope it will rise again, immaculate and incorruptible, like the bastion it was meant to be. It took courage to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in 2016. Perhaps it would have taken even more to give it to Philip Roth?
All in all, Roth wrote thirty-one books. If I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be The Ghost Writer, published in 1979. In it, a middle-aged writer seems intent on disavowing a young visitor of any illusions about the writing life. “I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think.”
That’s how the end of nothing begins.
Swedish Radio rebroadcast Marie Lundström’s interview with Philip Roth on May 23, 2018, the day after his death.
by Birgitta Hjalmarson
The End of Christmas.
The girl’s breath misted the glass as she pressed her nose against the windowpane and looked out at the street. An eerie stillness ruled out there, no movement seen, other than snowflakes falling slowly from a black evening sky. In front of the house, a solitary lamp post shed a small circle of light. The father and the boy had shoveled the garden path free of snow, all the way from the white wooden gate to the front door.
In this town, on the west coast of Sweden, winter had come early that year. The war had ended less than a decade earlier. Memories of the camps already seemed distant, the guilt assuaged, for all the claims of ignorance of something that should have been known. But the girl and the boy knew nothing of that, especially not on an evening like this, the house warm and snug, the oil furnace humming in the cellar, the Christmas creche on display in the fireplace, the wise men in their richly colored robes, the ceramic ox looking down on the infant in the manger. Out in the bicycle shed, the hedgehog had bedded down for the winter, underneath a pile of twigs and leaves, its breathing suspended, its torpor all but complete.
From the sofa in the living room, the sister-in-law watched the wife. The sister-in-law came rarely to the house. She was a stranger to the children. Even the husband, her younger brother, had long since tried to understand who she was, or perhaps he understood it all too well, her desire for his wife, her need to see her, if only from a distance, and only once a year, as this evening in the living room, her mind taking note of the wife’s every gesture, her quietness and content, and yet that hint of strain, the skin below her eyes tinged with blue, and now the news, as the wife had whispered in her ear, even as they greeted each other in the hall, that she was expecting a third child.
The boy joined the girl at the window. He wore his new pullover sweater, an early Christmas gift. Early that morning, he and the father had gone to the country, the boy in the back seat of the Volvo, as they traveled along winding forest roads, with glimpses of the frozen river against the gray winter light. At the farmhouse, the grandmother had been waiting, a devout woman in black, made even more devout by the death of her husband years before the war. A horse dealer, he had lived on too grand a scale in a place where most of the forest had already been felled, leaving the ground scorched and too stony for crops. No one, not even the grandmother, had been willing to admit that his death had been a suicide. Rather, it was blamed on a sudden dizziness, which must have struck as he crossed the old stone bridge, his body floating ashore a couple of miles to the south.
While the grandmother stayed behind, the boy and the father had walked out into the forest, following the tracks in the snow, the boy carrying his grandfather’s rifle. The fox had waited for them, or so it seemed to the boy, at the far end of a meadow, the boughs of the fir trees weighed down by snow. As the father guided him, the boy raised the rifle to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger. The fox looked straight at them, as if in anticipation of what the boy would do next. Blood hammering in his ears, gun oil stinging his nostrils, all the boy could think of was the stillness of the fox, the frozen landscape around them, and the father wanting him to shoot. Just then, the fox turned and loped back in among the trees, and the boy lowered the rifle.
On their return to town, the boy and the father had found the Christmas tree toppled by the cat, ornaments scattered all over, the cat on the windowsill licking its paws. Order had been restored, the Christmas star rewired to the top of the tree, the tree itself secured to the wall, and the shards of the broken glass balls, covered with fake frost, swept off the floor. At last, after hiding in his room, the boy had come out to light the candles in the tree, not electric, as in the houses of his friends, but real, the candleholders made of brass with drip pans for the melting wax. He bowed before the aunt and joined the girl at the window, who kept wiping the mist off the glass. He was not at all sure that Santa Claus would come, especially not since the father was still in the house. In the past, the father had always disappeared just before Santa Claus arrived. Now, looking at his father converse with the aunt, the boy felt sorry for his sister, who clung to the notion that Santa Claus was no less real than the grandmother’s God.
The wife was still in the kitchen, preparing the sauce for the lutfisk, rich enough to conceal the blandness of the cod. The afternoon had grated on her nerves, and she had reached for one of those pills she kept hidden in the corner of the cabinet, behind the crystal glasses. She could hear her husband’s voice from the living room. A month earlier, her sister-in-law had helped her with a dress that needed to be let out. It was only natural that the wife should have asked her, the sister-in-law being a seamstress with clients coming to see her as far as from Berlin. In the bright atelier, the sister-in-law had bent at her side, one knee against the floor, as she pinned the dress around her waist, the porcelain pin heads like pricks of blood. Even now, the wife could feel the hands of her sister-in-law resting on her hips, longer than necessary, long enough for the wife to respond, as if a small animal had stirred inside her womb. That night, unable to forget, she had turned away from her husband in shame. The following morning, a messenger delivered the dress with a note from the sister-in-law, embossed in blue and gold, with hopes that the dress would now be a better fit.
To this day, the wife could see the husband enter the shop where she used to work, his collar raised, his coat of the latest cut. He had asked to taste almost every cheese in sight, buying two or three, as the other customers waited in line, the matrons smiling behind his back. When she married him, she had already been pregnant with the boy. Crushing his dreams to become an architect, she expected him to provide for her in style, all those dinners and bridge parties, the maids in starched aprons and caps. Once he became a successful businessman, he took her to Milan and Paris, the two of them sitting in their own loge at the opera house or walking hand-in-hand along the Seine. Even now, after all these years of living in this small Swedish town, when he thought she was asleep, he would leave their bed for the room in the attic. Here, when cleaning, she would see his blueprints spread on the drawing board, his pencils sharpened and lined up, his compass and triangles laid out the way one might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone who might still return, all those dreams stashed away, like her pills.
Now, as the wife entered the living room, she found her sister-in-law talking to the husband, the cat purring in his lap. Both children were at the window, looking out. This year, aware of the boy’s suspicions, she and her husband had agreed to hire a Santa Claus. Other parents in the neighborhood had asked to join, and an advertisement had been answered. The man, named Linder, was given not just the addresses but also the names of the children, their grades at school and the subjects in need of improvement. He should already be making his way down the street, sacks of presents waiting for him in garages and cellars, a glass of snaps offered him in each house, strong enough to warm his insides. The wife did not know this man, nor did her husband. According to the agency, he lived east of the river. People there had little to do with the people who lived in the villas to the west, but the agency had presented him as a retired engineer, very respectable, his own son long since grown.
Approaching the house, Linder saw the children’s faces in the window, noses pressed against the glass. His mask had holes cut for his mouth and eyes. Rubber bands attached his cotton beard to his face and dug into the skin behind his ears. He did not need the money, but he was willing to suffer it all, as long as he did not have to be alone on this one night, when once, underneath the stars, the shepherds heard the angels sing, “Glory to God on high!” Before he knocked on the front door, he stomped the snow off his boots, loud enough to make sure the children heard him. The husband and the wife shook his hand, as did the girl and the boy, curtsying and bowing, neither one brave enough to look him in the eyes. The woman, who introduced herself as the sister-in-law, remained seated, while the cat hissed at him and hid under her chair. He had seen women like that in the other houses too, widows and maiden aunts, their relatives taking turns in having them over for the holidays, as inconvenient as it was, and in this particular case clearly putting added pressure on the wife, whose hand had been cold and wet in his, before she quickly took it back.
Linder sat on a chair in the middle of the room. He emptied his glass of snaps, uttered a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, pulled the presents out of the sack, and read out the names on the tags. When still in his thirties, he had come down from the north, building railroads through the wilderness, living in barracks with the other men, carousing and fighting, until a young woman from one of the villages stood at the barrack door, wanting to save him, her face tapered and pale. She had a child by a man, whose name she never knew. The boy, she said, needed a father, and so a deal was struck. She had been pliable, adjusting to his ways to please him, quoting from the Scriptures, and calling him a decent man. In the end she had bent too much, and she broke right under him, something erupting inside her; the doctors were unable to save her, or even explain what had gone wrong.
After the funeral, he moved with the boy to this town, where the railroad company paid him handsomely and called him an engineer. When Germany occupied Norway, the Swedish government allowed German trains to travel through Sweden to transport wounded soldiers back to their own country. He stood on the platform, as did many of the other townspeople, watching the trains roll by, the soldiers leaning out the windows to wave. Several newspapers published articles in protest, claiming that the trains carried not just wounded soldiers but also Swedish iron to be forged into guns. The townspeople jeered and shook their fists, the air hot with hatred, but one man – he recognized the husband, who now stood behind his seated wife, cupping his pipe, making sure his children behaved — had raised his right arm in salute, palm down.
The distribution of presents over, the mood in the room was one of comfort and warmth, all meant to convince the children that they were somehow in good hands. For a moment Linder too felt drawn in, but only until he met the stare of the cat, still crouching under the older woman’s chair, its pupils opening and closing, yellow slits against black. At the husband’s insistence, he accepted a second glass of snaps. It was then that the girl climbed up on his knee, her stockings white and crumpled at her feet. Someone ought to have stopped her, but no one did. She was too close to him, her scent of vanilla and milk, her slight body trusting his. He heard himself burst into song, his voice like the cranking of a rusty shaft, raucous words about lonely men around a fire, miles and miles of forest to the nearest town, the curses and profanities shielding them from the dark, but the girl still leaned against his chest, until he wrenched her away and the wife rushed in to gather her up. The girl was crying now, not loud, more a drawn-out sob, as if she had glimpsed the hunger in his eyes and made it hers.
From the window, the boy and the girl watched their father walk Santa Claus down the shoveled garden path, through the gate and out into the street. Stopping under the lamp post, the father handed Santa Claus an envelope, slapped him on the back, and returned to the house. The snow had stopped falling now. Pressing her cheek to the misty glass, the girl looked up at the stars. She told the boy she could see the star of Bethlehem leading Santa Claus on his way, his red hood bobbing and disappearing in the night. The boy put his arm around her shoulders and told her about the fox, all that wood stacked in front of their grandmother’s house, enough to take her through the winter, the empty stalls in the stable, halters hanging from iron hooks, the wood nicked from kicking hooves. He told her he was all she had.
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