by Birgitta Hjalmarson
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. “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.
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