Unflinchingly into the void

Times Staff Writer

TOWARD the end of Philip Roth's new novel, "Everyman," there is a scene when the unnamed protagonist meets a gravedigger while visiting a cemetery, and realizes that this man may one day bury him. It's a striking interaction, marked by both the physics and the metaphysics of dying -- which is a tension that motivates much of the book.

On a spring afternoon, however, Roth is more interested in the moment as a springboard to a comic riff on literary history. "I have to say," he admits, sitting at a small table in his publisher's offices, "that, for me, the scene evolved spontaneously. I didn't have any plan. I had him in the cemetery and it dawned on me that there might be somebody digging a grave there. So I thought, 'OK, let that happen. Let's see. Let's see if I can do it better than Shakespeare.' " He laughs, softly at first and then in bursts. "So I had Hamlet here, and my pages over here."

As to whether Roth really intends to outdo Shakespeare, "I'll leave that to people like you," he jokes, "to be foolish enough to judge." He laughs again, at ease with himself, playful in the face of eternity.

This paradox -- the balance between death and life, between the limits of existence and his own continued creative vitality -- is at the center of his recent work and, indeed, of "Everyman," which reads like a culmination of some kind.

At 73, Roth is more measured than he once was, when notoriety and controversy seemed to dog his every move. In 1959 -- before his career had even had a chance to get started -- his short story "Defender of the Faith" ignited a firestorm over what Jewish writers should and shouldn't reveal about their culture; one letter, written by a rabbi, asked, "What is being done to silence this man?" The next year, he won a National Book Award for his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories," in which he staked out what would become his signature concern -- the clash between community and identity, between the pressure to conform and the need (psychologically, physically, spiritually) to go it alone.

To see Roth now, though -- contemplative, elegant, almost professorial, wearing a black V-neck sweater, blue pants and worn brown walking boots, thinning hair brushed back from his prominent forehead -- is to recognize just how long ago that was. For the last 15 years or so, he has lived a quiet, even solitary, life in Connecticut, writing and thinking and keeping to himself. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that in this same period he has produced what are arguably his greatest works, beginning with 1993's "Operation Shylock: A Confession" and encompassing not only his "American Trilogy" ("American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain") but the darkly brooding "Sabbath's Theater" and the political fantasy "The Plot Against America," which imagines a world in which Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election and entered into a loose alliance with the Nazis.

"This is a phenomenon," says Roth's longtime friend Ross Miller, a professor at the University of Connecticut and editor of the Library of America's "Novels and Stories 1959-1962" and "Novels 1967-1972," the first two of what will eventually be an eight-volume set of collected works. "Not only do most writers not write these kinds of books late in their career, they stop writing altogether." That's true -- with the exception of Leo Tolstoy and Roth's contemporary E.L. Doctorow, it's hard to think of an author who has published so much significant work at his age. And yet, when it comes to Roth, this seems only as it should be, for as he gleefully admits, "My own method or habit is that you work against the grain."

"Everyman" is a remarkable example of this aesthetic in action, a short novel that begins with its protagonist's funeral. Moving backward from that final instant, it goes on to detail the sweep of his life, a life epic in its ordinariness, in the common hopes and struggles it entails. "At one point," Roth explains, his voice quiet, deliberate, "I was calling it 'An Ordinary Story.' Which is to say that, as harsh as his experiences are, and the story of illness and death, it is an ordinary story." It's also a universal story, as the fate of its protagonist is one that awaits every one of us.

That's the idea behind the title, with its echo of medieval passion plays, as well as Roth's decision not to name the central character -- a choice that, along with our knowledge of his death, invests the book with a nearly overwhelming sense of loss. "This," says Roth, "is why I began there. He dies, and at the funeral, you get a sense of his family, his relationships, briefly laid out. You see his sons' hostility toward him, the daughter's touching relationship with him, the fact that an ex-wife is there and then his brother's eulogy, which gives you a strong sense of who this family is. It's there, it's present -- he's not present -- and now, OK, we'll see how did he get here. How did he get to the cemetery? That's where we begin. That's where you end, but it's where my book begins."

"Everyman" is an extension of Roth's later work. "These novels are death-soaked," notes David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who became a friend after profiling the author in 2000. As an example, he cites the scene in "The Human Stain" when Roth's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, attends a rehearsal at Tanglewood, accompanied by the book's antihero, a disgraced classics professor named Coleman Silk. Roth has already told us that Silk will soon be dead, but "on this breezy, sunny Saturday," it is humanity that consumes him, the idea that life itself is a perverse paradox. "I couldn't stop myself," he writes. "The stupendous decimation that is death sweeping us all away. Orchestra, audience, conductor, technicians, swallows, wrens -- think of the numbers for Tanglewood alone between now and the year 4000. Then multiply that times everything. The ceaseless perishing. What an idea! What maniac conceived it?"

For all that, though, death remains here something of an abstraction, less a matter of personal obliteration than, in Remnick's words, "a cruel, cosmic joke." With "Everyman," Roth makes it personal, looking at what Miller calls "the un-look-at-able, extinction, annihilation, the thing itself." He continues: "This is the first time Philip has really approached death head-on, as the subject of an older writer. It takes guts to write with that degree of clarity." Or, as Roth puts it in the novel, "Everyone thinks at some time or other that in a hundred years no one now alive will be on earth -- the overwhelming force will sweep the place clean. But he was thinking in terms of days. He was musing like a marked man."

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In art as in life

CLARITY is a label appropriate for Roth on many levels, beginning with the man himself. When he speaks, he pauses often, as if to think of the proper phrasing, and he punctuates his remarks with precise gestures, fingers long and tapered, surgical in their exactitude. For Roth, literature is, as it has always been, a calling, which is the motif of many of his books. Over the years, much has been made of the commonality between Roth and his protagonists, a situation he has, inadvertently or otherwise, encouraged by blurring the lines between fact and fiction in his work. Both "Operation Shylock" and "The Plot Against America" revolve around characters named for the author, while his autobiography, "The Facts," opens with a letter from Roth to Zuckerman and ends with Zuckerman's response: "Dear Roth," he writes, "I've read the manuscript twice. Here is the candor you ask for. Don't publish -- you are far better off writing about me than 'accurately' reporting your own life."

Yet Roth bristles at the suggestion that this is postmodern game playing. "I'm the only writer in the world who doesn't know what 'postmodern' means," he declares, with a touch of indignation. "I'm not being faux naive when I say this: I have no idea what the word means. Who are the postmodernists? I don't know who they are."

Even "The Counterlife," the 1986 novel in which he reimagines Zuckerman's life (and that of his brother, Henry) as a series of possibilities, some ending in death and others not, Roth considers a realistic effort. "I don't think of it as game playing in 'The Counterlife,' " he says. "The shifting perspectives, I wasn't doing any game playing. I was always as serious as I could be."

"The Counterlife" is a key book for Roth, a breakthrough not just in style but theme. "When I look back at it," he recalls, "I see it as a turning point, a fulcrum, whatever word you'd use to signify a departure or an advancement, because I abandoned things I began to feel were binding -- simple narrative, narrow focus -- and began to take a more freewheeling approach." As to how this approach developed, Roth is circumspect.

Of "The Counterlife," he says that "there's a thickening of language, a heightening of the level at which people speak. What I realized in writing that book was something I vaguely knew always, which is that you make everybody as intelligent as you can possibly make them within their own rhetoric. This is an illusion. This is an attempt not to mimic life, but to create another kind of life on the page, to make it more interesting." At the same time, he acknowledges that the novel enabled him to extend his vision, to stretch beyond the personal and out into the larger world.

In the past, he's referred to such a shift as having to do with politics and history, but now, he suggests, "I would think rather in terms of place. England and Israel were the focus, and I needed the one for the other. I didn't know the one place as a writer without knowing the other place as a writer. When I put the two together, I seemed to know more than I knew."

Place, of course, is one of Roth's enduring fascinations, beginning with his native Newark, N.J., to which his fiction keeps returning. Yet prior to "The Counterlife," his work just as often seemed to involve an inward turning, an interior excavation of the self.

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'Portnoy' and other complaints

ROTH'S interiority has long been a target for his critics, especially in his fiction of the 1970s and early 1980s. "With the Zuckerman books," Roth explains, "I was interested in several things. One was what it was to be an artist, a fiction writer in both the West and in the East. The theme -- not that I explicitly stated it -- was the unforeseen consequences of this vocation. And the high-mindedness that generally goes into taking it on in the first place. And the education in the uses to which the world puts it. It was that comedy I wanted to write."

There is, of course, a subtext to all this. When we discuss the unforeseen circumstances of the vocation, what we're really talking about is "Portnoy's Complaint." Thirty-seven years after its appearance, the novel still has the power to shock, as much for its insider's view of a certain kind of Jewish household as for its portrait of the adolescent libido unrestrained. It is, notes Remnick, in a pretty good encapsulation of Roth's early aesthetic, "a work not only of comic daring, but of tribal daring, because it portrays the struggle, both as man and boy, between the I and the we -- the we of family, the we of Jews, the we of obligation, and the I of I want, I want, I want."

Roth's own view is not dissimilar, although he believes that the novel remains misunderstood. "I always thought," he says, "it was a book about brutality. It's brutal in its language, it's brutal in its observations and it's about the emotional brutality of family. For me, the most telling scene, even at the time of the writing, is the one in which he talks about the battle between his cousin and his uncle over the cousin dating a gentile girl. The father goes to the girl, or he calls her -- I forget the circumstances -- and he pays her money to leave the son alone.... And then the son, who's a strong kid, has a fight with his father in the basement, and the father pins him to the floor and beats him. That was the guts of the book. The conflict, the elemental conflict, grows out of a real history. And so does the rest of it."

As Roth speaks, his voice takes on a slight edge, a timbre. It's a subtle shift but, in that moment, it becomes clear why he's continued to write at such a heightened level, as well as such a prodigious pace. Notoriety aside, Roth has always been aware of his career as a career; books, he says, "are the medium in which I've been swimming all my life." This is something of a tricky notion, for if literature has anything to teach us, it's that aspiration does not always equal success. Still, for Roth, the last 15 years represent an era of remarkable fluency in which, perhaps, his own sense of mortality has pushed him to go deeper, to find new layers in his work.

Now, it seems, his intent is to address death with the same clarity he has brought to all his work. "Everyman" is an exquisite effort ("late Beethoven," Remnick calls it), spare and unrelenting in its evocation of the limits of mortality. It is also a novel with deep roots in the experience of living, which increasingly, Roth suggests, takes place beneath the shadow of the void. "Look," he says. "What I began to see in the last few years -- 10, I guess -- is that your friends start to die or get grievously ill. The story goes, the fairy tale narrative, that your grandparents die and your parents die and you ... don't die." He laughs again, a dry laugh this time, full of time and loss.

"But I began to experience something that wasn't in the story, which is that your friends die. And that was more devastating, strangely, than my parents dying, because it's not in the fairy tale. Your friends? How could they die? You went to college with these people. How can we be burying so and so? How can he be dead? How can we be at her funeral? It's devastating. And that was the instigating incident."

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