Philip Roth talks about new novel, Nemesis

Roth on 'old guys writing about cataclysm'
Philip Roth in 2010. Credit: Nancy Crampton / Handout
David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times interviews Philip Roth about parallels between his fiction and contemporary politics, his writing career, and the new novel, Nemesis:
Jacket Copy: Some readers considered your 2004 novel The Plot Against America a commentary on Bush-era excess, although you have said that this is not the case. Can we read Nemesis -- which, on one level, is about how fear and hysteria contaminate us -- as an allegory for our current circumstance?

Philip Roth: I can only tell you that I’m not conscious of it. I finished this book 13 months ago, in August ’09, and I began it in August ’08. Things weren’t so hysterical when I began.

I don’t tend to respond to what’s going on at the moment until about 30 years later. I think [my interest in polio] came out of my memory of the fear, and my memory of the parents on the street, the memory of their fear. Because the parents’ fear was much greater than ours. We knew that polio existed, we knew President Roosevelt had it; this was very important in the consciousness of polio. We knew that every summer was blighted by the threat of polio, and we knew somebody was going to get it. But even that we didn’t know. Very rarely did anybody get it in our neighborhood. So we would run off in the morning, hot summer day, to the playground. And there forgot completely, if we even thought about it, forgot completely about polio. It was a strange kind of menace. It was real and it was unreal. And when finally one friend of mine did get it -- I was about 10 -- then it was real to us.

In this way, it is like The Plot Against America because I wanted to think: What would it have been like for us if this had happened? It's a way I measure how lucky we were. I measure how much didn't happen to us. We heard about anti-Semitism, but aside from Father Coughlin being on the radio or something happening to one of our parents when they went out in the world, it was a huge menace that wasn't real. Polio also was a huge menace that wasn’t real.

Now I don’t know whether it's [that] old guys write about cataclysm or not... if you want to use that for your headline...

Jacket Copy: Old guys writing about cataclysm. We've found our theme.

Philip Roth: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know. I don't know what John [Updike] was writing about when he died. Bellow wrote Ravelstein, which is an exuberant book. I don’t like it very much, but it’s exuberant. Hemingway... well, he didn’t publish the last books he was writing -- he left them. He was writing The Garden of Eden, which I think is a wonderful book, and Islands in the Stream.

Islands in the Stream is very good. The first time Hemingway deals with having children, and it’s terrific. The kids come to visit him on his island. They’re all boys in their 20s, or 18 or 19, and the feeling between them is revealed and it’s so strong. He takes them out fishing, and the cataclysm occurs.

So I don’t know whether or not I'm going to do any more cataclysms. [Read more]

Also at A Piece of Monologue: