Philip Roth on Literature and Teaching

Roth talks to Esquire about Turgenev, Conrad, and his memories of teaching
Philip Roth. Photograph: Steve Pyke.
In an interview to promote his latest novel, Nemesis, Philip Roth shares what he's reading with Scott Raab, alongside his memories of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania:
Roth's talking about his reading these days, revisiting a revered Russian master of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev.

"Fathers and Sons is a great book — there's a new translation of it. I think it's called Fathers and Children now, and the translation is wonderful. And there are several long short stories that are pearls. One is called 'The Torrents of Spring' or 'Spring Torrents,' which is a masterpiece, and the other — which is beyond masterpiece — is called 'First Love.' Read those two things."

Roth chortles with something like delight. He stopped teaching twenty or so years ago but still seems as if he'd fit in on any campus in any decade. It's not only his outfit — tan slacks, blue-and-white-checked shirt with the sleeves rolled loosely up his skinny forearms, brown walking shoes — but also his easy passion for those writers who've nourished his soul.

I mention Joseph Conrad, whose clinical eye, deceptive clarity, and long, loping rhythms remind me of Roth's own.

"He's a pure powerhouse. I recently read a biography of him that's kind of interesting, too, an English biography. There's also Conrad's great short novel, which I hadn't reread since I was in my twenties, The Nigger of the Narcissus. It's an absolute masterpiece. Beyond belief. And about race, it's brilliant. So brilliant. Conrad is rich. He's very rich."

Again with the chortle. To feast so deeply upon words, it says, is luscious beyond words, a way of being in the world while being free of the world's whims, and a way of knowing humanity free of the mess of humans. It is rich, very rich — a schoolboy's love rather than a scholar's.

"I've enjoyed teaching — not teaching writing. I taught literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and I liked that very much. It was a great way of getting out of the house, of not being stuck alone in my room all day, and, as I have Lonoff say in The Ghost Writer, I got to use a public urinal — that was a breakthrough — and also I got to read a lot. That was the best of it — I got to read and think about books and study books. My education comes from teaching, really." [Read more]

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