The Grapes of Roth

A chicken in every pot and a trash can for every home.

I watched a two-part interview with American author Philip Roth recently – interviewed by Alan Yentob with additional contributions from Salman Rushdie and Edna O’Brien. The dialogues were intercut with archive film footage that captured turbulent times in the American psyche.

I will confess here that I’ve never read any Roth, nor Updike, although I’m on nodding terms with other US authors such as Joseph Heller and JD Sallinger. Somehow, Roth always seemed too grand and imposing an author for me (his prose, I mean) – such a big deal. All nonsense  of course, but every reader makes a choice of the flimsiest of pretexts.

In that light, it sounds trite to condense a two-hour retrospective with one of the most celebrated of American writers, but nevertheless some reflections and insights struck home for me. 

– According to Alan Yentob, Roth has written over 30 novels, which gives him a broad perspective as a writer. Doubtless, not every one of his novels was lauded.
– Roth said he had doubts about his ability to write again, in between his books. What tok him through that fog was an idea that ignited him.
– He wasn’t afraid to let his imagination take him into dark places, which some people might find objectionable.
– He gives ‘what if’ free rein, rewriting personal and world history on the page.
– He writes powerful opening lines that conjure up a voice or perspective, while intriguing the reader.

Those points made me think about how writers use their own experiences, thoughts and unresolved to create good fiction. The emotions are authentic because they’re drawn from truth (or, at least, what we have believed to be true at the time).

There is heroism in that approach, but also, I suspect, collateral damage. It made me wonder what I’d write, that moment, if I were willing to be as vulnerable, as raw, and as secure in the validity of my own words.

It could go something like these opening lines:

She gave me the black eye by mistake, so she said; I never told anyone the truth.

The day I nearly got arrested was the same day I got my head kicked in by football supporters.

I was so angry with my parents for not being around when we really needed them – I only forgave them because they were dead.

Perhaps most of all, that two-part retrospective and interview gave me an insight into a man who has committed to baring his soul and his ideas on the page. What you see is what you get. Whether you think of his writing and his views, that’s worthy of respect. 

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