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the writing life according to Philip Roth

Eleanor has sent me the transcript of the end of her interview with Philip Roth, so you can read what the man really said, not my mangled version. It’s powerful and profound, I think. She asked him, if he had to live his life over again, would he do the same thing?

I don’t think I would want to be a writer. There are many hard occupations, to be sure. This is one of them. It’s very grueling because you’re always an amateur whenever you begin a new book. Yes, you’ve written before, but you didn’t write that book before. So you start off with scraps, and the first six months of a book are usually extremely frustrating and wearying. Everything goes to pot. Your writing goes to pot. Your imagination is insufficient. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You don’t know where you’re going. And then when you finish a book, you have to start again and come up with another idea, which is also grueling. So I don’t think I would choose to be a writer.


Despite the various gratifications…


Yes, despite the gratifications.


…and successes which you have had?


Yes, I have had considerable success. No, I don’t think I would want a child of mine to do it either. It’s too demanding. You are alone. You’re the only person who can make it happen. Nobody can help you. And you have to drag this thing out of you. I find it very difficult.

I’ve often thought that I would have been a good doctor, that I would have enjoyed the contact with my patients and that I would have gotten gratification from the work itself. And the problem is I don’t even think in the next life I’m going to be able to do the pre-med course. I’m going to be stuck.


Zuckerman tries to be a doctor, doesn’t he?

That’s right. In The Anatomy Lesson, yes. I took it seriously. I took his desire seriously. Also I’ve admired friends of mine who were doctors. I’ve envied them their work, and some of them envy me mine.


When you interviewed Primo Levi, you talked to him about those infamous words about the gates of Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” work makes you free, and what a horrifying parody of work it was, but that it was possible to view Primo Levi’s entire literary labour as dedicated to restoring to work its humane meaning. And I was thinking the same about you in a sense because you have worked virtually nonstop writing. Can you say what you want to be freed from?


You’re freed from the gag in your mouth. All your freedom is in your words, and all your freedom is in your narrative, and this is the compensation, that you eventually do make an object out of yourself, a book, all on your own, with no barrier. There’s nobody standing in your way. There’s nobody telling you what to do. There’s nobody who can stop you. So that’s freedom. And you buy that freedom at a steep cost, which is the work itself, but you do get a kind of freedom.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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