The Nerve Interview: Philip Roth


o one could accuse Philip Roth of lacking a fantasy life. His surreal 1972 novella, The Breast, featured a man who wakes up one day to discover he’s become the object he craves most. In his 1993 novel, Operation Shylock, Roth spun a big, blowsy yarn about, well, himself. Only this Philip Roth had worked in Athens as an Israeli spy and was trying to steal his identity back from anti-Zionist Philip Roth doppelganger in Jerusalem. "I'm not trying to confuse you," Roth cheekily told an interviewer that year. "This happened. I stepped into a strange hole, which I don't understand to this day."
   Fast forward to 2004 and Roth has once again invented one of the strangest third-dimensions in American literary history. And once again he has put himself smack in the middle of it. The Plot Against America imagines what life would be like for seven-year-old Philip Roth and his family if 1940 aviator (and Anti-Semite) Charles Lindbergh won the presidency rather than Roosevelt. Let’s just say what follows from here makes the firestorm of Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner American Pastoral feel like a country idyll. Lindbergh makes a non-aggression pact with Hitler, Jews are forced to relocate, and before too long mobs of Anti-Semites are roaming the streets.
   The Plot Against America is a scary, powerful and hoary glimpse of what could have happened, much like Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, the granddaddy of all such American books. Despite the fact that Roth’s Lindbergh makes his campaign announcement wearing a flight suit, Roth insists it is not a roman a clef about the Bush administration. Nerve recently spoke to the seventy-one-year-old writer by telephone and here’s what he had to say about his new novel, Charles Lindbergh, and, yes, Bush’s America. — John Freeman

From American Pastoral to this book it feels like you are in a period of, if not political novels, then novels about history. Why this and why now?
I think it has to do with age. Even though I was a child when this story was happening, this period made a powerful impact on me. I didn’t think we were going to win. The headlines at the beginning of the war were so dark: Bataan falls; Corregidor falls; Japanese occupy blah-blah. This period that I wrote about is alive for me because of the war. So I was very much trying to deal with figures from my childhood, some of who were quite frightening to me then, like Father Coughlin.

I talked to a few other writers about this period — Cynthia Ozick being one of them — and she mentioned him too.
He was very frightening. He was on every Sunday, you know. He either broadcast from his little church outside Detroit, or else, occasionally, he’d have a big rally in what was then the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium. That used to scare me particularly because I knew how many people could be there.

Why did you choose "Philip Roth" as your protagonist as opposed to another character?
I told myself this when I started this book: make one change. Just change the 1940 election and then of course follow out the consequences of it. But keep everything else in place. Therefore I used my family and me. Now, had I invented a family, I would have wound up inventing a family very much like ours. I also thought that I could add a certain authenticity to it, and, as it were, trick the reader into believing it. If I used our real names and said, "look, I was there," at a certain point in the book the reader might forget that this was an invention. A false memoir is was it is, and it’s not the first time I’ve done that.

Some people might see this book’s poignancy and familial intimacy as (and understand this is in quotation marks) you taking back "All The Terrible Things You Said About Jewish People" in books like Portnoy’s Complaint. What do you say to that?
I didn’t say anything terrible. [Pauses, then laughs] I didn’t say any terrible things about Jews. I’m not Lindbergh. I just wrote stories about Jews. And there’s nothing to take back. I don’t see it that way.

I think it will surprise some people that Lindbergh was so pro-Nazi at one point. It feels like time has scrubbed this away. Do you feel like it is the responsibility of a novelist to correct that misperception?
Well, it was not a motive of mine. And I don’t know that it’s the responsibility of a novelist to correct those kinds of misperceptions. It simply came with the territory. Look, any isolationist who would have won in 1940 — and I do believe, by the way, had Lindbergh been a candidate, that he would have won — would have had to make a deal with Hitler.

So you see two sides to Lindbergh?
There was something stupid about Lindbergh. He wasn’t a stupid man. But there was something stupid in him and he failed to grasp certain things. The blight on his public career was in the '30s: beginning in about ’36 when he began to go to Germany and visit the airplane factories there. But as soon as the war began Lindbergh did everything he could to join the army. The work he did during the war was terrific; he was extraordinary as a fighter pilot. But he had everything wrong before the war; he was terribly, terribly tempted by the racial mythology of the Nazis, the notion of the superior Aryan man, and the inferiority of all the other races. Not just the Jews, by the way, he had very strong feelings about Asians. Yellow hordes he called them. He bought all that stuff in the '30s, and he never really apologized or excused himself for his ideas. He was rather stubborn about that.

One of the things you’ve talked about over the past couple of decades is the way readership is going down; what are your feelings about getting this book out to serious readers and what it’s impact can be?
I think the core of serious readers still exists, but it’s not huge. I think that talking about books has absolutely disappeared. I remember back in the '50s and '60s among my friends that if you were in a group of people and if someone brought up a book, you could be sure that maybe half the people had read it. Now, I find that no one ever does that. If they talk about a book it’s a comment and then that’s the end of that. Movies, people can talk about endlessly. And they can bank on the fact that people have seen the movie.

In your Times essay you write about not wanting this book to be interpreted as a roman a clef about current times. How do you want readers to read the book then?
Well, I think they can just read it as a fantasy of what did not happen. The triumph of America is that this did not happen. It happened in Europe; it did not happen here. They got Fascism; we got Roosevelt.

Do you have dystopic view of America today?
I have a very anxious view and a very pessimistic one, yes I do. How about you?

I am depressed. I really want to move if Bush wins.
I understand what your impulse is; it’s awful. Of all the political disappointments I’ve had in my lifetime, this is the worst. This is the worst because you can and cannot foresee the consequences.  

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Commentarium (3 Comments)

Oct 12 04 - 11:04am


"Some people might see this book

Oct 15 04 - 12:16pm

interviews with writers like philip roth might make me get my premium subscription again.

Oct 28 04 - 5:47am

Thank you.