In 'Indignation,' Roth Draws On His College Days

Philip Roth i i

hide captionPhilip Roth says that as a college student in the early 1950s, he didn't see the mores he operated under as "unduly restrictive or repressive." But, "after the fact, I do." His new novel centers on this time period.

Nancy Crampton
Philip Roth

Philip Roth says that as a college student in the early 1950s, he didn't see the mores he operated under as "unduly restrictive or repressive." But, "after the fact, I do." His new novel centers on this time period.

Nancy Crampton

Book Review

Read Oscar Villalon's review of Indignation.

Book Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Indignation.

Philip Roth has been writing for more than 50 years; in the last four years, he has released a novel a year. In his books, the best-selling novelist — who has won two National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize — has often challenged society's moral norms.

In his latest novel, Indignation, Roth writes about Marcus Messner, an only child of a kosher butcher from Newark, N.J. It's 1951, during the Korean War, and Messner goes to college in Ohio in hopes of escaping the family business, an excessively protective father and the draft.

His fate is an illustration of the incomprehensible way that one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result, Roth writes.

"That's the lesson his father has been trying to teach him," Roth tells host Robert Siegel. "And as comical as the father may be from time to time in his exaggerated concern, the fact is the lesson that he sets out to teach him, life teaches [Marcus]. So that's the large comic-tragic irony of the book."

In writing the novel, Roth drew on his days as a college student from 1950 to 1954 at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. It wasn't until years later, Roth says, after seeing how life has changed for young people in college, that he understood how restricted he was in those days.

"I didn't see the [mores] as unduly restrictive or repressive," Roth says. "After the fact, I do. That is, now that life has changed so drastically for young people in college, I realize how harnessed and hemmed in we were — and how overseen we were in ways that I just accepted as the way things were in 1951."

Roth is himself from Newark, and his best friend was the son of a butcher, so he "got a whiff" of what it was like to be the son of a butcher. Roth says, however, he does not see a lot of himself in Marcus.

"His adventures are totally unlike mine. He was smarter than I was, and he stayed in ROTC. I was a principled young man, and I quit ROTC because I disapproved of military on the campus. So that meant that when I was drafted after college, I went in as a private rather than as an officer — so much for principles."

Roth adds, "I was a clean-cut, well-behaved reasonable boy trying hard and working hard as he is. I didn't fly off the handle quite so easily, I don't think. In a certain way, he's a generic, successful young man."

Minus his two years in the Army, Roth says he has kept a steady writing schedule of six to seven days a week since he published his first story in 1956. It's a decent day, Roth judges, when he comes away with a page that's a workable draft. Some days, he throws away all that he writes.

"Those are not pleasant days," he says. "You wouldn't want to have dinner with me. I still have those days."

Roth Returns, With 'Indignation' And Virtuosity

Cover of Philip Roth's 'Indignation'
Indignation
By Philip Roth
Hardcover, 256 pages
Houghton Mifflin
List Price: $26.00

Read an excerpt.

Philip Roth

hide captionPhilip Roth earned literary fame — and the National Book Award — for his 1959 collection of short stories, Goodbye, Columbus.

Since the publication in 1995 of his prize-winning Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth has been writing one unsparing novel after the other about the imminent physical or spiritual end of a life. The best of them — Sabbath's Theater, Everyman, The Dying Animal, American Pastoral, The Human Stain — leave the reader shaken, having either glimpsed losses to come or confronted known grief afresh.

Written in what could be dispassionately called the later stages of Roth's life, these raging works — in which the author has distilled his pugnacious, ravenous love for humanity, women, New Jersey, work and family — are more alive than the lyrical stories of ballyhooed writers a third his age.

In his newest novel, Indignation, one of the greatest talkers in American literature (does anybody else writing prose today sustain a conversation with the reader as beautifully as Roth, with his whirlwind of shouts, whispers, riffs and exposition?) revisits the objects of his affection and confoundedness.

Marcus Messner, the beloved only child of a kosher butcher and his wife, is driven to clawing exasperation by his father's raw fear for his safety. Being a sober and studious college student, Marcus is baffled by his once-stable father's maddening worry, and decides to put as much distance between his parents in Newark and himself. He transfers to Winesburg College in Ohio. (And as anyone who's read Sherwood Anderson's landmark 1919 Winesburg, Ohio, short story cycle knows, nothing ever goes wrong in that part of the state.)

Set against the Korean War, Indignation is partly about the waste and stupidity of combat, but more pointedly about young lives bumbling up against unbending authority. Marcus finds himself unexpectedly butting heads with the college dean when he asserts the right to pursue his happiness, on campus and off.

As its title implies, Roth's surprising novel is shaped by certain understandings: the acceptance that our fragility can invite a crushing, compromising protectiveness and that life can be as pitiful as it is precious. The latter is a concession Roth's elderly protagonists have been forced to accept in his most recent novels.

What puts Indignation among the best of those books is its revelation that even youth lives with that same stark specter. It's a hard truth made all the more bracing by Roth's depiction of young men and women tangled in the joy and the fury of life.

Excerpt: 'Indignation'

Indignation
By Philip Roth
Hardcover, 256 pages
Houghton Mifflin
List Price: $26

"Under Morphine"

About two and a half months after the well-trained divisions of North Korea, armed by the Soviets and Chinese Communists, crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea on June 25, 1950, and the agonies of the Korean War began, I entered Robert Treat, a small college in downtown Newark named for the city's seventeenth-century founder. I was the first member of our family to seek a higher education. None of my cousins had gone beyond high school, and neither my father nor his three brothers had finished elementary school. "I worked for money," my father told me, "since I was ten years old." He was a neighborhood butcher for whom I'd delivered orders on my bicycle all through high school, except during baseball season and on the afternoons when I had to attend interschool matches as a member of the debating team. Almost from the day that I left the store—where I'd been working sixty-hour weeks for him between the time of my high school graduation in January and the start of college in September—almost from the day that I began classes at Robert Treat, my father became frightened that I would die. Maybe his fear had something to do with the war, which the U.S. armed forces, under United Nations auspices, had immediately entered to bolster the efforts of the ill-trained and under-equipped South Korean army; maybe it had something to do with the heavy casualties our troops were sustaining against the Communist firepower and his fear that if the conflict dragged on as long as World War Two had, I would be drafted into the army to fight and die on the Korean battlefield as my cousins Abe and Dave had died during World War Two. Or maybe the fear had to do with his financial worries: the year before, the neighborhood's first supermarket had opened only a few blocks from our family's kosher butcher shop, and sales had begun steadily falling off, in part because of the supermarket's meat and poultry section's undercutting my father's prices and in part because of a general postwar decline in the number of families bothering to maintain kosher households and to buy kosher meat and chickens from a rabbinically certified shop whose owner was a member of the Federation of Kosher Butchers of New Jersey. Or maybe his fear for me began in fear for himself, for at the age of fifty, after enjoying a lifetime of robust good health, this sturdy little man began to develop the persistent racking cough that, troubling as it was to my mother, did not stop him from keeping a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth all day long. Whatever the cause or mix of causes fueling the abrupt change in his previously benign paternal behavior, he manifested his fear by hounding me day and night about my whereabouts. Where were you? Why weren't you home? How do I know where you are when you go out? You are a boy with a magnificent future before you—how do I know you're not going to places where you can get yourself killed?

Excerpted from Indignation by Philip Roth, copyright @ 2008. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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