ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Philip Roth talked with me recently about "Exit Ghost." When he began writing about Nathan Zuckerman, the protagonist was 23 years old. In this book, he's 71. Roth, who is 74, says it is the last of the Zuckerman novels.
Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Author, "Exit Ghost"): It seems to me to be the last, yeah. It's built that way. It certainly ends that way. And it's taken a place in my mind as the last.
SIEGEL: This is the - a novel about being over 70 to a great deal.
Mr. ROTH: That's true. Absolutely.
SIEGEL: And isn't there a positive side to being over 70? Is there some benefit to it or is it all leakage of various literal and figurative terms?
Mr. ROTH: I'm sure there's a positive side, but it isn't the subject here. This is really about a loss, to a large degree, and the disordering of his mind, which is a great concern to him especially since he's a writer. And he also runs into others who are also of his age who are in, even in a more ruined state than himself. So that may well be a happy book to be written about being over 70. And maybe I'll do that next.
SIEGEL: There is something that happens to Zuckerman, and to this one other character who's of a similar age - which could turn into slapstick if you're not careful - that is forgetfulness. He's mindful of the fact that he's not mindful all the time of what's going on.
Mr. ROTH: Yes. Well, I know it could turn to slapstick. And, you know, by and large, when people talk about it, the forgetfulness that comes with age, they joke about it. So I decided I wouldn't joke about it because, once again, when you think of his profession - a writer - it's terribly important that his mind be as sharp as possible. So it's not a subject for laughter, but I took it quite seriously. And he feels that his mind has become disordered and it's a terrible feeling.
SIEGEL: A central idea in this novel is the personal life of the writer, of the fiction writer - the notion that a writer who was something of a mentor or at least the model for Zuckerman when he was young - might have held a scandalous secret in his youth. And who has the right to pry into that secret? That's one of the questions here.
Mr. ROTH: Well, it's a question only in Zuckerman's mind. It's not a question in the mind of the young biographer who takes it for granted that to uncover the great secret is the very purpose of biography. You know, strangely, in these last few days, there has been revelation in the newspaper about Arthur Miller. In the Times, there was a piece - and I guess the original piece is in Vanity Fair - talking about the fact that he had a Down Syndrome child who had been institutionalized. And the article wasn't lost on me because I thought of his - if he was anyone else, if he was a businessman, there'd be no such article in the newspaper about this. But there was a scandal attached to it for some reason because it was a well-known writer.
SIEGEL: If he had been a businessman, perhaps it wouldn't have been a story, if he had been an actor?
Mr. ROTH: Yes, the same thing would've happened.
SIEGEL: Famous musician or a composer, it would've happened, don't you think?
Mr. ROTH: Yes, celebrity. Yes. Yes. A celebrity draws this kind of inquiry.
SIEGEL: What if we pursue this idea of celebrity? I mean, I have been reading your fiction for 40 years. And before I hit my 20s, I had read about life in the 20s as you described it in one's 20s. And now, I'm reading about life in one's 70s from you. After all those years, as a reader, don't I deserve some insight into your personal life? I mean, if I wanted, isn't it mine by rights?
Mr. ROTH: I don't really understand the question. It's a charming question, but I don't understand it. I know why you'd be terribly interested. I mean, people do read biographies of writers. I just finished one on Conrad, as a matter of fact. And first of all, a serious biography, one has no quarrel with. But Zuckerman has a quarrel within this book is the equipment and the motives of the biographer. And now, as for your problem with me, I will gladly answer - as soon as the microphone is off - any questions that you have.
SIEGEL: Well, I was speaking more as a - I was employing synecdoche, I think is what that is. I have always mispronounced that word. Your readers, generally, I mean, don't they - there is a reasonable curiosity in the writer whom they read all the time.
Mr. ROTH: Sure. Yeah, there is.
SIEGEL: Even the gritty details of your life, they want to know about it, perhaps.
Mr. ROTH: Yeah.
SIEGEL: You just don't think it's their business or our business?
Mr. ROTH: Well, for instance, let's go back to the case I raised of Arthur Miller and the child. I don't know that it's anybody's business whether his Down syndrome child was institutionalized. It just seems prurience and nothing more to me. And the question also aroused a great deal of moral indignation on the part of this media people. But, no, I don't think it's their business particularly.
SIEGEL: You're not working on another Zuckerman novel now?
Mr. ROTH: No. I am working on something, but Zuckerman is finito.
SIEGEL: Finito? How was that? I mean, did you feel a great sense of completion at that point? Or this is just the logical ending and nothing more to say?
Mr. ROTH: I think it felt like a logical ending. This story involves his demise, or at least signs of his demise. But the three previous Zuckerman books - "American Pastoral" and "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain" -Zuckerman removes himself as the actor in those books. He's very much more the teller. His is the mind that shapes the tale. And his life story is not central in any way.
And when I came to the end here, I thought I have to make his life story central again. I have to take him in from the shadows and examine what it's like for him to be an old man. So when I began - and I don't know whether I thought this was the end - but as I proceeded through it, it became clear to me this was the ending. And the last lines make it clear it's the ending.
Mr. ROTH: And if I've made a mistake, I'll go back and make it not the ending.
SIEGEL: A sequel. That is the power you have as the novelist. Well, Philip Roth, thank you very much for talking with us once again.
Mr. ROTH: Oh, thank you.
SIEGEL: Philip Roth, the author most recently of "Exit Ghost." You can hear a reading from his new book as well as his remembrance of his friend, the writer George Plimpton, at our Web site, npr.org.
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