In 'Indignation,' Roth Draws On His College Days In his newest novel, Philip Roth looks at the moral norms imposed on college kids in the 1950s. He says it was only many years after his own college days that he saw how repressive the environment was.
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In 'Indignation,' Roth Draws On His College Days

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In 'Indignation,' Roth Draws On His College Days

In 'Indignation,' Roth Draws On His College Days

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. I've been reading Philip Roth's stories and novels since I was a teenager. That's more than 40 years. And every year brings a new Roth book. Philip Roth's latest novel, "Indignation," is reminiscent of his earliest work. It's about a young man, Marcus Messner of Newark, New Jersey.

It is 1951. The country's at war in Korea. Messner goes to a small liberal arts college in Ohio hoping to escape the family business, an excessively protective father, and the draft. I asked Roth how he might have written this coming of age story differently 50 years ago. And he talked about the intervening revolution on college campuses, the sexual revolution.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Author, "Indignation"): When I was a boy in college, and I went from 1950 to '54, I didn't see - and I was in a small liberal arts college about 300 miles from home - I didn't see that the mores which dictated my life as a college student, I didn't see them as unduly restrictive or repressive. 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 back in 1951.

SIEGEL: And later, when you started writing at first, you were writing before all of these enormous changes took place.

Mr. ROTH: Well, I wasn't concentrating on those years or this subject. And so it didn't come up, as it were. I was writing about adults - my book "Letting Go" took place, I guess, in the years immediately following the '50s and before the '60s officially began. And I talked about a different set of serious moral norms in which the characters moved. So I was concerned with the moral norms of the period, but not those of a college and not those of people quite so young.

SIEGEL: You seem to have settled into a rhythm of a short novel a year. Is that about it?

Mr. ROTH: In the last four years, I think I have, yes.

SIEGEL: Does it mean that you are writing full time? I mean, are you, every day, sitting down and writing?

Mr. ROTH: Yup. Yeah, I've worked the same schedule I've worked all my life, really, which is to say, I work a full day, and I work six or seven days a week.

SIEGEL: And a full day produces about how much on the page?

Mr. ROTH: I always consider the day OK if I can come away with one page. It's not the final page, but the page of that draft. It can produce three pages. There are days that are very unpleasant, where I produce nothing. That is, I write, but what I write, I'd throw away by the end of the day, and those are not pleasant days.

SIEGEL: And those days...

Mr. ROTH: You wouldn't want to have dinner with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: But you still have those days?

Mr. ROTH: Oh, indeed, I do.

SIEGEL: It's not something practice simply rules out after a while.

Mr. ROTH: Practice in this job is strange because, though I've been doing it for many years now - I think I published my first story in 1956, so that's 52 years ago. And I've been practicing all that time. But each time you start, you're writing a new book, needless to say, and the fact is, you've never written that book before. So you may have written before, but you've never written that book before. So you run into some problems of a kind you never had before. So the problems are always new, and you have to come up with new solutions all the time.

SIEGEL: Marcus Messner, the character in "Indignation," is the son of a kosher butcher and a family that had a kosher butcher shop. There's some very vivid writing about the butcher shop. I was trying to think where you can even go find a kosher butcher shop to go describe now?

Mr. ROTH: Well, you can go to Brooklyn.

SIEGEL: You can go to Brooklyn.

Mr. ROTH: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Did you go to Brooklyn?

Mr. ROTH: Yes, I did. There are plenty of kosher butcher shops over there. And they're not unlike the stores of 50 and 60 years ago.

SIEGEL: But you actually did go out to...

Mr. ROTH: Oh, yes.

SIEGEL: A butcher shop.

Mr. ROTH: Sure. That's the best part of the job is going to butcher shops.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Doing actual research.

Mr. ROTH: Yeah.

SIEGEL: I was wondering if you could read a passage from this.

Mr. ROTH: Sure.

SIEGEL: There's a passage where you describe, actually, the butcher shop, and it begins by saying, My father wore an apron tied around the neck.

Mr. ROTH: Mm hmm. Yeah. OK.

(Reading) My father wore an apron that tied around the neck and around the back, and it was always bloody. A fresh apron always smeared with blood within an hour after the store opened. My mother, too, was covered in blood. One day, while slicing a piece of liver, which can slide or wiggle under your hand if you don't hold it down firmly enough, she cut her palm and had to be rushed to the hospital for 12 painful stitches. And careful and attentive as I tried to be, I had nicked myself dozens of times and had to be bandaged up. And then my father would upbraid me for letting my mind wander while I was working with a knife.

I grew up with blood. With blood and grease and knife sharpeners and slicing machines and amputated fingers or missing parts of fingers on the hands of my three uncles, as well as my father. And I never got used to it, and I never liked it.

SIEGEL: And later on that page, a great summing up of social or economic aspiration: all I knew about becoming a lawyer was that it was as far as you could get from spending your life in a stinking apron covered with blood.

Mr. ROTH: Mm hmm.

SIEGEL: Which is where your character comes by his ambition.

Mr. ROTH: Mm hmm.

SIEGEL: Is this character, Marcus Messner, I mean, do you see a lot of yourself in this kid?

Mr. ROTH: Oh, I don't see a lot of myself in him. His adventures are totally unlike mine in college. He's smarter than I was. 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 an officer. So much for principles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: But I didn't have the other adventures in the book he has too. But 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. But he's, in a certain way, he's a generic successful young man.

SIEGEL: And his fate, which I won't go into here so that we shouldn't give away the entire story, but his fate in the end, you write, is an illustration of the incomprehensible way that one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.

Mr. ROTH: Yes, well, that's the lesson his father has been trying to teach him. And as comical as the father may be from time to time in his exaggerated concern, the fact is that the lesson he sets out to teach him, life teaches him. So that's the large comic-tragic irony of the book, I think.

SIEGEL: Before I let you go, I just want to - we once - I asked you in one interview about movies that had been made - I think I asked you whether "The Plot Against America" was going to be likely made into a movie, and you mentioned the unfortunate experience you'd had with past novels that had been made into movies. And now, "Elegy," your novel, is made into a movie. You've gone to see it?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, I went to see it.

SIEGEL: And you're happy or - it's your story. It's somebody else's movie. What do you say?

Mr. ROTH: Well, it's somebody else's movie.

SIEGEL: Worth doing just the same?

Mr. ROTH: I guess they thought so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And you? You think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: Ah, it doesn't matter.

SIEGEL: We'll get that quote up on the marquee...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: That's a very good one.

SIEGEL: OK. Philip Roth, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. ROTH: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Philip Roth, talking about his latest novel, "Indignation." You can read an excerpt on the Books page at

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