Philip Roth

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the fickle world of American letters, there are writers whose work transcends hype and the ephemeral celebrity that comes with best-sellers. Their next book is awaited months, even years, in advance and, success or failure, seems larger than life. In the case of Philip Roth, there is always a special edge to the anticipation, a collective holding of the community breath. This, after all, is the maverick who gave us Portnoy's Complaint, his 1969 succes de scandale about a priapic young man obsessed with the Biblical sin of onanism. "A sort of Moby Dick of masturbation," as one critic called Portnoy, the book prompted Jacqueline Susann to confide in Johnny Carson that she would adore meeting Philip Roth but didn't want to shake his hand. "You have to take the remark in its context," says Roth. "After all, it wasn't as if André Malraux said it to François Mauriac."

Besides, Roth, 50, rightfully believes he has contributed far more than Portnoy. Prolific as well as provocative, he has produced 14 books, gaining a reputation as a novelist who manages to write about sensitive, vulnerable, primarily Jewish characters with both pathos and uproarious humor. "His vision is agony teetering on the edge of hysterical laughter," says one of his author friends, William Styron. Roth's ability to startle readers, believes Styron, shows the power and rage of his writing: "Writers who concentrate on pleasing all the time don't have much ultimate impact. One of the functions of an author is to arouse."

Roth's latest literary provocation comes in the form of a trilogy: The Ghost Writer, published in 1979, Zuckerman Unbound, in 1981, and now The Anatomy Lesson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14.95). The books chronicle the rites of passage of Nathan Zuckerman who, like Roth, is earnest, Jewish and from Newark, N.J. Zuckerman writes a sensational best-seller, not unlike Portnoy, and eventually, in The Anatomy Lesson, is afflicted with a hopelessly debilitating, undiagnosable pain.

Though the trilogy has been generally well-received by the critics, there are those who argue that Roth has narrowed the scope of his work self-indulgently. Novelist Saul Bellow, who once joked that he, Roth and Bernard Malamud are the "Hart, Schaffner & Marx of American literature," considers the Zuckerman series a mistake: "Why write three novels that examine one's career as a novelist? Things are bad out there. The knife is at our throats. One can't write books so attentive to one's own trouble."

But is Roth really writing about Roth? Yes, there are many shades of himself in Nathan Zuckerman, Roth concedes, but the fabric of Zuckerman's tormented life, including his illness, is largely fiction. "Like any writer," Roth says, "I have only the floor under my feet to stand on. I get my facts from what I see of life and of myself. Then I have to make another world out of them, a world of words that is more interesting than what exists."

The world of Roth will soon be accessible on TV. The Ghost Writer, a joint BBC/ PBS production that was widely acclaimed in Great Britain, will air in the U.S. Jan. 17. Roth co-authored the screenplay, and the heroine, the long-suffering wife of a writer, is played by Claire Bloom, the English actress with whom he has lived since 1976. "There wasn't a great deal I had to ask Philip about the character," says Bloom, 52. "I knew what a writer's life could be like."

She has been sharing it since she moved into Philip's 190-year-old, gray clapboard farmhouse in the Connecticut countryside. The intense, bushy-browed American writer and the delicate actress with the porcelain complexion met around 1965 at a mutual friend's house in East Hampton, L.I. "I thought he was stunningly good looking," Bloom recalls. Claire was married at the time to actor Rod Steiger, by whom she has a daughter, Anna, 23. (Her second marriage, in 1969, was to Broadway producer Hillard Elkins.) Roth was contentedly involved with someone else. But seven years ago, when both were romantically unencumbered, they ran into each other on a Manhattan street corner.

The relationship that developed has been a fiercely private one. When Bloom is not working in the theater or on television (she was Lady Marchmain in the PBS series Brideshead Revisited), she settles down with Roth amid the maple and apple trees. "The way in which the life of the imagination is important to both of us binds us together very powerfully," says Philip, who asks Claire to read and comment on early drafts of his books. She, in turn, likes to discuss her roles with him. "I've done some of my best work since I've been with Philip," Bloom says. "I've had the chance to rub ideas against someone so intelligent. I'll ask: 'Why does this character do this?' He'll have 10 answers where I have only two."

The rhythm of their life in Connecticut has not changed much over the years. Philip disappears each morning about 9:30 to a Spartan, two-room writing shed just a few steps from the house. There he labors at his IBM Selectric, a portrait of Kafka—"the great comedian of guilt," Roth calls him—staring glumly down at the laborer. Turning sentences over and over, hopeful of completing a page in a day, Philip works until late afternoon, then goes on a five-mile walk to the general store or along the river. Later, as the New England night closes in, he joins Claire for a glass of wine by the fire and an evening reading in a living room furnished with a comfortably worn sofa, antique woven rugs and an oak library table randomly stacked with books.

Roth and Bloom socialize infrequently, but when they do, the evenings can be raucous. To an intimate circle of friends, including a local doctor, the artist down the road and celebrated neighbors such as Arthur Miller, author Francine du Plessix Gray and actor Richard Widmark, Roth is a one-man show. The same trenchant humor and comic monologues that regale his readers are spicy accompaniments to Bloom's renowned couscous or veal stew with sage. "Philip is a great actor," says Gray. "He can imitate anyone—Mrs. Reagan, Bob Hope, Billy Graham. He gets the accent, the voice. His imitations of Kissinger are wonderful." Widmark concurs. "Philip," he claims, "is funnier than Mel Brooks."

Roth is scrupulous, however, about showing his comic side only to old and trusted friends. "I'm not a public entertainer other than as a writer," he says. Nor is he willing to play the talk-show game of turning his private life into chitchat. He was astounded, living in New York in the '60s, to learn that a neighbor had gone through his garbage. Though he jokes about it ("Did it make me want to leave New York? No, it just made me realize I could sell my garbage"), he stiffens visibly when pressed to talk about personal matters. No, he does not care to discuss his unhappy early marriage to Margaret Martinson, a secretary to a dean at the University of Chicago when Roth was doing graduate work there in the '50s. (Martinson died in 1968.) The marriage produced no children, and Roth says, "I guess I didn't want them. The proof is in the pudding." Nor does he seem to want to marry again. "Once you've reached a certain age and you've been married, and you don't want children, what on earth is the point?" asks Claire. Besides, she adds, "Marriage gets vulgar after the second time." For his part, Roth believes explanation is neither necessary nor wise. "I don't care what people think about whether I am married or not married, whether I stand on my head or not," he says. "And I can't talk casually about home and family, about good marriages and bad marriages and the relationship between men and women and children and parents. I've devoted a life to writing about these things. These are my subjects. I've spent years trying to get it right in fiction, and I don't propose to get it wrong in a sentence or two."

For a man so involved in his art, Roth showed curiously little interest in writing as a boy. His father, Herman, a manager for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, often took Philip and his older brother, Sandy, to watch a minor-league baseball team, the Newark Bears, and the sport became a consuming passion in the Roth household. "I played all the time," he recalls. It wasn't until Roth attended Bucknell University, where he edited the literary magazine, that he showed an equal obsession with writing. By the time Roth reached the University of Chicago as a graduate student in English literature, he had become a talented short story writer. "His stories showed a wonderful wit and great pace," remembers Saul Bellow, who briefly taught Philip and encouraged him to publish.

In 1959 Roth published his first book, a collection of short stories, and a comic novella, Goodbye, Columbus, which later became a successful 1969 movie starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw. Goodbye, Columbus also won Roth a 1960 National Book Award when he was only 27 years old and provided the momentum for a career of writing and teaching at schools including the University of Iowa, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.

One day in 1969 Philip took his parents to a little Irish restaurant in Manhattan and told them that his name—and theirs—was about to become a household word. "There's a book that has just been published and you're going to get a lot of flak," he said. "It's going to be misquoted and everything else. But it's going to be a success." He turned out to be right on all counts. Portnoy's Complaint sold 393,000 copies in hardcover. It also outraged rabbis, Jewish mothers (Mrs. Portnoy did not fare well in the book) and the Australian government, which banned it on grounds of obscenity. Through it all, Philip's parents were stoic. "It was a story about a boy and his conscience. They blew it all out of proportion," says widower Herman Roth, 82.

The publication of Portnoy marked a sea change for Philip, according to an old friend, Albert Goldman, author of the best-seller Elvis. "Before Portnoy, Philip was trying to be a Jewish Henry James," says Goldman. "He was very literary and self-conscious. Then he turned into an autobiographical comic writer writing about what most people thought was a gross theme, masturbation. Those who wrote for literary journals patronized him. That stung him." Roth himself says: "I felt I was at the center of a strange storm. But my intention was not to create an uproar, it was to write my book. If you want to do something to 'them' out there, you go into another line of business. You throw bombs. Or you're Sammy Davis Jr. and you go out onstage and jump around."

Roth's line of business satisfies him deeply. He likes the rhythm of his trade, the solitude and the freedom to visit Claire when her work takes her to London. There he stays at her Victorian row house in Chelsea, surrounded by Staffordshire china and proper English prints. He takes long walks by the Thames, gripes about the faulty central heating and stretches out on Claire's canopy bed to devour the stack of varied books on the night table, a small but imposing hillock whose crest consists of a biography of Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, and The Jew as Pariah by Hannah Arendt.

Roth's own writing does not appear to be foremost in his mind at the moment. "For the first time in my life, I have finished one book without starting another," he says. He has, however, written a television drama about the novelist Jean Rhys, and Claire will be the star. Eventually, he will return to the Connecticut countryside, dust off his typewriter and lay in supplies. Then, secure in his bosky surroundings, Roth will begin a new novel—one that is only now taking shape in his mind. It will be a total departure, he intimates. Will it also, in the Rothian mode, arouse? "Maybe it's in the nature of my talent to write highly inflammatory books," reflects Roth. "My intention, however, is just to write my books. If they inflame, they inflame. A hunchback doesn't go out on the streets with the intention of scaring little children. He is a hunchback. It's in the nature of his anatomy to scare. For me, my hump is my talent."

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