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18 December 2018   |   Edition: 294
JUMPSTARTing a new year!

As the year comes to a close, 

we thank you for your cooperation and look forward to more collaborations.

And this new year, we are thrilled to present to you JUMPSTART in a new avatar, 

now available on Google Playstore

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2019

Your GBO New Delhi Team

Prashasti Rastogi, Angela Albert & Sonjuhi Negi

Philip Roth
The Art of Fiction No. 84
Renate Reichstein
I met Philip Roth after I had published a short book about his work for the Methuen Contemporary Writers Series. He read the book and wrote me a generous letter. After our first meeting, he sent me the fourth draft of The Anatomy Lesson, which we later talked about, because, in the final stages of writing a novel, Roth likes to get as much criticism and response as he can from a few interested readers. Just after he finished The Anatomy Lesson we began the Paris Review interview. We met in the early summer of 1983 at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, where Roth occasionally takes a room to work in when he’s visiting England. The room had been turned into a small, meticulously organized office—IBM golf-ball typewriter,

alphabetical file holders, Anglepoise lamps, dictionaries, aspirin, copyholder, felt-tip pens for correcting, a radio—with a few books on the mantelpiece, among them the recently published autobiography by Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope, Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, David Magarshaek’s Chekhov, John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems, Fordyce’s Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness (useful for Zuckerman), Claire Bloom’s autobiography, Limelight and After, and some Paris Review interviews. We talked in this businesslike cell for a day and a half, pausing only for meals. I was looked after with great thoughtfulness. Roth’s manner, which matches his appearance—subdued, conventional clothes, gold-rimmed spectacles, the look of a quiet professional American visitor to London, perhaps an academic or a lawyer—is courteous, mild, and responsive. He listens carefully to everything, makes lots of quick jokes, and likes to be amused. Just underneath this benign appearance there is a ferocious concentration and mental rapacity; everything is grist for his mill, no vagueness is tolerated, differences of opinion are pounced on greedily, and nothing that might be useful is let slip. Thinking on his feet, he develops his ideas through a playful use of figurative language—as much as a way of avoiding confessional answers (though he can be very direct) as of interesting himself. The transcripts from this taped conversation were long, absorbing, funny, disorganized, and repetitive. I edited them down to a manageable size and sent my version on to him. Then there was a long pause while he went back to America and The Anatomy Lesson was published. Early in 1984, on his next visit to England, we resumed; he revised my version and we talked about the revision until it acquired its final form. I found this process extremely interesting. The mood of the interview had changed in the six months between his finishing a novel and starting new work; it became more combative and buoyant. And the several drafts in themselves displayed Roth’s methods of work: raw chunks of talk were processed into stylish, energetic, concentrated prose, and the return to past thoughts generated new ideas. The result provides an example, as well as an account, of Philip Roth’s presentation of himself.

How do you get started on a new book?
Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

How much of a book is in your mind before you start?
What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you. You’re looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.

Must you have a beginning? Would you ever begin with an ending?
For all I know I am beginning with the ending. My page one can wind up a year later as page two hundred, if it’s still even around.

What happens to those hundred or so pages that you have left over? Do you save them up?
I generally prefer never to see them again.

The force of the attack would be, in part, that the female characters are unsympathetically treated, for instance that Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good is hostilely presented.
Don’t elevate that by calling it a “feminist” attack. That’s just stupid reading. Lucy Nelson is a furious adolescent who wants a decent life. She is presented as better than her world and conscious of being better. She is confronted and opposed by men who typify deeply irritating types to many women. She is the protector of a passive, defenseless mother whose vulnerability drives her crazy. She happens to be raging against aspects of middle-class American life that the new militant feminism was to identify as the enemy only a few years after Lucy’s appearance in print—hers might even be thought of as a case of premature feminist rage. When She Was Gooddeals with Lucy’s struggle to free herself from the terrible disappointment engendered in a daughter by an irresponsible father. It deals with her hatred of the father he was and her yearning for the father he couldn’t be. It would be sheer idiocy, particularly if this were a feminist attack, to contend that such powerful feelings of loss and contempt and shame do not exist in the daughters of drunks, cowards, and criminals. There is also the helpless mama’s boy Lucy marries, and her hatred of his incompetence and professional innocence. Is there no such thing in the world as marital hatred? That will come as news to all the rich divorce lawyers, not to mention to Thomas Hardy and Gustave Flaubert. By the way, is Lucy’s father treated “hostilely” because he’s a drunk and a petty thief who ends up in jail? Is Lucy’s husband treated “hostilely” because he happens to be a big baby? Is the uncle who tries to destroy Lucy “hostilely” treated because he’s a brute? This is a novel about a wounded daughter who has more than sufficient cause to be enraged with the men in her life. She is only “hostilely” presented if it’s an act of hostility to recognize that young women can be wounded and young women can be enraged. I’d bet there are even some enraged and wounded women who are feminists. You know, the dirty little secret is no longer sex; the dirty little secret is hatred and rage. It’s the tirade that’s taboo. Odd that this should be so a hundred years after Dostoyevsky (and fifty after Freud), but nobody nice likes to be identified with the stuff. It’s the way folks used to feel about fellatio in the good old days. “Me? Never heard of it. Disgusting.” But is it “hostile,” really, to take a look at the ferocity of the emotion they call “hostility”? When She Was Good is not serving the cause—that’s true. The anger of this young woman isn’t presented to be endorsed with a hearty “Right on!” that will move the populace to action. The nature of the anger is examined, as is the depth of the wound. So are the consequences of the anger, for Lucy as for everyone. I hate to have to be the one to say it, but the portrait isn’t without its poignancy. I don’t mean by poignancy what the compassionate book reviewers call “compassion.” I mean you see the suffering that real rage is.

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