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Philip Roth: Writing Award-Winning Books for Almost 50 Years


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.  This week we tell about Philip Roth. It would be hard to pick an American writer with more published works, critical praise and honors than Philip Roth. He has written more than twenty books and has received almost that many major literary awards.

Both in the United States and internationally, Roth is respected as one of the most important writers of modern times. His intelligent stories have become an important part of literary culture. They explore how individuals face the tensions of family, politics, sex and race.

Philip Roth was born in nineteen thirty-three in Newark, New Jersey. He later went to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania to earn his college degree. At the University of Chicago in Illinois, he earned a master's degree and also taught English. His interest in serious fiction began during college when he read the works of several important American writers. He says the books by writers like Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway were his teachers.

Roth’s first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," was published in nineteen fifty-nine. It was a collection of six short stories. One of the stories, "Defender of the Faith," was also published that year in The New Yorker magazine.  It is about a young Jewish soldier training at an American army base at the end of World War Two. He lies to his Jewish army officer in order to get special treatment.

The story caused a great dispute. Jewish religious leaders criticized it. They were angry that Roth wrote about a Jewish teenager who is aggressive and imperfect. These people thought Roth violated his religion and invited discrimination against Jewish people.  But literary critics praised this new book. "Goodbye Columbus" received the National Book Award in nineteen sixty.

Philip Roth wrote two more books before publishing "Portnoy's Complaint" in nineteen sixty-nine. This darkly funny book became a bestseller and made its writer very famous. It tells about a middle-class Jewish family in New York City through the eyes of Alexander Portnoy. Alexander wants to be a good Jewish son, but he also feels trapped by the requirements of family life. To make himself feel better, he carries out unusual sexual acts.

“Portnoy’s Complaint” received praise as well as intense criticism. It made some people angry.  Jewish religious leaders said this book invited discrimination against Jewish people. One literary critic also denounced Roth himself.

Philip Roth did not welcome this new level of attention. He soon moved from New York City to the countryside. He wrote more books. Several of them are about the character Nathan Zuckerman who is a writer. These include "My Life as a Man" and "The Anatomy Lesson." He also wrote several books whose main character is a man named Philip Roth. These include "Deception" and "Operation Shylock."

Roth explores the differences between imagined stories and real life. Many details about these characters are similar to the real Philip Roth's own life. Critics and readers often like to ask Roth what is true and what is fiction. But Philip Roth's work is much more than a description of himself. He has said that his books are not about whether or not he has lived the experiences described. They are literary objects that require him to see his subjects as clearly as possible, then use his skills of invention.

In nineteen-ninety eight Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “American Pastoral.”  Time magazine has listed this book as one of the best one hundred novels in the English language.  The story is about a man named Seymour Levov who has what seems to be the perfect American life. He has a nice home, a good job and a loving family.

But his life starts to collapse after his daughter Merry performs an act of terrorism to protest the Vietnam War in the nineteen sixties. Roth expertly describes one family’s difficult situation during a tense time in American history.

In two thousand four Philip Roth published another important book, “The Plot Against America."  This book is told from the point of view of a young Jewish boy living with his family in Newark, New Jersey during the nineteen forties. Mr. Roth re-imagines the events that led to World War Two.

He writes a different history in which Charles Lindbergh wins the nineteen forty presidential election instead of Franklin Roosevelt. Lindbergh had become a real-life hero after flying across the Atlantic Ocean in nineteen twenty-seven.

In the book, Charles Lindbergh is a great supporter of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. This imagined president decides to keep the United States out of World War Two.

He also establishes a plan to move Jewish families into the middle of the country to break up the close culture of Jewish communities. These events did not take place.

But Roth’s descriptions are so realistic that you have to remind yourself his story is an imagined version of American history. And you realize how easy it could have been for the United States to carry out destructive policies under a strong leader with bad ideas.

Philip Roth's latest book is called "Everyman." It tells about the life and death of an older man from New Jersey. You never learn the name of this main character. The book starts at a funeral and ends on a hospital operating table. The powerful story explores memories from the man's childhood.  It gives details about his three marriages and his children. The language of the book is clear and direct.  The man often questions death and the thought of no longer existing. He faces the fear of leaving behind life and the people he loves.

Near the end of the book, the main character visits the Jewish cemetery where his parents are buried. He meets an older man who is digging a grave for a funeral. The worker explains how he digs a grave. He says that digging is peaceful work that gives him time to think.

The main character learns that this man had dug the graves of his parents. And he realizes that the man will soon dig his grave also.

"Everyman" might seem like a sad and depressing book. But Roth's skill as a storyteller and his way with language make it pleasurable to read. Roth faces the subject of death honestly and bravely.

Philip Roth recently won the PEN/Faulkner award for "Everyman." It is the largest literary prize judged by writers in the United States. Roth is the only writer to have received this literary prize three times. Last month, Roth attended the PEN/Faulkner ceremony in Washington, D.C. to accept the award. He and the other writers nominated for the award read from their books.

Philip Roth spoke to a group of reporters after the event. He talked about the books he has recently read and enjoyed. This spring he started rereading the books of the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. He said this writer’s books “First Love” and “Spring Torrents” are wonderful. And they are also short books like “Everyman.”

Roth also talked about how he works. Listen as he describes the demands and rewards of being a writer:

It’s a job. It definitely has not become easier nor has it become harder. It’s work, it’s hard work. And I do it regularly, every day, usually six days, sometimes seven.

I work long days, I work eight, nine, ten hours. And it’s just as taxing as it always was, just as frustrating, just at difficult as it always was.

And at a certain stage in the writing of the book it ceases to be taxing and difficult and you get into a rhythm, and you get it. And then, there is no pleasure like it. Then it’s bliss.

Philip Roth also said he believes that the number of people reading books is decreasing. He says people have a limited amount of free time. They have many television and computer screens to look at instead of reading books. He says that the age of the book is coming to an end and there is nothing to be done about it.

But other people who love books hope Roth’s prediction is wrong. They believe the best way to make sure it does not come true is for people to pick up a book and start reading more. And, if you want to read a good story that will make you think, you can read a book by Philip Roth. His next book, "Exit Ghost", comes out in October.

Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can see pictures of Philip Roth at our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. You can also find transcripts and audio archives of our programs. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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