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Philip Roth unbound

When the novelist picked his biographer, he chose Ross Miller, to whom he gave unfettered access after their years of "intellectual friendship."

Published July 4, 2004

Philip Roth, arguably America's greatest living novelist, is at once an intensely self-revealing writer and one of the most fiercely private. If the pulse on the page feels at times shockingly close, the man himself jealously guards a life of seclusion - and almost militarily regimented literary labor - in the Connecticut woods.

His work gnaws obsessively at certain themes: sex, writing, being Jewish in America, the vexed interplay between fact and fiction. Controversy found him at the get-go, starting with his 1959 New Yorker story "Defender of the Faith" - collected that year in the National Book Award-winning Goodbye, Columbus - which portrayed, traitorously to some, a flawed Jewish character.

The unhinged, manically raunchy Portnoy's Complaint (1969) made Roth an emblem of the national id, while in My Life As a Man (1974) he chronicled a writer's entanglement in the marriage from hell. In American Pastoral (1997) his longtime alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, ducked onto the sidelines to tell the story of Swede Levov, a good but naive man anguished by his daughter's foray into terrorism.

In October he publishes his 21st novel, The Plot Against America, which envisions an alternate time line wherein Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency and keeps America out of World War II.

Roth's novels are studded with land mines for the unwary, for those who try to draw pat, one-to-one correspondences between the man's life and his work.

Now, to the surprise of some Roth admirers, he has granted a biographer unfettered access to his letters, archives and intimates. He picked Ross Miller, a 58-year-old architecture critic and literature professor at the University of Connecticut. Miller is the editor of the planned Library of America editions of Roth's works and a longtime friend. This is his first biography.

He spoke to us by phone from Connecticut.

How did Philip Roth chose you for this job?

It really was his idea. For over 20 years we've been having rather strenuous and lively conversations about literature and politics and history, and of course the subject was often his work and, sometimes, mine. To my mind and others, clearly, Roth is the most significant American writer since Faulkner, with the exception of Saul Bellow, who is I think an equally fine writer.

It interested me enormously to think, "What if you had a 20-year intellectual friendship with Faulkner or Henry James or Flaubert, and instead of writing a memoir, or finding yourself in collected letters probably after your death, how about really taking on the greatest challenge of all, which is engaging with your own voice a writer of such significance while he was alive?" Not only alive, but doing his finest work at the end of his career.

How long have you and Roth talked about it?

For the last 10 years he would just say, "So and so, do you think he or she would be able to write a critical biography?" And I would say yes or no, depending on the work that I had seen. Never did I propose myself. In fact, I felt I was really in a privileged position with him, which was to be a critical reader of his work and to engage him at the very earliest point in his books. And that to me was kind of an unrivaled position to be in with a working writer.

Describe your friendship.

It's this intense sort of intellectual friendship. It's important to characterize the friendship. It's not as if we're pals. We don't go bowling together. We don't go hunting together. I don't know if there's any analogy to other kinds of male friendship. It obviously gives us both a lot of pleasure, but it's all business. We talk about books and writing and how the world really intrudes on the lives of ordinary people.

Why is such a private man consenting to this now? What's his impulse?

It seems to me that the significance of this work to American literature has not escaped him. Because he's so lyrical a writer, the language comes so fluently to him, people would often misread him, thinking that the surface humor, the surface conflict, the surface autobiographical elements, could line up exactly with the person himself.

We're not in a great literary age. There isn't a lot of intelligent public discussion of serious literature. Therefore (for) a biographer, you need someone who has an affinity to the work, is attuned to the work, but also has an independent critical mind.

The gossip machine goes on, whether or not someone serious is looking at your life, and he knows that. If I'm good enough I want to explain how these books are written, what goes on.

What I hope one can understand, or I can help people understand, is what it is like to see novelistically.

Can you give an example of this process at work?

There is an episode that is later written about in American Pastoral. It's an episode that characterizes one of the secondary characters, but all of the details were recovered from a real conversation that I was a third party to. And I knew this was an extraordinary story being told, and I could see how Philip was responding. Most civilians, if you see how people normally engage in conversation, they just wait for the moment they can talk. It wound up in the book in a form that would be unrecognizable to someone who wasn't there.

What was the episode?

Swede's brother, a brilliant eccentric, tries to impress a girl by sewing the skins of hamsters together, and she was horrified. Philip and I were told that story by a mutual friend. He did it, the friend did it. The quality of these stories, the person who had the experience can't recognize the significance of it. Philip was working on American Pastoral at the time, so everything he was experiencing could be worked in, or he would allow it to claim his attention. I've found that happens when you work on anything. The facts find you.

Who are your models as a biographer? Who's done the job right?

Nobody has written a biography like this since (James) Boswell. And Boswell had to wait till (Samuel) Johnson died. I feel a little self-conscious saying Boswell, because that's a work of literature in itself. I'm not in this biography. I will not appear in this book.

How did you become friends?

It was on his initiative. I'd written him a letter about The Anatomy Lesson (1983). I was fascinated by how this machine worked, how these novels worked. I'd written, "I'm sure you receive a lot of letters like this." He'd written back to me, just two lines. He said, "I want to quite assure you that I do not get letters like this, that interest me and engage me and challenge me."

Just by coincidence, I was invited to a dinner party and Philip was there with Claire (Bloom, then Roth's girlfriend), and we had a wonderful evening.

And then, one day, I got a phone call, and it was Philip on the other end. He said, "Is it all right if I send you a package?" I said, "Okay, what's in it?" He said, "Well, it's a book I'm rewriting. I'd like to see if you'd like to take a look at it. I'd like to hear what you think of it." He needed to shake it up, to be certain he was on the right track. It was kind of a noble experiment. Why not let somebody in at this early stage?

Which book was it?

It was The Counterlife (1987). I went at that with a real appetite. It's really the beginning of all this great writing. So I had a pile of notes on every page. I guess it was about a 500- to 600-page manuscript. I called him back when I had finished it. I said, "What do you want to do with this?" He said, "How awful is it?" I said, "It's not that awful." I joke with him. I say, "I have bad news. There's a good book in here somewhere."

I went . . . to his place in Connecticut, and we spent 13 hours talking about the book. We both realized it was a bit of a miracle to make a friend this late in the game. That really made it impossible when he asked me to think about writing a biography. I thought, "Well, look, I didn't think of it as material."

I was always very proper about it. If I had manuscripts, I either gave them back or shred them. I would never trade on those confidences.

So in a sense you've functioned as his editor?

Yes, but it was much freer. You have a great heavyweight fighter and they need a trainer, or a great pianist and they need a coach. That's really the sort of relationship. This is a fragile thing we have. We're on a tightrope.

Has Roth ever used you, spun you into a character?

I know who the models are for a lot of these characters. The people are never the ones they think they are. I know the ones that look like me, but the ones that really are me I don't recognize.

What's the distinction between a "definitive" biography, as this is billed, and an "authorized" biography, which this is not?

I would have no interest in writing an authorized biography. The difference to me is, I'm free to use other sources. I'm not dependent on the archives at the Library of Congress. Nor am I dependant on the private correspondence, the friendships, the family relationships. The definitive critical biography is really what I'm doing. I've been on the inside of these books, the clockwork of them. I have a good idea how they're made. In a sense, a good biography is a how-to manual. Not only how to read Philip Roth but how to read any novelist, actually.

What are the challenges of writing a biography about a friend? How do you avoid becoming his mouthpiece? On the other side, isn't there a risk to your friendship if he doesn't like how he comes out?

One of the reasons he wanted me is I'm as ruthless as he is about the work. That's why I say he's brave. He cannot control it, and obviously a great writer wants to control everything. They're great directors. They need to control things. He won't like it. He can't like it, because how can you like seeing something in that form? But he would like it more than some sort of stupid (job).

To be a writer that really matters, as Faulkner does, as Twain does, you have to be up to real scrutiny from people capable of doing it.

The friendship is the basis of all of it. I don't think the friendship is threatened by it. As we always do, we'll contend over the work. And that's fine. I think the work will be better. Why else would you risk allowing (access to) somebody who knows everything and could write it completely independently?

You need a full-scale biography to begin to explain to the general reader what it is to be a novelist at this level. With Faulkner, the biographies are mythologies. He had intimates, but he didn't let them in close.

What are Roth's thoughts about the Nobel Prize, and why in your opinion hasn't the Swedish Academy given it to him already?

I think that the academy is very politically correct, and they're not notably great readers. The Nobel Prize is notoriously political. It's going to happen, though. He's been on the short list of two or three at least a few times. It's inevitable. He's come close too many times. His feeling is, let's get it over with.

So he's as wary of winning it as he is eager?

I think he would be delighted. But he's serious about being out of the limelight. It's very disruptive. You're asked your opinions on everything.

So how do you go about this job?

One of the unique aspects of the way I'm working on this is, I'm requiring Roth to read all of his work, and we'll talk on the record about the work. So already we've done many conversations. Some of the early work he's never really returned to. It creates a nice chronology.

We started with Goodbye, Columbus, what was happening around there. Now we're talking about the Zuckerman stuff, and his life in the early '70s.

With his reputation as a recluse, how engaged is Roth in ordinary 21st-century life, with things like TV, e-mail?

I think he's admirably not overwhelmed by it. If I get another bit of spam about penis enlargement, or my mortgage being improved, that's not going to help. He's a very social guy. He's not Salinger. Salinger retreated and stopped working. Roth retreats and works.

-- Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813 226-3337 or Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 1, 2004, 11:39:05]

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