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Mickey Sabbath

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Searching for my burial plot leads me to write Sabbath's Theater
Philip Roth Writer
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I... I wrote Sabbath's Theater... I believe I did the writing in 1994 and 1995, probably, so I was in my early 60s. It began, I think, because I was looking for a place to be buried. It never had dawned on me to look for such a place earlier, but I guess now that I was in my early 60s I thought I'd better take care of that. And, partly I... I guess this came to mind because I... I'd just buried a friend of mine, a woman of 42... 42 or 43 – who I was very fond of – and I found a spot for her to be buried in a nearby cemetery to me, to my house, and got a stone for her cemetery... for her plot, so I was involved with the cemetery for really the first time in my life. And it dawned on me... and then I used to go out and visit her grave in the early months after she was dead. I would go out once or twice a month and just stand there. And so it dawned on me that I better take care of this.

And I thought, well, what about this cemetery right here? And I... I found it wanting. It's a beautiful, old cemetery – probably 19th century, early 19th century cemetery – set in a little hillside and... but I just... now comes the comical part – I just thought I wouldn't be comfortable there. And aside from my friend, I thought – more comedy – who will I talk to? Now these are real, silly thoughts. So I began to go around looking for a cemetery, and every one was lacking. Why was it lacking? Because I would have to be dead there. That was what was wrong with the cemetery. And so eventually I stopped looking in nearby towns, to where I live, and came down to New Jersey one day and went to visit my parents' cemetery – which of course I'd visited in the past, but never with an idea to finding a grave there. There was no grave adjacent to them. But the... the guy who runs the cemetery, the poor guy who runs the cemetery – now dead himself – we walked around together. And he... he was inadvertently, highly comical. For instance, I pointed to a plot that was near my parents' plots and it was just where there was a gate, but it was within... you could look up and you could see my parents' grave from there. And he said, 'Mr Roth, I don't like that for you, there's not enough leg room', he said. So I stayed with this comedian for half an hour or so and gave him a tip and so on.

And then I... it began to dawn on me that a book about someone who's looking for a grave to be buried in might be interesting. In addition, especially if the guy was going to commit suicide and was shopping around for a grave – which is what happens to Mickey Sabbath in my book. That's one... one strand.

Born in March 1933, American writer Philip Roth's fame rests on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrays in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he writes, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth has received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Sabbath's Theater, Mickey Sabbath

Duration: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013