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How I wrote Portnoy’s Complaint


My friends in New York
Philip Roth Writer
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I had learnt a lot about small town life in the Midwest from my wife's family, the wife who I divorced then. I had been with her family, I had hung around a little bit in her town and I wanted to use that material, that background, as my subject and so I did. And I lost a certain amount of color, I think, in writing about a world I didn't know very well, but I thought that the portrait of the young woman whose... whose anger makes the book go forward, I thought the portrait of her was well done. I thought that and about six other people thought that.

So there I was living in New York and… living in New York having published When She Was Good in '67. I began by... at this point to teach at the University of Pennsylvania and then in Philadelphia – I'd go down to Philadelphia one day a week and teach comparative literature – and I'd settled in to New York and I'd made friends here. I'd never lived in New York before in my... in my life except for that year or two in the '50s, and among the people I met were a group of Jewish fellows, all highly educated, who were very funny and when we all had dinner together it would get raucously funny. Sometimes these dinners involved the wives and so on, but there was six or eight of us all together and I... I discovered that I was one of the funny ones and that I could make people laugh, not by cracking jokes – by telling stories. There was another excellent storyteller named Alan Goldman, who was a friend of mine at that time, who worked for Life Magazine as a rock critic; Bob Brucestein, who was... started the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, was one of them; Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist, was another.

And so there I was having just written this glum book called: When She Was Good, having previously written a very dark book called Letting Go, and now I was making everybody laugh and it dawned on me that I might be able to do this stuff in writing. I hadn't dared to before, and that I could do this uninhibited play acting, which is what we were doing really, uninhibited play acting on the page, or could I? And I...I suppose some of my earlier stories had a sort of comic air to them, but this was richer stuff. We were talking about our backgrounds, the friends we'd had in school, our friends we'd grown up with. And so I began to write some stories about a guy in analysis... talking.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth 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: Midwest America, New York, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Life Magazine, When She Was Good, Alan Goldman, Bob Brucestein

Duration: 4 minutes

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013