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'I catch them where they're weak'
Philip Roth Writer
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Yes, I have written a lot of books about assailable men and about assailable women.  So vulnerability is... is a subject obviously.  I catch them where they're weak.  They may be strong in lots of other ways but... but I seem to find them where they're weak, where life presses against them and knocks them over, you know.  I think this happens in quite a few books, going back to my first novel, Letting Go.  I'm not keen on that book any longer, but I was examining the assailability of this privileged young man writing under the... not the influence of Henry James but having been educated a bit by Henry James at that point in my career.  In When She Was Good, a book about a young – was she 19 years old – Lucy Nelson, small town in the Middle West, and she has to be strong.  She has to be strong to meet the disappointments in her life.  And to meet the challenge of the men who seem to her, to be her enemies; her father, her husband, her husband's uncle.   And she's destroyed.  She's destroyed. 

So... Letting Go is 1962 and When She Was Good was 1967 and here we are in 2011 and it's... it's all a long time ago.  But it... it appealed to me as a subject back then.  I can't tell you why.  I would imagine that human vulnerability enters into virtually any novel.  But I continued with all those books I wrote in the '90s; American Pastoral and so on.  I Married a Communist, A Human Stain, what is... what are they vulnerable... what are these people vulnerable to?  And I think what I... in American Pastoral, Swede Levov is vulnerable as a man might be to the loss of his daughter, to the violence in his daughter.  I think what Ira Ringold in I Married a Communist, and Coleman Silk in The Human Stain are vulnerable to false accusation, among other things, among other things.  So why I'm interested in... in when people crack, I... I don't know. 


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: Letting Go, When She Was Good, Lucy Nelson

Duration: 3 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013