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The '90s
Philip Roth Writer
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Operation Shylock and... and The Counterlife launched me into a series of books I wrote in the '90s which were all distinguished by their amplitude and bitterness, I think. And I had a good run then, because after Operation Shylock I wrote a book called Sabbath's Theatre, and I... my energy was running very high when I wrote that book, as it had been for Operation Shylock. But I felt at the top of my energy, my knowledge and my strength as a writer, and Sabbath's Theatre is a different story, its hero is... was distasteful to many, I found him wonderful, and he was my lucky discovery.

You know, you find the character, and the character dictates the book, I don't mean that the character, as they say, writes it for you, you write it for yourself, but his potential as a person, his life's work, his passions, his hatreds — if you get the right combination, you're on fire, you're on fire, and I felt on fire with Sabbath's Theatre.  And he's... he's a wicked man, Sabbath, and… but when I finished writing about him I didn't want to write about a wicked man anymore, I wanted to write about the opposite. I wanted to write about a virtuous man, or certainly, he's... Sabbath is conventionally wicked, and the other man is conventionally virtuous. And my idea for American Pastoral didn't come out of Sabbath's Theatre directly, of course, but it did shape my sense of... of the hero, Swede Levov; he is everything that Sabbath is not, and Sabbath is everything that he is not.

The idea for Sabbath... for American Pastoral came to me some 20 years earlier, but I'd never been able to get anywhere with it – which is not unusual, by the way. You can... you can have an idea, it seems charged to you, you sit down to work it out, and you get to page 70, and it just peters out; so the best thing is to keep it, because you don't know what 20 years later you're going to make of it. Well, 20 years earlier I had written... begun a book about a girl, an anti-war activist, a young girl in her adolescence, who blows up a building in the town where her parents live. And I couldn't get anywhere with it, and so I… but I always knew there was something in it, so whenever I finished a book, I would take out these 70 pages and read them, and I'd think it's no good, and put it back. But when I took them out after finishing Operation Shylock... or Sabbath's Theatre, I took these pages out after reading, finishing Sabbath's Theatre, I saw a way to... to attack it. And the ways to attack it, I don't remember now what they were, but I suddenly, I didn't feel locked out of the material, and I began to write American Pastoral, and I felt that same kind of energy and excitement that I'd... that I'd felt with the previous two books I'd written in the '90s.

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: Operation Shylock, The Counterlife, Sabbath's Theatre, American Pastoral, Swede Levov

Duration: 5 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013