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Four short books


Finishing the Zuckerman sequence
Philip Roth Writer
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The other sequence I finished was the Zuckerman books [Zuckerman Bound]. I didn't know they needed finishing; The Human Stain might have been the last, but I thought something was necessary. Some... the music wasn't finished. And the scheme of the Zuckerman books — which only occurred to me as it... as it evolved, I had no such scheme in mind — was that there were the early books in which Zuckerman is the main... the main character, and it's his life as a writer, both here and in Czechoslovakia, that we read about. Then there's a middle book, which is The Counterlife, in which he ceases to be the person at the centre, and he's involved with his brother, with London, with Gloucestershire, with the West Bank; so the place begins to loom much larger there, and he begins… though he is the mediating intelligence, his personal life is not the central issue.

And that led me to the last three books in which he doesn't… his life is not a matter of any concern to us. But rather, he is the brain, he is the eyes, he is the voice who tells you the story: The story of Swede Levov in American Pastoral, the story of Ira Ringold in I Married a Communist, the story of the guy in The Human Stain whose name is Coleman Silk; and Zuckerman is an observer in there. Moreover, he has no sexual life whatsoever — he virtually has none in the earlier books either, by the way. I gave the sex life over to Kepesh, not to Zuckerman — you know, you... you parcel out your experience to different characters — and in these books he's had prostate cancer and he's had his prostate removed, and he's been rendered... rendered impotent and incontinent. So he's out the game; he's out of the game. Coleman Silk is still in the game, but he's not in the game.

And now I got to the end, I thought, I've got to come back to this guy and to his life. And tell me, I said to myself, what happens to him? Tell me what happens to him? And where and when it happens, and who's along for the ride, really. And I thought up the story of Exit Ghost, of his attempt to re-enter life from his hermit-like existence; his attempt to re-enter life and his flight from it; and his flight from learning the feeling, the implications, of his impotence which, as long as he's living by himself in a cabin somewhere, I don't think it can make a difference.  But he comes down to New York and sees somebody... his beautiful young wife and he thinks, I can't have that, I can't have that.

And also, his involvement... their involvement in the election of 2004. So I wanted something to be happening, so…  and moreover it... the last book, the, Exit Ghost, refers back strongly to the first book, The Ghost Writer, the characters show up... the characters who were in The Ghost Writer show up again. So I... I don't think it's too neat an ending, I... I think it's unexpected and... but it was done; and when that was done, I knew that I was finished with Zuckerman. 

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: Kepesh, Czechoslovakia, The Counterlife, London, Gloucester, West Bank, Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, Coleman Silk, Exit Ghost, New York, The Ghost Writer

Duration: 4 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013