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Borrowing from my background


'You're a plum!': the fight with my father
Philip Roth Writer
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What was the fight about with my father? It was about coming in late. 'Where the hell were you?' I said to him – my brother happened to be home from college that weekend – I said to him, 'It's none of your business'. That didn't go down very well, and that produced a bang up fight the next morning. I went in my bedroom and went to sleep but the next morning and the next day we had this raging, raging fight. He was frightened for me. Was it… was it a pathological reaction in him? I don't think so, even though I think it was a stupid reaction. But he had had three brothers die when he was a boy. Two – not when he was a boy, when he was in his 20s – two older brothers who he worshipped. And then later on about ten years later his younger brother, who was the family pride… this was a guy who… the first one in college… the first one who was going to college from a whole clan of seven children. And he took these blows hard and that was the history he brought to our encounter. And he used to say to me, 'You're a plum, you're a plum' you know, which implicit in Europe plum is: don't fuck it up, you know. He didn't say that, he just said 'You're a plum'. He was afraid that something was going to happen to me. Something did happen to me, but it was inevitable that something would happen to me. But that… so we had that… that fight and then we made up… we made up. I didn't even go back to college the next day, I stayed and had a dinner out in New York with him and my mother, which was a big deal, and everything was okay. But… and in fact, I'll tell you something, in the 1980s after my mother died my father would go to Florida in the summer… in the winter time and I would come from London where I was living to… to Miami to see him and we would hang around together for a few days. And so one evening we were taking a walk in Miami – Miami Beach – and I said, 'Do you ever think about that argument we had in 1951?' 'What argument?' I said, 'Remember I… I came in later than you thought I should and you said where were you and I said it's none of your business and the next day we just screamed at each other all day'. 'No, I don't remember.' 'Are you sure?' And he had a good memory. 'Are you sure?' 'No, I don't remember.' And he wasn't lying. There it is. That's also the man, that was also the man. But all those blows in… as a young man with losing his brothers… three… there were three died and three lived. And what else I can… I don't know what other ingredient there was. Except his father… his own father was extremely strong minded and tough, and maybe he thought that's what he was supposed to do, you know? We… we survived it.

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: FLorida, London, Miami, Miami Beach

Duration: 4 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013