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Writing from my own experience


Influences? Saul Bellow and Augie March
Philip Roth Writer
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You know, I… did I have literary influences? I would answer and say literature was my literary influence. Reading all kinds of books was my influence. Not because I took from those books, but I began to be educated about literature and the range, the possibilities. But I never set out to imitate anybody as an adult. I think that in the early… the middle '50s… early '50s and middle '50s, I discovered two writers, American writers, who did indeed influence me. And I'll tell you who they are and then I'll tell you how they influenced me.

In 1953, my last… next to last year in college, I read The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. I had never read anything like it before in my life, who had? In a way, I had read something like it, I should say, when I read the books by the half genius Thomas Wolfe. But Bellow was a whole genius. And so he… the gush… the gush in Wolfe, the, as I said, the taste for an epical existence, the portraits of people, all of this Bellow did marvellously. But the influence came not through the literary genius, but through his subject. And his subject were Jewish… were Jew… they were Jews, these people. And not all of them, but the Chicago people, and Augie himself. And you could write about Jews like this. You could write about your neighbourhood like this. You didn't have to write like Conrad [Joseph Conrad], you didn't have to write like Henry James. But he was seizing hold of Jews and their lives and turning it into wonderful, wonderful, literature. That was a revelation to me, I was a college kid. Then I went back and read the earlier books which I didn't know, Dangling Man and The Victim, and The Victim is another wonderful book. But Augie March was something else, the gush of it was something else.

And then a year or two later, Malamud [Bernard Malamaud] published The Assistant. Malamud had written a baseball book called The Natural, which I liked very much because I like baseball and was interested with what he did with baseball. But The Victim… excuse me, The Assistant, was something else. Once again, he was down in the neighbourhood in Brooklyn in a grocery store. A grocery store. And the older Jewish… not old, middle aged Jewish proprietor of the store, and his daughter, and his wife, and these people talk… he's trying to approximate a certain kind of Yiddish tinged English. And so there was the next clump on the head, which is you can write about the Jewish poor, you can write about the Jewish inarticulate, you can describe things near at hand, like a grocery store, a counter in a grocery store, the produce in a grocery store. And that had a terrific impact on me.

And then I read those books a couple of times over, and I thought, I can use my stuff.

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: Chicago, Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March, The Assistant, Saul Bellow, Thomas Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, Bernard Malamaud

Duration: 4 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013