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Portnoy’s Complaint: sending my parents on a cruise


Portnoy’s Complaint: making my mother cry
Philip Roth Writer
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I'll... I'll tell you what happened with my parents. Before the book came out, I was concerned for them, that they... they had to be shepherded through the publication of this book by me. I just couldn't leave them alone out there when this book came out. And besides, I spoke to them every Sunday from wherever I was in the world. I was in touch with them all the time. When they were living in New Jersey while I was living here in New York I saw them every couple of weeks, you know. Sometimes I'd go over there, sometimes they'd come over here. And so I... I called them up and said, 'Why don't you come over to New York, we'll have lunch' one day.

And I took them to a restaurant and I said, 'Look I have to tell you something. I have a book coming out in February, something March, and...' this was now January, or December. 'I have a book coming out in February and it's going to be a big sensation. And it's going to be sensational because there's a lot of obscenity in it and it's going to be sensational because it's about a Jewish family, and first I have to tell you that you are not… you are not the parents in this book'. I said, 'I borrowed some characteristics from the two of you and even… and from me too, but it's not about us, this is about a fictional family. But what's going to happen when the book comes out is you're going to get calls, telephone calls, maybe even visits on your doorstep from journalists, and they're going to want to talk to you about this book. And there'll be TV people, and there'll be newspaper people, and there'll be magazine people, and they're going to descend on you. And you should really figure out beforehand what you want to do'. I said, 'as far… if you want to talk to them, that's fine with me. But if you don't want to talk to them, then I'll tell you how you can deal with them. And you can just tell them thank you, no, but they're journalists they're going to insist. So, you... you can tell them a thank you no, three times and then you can hang up. You can hang up on a journalist, it's perfectly all right. Don't be nice to them.' And this conversation went on.

And then they got a taxi and went back down to the Port Authority bus and took the bus home to Elizabeth. That's the last I heard of it, until after my mother died. I was with my father in Florida and I said, what… 'Remember that conversation we had years ago?' I'm always reminding him to find out what happened. And he said, 'Yes mother got into the taxi cab and she began to cry'. I said, 'Why did she cry?' She said, 'he has delusions of grandeur. He has delusions of grandeur and I can't bear to think of how disappointed he is going to be.'

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: New Jersey, New York, Port Authority, Elizabeth, Florida

Duration: 3 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013