Philip Roth

American novelist

Philip Milton Roth (19 March 193322 May 2018) was an American novelist. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his novel American Pastoral. In May 2011, he received the Man Booker International Prize, for achievement in fiction on the world stage, becoming the fourth winner of the biennial award.

I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.


When you publish a book, it’s the world’s book. The world edits it.
Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency.
Trump … is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.
  • The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.
    • As quoted in "Works in Progress" in The New York Times Book Review (15 July 1979), page BR1
  • When you publish a book, it’s the world’s book. The world edits it.
    • "A Visit with Philip Roth," interview with James Atlas, The New York Times Book Review (2 September 1979), p. BR1
  • To become a celebrity is to become a brand name. There is Ivory Soap, Rice Krispies, and Philip Roth. Ivory is the soap that floats; Rice Krispies the breakfast cereal that goes snap-crackle-pop; Philip Roth the Jew who masturbates with a piece of liver.
    • "The Ghosts of Roth," interview with Alan Finkielkraut, Esquire (September 1981)
  • This indictment is a kind of fever that flares up from time to time. It flared up after "Defender of the Faith," again after "Goodbye Columbus," and understandably it went way up — to about 107 — after "Portnoy's Complaint." Now there's just a low-grade fever running, nothing to worry about.
    • On criticism of his writing, as quoted in "The Unbounded Spirit of Philip Roth", interview with Mervyn Rothstein, The New York Times (1 August 1985), Late City Final Edition, section C, page 13, column 1
  • I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.
  • I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you — it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists.
    • Deception: A Novel (1990)
  • I'm exactly the opposite of religious, I'm anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It's all a big lie. … I have such a huge dislike. It's not a neurotic thing, but the miserable record of religion. I don't even want to talk about it, it's not interesting to talk about the sheep referred to as believers. When I write, I'm alone. It's filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety — and I never needed religion to save me.
  • I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
    • As quoted in "Roth on Trump" by Judith Thurman, in The New Yorker (30 January 2017), p. 17

Goodbye, Columbus (1959)Edit

  • Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!
  • ...her breasts swam towards me like two pink-nosed fish and she let me hold them.
    • Chapter 2
  • We came back to the chairs now and then and sang hesitant, clever, nervous, gentle dithyrambs about how we were beginning to feel towards one another. Actually we did not have the feelings we said we had until we spoke them — at least I didn't; to phrase them was to invent them and own them. We whipped our strangeness and newness into a froth that resembled love, and we dared not play too long with it, talk too much of it, or it would flatten and fizzle away. So we moved back and forth from chairs to water, from talk to silence, and considering my unshakable edginess with Brenda, and the high walls of ego that rose, buttresses and all, between her and her knowledge of herself, we managed pretty well.
    • Chapter 2
  • Life was a throwing off for poor aunt Gladys, her greatest joys were taking out the garbage, emptying the pantry, and making threadbare bundles for what she still refers to as the poor Jews of Palestine.

Writing About Jews (1963)Edit

Literary works do not take as their subjects characters and events which have impressed a writer primarily by the frequency of their appearance.
"Writing about Jews", Commentary magazine (December 1963)
  • Ever Since some of my first stories were published in 1959 in a volume called Goodbye, Columbus, my work has been attacked from certain pulpits and in certain periodicals as dangerous, dishonest, and irresponsible. I have read editorials and articles in Jewish community newspapers condemning these stories for ignoring the accomplishments of Jewish life, or, as Rabbi Emanuel Rackman recently told a convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, for creating a "distorted image of the basic values of Orthodox Judaism," and even, he went on, for denying the non-Jewish world the opportunity of appreciating "the overwhelming contributions which Orthodox Jews are making in every avenue of modern endeavor …"
  • I do not write a story to make evident whatever disapproval I may feel for adulterous men. I write a story of a man who is adulterous to reveal the condition of such a man. If the adulterous man is a Jew, then I am revealing the condition of an adulterous man who is a Jew. Why tell that story? Because I seem to be interested in how — and why and when — a man acts counter to what he considers to be his "best self," or what others assume it to be, or would like for it to be. The subject is hardly "mine"; it interested readers and writers for a long time before it became my turn to be engaged by it, too.
  • Literary works do not take as their subjects characters and events which have impressed a writer primarily by the frequency of their appearance. For example, how many Jewish men, as we know them, have come nearly to the brink of plunging a knife into their only son because they believed God had commanded them to? The story of Abraham and Isaac derives its meaning from something other than its being a familiar, recognizable, everyday occurrence. The test of any literary work is not how broad is its range of representation — for all that breadth may be characteristic of a kind of narrative — but the depth with which the writer reveals whatever it may be that he has chosen to represent.
  • The concerns of fiction, let it be said, are not those of a statistician — or of a public-relations firm. The novelist asks himself, "What do people think?"; the PR man asks, "What will people think?"
  • All the tolerance of persecution that has seeped into the Jewish character — the adaptability, the patience, the resignation, the silence, the self-denial — must be squeezed out, until the only response there is to any restriction of liberties is "No, I refuse."
  • The chances are that there will always be some people who will despise Jews, just so long as they continue to call themselves Jews; and, of course, we must keep an eye on them. But if some Jews are dreaming of a time when they will be accepted by Christians as Christians accept one another — if this is why certain Jewish writers should be silent — it may be that they are dreaming of a time that cannot be, and of a condition that does not exist, this side of one’s dreams. Perhaps even the Christians don’t accept one another as they are imagined to in that world from which Jews may believe themselves excluded solely because they are Jews.

Portnoy's Complaint (1969)Edit

  • A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die.
  • It’s a family joke that when I was a tiny child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snowstorm, and hopefully asked, "Momma, do we believe in winter?"
  • My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you’ve got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren’t only bombs and bullets — no, they’re little gifts, containing meanings!
    • Ch. 4: "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life"
  • Only in America, Rabbi Golden, do these peasants, our mothers, get their hair dyed platinum at the age of sixty, and walk up and down Collins Avenue in Florida in pedalpushers and mink stoles — and with opinions on every subject under the sun. It isn’t their fault they were given a gift like speech — look, if cows could talk, they would say things just as idiotic.
    • Part 5: "Cunt Crazy"
  • I am thirteen. At long last, not a cored apple. Not an empty milk bottle greased with vaseline, but a girl in a slip, with two tits and a cunt — and a mustache, but who am I to be picky.
  • I'm not trying to turn you into a bourgeois, Naomi. If the bed is too luxurious, we can do it on the floor.
  • ...and then this amazing creature — to whom no one has ever said "Shah!" or "I only hope your children will do the same to you someday!"
  • I am marked like a road map from head to toe with my repressions. You can travel the length and breadth of my body over superhighways of shame and inhibition and fear.
  • American society [...] not only sanctions gross and unfair relations among men, but it encourages them. Now, can that be denied? No. Rivalry, competition, envy, jealousy, all that is malignant in human character is nourished by the system. Possession, money, property — on such corrupt standards as these do you people measure happiness and success.
  • Dreams? If only they had been! But I don't need dreams, Doctor, that's why I hardly have them — because I have this life instead. With me it all happens in broad daylight!
  • I can lie about my name, I can lie about my school, but how am I going to lie about this fucking nose? "You seem like a very nice person Mr. Porte-Noir, but why do you go around covering the middle of your face like that?" Because suddenly it has taken off, the middle of my face! Because gone is the button of my childhood years, that pretty little thing that people used to look at in my carriage, and lo and behold, the middle of my face has begun to reach out towards God. Porte-Noir and Parsons my ass, kid, you have got J-E-W written right across the middle of your face.

The Counterlife (1986)Edit

  • Circumcision is startling, all right, particularly when performed by a garlicked old man upon the glory of a newborn body, but then maybe that’s what the Jews had in mind and what makes the act seem quintessentially Jewish and the mark of their reality. Circumcision makes it clear as can be that you are here and not there, that you are out and not in — also that you’re mine and not theirs.... Quite convincingly, circumcision gives the lie to the womb-dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory, the appealing idyll of living "naturally," unencumbered by man-made ritual. To be born is to lose all that. The heavy hand of human values falls upon you right at the start, marking your genitals as its own.
    • Ch. 5
  • England’s made a Jew of me in only eight weeks, which, on reflection, might be the least painful method. A Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple.
    • Ch. 5
  • Is an intelligent human being likely to be much more than a large-scale manufacturer of misunderstanding?
    • Ch. 5
  • All I can tell you with certainty is that I, for one, have no self, and that I am unwilling or unable to perpetrate upon myself the joke of a self .... What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do, and not only of myself — a troupe of players that I have internalised, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required .... I am a theater and nothing more than a theater.
    • Ch. 5

Paris Review Interview (1986)Edit

Interview with Hermione Lee (summer 1983 - winter 1984), Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, seventh series, Viking/Penguin, 1986, ISBN 0-140-08500-9
  • Beginning a book is unpleasant. I'm entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that's finally everything. I type out beginnings and they're awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it — that's what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there's a paragraph that's alive. Okay, I say to myself, that's your beginning, start there; that's the first paragraph of the book. I'll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I'll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn't come to more than one page, but if I'm lucky, that's the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.
  • I don't ask writers about their work habits. I really don't care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they're actually trying to find out, "Is he as crazy as I am?" I don't need that question answered.
  • You know, the dirty little secret is no longer sex; the dirty little secret is hatred and rage. It's the tirade that's taboo. Odd that this should be so a hundred years after Dostoyevsky (and fifty after Freud), but nobody nice likes to be identified with the stuff. It's the way folks used to feel about fellatio in the good old days. "Me? Never heard of it. Disgusting." But is it "hostile," really, to take a look at the ferocity of the emotion they call "hostility"?
  • Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry, where Orwell failed.
  • I was trying to solve the problem of this book. (My Life as a Man) When it seemed I never would, I stopped and wrote Our Gang; when I tried again and still couldn't write it, I stopped and wrote the baseball book; then while finishing the baseball book, I stopped to write The Breast. It was as though I were blasting my way through a tunnel to reach the novel I couldn't write. Each of one's books is a blast, clearing the way for what's next.
  • When I was first in Czechoslovakia, it occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters. This isn't to say I wished to change places. I didn't envy their persecution and the way in which it heightens their social importance. I didn't even envy them their seemingly more valuable and serious themes. The trivialization, in the West, of much that's deadly serious in the East is itself a subject, one requiring considerable imaginative ingenuity to transform into compelling fiction.
  • You ask if I thought my fiction had changed anything in the culture and the answer is no. Sure, there's been some scandal, but people are scandalized all the time; it's a way of life for them. It doesn't mean a thing. If you ask if I want my fiction to change anything in the culture, the answer is still no. What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book — if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don't. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that's otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn't fiction.

The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988)Edit

  • Obviously the facts are never just coming at you but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience. Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.
    • Opening letter to Nathan Zuckerman
  • Undermining experience, embellishing experience, rearranging and enlarging experience into a species of mythology.
    • Referring to the life of a fiction writer, in the opening letter to Nathan Zuckerman.
  • Just like those who are incurably ill, the aged know everything about their dying except exactly when.
    • Opening letter to Nathan Zuckerman
  • It isn't that you subordinate your ideas to the force of the facts in autobiography but that you construct a sequence of stories to bind up the facts with a persuasive hypothesis that unravels your history's meaning.
    • Opening letter to Nathan Zuckerman
  • You rebel against the tribal and look for the individual, for your own voice as against the stereotypical voice of the tribe or the tribe's stereotype of itself. You have to establish yourself against your predecessor, and doing so can well involve what they like to call self-hatred. I happen to think that — all those protestations notwithstanding — your self hatred was real and a positive force in its very destructiveness. Since to build something new often requires that something else be destroyed, self-hatred is valuable for a young person. What should he or she have instead — self-approval, self-satisfaction, self-praise? It's not so bad to hate the norms that keep a society from moving on, especially when the norms are dictated by fear as much as by anything else and especially when that fear is of the enemy forces of the overwhelming majority. But you seem now to be so strongly motivated by a need for reconciliation with the tribe that you aren't even willing to acknowledge how disapproving of its platitudinous demands you were back then, however ineluctably Jewish you may also have felt. The prodigal son who once upset the tribal balance — and perhaps even invigorated the tribe's health — may well, in his old age, have a sentimental urge to go back home, but isn't this a bit premature in you, aren't you really too young to have it so fully developed?
    • Nathan Zuckerman to Philip Roth
  • They boo you, they whistle, they stamp their feet — you hate it but you thrive on it. Because the things that wear you down are the things that nurture you and your talent.
    • Nathan Zuckerman to Philip Roth

Sabbath's Theater (1995)Edit

  • Each year she taught him the names of the flowers in her language and in his, and from one year to the next he could not even remember the English. For nearly thirty years Sabbath had been exiled in these mountains, and still he could name hardly anything. They didn't have this stuff where he came from. All these things growing were beside the point there. He was from the shore. There was sand and ocean, horizon and sky, daytime and nighttime — the light, the dark, the tide, the stars, the boats, the sun, the mists, the gulls. There were the jetties, the piers, the boardwalk, the booming, silent, limitless sea. Where he grew up they had the Atlantic. You could touch with your toes where America began. They lived in a stucco bungalow two short streets from the edge of America. The house. The porch. The screens. The icebox. The tub. The linoleum. The broom. The pantry. The ants. The sofa. The radio. The garage. The outside shower with the slatted wooden floor Morty had built and the drain that always clogged. In summer, the salty sea breeze and the dazling light; in September, the hurricanes; in January, the storms. They had January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, November, December. And then January. And then again January, no end to the stockpile of Januaries, of Mays, of Marches. August, December, April — name a month, and they had it in spades. They'd had endlessness. He had grown up on endlessness and his mother — in the beginning they were the same thing. His mother, his mother, his mother, his mother, his mother... and then there was his mother, his father, Grandma, Morty, and the Atlantic at the end of the street. The ocean, the beach, the first two streets in America, then the house, and in the house a mother who never stopped whistlîg until December 1944. If Morty had come alive, if the endlessness had ended naturally instead of with the telegram, if after the war Morty had started doing electrical work and plumbing for people, had become a builder at the shore, gone into the construction business just as the boom in Monmouth County was beginning...Didn't matter. Take your pick. Get betrayed by the fantasy of endlessness or by the fact of finitude. No, Sabbath could only have wound up Sabbath, begging for what he was begging, bound to what he was bound, saying what he did not wish to stop himself from saying.
  • Immediate reality is outside that window; so big it is, so much of it, everything entangled in everything else...What large thought Sabbath was struggling to express? Is he asking, "Whatever did happen to my own true life?" Was it taking place elsewhere? But how then can looking out of this window be so gigantically real? Well, that is the difference between the true and the real. We don't get to live in the truth. That's why Nikki ran away. She was an idealist, an innocent, touching, talented illusionist who wanted to live in the truth. Well, if you found it, kid, you're the first. In my experience the direction of life is toward incoherence — precisely what you would never confront. Maybe that was the only coherent thing you could think to do: die to deny incoherence.
  • And he couldn't do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.

The Human Stain (2000)Edit

  • There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they've got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.

The Dying Animal (2001)Edit

  • ""You'll always be powerless to this girl. You'll never be in charge. There's something there," George told me, "that makes you crazy and always will. If you don't cut the connection for good, in the end that something will destroy you. You're no longer merely answering natural need with her. This is the pathology in its purest form. Look," he told me, "see it as a critic, see it from a professional point of view. You violated the law of aesthetic distance. You sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl — you personalized it, you sentimentalized it, and you lost the sense of separation essential to your enjoyment. Do you know when that happened? … I'm not against it because it's disgusting. I'm against it because it's falling in love. The only obsession everyone wants: 'love.' People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole? The Platonic union of souls? I think otherwise. I think you're whole before you begin. And the love fractures you. You're whole, and then you're cracked open."
  • Sex is all the enchantment required. Do men find women so enchanting once the sex is taken out? Does anyone find anyone that enchanting unless they have sexual business with them? Who else are you enchanted by? Nobody.
  • The jealously. That poison. And unprovoked. Jealous even when she tells me she's going ice-skating with her eighteen-year-old brother.
  • You too need the lecture on the childishness of coupling? Of course it's childish. Family life is, today more than ever, when the ethos is created substantially by the children. It's even worse when there are no children around. Because the childish adult replaces the child. Coupled life and family life bring out everything that's childish in everyone involved. Why do they have to sleep night after night in the same bed? Why must they be on the phone to each other five times a day? Why are they always with each other? The forced deference is certainly childish. The unnatural deference.
  • Now, I'm very vulnerable to female beauty, as you know. Everybody's defenseless against something, and that's it for me. I see it and it blinds me to everything else. They come to my first class, and I know almost immediately which is the girl for me. There is a Mark Twain story in which he runs from a bull, and the bull looks up to him when he's hiding in a tree, and the bull thinks, "You are my meat, sir." Well, that "sir" is transformed into "young lady" when I see them in class.
  • That body is still new to her, she's still trying it out, thinking it through, a bit like a kid walking the streets with a loaded gun and deciding whether he's packing it to protect himself or to begin a life of crime.

The Plot Against America (2004)Edit

  • Turned the wrong way around, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied in "History", harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
    • Chapter 3, "June 1941 – December 1941: Following Christians", pp. 113–114 ISBN 0547345313.

Everyman (2006)Edit

I'm sure the liars as skillful and persistent and devious as you reach the point where it's the one you are lying to, and not you, who seems like the one with the serious limitations.
  • Why must he mistrust his life just when he was more its master than he'd been in years?.
  • Should he ever write an autobiography, he'd call it The Life and Death of a Male Body.
  • I'm sure the liars as skillful and persistent and devious as you reach the point where it's the one you are lying to, and not you, who seems like the one with the serious limitations.
  • Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre.
  • He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing it. Just as he'd feared from the start.

Exit Ghost (2007)Edit

  • In the eighties, a self-assured knucklehead whose unsurpassable hollowness and hackneyed sentiments and absolute blindness to every historical complexity became the object of national worship and, esteemed as a "great communicator" no less, won each of his two terms in a landslide.
  • They [the young] are not "no-longers," losing faculties, losing control, shamefully dispossessed from themselves, marked by deprivation and experiencing the organic rebellion staged by the body against the elderly; they are "not-yets," with no idea how quickly things turn out another way.

Quotes about RothEdit

Sorted alphabetically by author or source
  • The cruelest thing anyone can do to Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.
    • Irving Howe, as quoted in "The War between Writers and Reviewers" by Thomas Fleming, in The New York Times (6 January 1985); originally in Howe's "Philip Roth Reconsidered," Commentary, Vol. 54 (December 1972)
  • He's a fine writer, but I wouldn't want to shake hands with him.
    • Jacqueline Susann, as quoted in Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann (1996) by Barbara Seaman

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