SPIEGEL Interview with Author Philip Roth 'Bush Is Too Horrendous to Be Forgotten'
Part 2: 'There's a Lot to be Written about the Iraq War'
"Exit Ghost" is set in New York.
Roth: He was too horrendous to be forgotten. There will be an awful lot written about this. And there?s a lot to be written about the war. There?s a lot to be written about what he did with Reaganism, since he went much further than Reagan. So he won?t be forgotten. Someone has said he?s the worst American president we've ever had. I think that?s true.
Roth: Well, the biggest thing would be the war, the deceptions surrounding the entrance into the war. The absolute cynicism that surrounds the deception. The cost of the war, the Treasury and the lives of the Americans. It?s hideous. There is nothing quite like it. The next thing would be the attitude towards global warming, which is a global crisis, and they were utterly indifferent, if not hostile, to any attempt to address it. And so on and so on and so on and so on. So he?s done a lot of harm.
SPIEGEL: Since your book is set in that week during the 2004 elections, can you explain why Americans voted for Bush once again?
Roth: I suspect it was the business of being in a war and not wanting to change, and political stupidity. Why does anybody elect anybody? I thought highly of John Kerry when he began, but he couldn?t stand up against Bush. The Democrats aren?t brutes, which is too bad, because the Republicans are brutes. Brutes win.
SPIEGEL:?Exit Ghost? is a stage direction from Shakespeare.
Roth: It appears in three plays. I found it in ?Macbeth.? I was going to see a production of Macbeth, so I was re-reading the play. I read the stage direction, and it just leaped out at me. It also appears in Hamlet. And then when Julius Caesar appears to Brutus.
SPIEGEL: One of the topics of the book is the young writer Richard Kliman?s attempt to write a biography of the late novelist E.I. Lonoff. Zuckerman, who idolized Lonoff, hates the idea. Are you afraid of a biography, too?
The worst US president ever? Yes, according to Roth.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear it?
Roth: Well, you fear two things. You fear what he?ll get wrong, and you fear what he?ll get right.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear embarrassment? Thomas Mann feared to destroy his reputation by falling in love with a young person, your hero Nathan Zuckerman, who is both impotent and incontinent, is always afraid of being embarrassed.
Roth: But I don?t think these rules that existed in Mann?s days exist any longer. There?s virtually no way you can destroy your reputation. You?d have to engage in some bestiality in Bloomingdale?s window in order to make a little dent in your reputation. Still, the young Jamie is inaccessible to Zuckerman not only because of her difference in age, but because of his physical sufferings.
SPIEGEL: Does she know that?
Roth: He knows. So he also knows that his desire?s all based on an impossibility. But the pathos of Zuckerman is that even though he is stopped, he can?t suppress the desire. So it makes the longing more pathetic.
SPIEGEL: Can he forget it for an hour maybe or for a day?
Roth: He was able to forget it for years.
SPIEGEL: But then he met Jamie.
Roth: And then he came back to New York. As long as you stay out of your car and don?t move, you?ll be all right.
SPIEGEL: You have lived in your house in Connecticut in isolation for years. How often do you come to New York?
Roth: More now. I used to live in the country two-thirds of the time, and now I think I?m going to be here two-thirds of the time.
SPIEGEL: And why is that?
Roth: Well, I was out there from 1972 till now. It?s very remote there. It?s beautiful. It?s dead silent. There?s nobody else to be seen. And weather is very severe, the winters are severe. I liked the way I could write out there. And I had no distractions whatsoever. Not even the distraction of company. So that means I would work all day, and then in the evening I would do something else. It usually didn?t involve leaving the house. I would read or watch a baseball game.
SPIEGEL: What did you read?
Roth: The old masters. I reread Conrad and Turgenev and Hemingway and Faulkner -- which is great fun to do now. I rarely read contemporary fiction but I do read non-fiction.
SPIEGEL: And, like Zuckerman, you have no Internet out there?
Roth: No Internet.
SPIEGEL: You still don?t have that, even here in New York?
Roth: I do have it now. There are some great used-book sites. So I buy tons of books. But don?t tell anybody.
SPIEGEL: You have email and don?t use it?
Roth: I use it with one person, one person only, because I don?t... I don?t want to be bothered.
SPIEGEL: May we ask who the one person is?
Roth: One person. I have to have some fun.
SPIEGEL: Getting back to the countryside?
Roth:? the wonderful thing out there is that the book I?m working on would never leave me because even if I read at night, that doesn?t take me away from what I?ve been thinking about. It isn?t like people who are going out somewhere which necessarily breaks the connection. And if you work daily in that way, your pages pile up.