SPIEGEL Interview with Author Philip Roth: 'Bush Is Too Horrendous to Be Forgotten'

SPIEGEL talks to American author Philip Roth about growing old, why George W. Bush is the worst American president ever and why he never gives out his cell phone number.

Philip Roth is one of the most celebrated living American writers.
AP

Philip Roth is one of the most celebrated living American writers.

Philip Roth, who will be 75 in March, is one of America's most critically acclaimed living writers. His 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint" brought him fame, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for 1997's "American Pastoral."

Many of his novels feature Roth's fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman appears again in Roth's latest work, "Exit Ghost," where he returns to New York after many years of seclusion in rural New England.

SPIEGEL talked to Roth about "Exit Ghost," the US election and the pleasures of rural life.

SPIEGEL: Mister Roth, how often have you tried to kill Nathan Zuckerman, the hero or narrator of so many of your novels?

Philip Roth: (laughs) I don't know -- do you?

SPIEGEL: Three times. Once in ?Deception??

Roth: Oh, yes, I forgot that one.

SPIEGEL: And then again in ?The Counterlife? at the age of 44. He?s quite alive again, he is 71 now, but in your new book ?Exit Ghost? you kill him once more.

Roth: I haven?t killed him. I just sent him home.

SPIEGEL:?Gone for good? is what you write. Does that make a difference?

Roth: It certainly does.

SPIEGEL: Nathan Zuckerman is a writer who used to live in the countryside by himself -- a bit like the writer Philip Roth -- but then he returns to New York. Is he trying to escape old age, trying to become strong again?

Roth: Oh, maybe he tries, but I think this last book is really about the life going out of him. He doesn?t have the fight in him any longer. Momentarily there?s a burst of fight and virility, but then he runs away.

SPIEGEL: Will this be the end of Zuckerman now?

Roth: Yes.

SPIEGEL: Why did you want to finish off your most famous character?

Roth: I don?t even know that I had the desire to come to an end. It just happened, you know, as I remember it. When I began the book, I don?t know that I thought this was the last.

SPIEGEL: You did not have a plan when you began the book?

Roth: I don?t think so. The story simply foretold the end. And the way it unraveled, there was a completion and a conclusion. But in the beginning? all there was, was the idea of his return. You know the story of Rip Van Winkle? Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for 20 years, then wakes up. That is what happens to Zuckerman coming back to the city. I had to discover what he would discover -- what would he see, what would people be like, especially what these young people would be like. It was an act of discovery, as most of my books are.

SPIEGEL: What he discovers is cell phones.

Roth: He still lives in the age of the typewriter. And then he sees people talking to themselves.

SPIEGEL: The background of the book is the 2004 election. Why was this important to you?

Roth: The disappointment was very strongly felt, especially among young people. It seemed to me a strong historical moment. I thought it would provide strong color, background color.

SPIEGEL: In other words, you chose the background for purely technical reasons?

Roth: I always want something to be going on in the book beside what?s mainly going on in the book. And I felt that this gave me an opportunity for all of them to behave and act and be emotional because of the election. It enabled me to make the young couple come alive and also pointed to the difference between Zuckerman and them.

SPIEGEL: He?s cynical and they are furious.

Roth: That?s right, though I wouldn?t say that he?s cynical so much as he?s finished. He?s finished with that.

SPIEGEL: Do you still care about politics? Are you following the 2008 election?

Roth: Unfortunately, yeah. I didn?t, until about two weeks ago -- until then it wasn?t real. Then I watched the New Hampshire primary debates, and the Republicans are so unbelievably impossible. I watched the Democratic ones and became interested in Obama. I think I?ll vote for him.

SPIEGEL: What made you interested in Obama?

Roth: I?m interested in the fact that he?s black. I feel the race issue in this country is more important than the feminist issue. I think that the importance to blacks would be tremendous. He?s an attractive man, he?s smart, he happens to be tremendously articulate. His position in the Democratic Party is more or less okay with me. And I think it would be important to American blacks if he became president.

SPIEGEL: It could change society, couldn?t it?

Roth: Yes, it could. It would say something about this country, and it would be a marvelous thing. I don?t know whether it?s going to happen. I rarely vote for anybody who wins. It?s going to be the kiss of death if you write in your magazine that I?m going to vote for Barack Obama. Then he?s finished!

SPIEGEL: The discussions around Obama remind us of your figure Coleman Silk, the hero of ?The Human Stain,? who is black with unusually light skin and then invents a Jewish biography. What we mean is the questions of belonging, of right and wrong behavior. Is Barack Obama black enough?

Roth: I know this discussion goes on, but I think it will disappear if he gets the nomination. The reality of his running will wash that away. Anybody who?s half white and half black is considered black anyway. That?s one drop of blood.

SPIEGEL: For whites to consider him black, yes. But the question is whether the blacks consider him black.

Roth: They will once the election goes on. If he gets the nomination.

SPIEGEL: Do you actually believe that Obama could change Washington or could change politics?

Roth: I?m interested in what merely his presence would be. You know, who he is, where he comes from, that is the change. That is the same thing with Hillary Clinton, just who she is would create a gigantic change. As for all that other rhetoric about change, change, change -- it?s pure semantics, it doesn?t mean a thing. They?ll respond to particular situations as they arise.

SPIEGEL: Are you interested in the Clintons as a couple? Are they literary figures?

Roth: Oh, this is the soap opera side. They?re tremendously aggressive, I think they?ll say or do anything actually that they can get away with, but no, they don?t interest me as a couple. Bill Clinton was interesting as the president -- I don?t know what he is now. I think they can overplay that hand, being aggressive, and people will be irritated by it.

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