First, a confession.
I have read only one Philip Roth novel: “American Pastoral”. I can’t remember when I read it; presumably not that recently otherwise I would have included it on my ‘Reading’ page and written a little review, outlining my thoughts. What would I have said? It doesn’t really matter.
Over the last two days I have watched Alan Yentob’s 2014 ‘Imagine..’ documentary/interview with Roth made not long after his 80th birthday. It was for me quite simply wonderful. What made it so?
Single-mindedness. I was struck by Roth’s single-minded pursuit of his subject; to me the focus was on what it meant to be American, or an imperfect person in America. I was struck by how totally committed he was to his work, how driven it made him. I was struck by how he allowed his characters to take him on a journey; how they were almost simultaneously both his creations yet living a life independent of him: “I gave him a brother, a sister, a father”. I was struck by how clear it was that writing was his life.
Honesty. There was never a moment – whether when interviewed by Yentob directly or in excerpts from slightly earlier interviews with others – when he was dishonest. Almost the reverse. His honesty was palpable. No matter what question Yentob was going to ask him, you simply knew that Roth was going to give a 100% honest answer. “Did you ever contemplate suicide?” asks Yentob at one point when discussing how difficult and frustrating writing could be for him. A pause. “Yes”.
Integrity. Almost as a blend of his single-mindedness and honesty, I found his integrity undeniable and inspiring. And there were two examples that struck me.
First, during an interview earlier in his life Roth had said that if he ever stopped writing he would die. But he did make a totally lucid and definitive decision to stop – and he didn’t die. “I’m still here” he said, smiling. When he had said those few years ago that he thought he would die, he believed it. When he managed to live without writing, he admitted he got it wrong.
Second, as the interview with Yentob was coming to an end, Roth said – another definitive decision – that this would be the last time he would ever appear on TV, his last interview. And you just knew he meant it. And the interview closed with him looking into the camera and saying “Goodbye”. Roll the credits.
It was wonderful.
And as a writer I felt I’d been taught a lesson. I’d been taught that there was no point messing about if you want to write. You simply have to write. That there are a limited number of tomorrows, and you can’t afford to let them go. That there are really important things that need to be said, or examined – and it is important that a writer does so. We have a view, a voice. If you don’t take on the challenge, if you are safe, what then? There will be a gap where you should have been – and no-one will realise that there’s a gap. No-one will miss you because you were never there to be missed.
It felt like a life lesson for a writer.
Thank you, Philip Roth.