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Philip Roth

Yesterday night, I was sad to hear that the American novelist Philip Roth had died of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. As one of the most important literary chroniclers of post-war America, his voice carries across the decades to cover some of the most bracing and stupendous events of the last sixty years.

I can still remember being introduced to his work as a college student, and sitting up on winter nights to read The Ghost Writer and the other Zuckerman novels. It was what I did in lieu of starting my essay assignments. I found Nathan Zuckerman, a complex or not-so-complex stand-in for Roth, a fascinating example of modern American identity, with all its inconsistencies, strange neuroses, and grand ambitions. For a long time, Zuckerman was the character who came to mind when I imagined the figure of the modern writer hunching over a typewriter: the bold American novelist who sought to capture the world on the page as it seemed intent on collapsing all around him.

I read Portnoy’s Complaint, of course, and then graduated to the stately, mature works on which so much of his reputation is based: Sabbath’s Theater (did I say stately and mature?), American Pastoral (perhaps my favourite Roth title), The Human Stain, The Plot Against America (which I anxiously carried through customs on a trip to California). But, for me, many of the favourites come right at the end: those short, intense novels (or are they novellas?) which tackle the great questions of life and death in the dwindling hours of the American century: Everyman, Nemesis, The Humbling, Exit Ghost.

There was a certain romance that surrounded Roth’s later years. His solitary life in deepest green Connecticut. His athletic writing routine spent standing at the window of his study, before retiring in the quiet evenings to read Turgenev by lamplight. A number of journalists and television interviewers were dispatched to marvel at the writer’s almost monastic self-discipline, and he improvised answers to their incredulous questions with a down-to-earth humility and street-smart dry humour.

When he finally announced his retirement from writing he began to focus on questions of life and legacy, welcoming an authorised biographer into his home, and working with the Library of America to produce a multi-volume edition of his works—a rare honour for any living man or woman of American letters. But while Roth helped others find their way around his earlier years, he remained an acute observer of contemporary culture and politics, a commentator whose words conveyed the wisdom of experience and a rare, often mischievous, humour. He will be missed.

What follows are a few of the interviews and articles that I have featured on the site in recent years:

“The recent screening of BBC’s War and Peace has inspired many a TV viewer to dust off their old copy of Tolstoy’s masterpiece and give it another go. Daring ones, seduced perhaps by the radiance of Natasha Rostova, might be persuaded to dig into the vast world of Russian literature in search of other memorable female characters. Where to begin? Look no further. Here is your guide to the VIPs of Russian literary heroines.”

— Source: Literary Hub

Worth a look for those interested in Russian literature. Although, of course, it’s important to remember that each and every character was written by a man.

In a 2010 interview to promote his novel, Nemesis, Philip Roth shares what he’s reading with Scott Raab, alongside his memories of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania
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Philip Roth. Photograph: Steve Pyke.

Roth’s talking about his reading these days, revisiting a revered Russian master of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev.

Fathers and Sons is a great book — there’s a new translation of it. I think it’s called Fathers and Children now, and the translation is wonderful. And there are several long short stories that are pearls. One is called ‘The Torrents of Spring’ or ‘Spring Torrents,’ which is a masterpiece, and the other — which is beyond masterpiece — is called ‘First Love.’ Read those two things.”

Roth chortles with something like delight. He stopped teaching twenty or so years ago but still seems as if he’d fit in on any campus in any decade. It’s not only his outfit — tan slacks, blue-and-white-checked shirt with the sleeves rolled loosely up his skinny forearms, brown walking shoes — but also his easy passion for those writers who’ve nourished his soul. (more…)

Rendering Russia’s literary masterpieces into English

Orlando Figes

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have begun a quiet revolution in the translation of Russian literature. Since the publication of their acclaimed version of The Brothers Karamazov in 1990, they have translated fifteen volumes of classic Russian works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, restoring all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garnett and her followers, and paying more attention (in a way that their predecessors never really did) to the interplay or dialogue between the different voices (including the narrator’s) in these works—to the verbal “polyphony” which has been identified by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as the organizing principle of the novel since Gogol.

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Ilya Repin, Portrait of Vera Repin, the Artist's Wife (1878)
Ilya Repin, Portrait of Vera Repin, the Artist’s Wife (1878)
Rosamund Bartlett (The Guardian) on her translation of Anna Karenina

Do we really need another English translation of Anna Karenina? This is a bit like asking whether we need a new recording of Beethoven’s Ninth. There is no English translation of the 1970 Academy of Sciences edition of the novel currently in print. This version contained a host of small differences from earlier versions; these may not amount to much individually, but cumulatively they add up to a new reading. And just as conductors and performers can produce revelatory new interpretations after intense listening, so translators have the potential to allow the author to speak more clearly. It’s all about the detail.

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Victor Erofeyev (The New York Times) writes on literature, life and ideology

I get a physiological pleasure from reading Tolstoy, and the more I read him, the greater the pleasure. His words generate smells, sounds, vibrations of feelings and moods. They are broader than any philosophical doctrine, and more significant even than the author himself, whom his words mercilessly exploit. In all literature, perhaps, there never was so “idea-less” a writer who released into the world writing that fills us with admiration of its power, and fear of its candor. (more…)