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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:

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John le Carré

I am always fascinating to hear about the daily rituals of writers and creative people. Readers of this site might be familiar with previous posts on walking and improvisation, thinking, or Kierkegaard’s fondness for daily walks. And so, whenever I hear about writers who are also keen walkers, I’m always curious to know more.

This morning I read that the British spy novelist John le Carré, author of The Night Manager (1993) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is one such writer. He talks of the pleasure he takes in perambulations around London, of finding inspiration in trains and cafés, and his preference for ‘drawing the words’ over using typewriters and word processors: (more…)

Taiye Selasi talks to writer, photographer, and essayist Teju Cole for The Guardian
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Teju Cole

Taiye Selasi: When you were last in Berlin we had a conversation, with Binyavanga Wainaina, about how a writer arrives at a given piece of text. I’d just read one of your Instagram captions, which, like much of your prose, seemed to have flowed perfectly formed from top of mind to tip of finger. “It so clearly comes so easily,” I marvelled, not without some envy. You smiled, and asked, “How do you know?” How do we know that the casually composed photograph, the hastily written paragraph, is the fruit of instantaneous revelation and not of assiduous labour? Is perhaps part of the genius of all great artists their ability to hide their sweat?

Teju Cole: Trick question there. I’m not going to say anything about what a genius does, because how would I know? I do find it very helpful to remain aware of contingency, in my own work and in that of others. Nothing about the making should be taken for granted. If I think of a writer whose work I admire for its fluency, I want to resist the temptation to assume it’s easier for her to get there than it would be for me. I’ve learned to suppose “this much excellence” is accompanied by “this much labour”. Sprezzatura, no? Though the temptation to think it comes easily to some people never goes away. [Read More]

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An extract from One-Way Street (1928)

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Walter Benjamin

The German critical theorist and essayist shares ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’: (more…)

“My silly old body is here alone with the snow and the crows and the exercise-book that opens like a door and lets me far down into the now friendly dark.”

– Samuel Beckett to Ethna MacCarthy, 10 January 1959.