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Unflinchingly into the void

Philip Roth keeps at full tilt, prying into delusions of immortality and fears surrounding the inevitable in his latest novel, `Everyman.'

April 30, 2006|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

New York — TOWARD the end of Philip Roth's new novel, "Everyman," there is a scene when the unnamed protagonist meets a gravedigger while visiting a cemetery, and realizes that this man may one day bury him. It's a striking interaction, marked by both the physics and the metaphysics of dying -- which is a tension that motivates much of the book.

On a spring afternoon, however, Roth is more interested in the moment as a springboard to a comic riff on literary history. "I have to say," he admits, sitting at a small table in his publisher's offices, "that, for me, the scene evolved spontaneously. I didn't have any plan. I had him in the cemetery and it dawned on me that there might be somebody digging a grave there. So I thought, 'OK, let that happen. Let's see. Let's see if I can do it better than Shakespeare.' " He laughs, softly at first and then in bursts. "So I had Hamlet here, and my pages over here."

As to whether Roth really intends to outdo Shakespeare, "I'll leave that to people like you," he jokes, "to be foolish enough to judge." He laughs again, at ease with himself, playful in the face of eternity.

This paradox -- the balance between death and life, between the limits of existence and his own continued creative vitality -- is at the center of his recent work and, indeed, of "Everyman," which reads like a culmination of some kind.

At 73, Roth is more measured than he once was, when notoriety and controversy seemed to dog his every move. In 1959 -- before his career had even had a chance to get started -- his short story "Defender of the Faith" ignited a firestorm over what Jewish writers should and shouldn't reveal about their culture; one letter, written by a rabbi, asked, "What is being done to silence this man?" The next year, he won a National Book Award for his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories," in which he staked out what would become his signature concern -- the clash between community and identity, between the pressure to conform and the need (psychologically, physically, spiritually) to go it alone.

To see Roth now, though -- contemplative, elegant, almost professorial, wearing a black V-neck sweater, blue pants and worn brown walking boots, thinning hair brushed back from his prominent forehead -- is to recognize just how long ago that was. For the last 15 years or so, he has lived a quiet, even solitary, life in Connecticut, writing and thinking and keeping to himself. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that in this same period he has produced what are arguably his greatest works, beginning with 1993's "Operation Shylock: A Confession" and encompassing not only his "American Trilogy" ("American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain") but the darkly brooding "Sabbath's Theater" and the political fantasy "The Plot Against America," which imagines a world in which Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election and entered into a loose alliance with the Nazis.

"This is a phenomenon," says Roth's longtime friend Ross Miller, a professor at the University of Connecticut and editor of the Library of America's "Novels and Stories 1959-1962" and "Novels 1967-1972," the first two of what will eventually be an eight-volume set of collected works. "Not only do most writers not write these kinds of books late in their career, they stop writing altogether." That's true -- with the exception of Leo Tolstoy and Roth's contemporary E.L. Doctorow, it's hard to think of an author who has published so much significant work at his age. And yet, when it comes to Roth, this seems only as it should be, for as he gleefully admits, "My own method or habit is that you work against the grain."

"Everyman" is a remarkable example of this aesthetic in action, a short novel that begins with its protagonist's funeral. Moving backward from that final instant, it goes on to detail the sweep of his life, a life epic in its ordinariness, in the common hopes and struggles it entails. "At one point," Roth explains, his voice quiet, deliberate, "I was calling it 'An Ordinary Story.' Which is to say that, as harsh as his experiences are, and the story of illness and death, it is an ordinary story." It's also a universal story, as the fate of its protagonist is one that awaits every one of us.

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