At Home with Philip Roth

The author confesses he never reads fiction.

Jan Dalley

Philip Roth.Philip Roth

In 1960 Philip Roth won the National Book Award, America’s prestigious literary prize, for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus. Last month he was awarded the Man Booker International, a biennial prize for a body of work. In the half-century between, for his astonishing output of 53 books, Roth has also gathered in every one of the important American laurels, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Gold Medal in fiction, the National Medal of Arts, some of them more than once—it’s hard to think that another prize will make much difference, or much impact.

"The first one did. Certainly. It plucked that book out of nowhere. After that, well, it’s better to win them than to lose them."

It’s a typically laconic remark. He does not travel these days, and he will not be in London to receive his prize on Tuesday, preferring to stay put in his chosen seclusion. We are sitting in Roth’s study at his Connecticut home, a small wooden cabin detached from the tall grey clapboard house built in 1790, where he has lived since 1972—although the cold half of the year is now spent in Manhattan. A broad desk occupies most of the space and, right behind it a huge fireplace, empty now in summer, silently describes the winter weather here. There’s a reclining chair and a comfortable leather couch—it is an unostentatious space perfectly adapted for long solitary hours of work. Through the window are apple trees, an old barn, the huge branches of a 200-year-old ash tree creaking gently in the wind. I think of Swede Levov, the protagonist of Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral, a Jewish boy from Newark who managed to move his family from the city streets into deep rural peace, and his feelings of astonishment that you could own a tree.

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