Philip Roth was one of the great American novelists of his time. Gaining attention when he won the National Book Award for Fiction with his novella Goodbye, Columbus in 1960, the author went on to win the award again in 1995 for his novel Sabbath’s Theater, as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Known for writing many novels surrounding a particular character—usually an autobiographical one—Roth’s first published work appeared in Chicago Review when he was studying at the University of Chicago. Known for exploring his own Jewish roots, as well as "American Identity" within his work, the author steadily wrote novels, short story anthologies, and more—publishing a collection of interviews and conversations with other authors in 2001, titled Shop Talk.
On May 22, 2018, Roth died of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. Today, we remember him by looking back at one of his conversations with The Unbearable Lightness of Being author, Milan Kundera. Taking place four years before Kundera published the work for which he’s most well known, Roth and the author talk about the end of the world, a changing Europe, and the definition of a novel.
Read on for an excerpt from Shop Talk, and then download the book.
This interview is condensed from two conversations I had with Milan Kundera after reading a translated manuscript of his Book of Laughter and Forgetting—one conversation while he was visiting London for the first time, the other when he was on his first visit to the United States. He took these trips from France; since 1975 he and his wife have been living there as émigrés, in Rennes, where he taught at the university, and now in Paris. During our conversations, Kundera spoke sporadically in French but mostly in Czech, and his wife, Vera, served as his translator and mine. A final Czech text was translated into English by Peter Kussi.
Roth: Do you think the destruction of the world is coming soon?
Kundera: That depends on what you mean by the word soon.
Roth: Tomorrow or the day after.
Kundera: The feeling that the world is rushing to ruin is an ancient one.
Roth: So then we have nothing to worry about.
Kundera: On the contrary. If a fear has been present in the human mind for ages, there must be something to it.
Roth: In any event, it seems to me that this concern is the background against which all the stories in your latest book take place, even those that are of a decidedly humorous nature.
Kundera: If someone had told me as a boy, “One day you will see your nation vanish from the world,” I would have considered it nonsense, something I couldn’t possibly imagine. A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life. But after the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe, just as over the past five decades forty million Ukrainians have been quietly vanishing from the world without the world paying any heed. Or Lithuanians. Do you know that in the seventeenth century Lithuania was a powerful European nation? Today the Russians keep Lithuanians on their reservation like a half-extinct tribe; they are sealed off from visitors to prevent knowledge about their existence from reaching the outside. I don’t know what the future holds for my own nation. It is certain that the Russians will do everything they can to dissolve it gradually into their own civilization. Nobody knows whether they will succeed. But the possibility is there. And the sudden realization that such a possibility exists is enough to change one’s whole sense of life. Nowadays I see even Europe as fragile, mortal.
Roth: And yet, are not the fates of Eastern Europe and Western Europe radically different matters?
Kundera: As a concept of cultural history, Eastern Europe is Russia, with its quite specific history anchored in the Byzantine world. Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, just like Austria, have never been part of Eastern Europe. From the very beginning they have taken part in the great adventure of Western civilization, with its Gothic, its Renaissance, its Reformation—a movement that has its cradle precisely in this region. It was there, in Central Europe, that modern culture found its greatest impulses: psychoanalysis, structuralism, dodecaphony, Bartók’s music, Kafka’s and Musil’s new aesthetics of the novel. The postwar annexation of Central Europe (or at least its major part) by Russian civilization caused Western culture to lose its vital center of gravity. It is the most significant event in the history of the West in our century, and we cannot dismiss the possibility that the end of Central Europe marked the beginning of the end for Europe as a whole.
Roth: During the Prague Spring, your novel The Joke and your stories Laughable Loves were published in editions of 150,000. After the Russian invasion you were dismissed from your teaching post at the film academy and all your books were removed from the shelves of public libraries. Seven years later you and your wife tossed a few books and some clothes in the back of your car and drove off to France, where you’ve become one of the most widely read of foreign authors. How do you feel as an émigré?
Kundera: For a writer, the experience of living in a number of countries is an enormous boon. You can only understand the world if you see it from several sides. My latest book [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting], which came into being in France, unfolds in a special geographic space: those events that take place in Prague are seen through Western European eyes, while what happens in France is seen through the eyes of Prague. It is an encounter of two worlds. On one side, my native country: in the course of a mere half century, it experienced democracy, fascism, revolution, Stalinist terror as well as the disintegration of Stalinism, German and Russian occupation, mass deportations, the death of the West in its own land. It is thus sinking under the weight of history and looks at the world with immense skepticism. On the other side, France: for centuries it was the center of the world and nowadays it is suffering from the lack of great historic events. This is why it revels in radical ideological postures. It is the lyrical, neurotic expectation of some great deed of its own, which is not coming, however, and will never come.
Roth: Are you living in France as a stranger or do you feel culturally at home?
Kundera: I am enormously fond of French culture and I am greatly indebted to it. Especially to the older literature. Rabelais is dearest to me of all writers. And Diderot. I love his Jacques le fataliste as much as I do Laurence Sterne. Those were the greatest experimenters of all time in the form of the novel. And their experiments were, so to say, amusing, full of happiness and joy, which have by now vanished from French literature and without which everything in art loses its significance. Sterne and Diderot understood the novel as a great game. They discovered the humor of the novelistic form. When I hear learned arguments that the novel has exhausted its possibilities, I have precisely the opposite feeling: in the course of its history the novel missed many of its possibilities. For example, impulses for the development of the novel hidden in Sterne and Diderot have not been picked up by any successors.
Roth: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is not called a novel, and yet in the text you declare: This book is a novel in the form of variations. So then, is it a novel or not?
Kundera: As far as my own quite personal aesthetic judgment goes, it really is a novel, but I have no wish to force this opinion on anyone. There is enormous freedom latent within the novelistic form. It is a mistake to regard a certain stereotyped structure as the inviolable essence of the novel.
Roth: Yet surely there is something that makes a novel a novel and that limits this freedom.
Kundera: A novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits. By the term synthetic I have in mind the novelist’s desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historical fact, flight of fantasy—the synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting.
Roth: Laughter has always been close to you. Your books provoke laughter through humor or irony. When your characters come to grief it is because they bump against a world that has lost its sense of humor.
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