Philip Roth, 75 and the author of more than 20 novels, is thinking about a strange and distant era: his college years.
I think that what happens is that as the decades pass and one becomes older, one becomes conscious of history in one s own time, he said during a recent interview at the Manhattan offices of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin.
History ceases to be what happens in the previous centuries and is what happens 40 or 50 years ago. And you have to get older to see it. The older you get the more you tend to look backward and see perhaps more clearly what transpired.
In his new novel Indignation, Roth resurrects a world he can hardly believe existed – when male and female college students were required to live separately, when early curfews were enforced and panty raids the limit of sexual rebellion.
It was the early 1950s, a civilization apart from the wildness of Tom Wolfe s I Am Charlotte Simmons.
This was just 50 years ago that life for undergraduates was like that, said Roth, who majored in English at Bucknell University and graduated in 1954.
Kids now would think the way they live was in the Declaration of Independence.
I still am startled that young men and young women live in the same dormitory. It is utterly foreign to me. … So I thought I could bring news, news from the past.
Indignation is set at fictional Winesburg College, a fantasy of what kind of campus might have existed in Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson s 1919 classic about a repressed Midwestern town. The college is dull, predictable, Christian – the novel s narrator, Marcus Messner, is not.
Messner is a highly intelligent, innocent, well-mannered Jewish atheist from Newark, New Jersey, a kosher butcher s son who has transferred from a small, hometown college. He feels stunned, even violated when pretty, sophisticated Olivia Hutton performs oral sex on him. He fights with his roommates, refuses to attend chapel because he doesn t believe in God, is accused of rape, curses a school dean and vomits on his rug.
Indignation, like Roth s best-selling The Plot Against America, is a story about the magnet of history and its pull over private lives. In The Plot Against America, Roth wonders how a New Jersey family – a family much like Roth s – would have changed had Charles Lindbergh been elected president in 1940.
In Indignation, Messner s campus troubles lead to his service in the Korean War, confirmation of the school s president warning that history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background – history is the stage! And you are on the stage!
Born in Newark in 1933, Roth was spared serving in war. He remembers seeing older cousins go off to fight in World War II, thinking they were heroes for taking on the Nazis. But he was only 12 when the war ended, was in college during the Korean War and too old to fight in Vietnam. Guys my age were lucky, he said.
The book s title is lifted from the Chinese national anthem, which includes the line, Indignation fills the hearts of all of our countrymen. Marcus can t stop thinking of it as he is interrogated by the dean.
Roth also knows the anthem well, having been required to sing it for years in grade school. We had a weekly assembly program where all the students were brought together in the auditorium, and part of the program was to sing patriotic songs. … And then we sang a song we were told was the Chinese national anthem. And these little Jewish kids were singing, Arise ye who refuse to be bondslaves. How could you forget it?
He is a perennial candidate for the Nobel prize; his works include Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy s Complaint, as well as the acclaimed series featuring his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. But his apprenticeship was a little like Messner s time on campus. A bright and eager young prospect who wanted only to write great books, Roth found himself as much a subject as his work. It began in his mid-20s with The Defender of the Faith, a short story in which a Jewish soldier tries to get special treatment from a Jewish sergeant. Roth was accused, as he would be often, of encouraging anti-Semitism.
It took me by surprise, he says. That was my first shock as a writer. I didn t know anybody read this stuff and took it seriously, outside of the classroom. My only experience was in the classroom, when I was very young.
If some writers are inspired by unhappy childhoods, Roth has been scarred more by the twists of adulthood. In the memoirs Patrimony and The Facts, he has written lovingly of his parents, especially his father, and described his early years as happy and secure.
But nothing prepared him for how the world changed, and how his life changed, from the notoriety of Defender of the Faith, to the fame and scandal of Portnoy s Complaint, his million-selling novel of uncontrolled guilt and lust. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards, Roth insists upon difficulty and messiness, but also worries. The tyranny of too many rules has been replaced by the terror, and opportunity of too few.
I m interested in what people do with the chaos in their lives, he said, and how they respond to it, and simultaneously what they do with what they feel like are limitations. If they push against these limitations, will they wind up in the realm of chaos, or will they push against limitations and wind up in the world of freedom?
It doesn t necessarily have to do with one s childhood. Life is surprises and our capacity to absorb surprises is not great.