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Enter, Roth
The novelist discusses his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, the appeal of biography, and the perils of age

Has Philip Roth finally said goodbye to Nathan Zuckerman? Over the course of three decades and nine novels, Zuckerman has been Roth's fictional alter ego - once the literary hell-raiser and now, in Roth's new book Exit Ghost, an infirm writer in decline.

Many critics believe that Roth himself, at 74, is still at the height of his literary powers. A winner of two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, he's the American writer most often mentioned as a future Nobel laureate. He's also the only living writer to have his works published by the Library of America.

Roth infrequently consents to interviews, and he's famously guarded about discussing his private life. So when he recently agreed to do a phone interview, I was delighted to find him in good spirits and surprisingly open to talking about the story behind his latest book.

Your last two novels have examined the ravages of aging. In Exit Ghost, your narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, suffers from incontinence and impotence, the result of prostate surgery. Why have you chosen to write about the breakdown of the body?

I began to notice it was going on all around me. When I was writing American Pastoral, it was as though every third friend of mine suddenly had prostate cancer. The reason? We were all over 60. So I gave that illness to Zuckerman because I thought it was of his time. The same thing with forgetfulness. Zuckerman finds that he can't remember what he's writing while he's writing it, which is a terrible impediment to writing a book.

There's a young writer, Kliman, who's out to make his reputation by writing a scandalous biography of Zuckerman's mentor. Zuckerman soon butts heads with Kliman. Doesn't Zuckerman wonder if he can measure up against this young guy?

Absolutely. In a way, Kliman brings back Zuckerman's virility. But there's the failure of the virility. Kliman is a dynamo - angry, strong, no fool. And Zuckerman is weary. That's what he discovers. He wearies very quickly in this contest and realizes that he can't win it.

Zuckerman must be wondering how long he can keep writing. This seems to be especially important because he's concerned about his legacy. He says at one point, "Without my work, what would be left of me?"

I don't think that's a concern with the legacy so much as concern with living a life. If this is taken away from him, what will he do? What will he be? He has what he calls "a disordered mind." This is the first time that he's finished a book where he feels he's made it as good as he can, and it isn't as good as it ought to be. So he's computing with what's left of his brain. As I say, I've reached an age where my friends and acquaintances become ill. They also turn up on the obituary page in the morning paper. So the subject wasn't hard for me to find.

Do you worry that your power as an imaginative writer will start to slip?

I don't worry about it. I sort of know it will happen some day. Luckier men are able to retire from what they do. The doctor and the lawyer retire from their jobs and play golf. The writer doesn't seem to retire. Look at [Norman] Mailer. He was writing down to the very end despite all his physical handicaps. So it's a strange kind of work which you can't stop doing.

Does biography help us understand a writer's imaginative work? Is Zuckerman leery of all biography, or just the kind of scandalous biography that Kliman wants to write?

I think it's the latter. He has no argument with the genre of biography, but it's the uses to which biography can be put by the ill-equipped that bothers him.

This is clearly a theme that runs throughout not only this novel, but much of your work - the connection between fiction and memoir, between fiction and biography. Did you want to make a particular point about biography?

No, I have no general point to make about biography. I read them. It's just that if there's a writer who's impressed you, whose books have meant a great deal to you, then you're curious about the whole life. I recently read a new biography of Conrad. I don't think it tells me about the process by which he writes. But it tells me what the shape of that whole life was and what he did with himself when he wasn't writing.

So you don't look for details in his personal history and say, "Oh, that helps me understand this particular novel he's written?"

Not really. About a year ago, I reread an excellent biography of Hemingway by Carlos Baker. There are facts that emerge in Hemingway's life and you say, "Yes, that turned up in such and such a book." But I don't find that the most interesting aspect of Hemingway's life. What's more interesting is what he did with his good brain, what he did with his talent, and how he lost his talent.

Do you spend much time reading other novelists?

I don't read much fiction. I did in decades past. If I read fiction now, it's of some giant of the past who I read long ago and who I want to read again to remember. I've been reading quite a bit of Conrad, some of which got stuffed into this book. And I've been reading Turgenev and several others.

Does that fire up your imagination when you go back and read some of these 19th-century writers?

No, I'm self-firing. It's just curiosity that leads me into them.

Everyone who reads one of your novels - especially a novel featuring Nathan Zuckerman - wonders how much of Zuckerman is in Philip Roth. This novel seems to be your response. You're saying we need to read fiction on its own terms. But I've just heard about a biography that's being written about you. How do you think your own life might be rendered in a biography?

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said biography gives a new dimension of terror to dying. [Laughs] So there's your answer.

Do you worry about reading this biography when it comes out?

If I'm lucky, I won't be here. I don't know. It's just another rite of passage. I thought they were all finished. But if you've achieved something in a certain field, then you earn a biographer. And there's nothing you can do about it.

What's the state of our literary culture right now? Do you think great writing in America is appreciated?

I think a great number of readers have dropped away. The book has been pushed aside by the screen - first, years ago by the movie screen, then by the television screen and now by the computer screen and all the other little screens that are around. And these little screens are much more compelling than books. I think good books are being written. Since World War II, America has probably had the strongest literature of any country in the world. But that would come as news to most Americans. But what wouldn't?

Zuckerman has been featured in many of your books. Rumor has it that this is his last appearance. Is it?

I think so. The ending is there in the book. He withdraws, leaving New York and racing back to his rural sanctuary. I think one feels that his energy is spent. [Laughs] And mine is as well.

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