Philip Roth reveals his last great project - his own biography

Having announced his withdrawal from literature last year, the man described as America’s finest living novelist has thrown himself into his final work

Philip Roth

Philip Roth can’t stop writing. Having announced his withdrawal from literature last year, the man described as America’s finest living novelist, has thrown himself into a final work – his own biography.

In the second part of a landmark documentary with the BBC’s Creative Director Alan Yentob, Roth describes himself as being “in the employ” of his biographer Blake Bailey and reveals that he has submitted a detailed written “commentary” to the project.

“I do have things to do – I just don’t do that thing [novel writing] anymore,” he tells Yentob in Imagine… Philip Roth Unleashed. “One of the biggest tasks that has come to me is working with the biographer Blake Bailey and ever since then I have been in the employ of Blake Bailey.”

Although Roth, 81, says that he does not expect to live long enough to see the biography’s completion, he has submitted vast amounts of newly written material for Bailey.

The biographer told the BBC: “He has supplied me with literally thousands of pages of typed notes that are addressed directly to me. He has turned over all his personal papers to me.” Bailey said the personal archives were so extensive that “it will take me years to excavate them”.

Roth, who won a Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral and who burst onto the literary scene with the controversial Portnoy’s Complaint in 1959, has said that his 24th novel Nemesis was his last.

In the BBC documentary, he declares that the interview will be “my last appearance on television, my absolutely last appearance on any stage anywhere”.

Expressing his enthusiasm for the biography project, he says: “I have miles of files in my basement, my studio and so on, in two houses. File by file I put the things out and saw what they were about and wrote a commentary for [Bailey]. He’s absolutely diligent and wonderful. He’s interviewed over 100 people in the last year and I think he has another 100 to go. He just pursues people and he goes right for the jugular.”

Bailey, a Pulitzer-winning literary biographer, tells the programme that he “felt like a clubbed seal” after Roth had given him a three-hour interrogation before agreeing to the project.

Roth said he was not expecting to read the finished work, which Bailey – the biographer of American writers John Cheever, Richard Yates and Charles Jackson - had told him was likely to be published in 2022. The novelist replied: “I will do anything for you but I don’t know if I can stay alive…”

Yentob, who is an old acquaintance of the novelist, said Roth’s enthusiasm for the biography project was notable. “He has thrown himself into it with relish.”

He told The Independent that he had dropped a previous interview with Roth, planned about five years ago, because the novelist was not being sufficiently open. “I turned him down last time because I felt he wasn’t open enough to talk about the things I wanted to talk about. I didn’t think the Philip that I knew, who was hugely entertaining and direct, was going to come out. I sort of sacked him, basically.”

In the two-part documentary, which begins tonight on BBC1 at 10.35pm, Roth admits that he’d had a change of heart since declaring in 2004 that he “could not conceive of a life without writing”.

He told Yentob that he had a clear realisation when his novel-writing career was over. “I had reached the end. There was nothing more for me to write about.”

Except the detailed notes for his own biography.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style