Hear Philip Roth Read from Five of His Major Novels: Sabbath’s Theater, The Ghost Writer and More

“I saw and heard some­thing remark­able just a few hours ago,” wrote New York­er edi­tor David Rem­nick a lit­tle over five years ago, “some­thing I’m not like­ly to for­get until all the mech­a­nisms of remem­ber­ing are shot and I’m tucked away for good.” He had attend­ed an eight­i­eth-birth­day cel­e­bra­tion for the late Philip Roth at the Newark Muse­um. There, after a series of trib­utes from fel­low lit­er­ary fig­ures includ­ing Jonathan Lethem, Hermione Lee, and Edna O’Brien, the Newark-born-and-raised nov­el­ist gave what Rem­nick described as “the most aston­ish­ing lit­er­ary per­for­mance I’ve ever wit­nessed.”

Roth began by nam­ing all the mem­o­ries of his Newark child­hood about which he would not speak that evening, from “the news­reels at the Roo­sevelt The­atre” to “the fights at Lau­rel Gar­den” to “see­ing Jack­ie Robin­son play for the Mon­tre­al Roy­als against the Newark Bears, at Rup­pert Sta­di­um” and much else besides. Then, after admit­ting that he had com­mit­ted par­alip­sis, the rhetor­i­cal tech­nique of bring­ing up a sub­ject by say­ing that you won’t, “Roth final­ly set­tled into his real theme of the night: death. Hap­py birth­day, indeed!”

You can hear Roth’s per­for­mance in its 45-minute entire­ty in this video, in which he also reads a pas­sage from 1995’s Sab­bath’s The­ater. You can see Roth giv­ing anoth­er read­ing from that book, which he calls his favorite (and also “death-haunt­ed”), in the 92Y video at the top of the post.

Its title char­ac­ter, the sex-obsessed 63-year-old pup­peteer Mick­ey Sab­bath, exists as a law unto him­self. He lives a chaot­ic, sor­did­ly plea­sure-seek­ing life in response, Roth explains, “to a place where noth­ing keeps its promise and every­thing is per­ish­able.”

Among Roth’s 31 books, the stand­alone Sab­bath’s The­ater lays a fair claim to the title of his mas­ter­piece. But unlike oth­er mem­o­rable Roth pro­tag­o­nists, Sab­bath starred in no oth­er books. The most sprawl­ing char­ac­ter-con­nect­ed series Roth wrote, which spans nine books writ­ten over near­ly three decades, fea­tures nov­el­ist and autho­r­i­al alter ego Nathan Zuck­er­man.

You can hear Roth read selec­tions from the first three Zuck­er­man nov­els, 1979’s The Ghost Writer (also known as Zuck­er­man Bound), 1981’s Zuck­er­man Unbound, and 1983’s The Anato­my Les­son, in the three videos above. Roth’s last cycle of nov­els were con­nect­ed not by com­mon char­ac­ters but by their short length and, in their brevi­ty, even more intense explo­rations of the themes, or theme, always dear to him: what it means to have grown up Amer­i­can at a cer­tain peri­od in his­to­ry, and how that mean­ing trans­forms and deep­ens with age.

In the video above, Roth reads the end of 2010’s Neme­sis, his final nov­el­is­tic med­i­ta­tion on that theme. In it sev­er­al char­ac­ters of his gen­er­a­tion, then young boys, watch their teacher throw a javelin. “Run­ning with the javelin aloft, stretch­ing his throw­ing arm back behind his body, bring­ing the throw­ing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoul­der, and releas­ing it then like an explo­sion, he seemed to us invin­ci­ble.” The awe Neme­sis’ nar­ra­tor and his friends feel wit­ness­ing that ath­let­ic mas­tery, Roth’s read­ers feel — and will con­tin­ue to feel — wit­ness­ing his lit­er­ary mas­tery.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philip Roth (RIP) Cre­ates a List of the 15 Books That Influ­enced Him Most

What Was It Like to Have Philip Roth as an Eng­lish Prof?

Philip Roth Pre­dicts the Death of the Nov­el; Paul Auster Coun­ters

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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