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The real reason Philip Roth stopped writing – by the friend who captured him on film

Philip Roth with his friend, filmmaker Livia Sambuy
Philip Roth with his friend, filmmaker Livia Sambuy

There must be a boundary between an interviewer and interviewee, but Philip Roth crossed it. When I first met him, he was 68. He was probably taking notes at the time – that’s what writers do. There was a vitality about him that was obviously sexual. You couldn’t separate it from his intelligence; Roth had not only an extraordinary mind, but a very sexy mind. He was an extremely seductive man, if you’re interested in intelligent people. After my first interview with him – the first of many, including for the two documentaries I made about him – we became very close. We would celebrate Thanksgiving together, and he would take me out to dinner whenever I was in New York.

There was something irresistible about Roth – when he was in the mood to be irresistible. He was full of energy, and incredibly curious about other people. 

Roth was a bit of a loner. He used to spend a lot of time by himself, and told me he never wanted children. His life reminded me of what his fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman calls “the solitude without anguish” in his novel Exit Ghost. But when he switched off his solitary mode it was like switching on an engine: he was 100 per cent in the world, and focused on the people around him. 

The turning point in our friendship came one night, when he’d just come back from hospital after surgery for the millionth time (he suffered from a bad back), he was at home alone and he needed someone to talk to. 

He phoned me up in Milan and unburdened his soul – then tried to order me never to write about him again – and I told him he had no right to tell me what to write. 

He backed down, and we kept having these wonderful phone conversations – which were very serious, very profound and also very funny – right up until he went into hospital for the last time, three weeks ago. I didn’t have many people who would call me up and have me laughing non-stop at their stories, but Philip Roth was one of them.

I wasn’t surprised that he spoke to me so candidly. The thing that made him very special to me, and to so many readers, was that while using fiction to convey the experiences in his life, he was always so honest about them. He wasn’t sweetening the pill, he was cutting right through to the bone. 

He embodied a certain conscience, a certain way of looking at things. He confronted political disasters and private disasters, the weight of betrayal, and of loss, that we all experience as we get older. 

I don’t agree with those critics who think Roth’s work is misogynist. He wrote about a kind of desire that a sexually active teenager or young man could have, and made satire out of it. Most of his friends were women, and his friends were incredibly faithful to him. 

There were not only men, but also plenty of women, who came to see him in hospital for his last weeks, day and night. Would that happen to a misogynist?

If there is anyone who doubts his seriousness, it happens because people still think of him as the author of Portnoy’s Complaint – a book that he would happily have cancelled from his curriculum. It coloured all his life. In Europe, Roth’s talent is taken seriously. He is a hero in Italy, a hero in France. When my documentary about him came out, the main weekly news magazine in France, L’Obs, put him on the front cover, with the headline “Philip Roth: the king”. That started a long series of jokes. For a year or so, every time I wrote to him, I wrote “dear king”. 

When he agreed to do the first documentary, I thought it was going to be hell. Roth was a control freak. He was extremely careful about what he said, and how things were recorded. Meeting the press was difficult for him. I had interviewed him many times, and knew he didn’t like interviews. 

Philip Roth

I thought he would have been short-tempered, or would have hated to have the film crew around in his home, but it was a great surprise to both him and me that he enjoyed it.

There was a reason for this, which I didn’t know: that he had already stopped writing a year and a half before. To explain it, he would later boast about the joys of retirement. He said: “I’m discovering life!” I asked what his greatest discovery was, and he said: “The nap – I never had a nap in my whole life.” 

But one thing neither his readers nor the press – no one except his close friends – fully realised was that Roth was a person who had terrible health all his life. 

He told me the real reason he stopped writing was that physically, from a health point of view, he couldn’t do it any more. 

He had all sorts of problems – many surgeries to his back over the years, and also very serious heart problems. 

He went to hospital three weeks ago because of a severe attack of tachycardia, but something like this also happened a year and a half ago. He was in and out of hospital. It was really very hard for him.

For instance, it’s well known that he preferred to write standing up, but not how and why he did it. He always worked at least eight hours a day. 

To begin with, it was too painful to write while sitting, but when it got really bad even standing was not possible. 

Livia Sambuy with Philip Roth Credit: Livia Sambuy

When he wrote American Pastoral (1997), he was only standing for 15 minutes at a time because of his back, then lying flat out on the floor for 15 minutes, then standing up again for 15 minutes. 

When he stopped writing, he didn’t have the stamina to do this any more. It took a level of effort that was incredible. 

But he never complained. He never wanted this discussed, that’s why he didn’t speak about it. 

But he hinted about it in his writing. One character in Everyman is Millicent Kramer, a middle-aged woman with a back brace. Roth told me, “I gave my back pain to her”. In the novel, Millicent kills herself, and there was a period in Roth’s life when the idea occurred to him too. One time, when I wasn’t feeling so cheerful, we were talking about the sorrows of life over dinner at our usual restaurant in the Upper East Side. 

He said: “Have you ever thought of suicide?” I reversed the question and said: “What about you?” And he said, “yes, there was a moment in my life when I did”. 

Joking, I asked how he’d do it. He said: “Oh, I would have filled my pockets with stones and swum into the sea.” It was maybe due to his health, or maybe also due to something else; he was prone to depression, and I saw he became incredibly depressed between books. 

He was emptied, like a bottle. Sometimes, you would be scared to see him. He was ashen gray, and could hardly talk – until he found the energy to start a new novel. Every drop of blood that he had in his body went into his books. 

As told to Tristram Fane Saunders

Livia Manera Sambuy is a journalist and filmmaker who directed the 2013 documentary ‘Philip Roth: Unmasked’