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Remembering Two Literary Giants, Wolfe and Roth; Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Losing Two Literary Greats. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired August 24, 2018 - 14:00 ET
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[14:00:00] CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Coming up, we're looking back at some of our favorite interviews this year. This
this edition, we celebrate the legacy of two massive literary talents whose work defined a whole era in America from the Nixon years to the PC battles
of the year 21st century. Remembering Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth with two of the people who knew them well.
Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I am Christiane Amanpour in London.
The literary world is mourning the loss in the space of just two weeks of two massive talents and a time where giants roam the stage. First, Tom
Wolfe, who reinvented journalism and major best sellers like "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "The Right Stuff," and whose novels like "The
Bonfire of the Vanities" established him as America's answer to Charles Dickens.
Then, Philip Roth whose "Portnoy's Complaint" revolutionized American literature with his outrageous take on the goings on of pubescent boy.
Over an extraordinarily prolific career, Roth's novels like "The Human Stain," "American Pastoral" and prophetically, "The Plot Against America"
captured the contradictions and complexities of what he described as the indigenous American berserk.
The writer Mary Karr developed a remarkable and close friendship with Philip Roth in his later years. She herself is a brilliant and memoirist.
She's the author of "The Liar's Club" and "Lit." And Dick Cavett is the talk show host whose program became a televised salon for the literary
world of the 1960s and 1970s. And I spoke them both about the passing of these two lions of literature.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Dick Cavett and Mary Karr, welcome to our program.
DICK CAVETT, HOST, THE DICK CAVETT SHOW: Thank you.
MARY KARR, AUTHOR, TROPIC OF SQUALOR: Thank you, Ms. Christiane.
AMANPOUR: It's great to have you talking about these two giants in the literary world.
Let me start by asking you, Dick, your reflections as we lose Tom Wolfe and indeed Philip Roth, just what springs to mind as you just think of those
CAVETT: I think all I felt was there they go, two more writers, because you never have too many of them. But I was sorry in the case of both
writers because I liked both of them so much.
I never had the luck to meet Roth, but I did have the luck to meet the man in the white suit. And he was so affable and so friendly and so easy to
talk to. And I thought such a smart writer about our various trends and affectations in our society and all.
It was disarming because I thought he might be tougher and more spiteful. Then I thought, well, let's see if he has a sense of humor the first time I
met him. So, I said, you know, "I worry about you in those clothes." And he said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, what if you walk through a tough
AMANPOUR: And he said?
CAVETT: That was the reaction.
AMANPOUR: Let's just talk about the white suit because he actually used it for a reason, right? I mean, he didn't want to fit in Tom Wolfe.
CAVETT: I just found him so utterly sensible, it seemed, so vastly knowledgeable and I still always come back to why do you feel the need to
wear the white suit. It certainly made him stand out and we know some writers like to do that.
AMANPOUR: Mary, you became late in life -- or late in Philip Roth's life, a close friend of his and you went to the funeral. Just tell me how you
became such friends.
KARR: Well, I just want to say I'm the only person on the planet who could make friends with an 80-year-old with heart trouble and be so shocked when
he died. He did have such a life force.
Very early when I met him, almost three years ago, he had a health crisis. And I guess I just wound up spending a lot of time at the hospital. He
didn't have a lot of family. He didn't have any family. We just became close. He was somebody I saw -- I don't know -- at least once a week,
sometimes twice a week and then I go to Connecticut in the summer for a week at a time.
And he was the most extraordinary company. You got the feeling from Philip that he saw you, it's something a lot of people talked about a sense of
being recognized. There were no long monologues. And I speak as someone who has a lot of -- he was born in 1933, and I speak as someone who has a
lot of weariness with men born before 1980. Apologies to Mr. Cavett.
I sometimes think all you guys ought to be locked in a hotel room somewhere one at a time and deprogrammed. But he was never a monologist. He was so
endlessly curious about other people's experience and about psychology.
And, of course, I was wildly flattered. And, you know, I first met him staring off of books in my mother's bookshelf when I was 7, 8, 9, 10. I
remember reading "Portnoy's Complaint" when I was in junior high. It was so transgressive and racy. And so --
AMANPOUR: It sure was transgressive and racy. And we're going to get to that. But I just want to quickly quote a little bit from between the tweet
that you had made last week, you said, "Writing about #Roth gives me the power of resurrection. Then I stop, and he's still dead, and it's as
devastating as the first second."
Is it a huge loss in your life, your personal life, not just America's literary life?
KARR: You know, I promised I wasn't going to cry on this show because he would roll his eyes and, you know, give me -- you know, shake his head.
But it was a -- it was a huge -- it was a devastating loss for me. And it seems strange to make such a good friend so late in life, but he was so --
he was intense. He was very -- anybody that smart -- and he was somebody I never really wanted to know. I had not -- I was not -- I was a Roth fan
because you can't really be a literate human being in America and not be a Roth fan to some extent.
And -- but I had never really aspired to meet him. I had imagined him -- you know, some writers represent themselves better than they are and some
represent themselves worse than they are. And maybe he was worse before I knew him.
AMANPOUR: We'll get to some of that in a minute. But I just first want to sort of establish Tom Wolfe's immense, almost equal, impact on our culture,
on our language. And, Dick, you know, he had so many phrases and turns of phrases which has been absorbed into our culture, "The Right Stuff", "The
"Me" Decade", "Radical Chic". Tell me about his impact?
CAVETT: Well, one of the impacts was that people began to imitate his writing and they're all now running elevators in Macy's. But he was
imitated, which allegedly is flattering in some instances.
The thing to me is I remember somebody saying about him and about American writers today, they don't know anything, and that he knew how to talk to
every kind of person. That's something you need in that business.
AMANPOUR: He also coined the idea and the phrase, "New Journalism", and I think Tom Wolfe thought that that would obviate the need for the great
novel. Tell us how that became a major issue, you know, culturally in the early days, this idea of new journalism, Dick?
CAVETT: Well, a lot of the standby, older writers, good and bad, resented it, I think, probably unnecessarily. And who is this guy to tell us that a
new journalism is needed when we're supplying one right now?
I don't think that kind of thing bothered him one bit. It's strange to think that I was sitting, talking to him about three or four weeks ago on a
terrace in Manhattan. And he seemed bent and aged, but he seemed to have all of the fire there underneath the altered person that he appeared to be
at that point and he was just as smart and talked just as colorfully.
I thought I hope he lives a long time, one of minor ironies. I remember on a show of mine, I mentioned Jack Kerouac to Truman Capote. And Truman
said, famously, "Oh, that's not writing, that's just typing."
AMANPOUR: That's a brilliant imitation. Dick, you bring that up now. So, let us remember your show, which was such an amazing show in its day. And
people still remember it and still bring out the old clips and things.
And you really paid a lot of attention to writers in your day, on your show, all the great writers. You just mentioned Jack Kerouac and others,
Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer. You basically locked horns. Let's just play this soundbite that you had of Norman Mailer and yourself. Let's just play
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NORMAN MAILER, AUTHOR: I guarantee you I wouldn't hit any of the people here because they're smaller.
CAVETT: In what ways?
MAILER: Intellectually smaller.
CAVETT: Let me turn my chair and join these people. Perhaps you'd like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: I see Mary just amazed by that and you just basking in it, Dick. That was a beautiful television moment. Do you sort of miss those days
when they were real giants who strode your stage?
CAVETT: I have friends who say, "You're always talking about how things were better in various ways." Well, problem is, they were. And in that
case, I think it's true now. I don't know how you would cast Mailer, Vidal, Janet Flanner show now. I had another one with both John Updike and
John Cheever and that was wonderful watching Updike just sort of purr when Cheever praised at his writing.
AMANPOUR: And I wanted turn to you also now, Mary, because it wasn't just a Tom Wolfe, it was -- he was full-blown literary celebrity, wasn't he,
Philip Roth? And you had mentioned "Portnoy's Complaint" and, you know, how racy it was. I mean, reading it so many years later, how did you take
it, Mary? Was it as shocking then?
KARR: I think it's still shocking. I really do. And he was so baked for it. The shocking thing to me about how people read "Portnoy's Complaint"
is when they mistake Philip Roth for Alexander Portnoy. It's sort of like thinking "Big Brother" in 1984 was George Orwell. You know, certainly,
Roth's subject was desire and the torments of what he would call the tumescent male.
But it was also about death. He was also writing about death. And sex was a way to stave off death, but was also a kind of self-murder in "Portnoy"
in some way.
So, I think it was still -- he was a transgressive writer. He was born in 1933 and was writing against the American puritanism that reined in those
war years and in the 1950s.
AMANPOUR: Obviously, Philip Roth got a lot of criticism by members of the Jewish community in the United States, who thought that whatever he wrote
in "Goodbye, Columbus", to an extent in "Portnoy's Complaint" was anti- Semitic. I mean, he himself was stunned that he could be tarred and targeted as anti-Semitic. He didn't think of himself like that at all. Is
that what you mean?
KARR: And I think history has corrected itself. I guess I always quote Chekhov that the literature's job, the writer's job is not to solve a
problem, but to represent it accurately. And you don't need to write a sermon saying stealing horses is bad. You need to represent a horse thief.
AMANPOUR: Well, that's really acutely observed by Chekhov and for you to repeat it to us now because many people do confuse the author with the
story and the author with the morality or what he's writing about.
KARR: Let me say one thing about his death that I was very moved by, which was all these women, all these former lovers were at his deathbed. I want
to say there were five women there. Not one of them was this sort of sniveling masochist. There was a doctor. There was a woman who ran a
theology department. There was a woman who ran a quite vast horse farm in Virginia, who had been older than he when they were involved.
So, I mean, none -- I think -- I mean, I think on my deathbed, men I've dated will be standing in line with pillows to smother me.
AMANPOUR: But, Mary, I guess what you're saying, you're answering an unasked question right now, which is the complaints that Philip Roth by
many women who complained that he was misogynistic, that these female characters were not well developed.
KARR: I don't know what he was like as a human being before the past three years. He -- I mean -- and as I said, I don't have a great deal of faith
and trust in the men of his generation or of my generation. And when I first met him, he said -- the first dinner we had, he said, you know, "Just
so you know, you're too old for me." And I was 60, he was 82. I said, "Don't flatter yourself." There was nothing you couldn't say to him.
And in my experience with the women -- with these women I just got to know and -- I mean, if you spend some weeks in hospital with people, you get to
know them. And their affection for him was pretty undiluted.
And so, to me, it was kind of astonishing. I can't think of a lot of men who would garner that kind of love from ex-lovers.
AMANPOUR: It's really interesting because, obviously, an ex-lover, Claire Bloom, is one of those who has written the sort of anti-Roth treatise. So,
it's interesting -- very interesting to hear what you -- and, in fact, Cynthia Ozick wrote in the aftermath of his death. So, it's important to
keep that in mind.
Dick, I wanted you to comment on some of what Mary was saying, but also you were a different generation than Mary when "Portnoy's Complaint" came out.
How did you view the criticisms of "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint" from members of the Jewish community?
CAVETT: He was, apparently, always afraid of having anything dominate him that would affect the honesty of what he wanted to write, not that they
were confessions, but the pureness of what he wanted to write.
That and "Portnoy's" went a long way -- I had a copy of it propped up on my crib. I just loved it. I remember opening and being stunned and having to
look again to see if some of the phrases I saw were actually there. And then, everyone in America took credit for the joke I'll never deliver
again. Let's not spoil it for people --
KARR: Right. I want to meet Philip Roth, but I don't want to shake his hand.
AMANPOUR: I would like to play you and just talk about this amazing story he told, you know, "NPR Fresh Air" just recycled some of the interviews
that he had done with Terry Gross over the years.
And he was explaining this story about how -- just before "Portnoy's Complaint" came out, he had to take his parents to a restaurant and sit
them down and explain that this very racy book was about to come out. And that if journalists called them, well, they could talk to the journalists
or they didn't have to talk to the journalists. But, nonetheless, they should be prepared for the avalanche of attention that he thought this was
going to get.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PHILIP ROTH, AUTHOR, "PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT": They left the restaurant and I didn't know this until after my mother died. My father and I were talking
a walk -- took many walks after that and he was telling me lots of these things. That they got into the taxicab and my mother burst into tears. My
father said, "What's the matter?" He said, "He has delusions of grandeur. And he's -- I've never known him -- I've never known him to be like -- he's
not like that, but he's going to be terribly, terribly disappointed."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: I mean, isn't that just the greatest story ever?
KARR: I think his parents that were extremely loving, patient, you know, humble people.
AMANPOUR: When you hear that again, Dick, how do you think about it, did his parents thought he had delusions of grandeur, that he thought he was
going to be a big-time author?
CAVETT: Well, if he had had the wit of whomever I stole this line from, he would have said back, "No, I have delusions of adequacy." I think that was
the late Walter Kerr about a writer.
AMANPOUR: I want to get back to Tom Wolfe because we've spent a lot of time talking about Roth's, you know, indelible effect on literature, on
culture, his books are still being read today, everybody has them on their bookshelf or should do.
And I want to know what you make of the enduring quality, if you think he has, of Tom Wolfe. I mean, I think of "The Right Stuff", I think of
"Bonfire of the Vanities", and I think those summed up entire eras, entire heroic endeavors in the case of "Right Stuff". Speak to me a little bit
CAVETT: Well, I think they did too. That was what he made his meat and making memorable his accounts of -- I hate the word zeitgeist -- of what
was going on at that time in its various foolish fads and its wealth posing as liberals and so on. And I think that was all good. I don't think he
was the writer that Roth was. Would we all agree ladies or not?
KARR: That's right. I mean, I think Wolfe was, in a way, more of a journalist even though he made beautiful sentences. And you have to
concede he was a wonderful stylist. And as -- for me, as a writer of nonfiction, he was an enormous inspiration to read "Electric Kool-Aid Acid
Test" when I was 17 and think that the LSD I was scoring on Galveston Island was actually part of something else that was going on.
AMANPOUR: He gave you license, did he?
KARR: He gave me license. So, no, I mean, I think Roth -- I think it's ironic that the year Roth dies, somebody wrote this, I think, in one of the
appreciations, the Nobel doesn't give a Nobel Prize because of an internal sex scandal. I mean, the irony, it's like it's right out of a Roth novel.
But I think the novels like "Plot Against America" which predicted the Trump administration and with, ou know, anti-Semites and racist mobs
roaming the streets and books like "American Pastoral", which is maybe my favorite Roth novel --
CAVETT: Yes, formidable.
KARR: -- which -- it's such a gorgeous book. He told me a beautiful story about that book. You know, it took him 30 years to write that book.
And every time he finished a book after "Portnoy", he would take out the same folder and handle the same 30 pages of notes and false starts. And I
said to him, "So, what did you do?" He said, "I would just sit in my study for" -- or sand later because of his back -- "in my study sometimes for six
weeks, eight weeks, six months at a time trying to write 'American Pastoral'" and he couldn't get it off the ground.
And I said, "So, what permitted you finally to crack that open?" And I think it was after his bypass surgery when he had really thought he might
die. And he said, "I took the pages out and I held a folder and I opened it and I said to myself, 'Now, don't panic.'"
And I think the idea of Philip Roth who wrote 30 novels, some of the greatest American novels ever written, panicking about having to face the
blankness of a page, for me, that was -- it tells you how deep he had to dig and what a torment the work was.
AMANPOUR: That is really a remarkable story considering that was the book that got him the Pulitzer Prize as well after all those years, 30 years
you're telling us.
I do want to just move on to the sort of the politics of both of them. You know, in a way, Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" was a precursor to
the excesses, the arrogance of the heady financial, you know, 80s, obviously, in Wall Street, in Manhattan, but to an extent, maybe even the
politics of today, the Trump excesses in terms of, you know, catering -- although he says to the forgotten, many people think it's to the corporate
elite, et cetera.
KARR: To me, he seemed to champion -- yes, the go-go 80s, Wall Street and conservative values that say the rich need to get richer.
CAVETT: I was going to say that sort of criticism was aimed at -- Tom Wolfe sort of writing in general that it was brilliant and wicked about
fads and about the American character of the time and witty of language, coining of words and new phrases and so on. But that does not add up to
greatness. And Philip Roth does.
AMANPOUR: That's really interesting. So, now as we our conversation, I just want to know your reflections about our culture, our world today,
where we are today and the power of literature, I suppose, today given that these two giants died this month within a week or so of each other.
CAVETT: About writing and our people reading at all, I think an embarrassingly close examination would show, from a couple of things I
read, that Americans are reading less, still less. And here's a tweet I put out. "Imagine Trump's library. You'd have to."
KARR: Great line. Great line.
AMANPOUR: And, Mary, as you see the passing of these two literary giants and everybody has paid so much attention to their work and their legacy,
what do you think as we close this conversation?
KARR: Well, I was writing back from the funeral with Don DeLillo and I thought, you know, if we crash, it's the real end of kind of these colossi,
these titans of American culture and American literature.
I think Roth also had, as perhaps Wolfe did not, a great sense of -- I hesitate to say -- spiritual interest because he would've hated the word,
but I think his fascination with death and the failures of intimacy and the failures of paternity and the human family and love and certainly, you
know, no one should have married him because I think any kind of constriction on the part -- in that way for him was a torment.
But to think about how much less the planet weighs without his words being breathed across it, I guess, is how I feel. I just feel like an enormous
loss personally, but also to literature. I kept hoping he was going to write another novel. You know, I'm an optimist, what can I say.
AMANPOUR: Well, that's a nice way to close. Mary Karr and Dick Cavett, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation and for all your
CAVETT: Thank you, Christiane.
KARR: Thank you, Christiane.
AMANPOUR: Important to remember that exceptional talent.
And that is it for our program tonight. And remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at Amanpour.com. And you could
always follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.