Philip Roth at 80
Ornament Series: The Old Bell

Roth on the hypnotic materiality of the world

From Philip Roth's speech in Philip Roth at 80 these two paragraphs stood out to me:

In my defense, however, I should insert here that remembering objects as mundane as a bicycle basket was a not insignificant part of my vocation.  The deal worked out for me as a novelist wasthat I should continuously rummage around in memory for thousands and thousands of just such things.  Unlikely as it may seem, a passion for local specificity--the expansive engagement, something close to  fascination, with a seemingly familiar, even innocuous, object like a lady's kid glove or a butcher shop chicken or a gold-star flag or a Hamilton wristwatch, according to Poppa Everyman the Elizabeth, New Jersey jeweler, "the best watch this country ever produced, the premier American-made watch, bar none."

I was saying that this passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing.  Without strong representation of the thing--animate or inanimate--without the crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing.  Its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars, a fervor for the singular and a profound aversion to generalities is fiction's lifeblood.  It is from a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life, it is from the force of its uncompromisingparticularity, from its physicalness, that the realistic novel, the insatiable realistic novel with its multitude of realities, derives its ruthless intimacy.


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