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In 'Indignation,' Roth Draws On His College Days

Philip Roth has been writing for more than 50 years; in the last four years, he has released a novel a year. In his books, the best-selling novelist — who has won two National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize — has often challenged society's moral norms.

In his latest novel, Indignation, Roth writes about Marcus Messner, an only child of a kosher butcher from Newark, N.J. It's 1951, during the Korean War, and Messner goes to college in Ohio in hopes of escaping the family business, an excessively protective father and the draft.

His fate is an illustration of the incomprehensible way that one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result, Roth writes.

"That's the lesson his father has been trying to teach him," Roth tells host Robert Siegel. "And as comical as the father may be from time to time in his exaggerated concern, the fact is the lesson that he sets out to teach him, life teaches [Marcus]. So that's the large comic-tragic irony of the book."

In writing the novel, Roth drew on his days as a college student from 1950 to 1954 at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. It wasn't until years later, Roth says, after seeing how life has changed for young people in college, that he understood how restricted he was in those days.

"I didn't see the [mores] as unduly restrictive or repressive," Roth says. "After the fact, I do. That is, now that life has changed so drastically for young people in college, I realize how harnessed and hemmed in we were — and how overseen we were in ways that I just accepted as the way things were in 1951."

Roth is himself from Newark, and his best friend was the son of a butcher, so he "got a whiff" of what it was like to be the son of a butcher. Roth says, however, he does not see a lot of himself in Marcus.

"His adventures are totally unlike mine. He was smarter than I was, and he stayed in ROTC. I was a principled young man, and I quit ROTC because I disapproved of military on the campus. So that meant that when I was drafted after college, I went in as a private rather than as an officer — so much for principles."

Roth adds, "I was a clean-cut, well-behaved reasonable boy trying hard and working hard as he is. I didn't fly off the handle quite so easily, I don't think. In a certain way, he's a generic, successful young man."

Minus his two years in the Army, Roth says he has kept a steady writing schedule of six to seven days a week since he published his first story in 1956. It's a decent day, Roth judges, when he comes away with a page that's a workable draft. Some days, he throws away all that he writes.

"Those are not pleasant days," he says. "You wouldn't want to have dinner with me. I still have those days."

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