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Philip Roth on Literary Masturbation, Adultery, and Writing About Sex

Philip Roth at Yaddo artists' retreat, 1968.

A Post-it on the recently retired Philip Roth's computer reads THE STRUGGLE WITH WRITING IS OVER. But as the new PBS documentary American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked (airing March 29) shows, a fire still burns in the loins of the 79-year-old legend. Here, three Rothisms on matters of desire.

On literary masturbation: "[In James Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom] has cut the lining in his pocket so his hand can go through to his privates . . . but you still don't get it until the next paragraph begins with 'At it again.' . . . I think it should be on my tombstone: 'At it again.'"

• • •

On literary cheating: "Writing about adultery was a passion of the 19th century. . . . Tolstoy wrote a book called Anna Karenina, Flaubert wrote a book called Madame Bovary . . . God, I'm fond of adultery. Aren't you?"

• • •

On writing about sex: "When I sit down to write, I'm free from shame . . . I'm not horny while I'm sitting there writing it. This is a crucial distinction that has to be made."

• • •

Philip Roth: Unmasked airs Friday, March 29, on PBS.

Also on Details.com:
Go Behind the Scenes of: Bates Motel
Matthew Goode on Playing a Sociopath in Stoker, Kissing Nicole Kidman, and Picking Out a Killer Wardrobe
From the Archives: Indignation, Philip Roth

Bob Peterson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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