Philip Roth, winner of the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal, the Man Booker International Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, author of no fewer than ten volumes in the esteemed Library of America, wasn’t, truth to tell, a very good writer. What he wrote about, chiefly sex and himself, is not all that interesting, and the way he wrote about it much of the time — through those interchangeable fictional narrator-incarnations of himself, Peter Tarnopol, David Kepesh, Nathan Zuckerman — not especially memorable. Nor is he re-readable. I recently tried, giving his novel Sabbath’s Theater (a National Book Award Winner for 1995) a second go, and found it so dreary that I could not bring myself to read it at night, lest I take the depression it so amply provided to bed with me. Neither could I read it in the morning, not wishing to begin my day with accounts of a white-bearded man masturbating over the grave of a dead mistress.
Roth claimed to shun all interest in ideas, being taken up only with the rich specificities and contradictions of quotidian life, but two ideas nevertheless dominate in his work. The first is the political idea that America at all times hovers on the brink of fascism (see his Our Gang, I Married a Communist, and The Plot Against America); the second, though he claimed to eschew any interest in Freudianism, is the distinctly Freudian notion that sex is the central preoccupation and motor force in human existence (see the Rothian oeuvre, passim). These coarse ideas — notions, really — floated Philip Roth’s literary career, but they are not the stuff of which enduring literature is made.
In Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth, Benjamin Taylor, himself a novelist, a memoirist, and the editor of Saul Bellow: Letters, asks, “Why was the public so exceptionally interested in his [Roth’s] personal life?” I didn’t know it was. I wasn’t, for I assumed that a man who turns out 31 books doesn’t have all that much time for a personal life. I knew, in a distant way, of the rancorous, and much publicized, breakup of his marriage to the movie star Claire Bloom only because she wrote a book about it. I also knew of Roth’s vengeful portrait of Ms. Bloom in his novel I Married a Communist.
That novel was not the first time Roth used his fiction for revenge. In The Anatomy Lesson he created the character Milton Appel to repay the critic Irving Howe for a crushing essay Howe had written on Roth’s literary career (“Philip Roth Reconsidered,” Commentary, 1972), which contained the memorable line “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.” In that essay Howe characterized Roth’s fiction as “joyless” and underscored that “none of his fiction approaches [his] first collection of stories [Goodbye, Columbus (1959)] in literary interest.” He referred to Roth as “a writer who has denied himself, programmatically, the vision of major possibilities,” and added that “his great need is for a stance of superiority” and that his fiction comes out of “a thin personal culture” and “a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity.”
Benjamin Taylor, born in 1952, is 21 years younger than Philip Roth, whom he first met in 1994, though their friendship did not actually begin until seven years later. He is gay and Roth was, so to say, a notorious heterosexual. Taylor recounts much laughter that they shared, and avers that theirs “was a conversation that neither of us could have done without.” Yet given the difference in their ages and in their accomplishments, it was always, as Taylor allows, a friendship of unequals. At one point Taylor calls Roth “the parent of my middle years.”
He adds that “while he was my best friend, and I his, there were rooms in the fortress of secrets marked P. Roth that I know I was excluded from.” If the two men spoke of things of the heart — of their regrets, disappointments, griefs — little of this is recorded in Here We Are. The book closes at Philip Roth’s deathbed. “You have been the joy of my life,” Taylor told him. “‘And you of mine,’ he replied. I bent forward. He briefly put a hand on my head.”
“To talk daily with someone of such gifts had been a salvation,” Taylor writes. “I’m not who I’d have been without him.” Roth one day told Taylor he ought to write a book about their friendship, which Taylor tells us he took “as my warrant” and that he writes that “without reticence, knowing the truth to be all that matters now.” Turns out Taylor had been taking notes of their conversations all along. “All I can say,” he writes, “is that I am trying for candor alone.”
Yet readers looking for candor will not find it in abundance in Here We Are. The only bit of gossip on display is Roth’s contention that he bonked Ava Gardner, then in her sixties, no details supplied. One does learn, which came as news to me, that Roth’s first wife, killed in a car accident, trapped him into marriage by claiming to be pregnant, then later staged a fake abortion. But, then, he, Roth, got dollar value, literarily speaking, out of the marriage, using this sad woman as the protagonist of his second novel, When She Was Good, and later serving her up as a character in his novel My Life as a Man.
“Waste not, want not” might serve as the motto of those writers who have set out to write without wide or deep experience to draw upon. I first sensed that Roth was such a writer when in Patrimony (1991), his book about his father, Roth describes a scene in which his elderly and ill father fouls himself at Roth’s house. Roth helps clean up his father and the bathroom mess, describing the chore in perhaps too great detail. He then records his father beseeching him not to tell Claire Bloom, Roth’s wife at the time, about this humiliating incident. Roth promises not to do so, and so far as we know he didn’t. Instead he wrote Patrimony, in which he told the entire world about it.
The general tone of Here We Are is one of adulation. Taylor rates Roth among the great writers of the age, any age. Various of Roth’s novels he refers to as masterpieces. He calls him “the best American writer of his generation, our likeliest candidate for immortality,” adding: “I believe he took a death-defying satisfaction in the vastness of what he’d wrought, a shelf of work augmenting the soul of the nation and built to outlast whatever unforeseeable chances and changes await us and our descendants.”
Roth’s flaws, which were not few, are mentioned but never dwelt upon in Here We Are. Taylor reports that “Philip was allergic to the idea that he could have been at fault in either of his unhappy marriages and to the idea that the party of the other part might have had grievances worth considering.” He notes that Roth “could not get enough of revenge.” He needed, in any conflict, he tells us, “morally to prevail,” which reinforces Irving Howe’s remark about Roth’s need in his fiction for “a stance of superiority.” In searching for a biographer, Taylor writes, Roth was looking “for a ventriloquist’s dummy to sit on his lap” and praise him. As for the Nobel prize, which he had expected to win and came to call “the Anybody-But-Roth Prize,” Taylor reports that Roth’s bitterness over never receiving it became “increasingly tedious over the years.” Roth’s atheism, which comes up in Taylor’s pages, seems in its sophistication not above the high-school level. Roth adored the films of Ingmar Bergman, and when Hannah Arendt called the Bergman movie Cries and Whispers “Scandinavian kitsch,” which it is, he was thrown. Furthest though this was from Benjamin Taylor’s intention, the Philip Roth who emerges from his pages seems neither deep nor even likeable.
Early in Here We Are, there appears the sentence “He was not averse to cuckolding inattentive husbands.” If ever a sentence called for details to follow, this one does, though it gets none from Taylor. The sentence speaks to Roth’s own antipathy to the family, an antipathy perhaps equaled in our time only by Edward Albee. You will find no happy marriages in Roth’s novels. “The man who’s lost his desire for his wife has been quite a theme for me,” he told Taylor. He was also not big on monogamy, at least for himself, and was apparently unfaithful in both his marriages and, one gathers, most of his longer relationships with women.
Nor, apart from the young boy in his early story “The Conversion of the Jews,” are there any children in Roth’s fiction (the one other exception being American Pastoral, in which Seymour “Swede” Levov has a daughter, a ’60s revolutionary and withal a nightmare). His fictional heroes, like Roth himself, are childless, and indeed unimaginable with children. One of the harshest criticisms Claire Bloom makes of Roth in her memoir is of his forcing her to give up the company of her 18-year-old daughter, a demand to which, to her later regret, she acceded.
In a profile of Philip Roth by David Remnick in The New Yorker, Saul Bellow said of Roth that “he feels a writer should provoke — and he should if that is the way he is inclined — but he can’t expect to evade the results of this provocation.” Some of these results strikingly occurred in Roth’s lifetime. His story “Defender of the Faith,” published in The New Yorker in 1959, about a young Jewish hustler in the Army seeking special treatment from a fellow Jew who is his non-commissioned officer, aroused the ire of many American rabbis. The great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem called Portnoy’s Complaint “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying” and thought that it would do the Jews greater harm than that done by The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
Literary provocation can have greater than immediate penalties. Roth set out to outrage, chiefly by attacking middle-class mores and by describing outlandish sexual behavior. Even in his political novels, such as American Pastoral, skirts are raised, scandalous thoughts entertained. Norman Mailer was on a similar, if differently executed, mission, and today no one seems more beside the point, more sadly outré, than he. However emphatic his effect on his own generation, the literary provocateur figures no longer to dazzle but to bore the generations that follow his own. Such is likely to be the fate of Philip Roth, who may well be remembered only, if remembered at all, for inditing the sentence, spoken by Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst Dr. Spielvogel, “I f***ed my own family’s dinner.”
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