I wrote this two days ago with the intention of keeping it in a drawer until the event of Philip Roth’s death. I wish I could’ve sat on it longer.
It is May 21, 2018, and Philip Roth is still alive. I’ve just a watched a two-hour documentary on him. Produced by the BBC in 2014, it is to date Roth’s last interview. Four years hence that status is unlikely to change. He is now 85 years old. Having watched the man’s final public reconciliation with his work, I find myself, like many of the protagonists of his later novels, contemplating the impending mortality of a man who once engaged all facets of life, its most self-destructive zealotry, the revelries of the id, and the moribund wallows in between, through the caustic, insightful, crushing, and jubilant forge that was his typewriter. I’m unable to ignore the rapidly approaching inevitable, and I find myself inexplicably moved to commit to words my feelings about America’s bravest writer.
Maybe it’s not so inexplicable. I’m probably moved to write about my appreciation for Philip Roth for the same reason I was compelled to write about a Roman emperor with self-esteem issues. The thoughts and feelings that plague are incidental. The force that galvanizes me, that keeps my fingers repeatedly punching the keys in front of me, is as irresistibly elemental as gravity. It’s an incomprehensible drive as intoxicating, liberating, and empowering as it is frustrating, confounding, and mercurial. A good day’s writing will take you higher than the Amazon’s most potent psychotropic fungus with Sly Stone grooving through your head. A bad day will send you into an apoplexy of self-excoriation that would make a Catholic flagellant wince. You sit alone in a room, creating human beings and the worlds they inhabit, indulging the most deeply shrouded recesses of your imagination. It’s a task you can only accomplish through agonizing introspection, facing the fibers of your being that terrify and disgust you and refusing to shrink or flee. You are god staring into the abyss, and when the abyss stares into you, you record what it sees. Philip Roth has known this irresistible force with an intimacy to which I can only aspire.
The name Philip Roth first crossed my path when I was in my late twenties. At the time I worked for a production company in Bala Cynwyd, in a small office building on City Avenue. Creativity was paramount to the owner, and he’d taken pains that the office space reflect that, so much so that in the lounge area he had erected two bookcases, each blanketing an entire wall, and filled it with a large portion from his own collection. He encouraged me to avail myself of the office library, and I did not hesitate. It was from that collection that I first read Kurt Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The owner even gave me to keep his copy of Flannery O’Connor’s complete stories.
There, on the shelves, I found Portnoy’s Complaint. Beyond the summary on the jacket I knew nothing about it. I will never forget sitting on the steps outside that office building, with my cigarettes and iced tea, and ploughing through this ribald mating call to the self, this uproarious sucker-punch of a tug of war between guilt and pleasure. I loved that I had found a writer who was as creative and florid a wordsmith as he was genuinely funny. Portnoy’s Complaint is the funniest book I have ever read. “Funnier than Catch-22, Tony?” Much funnier. Even the one-liners rank with any comedian’s best: “I put the id in Yid, she put the oy in goy.” I wonder what Roth would think of the image of me, sitting outside this office building, laughing out loud while mere feet away three aspiring masters of the universe clad in expensive suits and no senses of humor stared at me past upturned noses, the notion of literature being funny as alien to them as selflessness and empathy.
There was no turning back for me. I was going to read every word Philip Roth had ever published and do my damnedest to get my hands on the ones he hadn’t, and the more I read, the thicker the spell he had cast around me grew. His prose was a once-in-a-lifetime excavation. It was intelligent but never jumped about and waved its arms, drawing attention to itself. It was calculated and carefully realized but supple and inviting. This was literature that had been raised from the cold, unfeeling mausoleum where serious writers write oh-so seriously and elicit no human emotion so much as boredom. This literature was alive, Frankenstein’s monster post-lightning, Miles Davis plugging in and turning up the volume:
The Devil of the Little Place—the gossip, the jealousy, the acrimony, the boredom, the lies. No, the provincial poisons do not help. People are bored here, they are envious, their life is as it is and as it will be, and so, without seriously questioning the story, they repeat it—on the phone, in the street, in the cafeteria, in the classroom. They repeat it at home to their husbands and wives. It isn’t just that because of the accident there isn’t time to prove it’s a ridiculous lie—if it weren’t for the accident she wouldn’t have been able to tell the lie in the first place. But his death is her good fortune. His death is her salvation. Death intervenes to simplify everything. Every doubt, every misgiving, every uncertainty is swept aside by the greatest belittler of the them all, which is death.
--The Human Stain, 1998
And the more I read of Philip Roth, the more I came to recognize him to be America’s bravest writer. Yes, he was politically brave. He pilloried Nixon at the height of his untouchability with Our Gang. With The Human Stain he savaged America’s judgmental hypocrisy over Bill Clinton (and maybe took a swipe at all the self-serving, finger-wagging charges of misogyny directed at him over the years). And Roth received the best reviews of his life for his politically charged novels of the Nineties and early Aughts. But it’s easy to congratulate someone for taking a stand against outside aggression and obvious injustice, and if that was all Roth had done, he would be as shallow as the writers and critics who sang he praises for being as shallow and cowardly as they. But Roth did, and has always done more, been braver, than that. After holding up a mirror to the world at large, he turns the mirror on himself, walking Henrik Ibsen’s poetical talk: “To live is to battle with trolls / in the vaults of heart and mind. / To write: that is to sit / in judgment over one’s self.”
Nathan Zuckerman is the most obvious mirror Roth holds before himself. In The Counterlife Zuckerman does what we have all done: imagines what might have been. He imagines a reality in which his brother, the Zuckerman who did not reject the life of the good Jewish son, tried to do so in a fit of middle-aged pique? Where does that lead him? Where does that leave Nathan? What are his options, which choices does he make, and how does the alternate history, the counterlife, compare to the reality? He does not like what he sees. Nathan Zuckerman (or is it Philip Roth?) has failed to understand and empathize, to accept and condone, to not pressgang those he loves into the roles he needs them to play in his story. He only manages to put himself into their shoes by fictionally killing himself. Only then is he able to feel their hurt and anger at him. The novel is as much a Molotov cocktail of self-examination as it is pelvic thrust of narrative whimsy.
Then there’s Mickey Sabbath, the gloriously, obscenely lecherous anti-hero of Sabbath’s Theater, a man religiously committed to antagonizing the world via hedonism and intransigent in his refusal to examine his urges. Picture the following scene: you, with no money, no income, and a reputation you have willfully flushed down the toilet, have just been kicked out of your house by your wife, who has finally had enough of your bullshit. You bump into a dear, old friend, and though you have failed to reach out to him for decades, he nevertheless invites you into his home. Within forty-eight hours you masturbating into his college-aged daughter’s underwear and trying to talk his wife into sleeping with you:
Of the second night that Sabbath spent in Debby’s room, suffice it to say—before moving on to the crisis of the morning—that his thoughts were of both mother and daughter, singly and together. He was under the spell of the tempter who task it is to pump the hormone preposterone into the male bloodstream.
In the morning, after a leisurely bath in Debby’s tub, he took a wonderful crap in her toilet… He bequeathed unto the bathroom a big, trenchant barnyard bouquet that filled him with enthusiasm. The robust road again! I have a mistress! He felt as overcome and nonsensical as Emma Bovary out riding with Rodolphe. In the masterpieces they’re always killing themselves when they commit an adultery. He wanted to kill himself when he couldn’t.
--Sabbath’s Theater, 1995
I would be surprised if Philip Roth actually leads, or even at one time led, a life comparably libertine to Mickey Sabbath’s. But what a fitting allegory for the writer’s life, that most selfish of vocations, a calling that demands the ceaseless dramatization of your hopes and desires and doubts and neuroses coupled with the expectation that total strangers not only enjoy being made privy to them but pay you for the privilege. I have no doubt that Philip Roth harbors enough guilt to fuel the fear that, like Mickey Sabbath, he will die alone, unloved, and in constant pain.
It’s dangerous for the audience to conflate the art with the artist. One is immortal and perfect, filling some ethereal void too deep within us to identify. The other is mortal, all too human, and just as profoundly fallible as the rest of us. Remember: Chinatown was directed by Roman Polanski. Loving the art will never disappoint you, but artists are people, and people always disappoint. But over a career that has spanned six decades Philip Roth has disappointed less than one would expect to hold up under scrutiny. And yet he does, because of his unwavering commitment to the perpetuation of frighteningly honest literature that speaks from one to all. We will always have Philip Roth’s work, but we will not have the man for much longer. Let’s try and appreciate this extremely valuable and brave man while we still have him.
“The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist.”