“Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth”
Author: Benjamin Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books
Readers should be aware that “Here We Are” is not the full biography of novelist Philip Roth. That volume is being written by Blake Bailey, the biographer of John Cheever and Richard Yates.
“Here We Are,” a memoir, is the story of a friendship.
Benjamin Taylor, an accomplished writer himself, met Roth at a party in 1994. They hit it off and parted saying they should have lunch soon. Four years later Taylor wrote Roth, Roth called and they had that lunch.
From then on, they were, it is fair to say, best friends until Roth’s death of cardiac failure in 2018.
Taylor reports they “spent thousands of hours in each other’s company” discussing “everything—novels, politics, families, dreams, sex, baseball, food, ex-friends, ex-lovers. But our keynote was American history, for which Roth was ravenous, consuming one big scholarly book after another.”
It was an unlikely pairing. Roth, one of the most famously heterosexual authors in American literary history, but childless, had “searched diligently” for a “beautiful young woman” to see him through his last years, but instead his companion and confidant was a gay man, 20 years younger. Roth trusted Taylor’s judgment and encouraged him to write of their friendship in memoir, which calls for accuracy and truth, not imagination. Taylor with Roth, like Boswell with Samuel Johnson, would then write up notes after their time together, in order not to lose the details of Roth’s witticisms, jokes and opinions.
Roth himself had nearly total recall and could go back to a particular week or day and relive it in his mind. Readers of “Portnoy’s Complaint” or “The Plot Against America” or many other volumes could see this in the detailed scenes of his childhood in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey.
Of course, we learn a good deal about Roth’s life. He had a wonderful childhood, his parents were loving, and he loved school. No artistic suffering or angst here!
Taylor touches briefly on Roth’s education, marriages, his physical and mental ailments, and so on, but the real insights here are how Roth FELT about things.
Some elements were surprising, some not. Roth had won dozens of important literary prizes—the Pulitzer, three National Book Awards, the Pen/Faulkner, Pen/Nabokov. He was honored by the Czechs, the Irish and the Spanish and made a Commander of the Legion of Honor in France. He had eight honorary doctorates including Harvard and Columbia.
Roth had legitimate hopes to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and felt that Claire Bloom’s vituperative memoir about him, “Leaving A Doll’s House,” ruined his chances. Bloom described Roth as a misogynist and a control freak. During their fourteen years together, she had had ample time to get to know him, then married him. They divorced after four years. What happened?
Roth never forgave a wrong. On the other hand, Taylor writes, “Philip was allergic to the idea that he could have been at fault in either of his unhappy marriages.”
The Swedes, who never gave the Nobel to Graham Greene or Marcel Proust or many other worthy writers, could be puritanical; Roth was not.
His novel “Sabbath’s Theatre” was the epitome of obscenity and bad taste, on purpose. Roth has Mickey Sabbath declare: “more defeat, more disappointment, more deceit, more loneliness, more arthritis. For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence.”
Roth himself was incapable of fidelity and wondered how anyone could manage it. On the other hand he made a poor Don Juan. He didn’t love ’em and leave ’em; he loved ’em then fell in love with them and often proposed. Luckily most said no.
Roth was always an advocate for the life force and hated the American “persecuting spirit.” Beware the search for purity, he would repeat—in politics, religion, anywhere.
“We [humans] leave a stain,” says Roth “Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen—there’s no other way to be here. …The fantasy of purity is appalling.”
Although definitely an artist and advocate for pleasure, Roth didn’t love everything. In his later years, to my surprise, he disliked theatre. Imagine, he said “people up there pretending to be who they’re not. People in the audience pretending to believe the pretense.”
A famous atheist, nevertheless the intensity of his hatred of all religions is shocking. He says he would part with “all the art, music and even poetry they’ve engendered if we could finally be free of them.”
Roth had many friends among his writing colleagues: Bellow, Updike and—surprisingly?—the patrician-American George Plimpton for his “lightly held entitlement and insouciance,” his modesty born of “supreme self-assurance.”
He detested Capote, thought him anti-Semitic and a “dipsomaniac.”
Roth’s emotional life, Taylor tells us, was gargantuan, insatiable to the end. His 31 books were written partly as catharsis, in order not to die of those emotions.
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