Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Goodbye, Philip Roth

I feel as if I have lost a good friend, similar to the way I felt when John Updike died now more than nine years ago.  I grieved then and I grieve now.  These are the two towering writers of my lifetime and no one, for me at least, will even begin to approach them.  They were not only the most prolific writers of our era, but were the most perceptive observers of our cultural scene, now turning into a cultural wasteland.   And they spoke personally to me in ways other writers often have as well, but never with such fecundity.

Roth was ten years older than I am (and Updike was about the same number of years older than I was when he died), a coincidence which does not fail to strike a looming chord in me.  I’ve read everything by Updike and most by Roth, noting a couple of his novels still on my “to read” shelf. 

One of my earliest entries in this blog cited the importance of both Updike and Roth to me.  Here’s just a part of what I said about Roth, still relevant today:

Where Updike awakens the Calvinist background of my early years and the suburban existence of my later life, Roth explores the “Jewishness” of my New York City years. I’ve long felt his American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century,

The novel made me relive those Vietnam years of the 60’s and the social upheavals of the times. It is a novel in the negative universe of Updike’s Rabbit, in that the main character is also a former high school star athlete, but from the inner city, one who in his attempt to create the “perfect life” of the American dream, an American pastoral, finds his daughter caught up in Weather Underground violence as he also helplessly witnesses the destruction of his once beloved inner-city Newark in the 1970s. An American Dream turned American Nightmare, capturing exactly the way I felt at the time.

Several years ago Roth declared that he would not be writing any more fiction; believing that he had given all he had (and he did), recognizing that his creative and physical powers were declining.  Consequently I decided to reread his first major work, Goodbye, Columbus . It had been “merely” 50 years since I first read it.  This is some of what I said after the second reading:

It was a very different experience reading the book as a septuagenarian.  I see Roth as a young colt writing this novella, exploring themes that would develop over the next fifty plus years, with clear signs of the literary thoroughbred he would become.  Certainly the work foreshadows my favorite Roth work, American Pastoral.  Nonetheless, it was somewhat painful reading his youthful work, bringing up issues of my own formative years that were submerged long ago, ones I was hardly conscious of when I first read the book, crazy families’ impact on their children, the first real romantic love, and youth’s obliviousness that old age would one day arrive.  And true to Roth, it is a very funny work as well.

The title symbolizes the soon-to-be-lost youth of Brenda's brother, as he is about to be married (like me, at an early age), but still a boy, dreaming of his basketball days at Ohio State, listening to an old radio broadcast of the big game which begins: "The place, the banks of the Oentangy."  My friend Bruce and I spent part of the summer at Ohio State University in Columbus as representatives to the National Student Association from our university.  It was a different world from New York, indeed, but we, like the youth of Roth’s first major work, were ready to be swept along into the stream of life as if it was endless.

Coincidentally that same entry covers another book I read at the same time, Tom Wolfe’s journalistic masterpiece, The Right Stuff.  I had read most of Wolfe’s fiction.  We mourned the death of Tom Wolfe only a week before Roth’s.

A few years after Roth decided to stop writing fiction he gave an interview, one of his few in his later years, where he commented on that decision:  It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death. 

Indeed, the few slender novels he produced towards the end of his writing life are ruminations about death.  They are hard to read and yet mesmerizing, a phase of life for which we are all preparing. I quoted parts of that interview in this entry. Now a great voice has been silenced, but what he had to say will live into the future of American fiction and thought.

There is another coincidence to his death yesterday.  The day before my wife, Ann, met someone who revealed he was a childhood friend of Philip Roth.  How the conversation turned to Philip Roth was preternatural.  She told him how much I (and she) admire Roth.  He suggested we talk and provided his email contact.  I wrote him a long, chatty email suggesting we meet, maybe over lunch, as I’d love to hear about him as he was then.  That was yesterday, the day Roth died.  I grieve for his childhood friend and for us all.  There will never be another like him.

Fortunately Blake Bailey who wrote two superb literary biographies, one on John Cheever and the other on Richard Yates, has been working with Philip Roth on his life's story, with unfettered access to Roth’s papers, friends, and relatives.  This authorized biography will be the final chapter of a remarkable literary life.

Post Script:
Among the tributes published in the New York Times on Roth was one which quoted a paragraph from American Pastoral.  I remember reading this exact paragraph out loud to my wife when I first read it.  Great literature captures universality.  My father was not Jewish but this could mostly apply to him, as it could to almost anyone “for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between” and whose “most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything.”  Here’s what Roth wrote:
Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.

And as readers it is our job to love Philip Roth and remember him always.