Leo Robson

His Own Nemesis

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth

By

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He generally made a good first impression. ‘Met Philip Roth,’ Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her journal in May 1974. ‘Attractive, funny, warm, gracious: a completely likeable person.’ The American writer Janet Hobhouse, who depicted Roth as Jack Sprat in her very autobiographical novel The Furies, recalled ‘an irresistible physical presence – tall, slender, with broad shoulders’. Roth’s second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, whose previous partners had included Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton, said that Roth was ‘unusually handsome’. Albert Goldman, in his celebrated Life profile, referred to ‘that beautiful fem-man face, with its cleft Cary Grant chin, bold intellectual nose and distantly gazing Mesmer-eyes’. In one-on-one encounters, these attributes were converted into weapons. ‘Once Jack set out to charm you,’ Hobhouse wrote, ‘there was not much you could do about it.’

The writer Benjamin Taylor met Roth at a birthday party of a common friend in 1994. He appeared, Taylor writes in his slim memoir Here We Are, ‘aglow and triumphant’, ‘all speed and laughter – head thrown back – and supernaturally quick with the next line’. (Hobhouse used the word ‘speed’ four times in two pages.) Some years later, the two men met for lunch at a Thai restaurant on the Upper West Side, and soon became inseparable companions. ‘I cannot hope for another such friend,’ Taylor writes.

Taylor’s book is the first extended portrait of Roth as a friend and as an old man. In one of the speeches that pepper the book, he describes what it is like to be, in Taylor’s phrase, among ‘the ranks of the sexually abdicated’: ‘You’re left to browse back through the enticements and satisfactions and agonies that were your former vitality – when you were strong in the sexual magic.’ Sex wasn’t the only thing he gave up in the period that Taylor knew him. Roth’s later years were marked by ill health, especially the heart problems that had begun in the 1980s. (He kept a suicide kit in his safe in case he was too ill to go on.) One night, at dinner in the West Grill, Roth pitched forward into his gazpacho. Taylor sat in the ambulance when one paramedic told the other, ‘Thready pulse’, and then advised the driver, ‘Better turn on the siren.’ Taylor started wondering ‘whom I would contact first’ and thinking about the end of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. When Roth came around, he said, ‘No more books.’ Thus, Taylor recalls, ‘he announced his retirement’, giving the two men all the more time to visit restaurants, laze around at Roth’s country house, trade baseball trivia and discuss the plot of The Golden Bowl (‘But why does Fanny smash it?’ Roth enquires).

Twenty years Roth’s junior, Taylor invokes the precedent of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. But he also fulfilled the traditional duties of courtier-cum-sidekick – praising his books, laughing at his impressions, acting as a go-between for setting up sexual liaisons (‘Tell him I’ve got a classic six on Park and am available’), and gobbling up – and apparently transcribing – his table talk on subjects such as swimming, cuckolding (‘not averse’), religions (‘the refuge of the weak-minded’), Yiddish (‘A European language that produced a great literature, now consigned to Borscht Belt gags’), Jews (‘neither worse nor better than other people’), the theatre (‘People up there pretending to be who they’re not’) and death (‘not to be feared,’ he apparently claimed, thereby undoing much of his life’s work).

Taylor is eager to acknowledge what Claire Bloom called Roth’s ‘caustic and judgmental sides’. He took to calling the Nobel Prize the ‘Anyone-But-Roth’ award during a period when there were many deserving winners (Pinter, Coetzee, Lessing, Vargas Llosa). During his near-decade of retirement, between the publication of his final novel, Nemesis, and his death in 2018, aged eighty-five, he devoted much of his time to producing a pair of enormous dossiers, one intended as a rebuke to the academic who failed to write his biography, the other a point-by-point response to Bloom’s damning portrayal of their twenty-year relationship in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House. Taylor begins his account by quoting Roth’s description of the writer Felix Abravanel in The Ghost Writer, a man whose charm was a moat ‘so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect’. He proceeds to call Roth ‘a remote citadel’ and a ‘fortress of secrets’. But he never connects the defences to the defensiveness – Roth’s inability to drop his ‘grievances’, his love of ‘getting even’.

There’s an obvious missed opportunity when Taylor considers Roth’s relationship to the mental health profession. At one point, sensing that Taylor is feeling down, Roth sends him to his psychiatrist. ‘Don’t tell him about how Momma burned the roast in ’57 and Daddy got so mad,’ he says. ‘He’s not that kind of doctor.’ Recalling Hans Kleinschmidt, the psychoanalyst he visited in the 1960s, Roth pointed to the suggestion that he feared his mother as typifying ‘what’s wrong with their whole five-and-dime pseudoscience’. Like Jay Parini, who appeared in his biography of Gore Vidal, Empire of Self, not to blink at his friend Vidal’s claim that he had ‘no unconscious’, Taylor seems reluctant to contradict his hero, writing of Bess Roth, ‘in truth it was Philip who terrified her’. And where did he hear that? From the same man who told Dr Kleinschmidt that the stuff about ‘castration anxiety’ was baloney.

Although Taylor concedes that Roth was evasive and unyielding, he gives over much of his book to quoting Roth’s remarks. Emphasising his credentials as a realist, Roth says, ‘What I care about is individuals enmeshed in some nexus of particulars,’ adding, ‘Wouldn’t know what to do with a general idea if it were hand-delivered. Would try to catch the FedEx man before he left the driveway. “Wrong address, pal! Big ideas? No, thanks!”’ When Taylor says some of his work touches the ‘universal’, Roth thanks him but says, ‘I aim only at specifics.’ Clearly, though Taylor offers no comment, this contains a hint of protesting too much. A glance at Roth’s titles, from Letting Go to Nemesis via Everyman, Indignation, American Pastoral and The Human Stain, suggests he may not solely have been interested in what he called ‘specificity, life’s proliferating minutiae’. And as the editor of Saul Bellow’s letters, Taylor might have traced Roth’s sensitivity on this score to Bellow’s remarks about a strand of Roth’s 1958 story ‘Expect the Vandals’: ‘A great idea, but palpably idea … With you the Idea gains ground fast, easily. It conquers.’

The reluctance to question Roth’s opinions arises tellingly in a debate about films. Taylor has been trying to share his enthusiasm for classic American movies, but Roth insists that it’s all ‘dreck’ and ‘chazzerai’ (pigswill) and proposes that they watch a Satyajit Ray film instead. Even if we accept Roth’s comparison of the artistic tendencies on offer (‘coercion of emotion versus elicitation of emotion’), it’s hard to miss the ferocity of Roth’s resistance. What was he recoiling from? You could point to his professed anti-Freudianism: it’s hard to appreciate the films of Douglas Sirk if you don’t like the idea of castration anxiety. But it’s also crucial to remember Roth’s unwavering attachment to a late-1940s version of intellectual propriety, one that predated by a few years the ‘auteurist’ effort to treat Hollywood genre films seriously. (Like his exact contemporary Susan Sontag, a fellow Chicago University alumnus who wrote for the Partisan Review, Roth was immune to this development.)

Roth’s most potent and enduring defence against his personal – and possibly ethnic – insecurities was his monkish conception of art. He told Taylor that in Portnoy’s Complaint he ‘gleefully overthrew’ his ‘literary education’, but later novels, notably The Ghost Writer, suggest that Henry James and F R Leavis must have mounted a rearguard action. Taylor swallows Roth’s claim that, of the two camps depicted in Hawthorne’s allegory, he sided entirely with the revellers of Merry Mount against the Plymouth Puritans, but if Roth was never censorious, he also struggled to resolve his dual allegiance to the demotic and the moralistic, the priapic and the upright – a conflict illustrated by the back-to-back publication of Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral. ‘Fuck the laudable ideologies,’ says one novel; lament their violation, says the other.

It is in the area of Roth’s divisions and disavowals that his earlier chroniclers most strongly exhibit their edge. Claudia Roth Pierpont, in her critical biography Roth Unbound, said it ‘seems possible’ that Kleinschmidt had managed to rouse feelings of genuine anger towards Roth’s mother. Claire Bloom was struck by evidence of the rageful child lurking beneath all the warmth and debonair patter (‘I remember thinking, with total clarity, “Who is that?”’). The narrator of The Furies speculates that she told Jack Sprat that she was manic depressive because she knew that it would make him back off, and expands on this in a remarkable riff: ‘it was not convention that made him so fearful of emotional excess, it wasn’t out-there that held him back, but that self-protective center of his: the in-there, the woeful I that seemed always to be saying this isn’t me, I don’t do this sort of thing, I can’t, I don’t, I dare not.’ It isn’t intended as a criticism; Hobhouse writes that she ‘loved, and even relied on, this old-maidish Prufrockery of his’.

Benjamin Taylor is restricted by love and awe from achieving anything like the same degree of clarity. Fissures are identified but never dramatised or probed. And so Here We Are ends up as less a reading of Roth’s personality than a record of how the writer saw himself, which after Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go and My Life as a Man and the Zuckerman trilogy and Deception and The Facts and Why Write?, a recent collation of interviews, memoirs and reflections, could plausibly be characterised as surplus to requirements.

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