The Washington Post
What Philip Roth wanted us to notice about his work
There was a celebration of Philip Roth’s 80th birthday on March 19, 2013 — in Newark, of course — with a towering birthday cake made of books, a marching band from Weequahic High School and practically everyone you can think of in the literary world, from Don DeLillo to Nathan Englander, Edna O’Brien to Jonathan Lethem. Roth, very much pleased, read the scene from his novel “Sabbath’s Theater” where the aging puppeteer Sabbath visits the graves of his family, remembers them, and says to them: “Here I am.” The force of those words was considerable from the 80-year-old novelist, who, at the celebration, expressed relief at having given up writing novels and at long last “eluded his lifelong master: the stringent exigencies of literature.”
In his birthday speech, Roth told us what he most valued about his work. This was not (as other people have said, and are saying following his death this week) the passionate, energetic expression of male desires and furies and egotism and mortality. Nor the grimly prescient histories of an America whose democratic freedoms could so easily tip over into berserk disorder or fascistic totalitarianism. Nor the wildly outrageous tirades against taboos, prohibitions, censorship and obstructions to freedom of all kinds, from “Portnoy’s Complaint” to “The Plot Against America.” Nor the humane, tender, elegiac and boisterous ventriloquizing of a Jewish father and a Jewish family. Nor the gleeful comic riffs that gave him such delight. Nor the astonishing power of his language, the bold combinations of plain demotic speech and high rhetoric.
No, what Roth wanted us to notice and remember was the bicycle basket in which he would put his library books and cycle them home, every two weeks, from the Newark library in the 1940s. Remembered objects, he said, had turned out to be “a not insignificant part of my vocation.” What he wanted us to bear in mind was “his passion for local specificity,” for “the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in,” for “particularity,” physicalness, the “crucial representation of what is real.” The lifeblood of fiction, he said, is “a profound aversion of generalities.”
So I won’t generalize. I took on a very particular job of work for him. It came about because I wrote a short book about him in 1982, for an English series on American writers. He was kind about the book, though putting me right on a few facts about baseball and Newark. Then from “The Anatomy Lesson” (1984) to “Nemesis” (2010), I became one of the group of readers to whom he sent penultimate book drafts and asked for comments. There’s no point being polite, he said. (He was exasperated by English politeness.) So I would tell him exactly what I thought, and he would listen with beady-eyed attention, pouncing on woolly expressions, defending his work and lightning-quick to pick up anything that might be useful. Drafts would arrive by fax in those days, and when Roth was sending me new versions to read, the faxes would sometimes roll down the stairs. It was one of the most exhilarating tasks I have ever taken on.
As a reward for all the work, he dedicated what turned out to be his last novel, “Nemesis,” to me. “Nemesis” is a terrifying, heartbreaking novel of an athlete who contracts polio in an imagined Newark 1940s epidemic of the disease, and loses everything he wanted and valued. Roth’s novels are full of elegies, graveyards and funeral speeches — he gets some of his best comedy out of them, as well as gravity of the soul. In “Nemesis” there’s an elegy for a 12-year-old Weequahic schoolboy who has died of polio, given by his uncle, a Newark pharmacist known as Doc. It goes like this:
“‘Alan’s life is ended,’ he repeated, ‘and yet, in our sorrow, we should remember that while he lived it, it was an endless life. Every day was endless for Alan because of his curiosity. Every day was endless for Alan because of his geniality. He remained a happy child all of his life, and with everything the child did, he always gave it his all. There are fates far worse than that in this world.’ ”
These are words for a child — the childless Roth was very good at writing children — but they seem to apply now: Roth, too, gave everything he did his all, and was endlessly curious and genial. That gleeful appetite for life was part of his character and his work. He was energetically interested in himself and in everything that came his way. He poured his curiosity into that big, hard-working, stringent, ruthless, ebullient creative factory that was his imagination. The voice won’t be forgotten, or lose its force or its human interest. “Here I am,” it says.