27 July 2020

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth by Benjamin Taylor

When it comes to the writer Philip Roth, there are two camps: those who dismiss him as a sex-obsessed east coast Jewish highbrow, and those who revere his prose and insights. I am a member of the latter. I’ve long admired his exceptional talent, also his profound understanding of the dark side of humanity, and I appreciate his intention to reflect on political and sexual power, and the hypocrisy they breed, which is the common thread in his fiction. 

He would have had the seat at the head of my fantasy dinner party table, based on what I’ve learned about him over the years, through tributes and through his words, and never more so having read this beautifully crafted memoir of late life friendship with writer/professor Benjamin Taylor.

The memoir is a reflection on Roth as a man more than writer, and these resonate with his writings. Lots of anecdotes. For example, he lived on the upper west side of Manhattan most of his life [as well as a country home in CT] and was frequently recognized. In fact, a street-seller displayed only Roth books for years in front of Zabar’s [the famous upper west side market] many of them signed. Taylor recounts his resistance to personal notoriety: “At dinner one night in an. Indian restaurant on Broadway, the actor Richard Thomas, spruce in a white beard, said to Philip, ‘You’re the writer whose meant the most to me.’… Some variant of the encounter occurred when we went to any public place … ‘Let’s have dinner on the East Side,’ Philip would occasionally say. ‘Nobody knows me over there.’ Prompt refutation came in a favorite eatery on Third when a woman at the bar beckoned to me with a long forefinger. ‘Young man, is that Philip Roth you’re with?’ I nodded. She passed me her card. ‘Tell him I’ve got a classic six on Park and am available.’”

I missed my chance to chat with the great man not once but twice. Roughly twenty years ago, I too was in an uptown restaurant with friends when I saw him enter and walk toward a coat rack next to our table. Our eyes locked for a moment and I’m sure he feared I would intrude on his solitude, which I respected. On the way out, he looked up at me from his New Yorker magazine as I passed. He didn’t smile, but again, our eyes locked, and I wanted so much to sit down and engage him in conversation, but I refrained. A friend I was with who didn’t recognize him asked me who he was, and when I told her she said, ‘My Lord, the way you looked at him, he might have been Paul McCartney.’ To me, he was. 

A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to attend the National Book Awards with a good friend who invited me because Roth was receiving a lifetime achievement award. His speech was mesmerizing. On the way out [he was one of the first to leave and Taylor confirms a shyness among strangers] he was waiting for his car to pull up, and we ours, and again, our eyes met, and this time I smiled and said congratulations, and he nodded appreciably. I so wish I had known him and in this memoir, which is a charming and touching tribute, I feel I know him better.

For a man who has been called, like his contemporaries and friends Updike and Bellow, a misogynist, there were many women, friends and ex-lovers, at his bedside as he lay dying, and many more women singing his praises when he passed. [I recommend the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast tribute.] He was an exacting and determined human being, not easy to live with, as he was the first to admit, and opinionated on a wide array of subjects. However he also had a great sense of humor, tended to pontificate in a Socratic way, and relied on music, as well as friendship, for sustenance, particularly during the many years illness and pain. 

He was the sort of writer and thinker who pondered the imponderable. However he had no use for religion and no patience for platitude. Taylor tells this story about strolling with Philip and musing on religion after passing the Atheists booth at Columbus Center. "‘Religions are the refuge of the weak-minded. I’d dispense with all the art, music and even poetry they’ve engendered if we could finally be free of them.’ ‘The B-minor Mass? The Sistine ceiling? George Herbert’s poems?’A dog walker comes past with eight or ten doggies of all sizes and shapes. ‘You see that?’ he says. Perfect concord among the breeds. The border collies admire the Heinz fifty-sevens. The Newfoundlands would make love to the dachshunds if they could. And why? Because dogs are wise enough to have no religion.’”

Roth never won the Nobel Prize, which still pains his fans, and apparently saddened him. However his body of work, numerous awards and many admirers, are high honors. And, he was a loving friend - this memoir may be more meaningful than the literary analysis and biography[s] still to come, most notably his approved biographer, Blake Bailey’s, whose bio will publish early next year. 

RIP Philip Roth and thank you Benjamin Taylor for sharing your story. 

Available now in hardcover and for your favorite e-reader. Happy reading.