.I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to do some work that was bothering me that I could not get to during the day, or to explore a piece or pieces of music (old or new), or to read an article or a book that I could not get to earlier, or some combination of the above. This past night, I thought of the passing of novelist Philip Roth and a discussion earlier this week at an Office of the General Counsel lunch time Book Club, and wrote about it and wanted to share it. I hope you do not mind because it is a bit long. You can stop here and I will not be offended.
But, in any event, whether you read on or not, I hope you and your families have a pleasant and peaceful holiday weekend and that you have a chance to relax and maybe read a good book. Have a great holiday.
Philip Roth passed away the other day after “retiring” from writing a few years ago. I thought about it in light of our most recent discussions at the OGC Book Club about what we are reading. No one mentioned that they were reading Philip Roth at this time, yet I suspect many of us have read him along the way. I certainly did.
After reading a number of his novels and short stories, I had reached out to him when he was a visiting professor at the college I was attending at the time, and asked if he would be interested to talk at the literary society that our students had just started. I met him at the door to his office, and he seemed a little rushed, cold, and remote. He was somewhat dismissive in his response—he simply “was not interested.”
It did not really bother me, but I carried this moment with me for many years, and thought of him as a cold, somewhat impolite man of letters who was not like his books or its characters, or what I would have expected of the author of his books. That did not stop me from reading more of his books and enjoying them on different levels. But there was that gap caused by that disappointing moment.
A few years ago, I learned that the period in which I talked with him, was a low point in his life, filled with working out a troubled first marriage that was about to dissolve, and other low self-doubting moments. I was then sorry that I bothered him at the time and my feelings and complaints about him quickly dissipated, and he continued as one of my favorite authors.
I recently learned more about his attitudes on writing and on life. Zadie Smith wrote a recent piece about him in the New Yorker and said about him:
‘At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. “Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,” he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself. He loved fiction and (unlike so many half or three-quarter writers) was never ashamed of it. He loved it in its irresponsibility, in its comedy, in its vulgarity, and its divine independence. He never confused it with other things made of words, like statements of social justice or personal rectitude, journalism or political speeches, all of which are vital and necessary for lives we live outside of fiction, but none of which are fiction, which is a medium that must always allow itself, as those other forms often can’t, the possibility of expressing intimate and inconvenient truths.
Roth always told the truth—his own, subjective truth—through language and through lies, the twin engines at the embarrassing heart of literature. Embarrassing to others, never to Roth. Second selves, fake selves, fantasy selves, replacement selves, horrifying selves, hilarious, mortifying selves—he welcomed them all. Like all writers, there were things and ideas that lay beyond his ken or conception; he had blind spots, prejudices, selves he could imagine only partially, or selves he mistook or mislaid. But, unlike many writers, he did not aspire to perfect vision. He knew that to be an impossibility. Subjectivity is limited by the vision of the subject, and the task of writing is to do the best with what you have. Roth used every little scrap of what he had. Nothing was held back or protected from writing, nothing saved for a rainy day. He wrote every single book he intended to write and said every last thing he meant to say. For a writer, there is no greater aspiration than that.”
I imagine he told me the truth of how he felt that day and I appreciate that—he did not hold back. We all have our bad days and bad eras and he was honest about it. We should not hold it against anyone. I did not.
Which brings me back to the book club and what we learn from each other through what we are choosing to read and our shared impressions. We read for many reasons, and what we choose to read may provide insight into our true selves, our fake selves, our fantasy selves, but whatever it is, it is a welcome time to share stories.
I shared my first name with Philip Roth and little more than that, other than I read so many of his words that I felt that I knew him, but I probably did not. And that is fine as well. His second wife, Claire Bloom described him as self-centered and much worse, and he denied that, but he soon became even more of a recluse, a man with far from perfect vision. Philip Roth was not for everyone--a friend said that he "did not have enough angst about himself to enjoy Philip Roth's writing." I am not sure what to make of him in his life, but he was a good writer and I am saddened that he will not share with us any of his new ideas made of words.