Philip Roth at 80: Tales Told Out of Schul

Philip Roth, who has just turned eighty, has been writing novels, stories, essays, autobiographical books, and other species of cultural provocation for over half a century now. Claiming that literary composition is a form of mental anguish and physical agony (he writes standing up to spare a bad back), he has announced that his last book, Nemesis, would be his last book. Nobody wants to believe him. How can we watch without protest our greatest living writer withdraw into silence?

Roth's first story, published in The New Yorker in 1959, was "Defender of the Faith" (reprinted soon after in his collection, Goodbye Columbus). Its frankness about Jewish tribal behavior predictably created the earliest of his many confrontations with the Jewish Establishment, one of whose members threatened him with medieval retribution. It is doubtful whether Roth ever consciously intended to kindle extremist ire. But his compulsion to tell the truth, regardless of wounded sensibilities, made him born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward. Some of this history has been chronicled in the first of what will doubtless be numerous celebrations of Roth's achievement, a new PBS documentary called Philip Roth: Unmasked on "American Masters" (some wag, citing Portnoy's Complaint, will undoubtedly rechristen the program "American Masturbators"). Another celebration is taking place in Newark, a huge birthday party, during which a street will be renamed after one of the city's most famous former strollers. I remember how, when he was visiting his ailing father in Florida, he wistfully pointed out the Miami street that had been named for Isaac Bashevis Singer. You've got your own now, Phillie.

I've known Phil now for almost all of his writing life, beginning in the sixties, when he used to eat a lot of dinners at the New York apartment of me and my late wife Norma. One of those culinary adventures we had scheduled on the night of the great blackout of 1965. Although the phone system was down, all the guests accurately guessed that the dinner had been cancelled. Not Phil. He arrived just on time, having solved the dead subway problem by walking up two miles of dark streets and the dead elevator problem by walking up eight flights of stairs. He had a metaphorical napkin tucked under his chin, so naturally we had to feed him.

A few years later, he and I happened to be together at Yaddo (a writer's colony near Saratoga), where all of the guests, not me least of all, were eager to finish our monastic daily regimen of coffee, sandwiches, literary labors, and silence in order to enjoy Roth's delicious stream of standup after dinner. One night, as he was performing those verbal acrobatics, his spritz was interrupted by a phone call. When he returned to the dining room, his brow was dark. He told us that he had to leave immediately. Only later did I learn that a friend of his had attempted suicide, and that he had gone to lend support at the bedside.

One of Phil's best comic turns was at my expense, and took place on Martha's Vineyard during one of his many visits there. Our mutual friend, Bill Styron, had recently sent me what he considered to be an amusing photo, taken some years past, of my son Daniel (6) and his daughter Alexandra (4) roped together back to back in chairs by Bill's mischievous son, Tommy (8). It happened that week that my television needed fixing, and when the repairman left, the photo was also gone. Within hours, I was visited by two detectives who wanted to know if I enjoyed abusing children. It was rather like being asked "When did you stop beating your wife?" I did what I could to reestablish my spotless character, even calling Alexandra to have her confirm the facts, and thus somehow managed to retrieve my photograph and my reputation. Well, not quite. After dinner at the Styrons that evening, Phil put me on the stand and prosecuted me remorselessly for child abuse.

Admiring his ear for American speech, I worked very hard to squeeze a play out of Phil after I went to Yale in 1966 to start the Yale Repertory Theatre. He wrote one full length piece for us, which he then decided not to submit, so I satisfied my Roth habit with a short published satire about the Nixon impeachment called "The President Addresses the Nation." In this, Nixon recognizes the Congressional right to impeach him -- and then refuses to leave office ("That's not the kind of President you elected me to be"). We included this pitch-perfect skit in an evening called Watergate Classics. I played Nixon, ending the speech with hunched shoulder V-waves to my imaginary admirers. The National Guard, with bayonets drawn, took up positions in the house as the audience filed out.

Phil's other association with the Yale Rep came about after he had married the actress, Claire Bloom. Spending much of his time in London, he devoted himself to her career, helping to write adaptations of television and stage works (mostly Chekhov) in which she was appearing at the time. After they moved back to the United States, Claire played a few roles with our company (most notably Mary Tyrone in A Long Day's Journey Into Night). Phil was a constant presence and tireless advisor, a caretaker of her career until they parted in 1995.

After this painful divorce, Phil became a lot more reclusive, spending many months in a house he had bought in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut. A number of physical complaints, however, not unusual among geezers like us, have forced him now to spend most of his time in his New York apartment. There he exercises, corresponds, naps, and no doubt stares at his typewriter with scorn and derision. One advantage of his determination to retire from literature is that a private man accustomed to avoiding interviews and features as interfering too much with his writing is now destined to become a much more public figure. Also, let us hope, a more universally celebrated one. Note to the Nobel Committee: Now Vee may perhaps to begin? Yes?