This tribute first appeared in the Romanian cultural weekly Observator Cultural, no. 925 (June 7, 2018). It is translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh.
MY WIFE CELLA and I last saw Philip Roth on Friday, May 18, when we visited him in the Cardiac Ward of New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was very weak and pale; his voice was almost inaudible. We exchanged a few words, looked at each other for a long time, shook hands, and smiled at each other. Back home, I wrote him a message recalling our long friendship and stressed my conviction that even though he was weak and suffering he could bounce back, as I had often seen him do, and that this time he would be equal to the struggle.
Unfortunately I was wrong. As Canetti warned, death is the invincible enemy of man. Philip passed away on the evening of May 22 at the age of 85. The toll that numerous operations had taken on his body was too much even for his extraordinary tenacity and discipline. I remember his exalted shouts one summer, at the swimming pool at his home in Connecticut: “I’m going to live forever! Norman, I’m immortal!”
However, his biographer states that when they signed their contract in 2012, Philip said: “Okay, I’ll help you for about a year, then I’m getting out of here.” He knew what was coming.
If I were to choose one among the many qualities and contradictions that set him apart from his contemporaries, I’d go for his obstinate rejection of banality, of the commonplace, of awareness dulled by the quotidian, where complacency, tribal loyalty, pious or prudent complicity, and collective blindness give birth to monsters. “I had to squeeze the nice Jewish boy out of me drop by drop,” he once wrote. I remember him phoning me from someplace where he was holidaying in the period when he’d give me manuscripts of his work-in-progress and then capture my observations of a tape-recorder. “What are you doing?” I asked him. “It reminds me of the Romanian Securitate…” He replied, “I’m getting old. What can I do? My memory lets me down.”
But it didn’t. Not really. He had a sharp memory, particularly where it came to writing, reading, and literature.
The dilemma he wanted to debate was itself literary, in the manuscript of his masterpiece, Sabbath’s Theater. “The lover asks her partner to swear an oath of fidelity: to never sleep with any woman except her again! How can you reply to such an absurdity? Such impertinence…” We wrestled back and forth with the demand made by the lover, who was, by the way, herself quite libertine. After a while, the author got to the heart of the paradox. “I’ve got it! He asks her to sleep with her darling husband! That’s the condition. He’ll be faithful, if she starts sleeping with her husband. They both know this is no longer possible…”
Nothing should impede the free exercise of the imagination, creative freedom, and the fundamental personal freedom that defies and overcomes the archenemies of creativity. Roth enjoyed the great success of Portnoy’s Complaint, but it also brought a lot of hostility. The novel was considered objectionable on many grounds, but the main accusations against it were that the author was a misogynist and a self-hating Jew and complicit with the most rabid anti-Semitism. His Jewish accusers, besides the non-Jewish anti-Semites, included not only well-known rabbis but also learned as well as literary figures, such as his friend Alfred Kazin. Gershom Scholem, the venerable commentator on the sacred texts of the Kabbalah, made the claim that the novel was even more hate-filled than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that sinister, poisonous forgery made by the Tsarist secret police.
If even learned Jews of today forget the Biblical prophets, who are so much a part of the tragic destiny of the Jews by virtue of their searing criticism of human imperfection and the moral weakness of sinners, who are many and everywhere, why should the swelling anti-Semitic mob come as any surprise to us?
Those who got to know Philip, as I was lucky enough to, are well aware how many of his friends were Jews, that he adored his Jewish parents, and that he was always eager to learn something new about the recent and not-so-recent story of that suffering people, of their vulnerability and energy, their sensitivity and stoicism, their tales and humor.
Literature has a premise and potentialities that differ from those of historiography or journalism. It looks at the human tragicomedy using introspection, fantasy, burlesque, and ambiguity, and is anything but a vendor of cheap entertainment or scholarly escapism. We can, for that reason, apply to anti-Semitism the words of a non-Jewish writer, Mark Twain, whom Roth admired, “Jews are just merely human beings,” and that’s bad enough.
Concerning the supposed misogyny in Roth’s books, I witnessed a scene at Bard College. He was the first guest in my “Contemporary Masters” series, followed by Bellow, Saramago, Kundera, Kadare, Cynthia Ozick, Edna O’Brien, Tisma, Tabucchi, Magris, Pamuk, Vargas Llosa, Muñoz Molina, and Tahar Ben Jelloun … I would put a selection of the author’s work on the course, meet with students to review it, and then, the following day, discuss it with the author and the class. I arranged to talk with Philip by phone after my Monday class in order to be prepared for the Tuesday meeting. Everything went perfectly on Monday, even up to the awkward Sabbath’s Theater, where the students agreed that both the male and female protagonists of the novel were equally flawed, vital, passionate, and powerful.
Surprisingly, in the case of I Married a Communist, Philip was not convinced as I was that all was well. He requested that we meet earlier than usual. He appeared with a bulging briefcase containing a massive volume by Rabelais and another relating the Sinyavsky-Daniel Trial, in which the two Soviet dissidents were convicted. The event, an “open class” for the entire college, began peacefully, but during the debate several female students accused the author of creating simplistic, vulgar caricatures of women. The same old male chauvinism! All the female characters were cardboard cut-outs, lacking in life and complexity!
Philip listened quietly and did not interrupt the speech, then took out the Rabelais book, and read a sardonic fragment about human nature, then the dialogue between Daniel and the Soviet prosecutor. The prosecutor notes that although the dissident has disguised his intentions, it was obvious to any attentive reader, and still more to an official censor, that the mental hospital in his work of fiction was a crude metaphor for the Soviet people and the communist regime. “Certainly not! How can you claim that? It’s just a hospital, they’re patients, sick people,” the accused replies. “We know, we’re not as stupid as you think, we’ve read books too, we’re not illiterate!” At this point, Daniel took from his pocket a booklet on which was printed the Statute of the Soviet Writers’ Union. “I’ve got the writers’ constitution here, I’m a member of the Union, and there’s no article that demands that the Soviet writer has to describe only perfect people, immaculate citizens.”
Philip’s intervention didn’t convince the rebels; it provoked them. “What are you saying? Are you comparing us to Soviet censors, to tyranny? Just for expressing objections in a literature class? This is a free country, we are told, a democracy.”
As we were gathering up our papers and books, getting ready to go, a beautiful girl we didn’t know in the front row stood up and approached the lectern. “I’m from Prague, I heard about this class and came along with my American literature professor.” A man in a suit and tie stood up and smiled at us. The girl turned to face her American fellow-students. “And you … you understand nothing! Nothing! Nothing about the emotional and sexual bonds between a man and a woman, nothing about flirtation, shyness, intensity. Nothing about literature — about the code of literature!”
The American girls were dumbstruck, cowed by the wild “Eastern European,” until one of them stood up: “So, you’re from Prague? If that’s how you do things back there in Prague, then good for you, I’m sure it goes down well there. But this is our country!”
If we’re going to discuss misogyny, it would be well to recall Philip’s many female friends, both young and old, who adored him and were with him to the end. In fact, his relationship with the actress Claire Bloom wasn’t transient either. I was around when they belatedly officialized their union by getting married, and when they divorced, and when Claire Bloom’s caustic memoir appeared. The bitter accusations made after the break-up were unjust and wounded Philip deeply. He withdrew to Connecticut like a hermit and didn’t want to see anyone for a time, but he phoned us regularly. Recently I’ve heard that Claire painted an affectionate and admiring portrait of her ex-husband on British TV, saying that the egoism of two artists who were married but both obsessed with their own creativity is easy to understand, that their love was full and memorable, and that the deceased will be remembered as a great modern writer.
Philip Roth does indeed occupy a major place in American and world literature, as many critics have noted, now and in years past. We only need to look at the judgment of a towering spiritual authority such as Cynthia Ozick on the enduring value of The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, American Pastoral, Everyman, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. The same narrative flair, humor, originality, and acuity are found even in the so-called minor works of this tireless literary craftsman.
Though Roth enjoyed major international acknowledgment, he never won the Nobel Prize. Prizes are given by people and, like people, they are imperfect. Even were the Nobel to be awarded by computer, it would still be imperfect, as there can be no impersonal equation for such a fluid and vast and diverse spiritual territory. And I can’t even say it was a bad thing not to win it! He thereby enters such select company as those other neglected writers — Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Borges …
A 30-year friendship between writers (a profession of vanity, Camus calls it somewhere), is not very common. But he took care of it in the afterlife too, having written last year to Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, asking to be allocated a grave at Bard, near my own, so he wouldn’t be bored, as he put it, in the endless “beyond.”
This is why he rests at Bard and awaits me there. It is not, as some press reports claimed, that he wanted a Jewish cemetery. The cemetery at Bard is not Jewish, it is non-denominational and even atheists are buried there, and the funeral that took place on Monday, May 28, was non-religious, in accordance with his instructions. Those that he had selected to speak were not to talk about him, but would each read fragments from his books.
I read from The Dying Animal, the book he dedicated to me in 2001.
But to return to happier beginnings.
Knowing he’d published a collection of East European prose, Writers from the Other Europe, I wrote to him in 1987, from Berlin, where I was living on a DAAD (German Ministry of Cultural Exchanges) grant, following my trials and tribulations in communist Romania. I proposed to him an English translation of an anthology of young writers published at Albatros Publishing House, so that Romania too — the only Eastern European country absent from his anthology — might find its place in the world … He replied promptly, without mentioning my suggestion, asking who I was, what I wrote, what I was doing in Germany. And so, our relationship began.
When my grant ended, I wrote to tell him I didn’t know where I was headed, only that, for the moment, there was no going back. I didn’t want to take any final decision, preferring to await in the West the long-dreamed-of passing of our “most beloved son of the people,” as the national press used to call the dictator. My attempts to obtain another grant in Germany or France failed. He wrote to tell me to look him up if I happened to decide on America. When I got to Washington, he invited me to New York, to Essex House, where he was temporarily living. I suggested we put it off for a while, because I didn’t speak English and was about to start a course in the language for new arrivals. “It doesn’t matter, we’ve got hands, we’ve got eyes, we’ll understand each other.” He wanted me to bring him something translated into English, but all I had was a too-short story called “Proust’s Tea,” published in a magazine in London. “Bring whatever you have.”
I crept into the big hotel, Cella accompanying me. The room was spacious. Our host was sitting on the sofa, feet on the table, smiling encouragingly. I went up to him and handed him the few pages. Silence. “Proust? Proust, you say? I’ve tried to read this writer 20 times and I’ve never got past page 15…” I froze. In Romania I had learned that if you didn’t like Proust, you were outside literature. What was left for me to say to the great American? Nothing. I couldn’t utter a word.
Then another salvo: “Céline, not Proust! Céline is my Proust!” That floored me … I knew Céline was a great writer and an anti-Semite. I’d read him with interest, but I was speechless. I smiled weakly, and sat down on the sofa next to Cella, preparing myself for the next blow. But the conversation became more cordial, allowing for the inevitable language problem. At the end, he wrote some names and addresses and telephone numbers on a sheet of paper. Robert Silver, Rose Marie Morse, Mary McCarthy. “They’re my friends, they speak French, you’ll be able to talk to each other.” Stumbling out of Essex House, I told Cella I’d never call him again. “Enough, I’m done!”
But that first meeting was soon put behind us. The American maestro began to call me weekly, asking how I was doing, if my English was coming along. “Have you anything translated into another language?” I had two books in German. He gave me the address of Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, who, I understood, was a German speaker. I sent him my books and received an extraordinarily laudatory reply, comparing me to the contemporary German writers I most admired … Then I met Mary McCarthy, who taught at Bard. And she recommended me to Botstein also.
My friend and future German editor at Hanser, Michael Krüger, put me in touch with New Directions Publishing House, which he thought would be the best fit for me. There I met with its director, the cutting and charming Griselda Ohannessian, and her young secretary, Barbara Epler, who would eventually, as Griselda’s successor, publish my complicated novel Captives. I got along perfectly with both my collaborators and was ready to sign a contract when a two-book offer came in from Grove Press.
And so started what the Romanian nationalist press back home called the “the international Jewish conspiracy” of my arrival on the world literary stage (the MacArthur Prize, Guggenheim Foundation Prize, and so on).
When, in 1997, after 11 years of exile in the United States, I accepted Botstein’s invitation to accompany him to Bucharest, where he was conducting two concerts at the Ateneu, Philip supported me. Saul Bellow, who was more knowledgeable about Romania, didn’t think I should go back (“You have enough trouble here as it is, you don’t need the old Romanian problems too”). Philip encouraged me, but made me promise to call him daily from Bucharest (!!!) and to go immediately to Sofia (?), and to fly back to New York if I sensed anything wrong … For me it was like returning as a posthumous tourist. I was on edge, but nobody was aggressive. Cluj and Suceava were enjoyable, apart from the state of my nerves, which made me lose my notebook on the return flight.
My friendship with Philip deepened with time. Each of us marked the life events of the other, and we always celebrated New Year’s Eve together, in our home. At the end of the public celebrations of my 75th birthday at the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, Philip shouted: “I want something like that too! But not just two days, five!” Once he took me to Newark, where he was born, to see his childhood home and his old high school, the streets, the entire environment. He still felt close to the city. He had a relationship with the local library, and a street was to be named in his honor. As well as attending each other’s literary events, Philip and I visited each other in the hospital as time went on. In more recent years we had had a grim competition for having the greater number of coronary stents: I was winning for a while, but Philip finally took the lead, with 13 stents …
Our friendship endured all kinds of differences between us, perhaps well expressed at the start in the contrasting preferences for Proust and Céline, but the connection was still strong, affectionate, and lasting.
Let’s remember that generous compensation which exile rewarded me with.
In November 2012, Philip announced that he had stopped writing. Clearly, he was tired. Writing, as well as being a profession of vanity, is one that demands great devotion and concentration, and it takes its toll over time. I always teased him by saying that his withdrawal was in fact the subject of another book that he was writing in secret … It wasn’t so. His health was finally failing. At 85, it’s too late to hope for some miracle of rejuvenation.
In Exit Ghost, published in 2007, Nathan Zuckerman, the author’s alter ego, asks: “Who among your contemporaries will be the last to die? Who among your contemporaries is least likely to die? Who among your contemporaries will not only elude death but write with wit, precision, and modesty of his amused bafflement at successfully pulling off eternal life?”
This avalanche of rhetorical questions might indeed be posed by the passing of Philip Roth himself.
In The Ghost Writer, Philip’s captivating short novel that preceeded Exit Ghost by many years, Anne Frank survives and reaches America, and is in love with her college professor. A stunning anticipation of these epic queries, addressing the mumbled questions of old age to a void without voice or memory.
Philip Roth, the great writer, an acute observer of human existence, with all its cruel and burlesque conflicts and contradictions, has left us to face without him our explosive present and uncertain future. His forceful intelligence, his lucid and interrogative conscience, his unshaken devotion to the written page will not be forgotten; all the libraries of our tormented world will remind us of him in our fight for truth and beauty, for ardor and authenticity. Literature — America’s and the world’s — lost one of the most brilliant writers of modernity, an incomparable creative force. In the planetary crisis of our time, with so many aggressions against our spiritual environment, we will more than ever miss his intensity, his code of work and honesty, his humor and humanness.
Cella and I, we are overwhelmed by sadness and loneliness. He was for 30 years our American brother, always nearby, caring, energetic, vital, and helpful, a unique interlocutor, irreplaceable. Our exile became deeper, darker. But we’ll be buried near each other. Let’s hope that this way we’ll be less lost in the endless desert of the afterlife.