Phillip Roth

May 23, 2018 at 2:08 pm (books, Remembrance)

I have very little to add to the numerous articles  and essays on the subject of this great and often controversial writer. I grew up surrounded by his works, and discussion of his works, sometimes heated, within my own family circle and among friends.

Roth’s Newark, New Jersey origins closely mirrored mine, just up – down? – the road in West Orange. My family always felt a strong, if strained, kinship with him. Family legend has it that one of my uncles attended Weequahic High School at the same time as Roth.

The Wikipedia entry has a list of the complete oeuvre. Of those, I’ve read the following:

The Ghost Writer
Zuckerman Unbound
The Human Stain
Exit Ghost
The Dying Animal
Patrimony: A True Story

That last, a memoir of the final illness and death of his father Herman Roth, was deeply moving. My favorite from among the novels I’ve read is The Human Stain. American Pastoral is often cited as his masterwork.

Roth often wrote as it he were regaling, even haranguing, his interlocutor. His writing was mercilessly direct and utterly without affectation. The following, from The Human Stain, describes the narrator’s experience attending a rehearsal at The Tanglewood Music Center in western Massachusetts:

   As the audience filed back in, I began, cartoonishly, to envisage the fatal malady that, without anyone’s recognizing it, was working away inside us, within each and every one of us: to visualize the blood vessels occluding under the baseball caps, the malignancies growing beneath the permed white hair, the organs misfiring, atrophying, shutting down, the hundreds of billions of murderous cells surreptitiously marching this entire audience toward the improbable disaster ahead. I couldn’t stop myself. The stupendous decimation that is death sweeping us all away. Orchestra, audience, conductor, technicians, swallows, wrens—think of the numbers for Tanglewood alone just between now and the year 4000. Then multiply that times everything. The ceaseless perishing. What an idea! What maniac conceived it? And yet what a lovely day it is today, a gift of a day, a perfect day lacking nothing in a Massachusetts vacation spot that is itself as harmless and pretty as any on earth.

Then Bronfman appears. Bronfman the brontosaur! Mr. Fortissimo! Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt, somebody who has strolled into the Music Shed out of a circus where he is the strongman and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air. And when it does, everything there out in the open, the last of the last pulsation, he himself gets up and goes, leaving behind him our redemption. With a jaunty wave, he is suddenly gone, and though he takes all his fire off with him like no less a force than Prometheus, our own lives now seem inextinguishable. Nobody is dying, nobody—not if Bronfman has anything to say about it!

I have a vague memory of a feature article that appeared some years ago in the Washington Post (or possibly The New York Times). It was entitled “Lions in Winter,” those lions – if memory serves, and it may not – being Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Phillip Roth,  and John Updike. Now they are all gone, yet not gone, and well worth revisiting, each of them, but especially, today, Phillip Roth.

Phillip Milton Roth
March 19, 1933-May 22, 2018




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