How Philip Roth Saw His Job

The Times obituary called him “towering,” which he would not have minded, but, too often, the reviews left the impression that Philip Roth lived in a tower of his own making, aloof, solitary, remote, caught up in Henry James’s “madness of art”—something like the character of E. I. Lonoff, in the “The Ghost Writer”—insufferable even to his wife, and, owing to inevitable condescension, bereft of friends. Philip was indeed alone in Connecticut, where he lived part of the year, and might even have cultivated a reputation for aloofness, in interviews and in public appearances, as a way of protecting himself from excess fame, spite, and sentimentality. He had no children. He also protected his space for his work—his cultural ambitions. He cultivated those at the University of Chicago, where he had been a graduate student. He told Christopher Lydon, in a radio interview in 2006, that he had always thought that “the final score would be University of Chicago 22–Public Culture 7.” He knew better by then, he said, but wanted to keep doing “his job.”

However, to his friends, who were not few, and who were often women, this portrait of Philip’s remoteness always seemed just another wrongheaded conclusion jumped to in the “public culture”—much like his alleged misogyny, which apparently fooled the Nobel committee. If Philip Roth the writer could be said to have had a specialty, it was facing up to what happens when you stop liking the person you love: parent, wife, son, lover, Jew, reader, friend. For stories like his to seem true (and tortured), the narrator’s openheartedness must be palpable, and the risk of heartbreak imminent. Philip did his job, and, to his friends, his open, bruisable heart was the most obvious thing about how he succeeded in it. A writer must have a “voice,” Lonoff tells Nathan Zuckerman, one “that begins at about the back of the knees and reaches well above the head.” Philip’s voice hooked you with its curious warmth. It hooked friends, too.

In my first meeting with him, at his Manhattan apartment, in September, 1974—as it happens, a couple of days after two of my dearest relatives were killed in a terrorist attack—he scrambled eggs for us and gently coaxed out my life story, which was the first time it occurred to me that I might have a life story. And generosity hardened into loyalty. Your crisis—especially if it was marital, which brought distinct suffering—would get months of attention. He did not take notes. My job, at that moment, he told me, was “to feel.” Many people were the recipients of such loyalty from him. Philip became a virtual grandfather to the children of a former lover, who herself became a dear friend—children whom he adored and encouraged, and whose drawings hung on his fridge. He also mentored a young woman who worked as his cook, becoming her study partner for her college courses. (“Bernie, explain Nietzsche to Catherine.”)

Doing his job, in other words, meant staying available to love. Love, like hurt, was interesting. Making the best of it, mysteriously enough, was a privilege. So was devotion, which was also right, the way that his parents’ devotion to their children had been right. So was Eros, the fuel of ambition, though you had to learn how not to burn yourself. Philip hated religion, but there was a positive soulfulness to this job, which yielded spontaneous fellow-feeling in everyday encounters. A few years back, after heart surgery, he braved a first walk from his Seventy-ninth Street apartment. He stepped gingerly onto the sidewalk, taking my arm, stopping every fifty feet to catch his breath, whispering, suddenly, of the dread of oblivion; and yet, as he stopped to rest on the corner bench, I realized that the walk actually had a destination, a bookstall just down the block. The seller, without fuss, presented him with his latest haul of Philip Roth hardcovers, which he proceeded to sign, dutifully, like an employee, adding surplus value.

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