'Here We Are': What Would Philip Roth Have Made Of All This?

May 13, 2020
Originally published on May 13, 2020 1:02 pm

"Imagine what Philip Roth would've made of this."

That's what I said to my husband last month (or was it two months ago?) during our extended family's first-ever Zoom Passover Seder. We were the virtual hosts and so we watched as, in groups or singly, family members materialized in their little Hollywood Squares cubes.

The little kids waved and held up plastic frogs and locusts, while some of the older folks squinted into their laptops and fiddled with the audio or pressed the wrong icon and vanished for a while altogether. Several times, the service was delayed by anxious phone calls from senior family members, requesting emergency tech support.

In mixed-marriage fashion, my husband and I took advantage of the situation and made ourselves Seder cups of gin and tonic instead of Manischewitz. Everyone genially agreed that the important thing about this shambling service was being together.

Had Roth lived long enough to witness Pandemic Passover on Zoom, he would have been merciless.

Roth died in 2018, leaving 31 books behind; like other Roth lovers, I will always want more. Benjamin Taylor's new memoir, Here We Are, temporarily eases the loss by giving us more of Roth's voice in conversation: brilliant, profane, and so very funny.

Taylor was one of Roth's closest friends during the last decades of his life. In fact, Roth dedicated his 2007 novel Exit Ghost to Taylor. Twenty years younger, gay and himself an accomplished memoirist and novelist, Taylor assumes the role of James Boswell to Roth's Samuel Johnson with ease — he's always aware, but only occasionally irritated, that Philip Roth is Philip Roth and he's not. At the outset of Here We Are, Taylor tells us:

We spent thousands of hours in each other's company. He was fully half my life. I cannot hope for another such friend. ... To talk daily with someone of such gifts had been a salvation.

Along with their conversations in Here We Are, Taylor summons up anecdotes and clear-eyed assessments of what made Roth tick. There's an appealing quality of randomness to this slim memoir that makes it feel like we're tagging along with the two friends on their constant walks, talks and dinners in the dive restaurants Roth preferred on the Upper West Side, where anything could come up, sometimes even big revelations.

Taylor says that after Roth announced his retirement from writing in 2012 "[h]e stopped making art," but he still wrote, producing a manuscript of over 1,000 pages, whose purpose was to air grudge after grudge. Taylor comments that "The underside of [Roth's] greatness swarmed with grievances time had not assuaged."

Taylor also recounts some of Roth's health struggles: Among other things, he suffered from back and heart problems. Taylor recalls one particular trip to the hospital with Roth where they jumped into a cab: the "aggressively flatulent" driver had Rush Limbaugh on at top volume. Roth, in pain, turned to Taylor and asked, "Are we to be spared nothing?"

There's that voice. Dry, droll, delighting in the Human Comedy, and resigned to sometimes being the butt of its ongoing jokes. The greatest pleasure of Here We Are is hearing Roth's voice again new, especially when he's talking about his writing. At one point in their conversations, Roth says to Taylor that what he cares about in his work is:

individuals enmeshed in some nexus of particulars. Philosophical generalization is completely alien to me. ... All my brain power has to do with specificity, life's proliferating minutia. Wouldn't know what to do with a general idea if it were hand-delivered. Would try to catch the FedEx man before he left the driveway. 'Wrong address, pal! Big ideas? No thanks!'

About his development as a novelist from his 1959 debut in Goodbye, Columbus to Portnoy's Complaint, which was published in 1969, Roth confesses:

Oh, I wanted to be literary, wanted to be influenced. There were Flaubert and Henry James. There were Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. ... [But] I discovered I was not a gloomy but a raucous talent. And that's the story of Portnoy's Complaint... a full-scale farce with which to answer the abominations of the time: assassinations, cities afire, the nightly news from Southeast Asia. I flung my harmless obscenities back at the world-historical ones.

That last line stopped me cold and made me sorely miss the presence of Philip Roth in our world. What an epic Roth might have written, flinging Zoom Seders, sheltering in place, Lysol and toilet paper against our present world-historical obscenities.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Benjamin Taylor says his close friend Philip Roth told him years ago, we've laughed so hard maybe we should write a book about our friendship. Taylor took up that suggestion, and the result is his new memoir about his friendship with Roth called "Here We Are." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Imagine what Philip Roth would've made of this. That's what I said to my husband last month - or was it two months ago? - during our extended family's first-ever Zoom Passover Seder. We were the virtual hosts, and so we watched as, in groups or singly, family members materialized in their little "Hollywood Squares" cubes.

The little kids waved and held up plastic frogs and locusts, while some of the older folks squinted into their laptops and fiddled with the audio or pressed the wrong icon and vanished for a while altogether. Several times, the service was delayed by anxious phone calls from senior family members requesting emergency tech support.

In mixed-marriage fashion, my husband and I took advantage of the situation and made ourselves Seder cups of gin and tonic instead of Manischewitz. Everyone genially agreed that the important thing about this shambling service was being together. Had Philip Roth lived long enough to witness pandemic Passover on Zoom, he would have been merciless.

Roth died in 2018, leaving 31 books behind. Like other Roth lovers, I will always want more. Benjamin Taylor's new memoir, called "Here We Are," temporarily eases the loss by giving us more of Roth's voice in conversation - brilliant, profane and so very funny.

Taylor was one of Roth's closest friends during the last decades of his life. In fact, Roth dedicated his 2007 novel "Exit Ghost" to Taylor. Twenty years younger, gay and himself an accomplished memoirist and novelist, Taylor assumes the role of Boswell to Roth's Dr. Johnson with ease. He's always aware but only occasionally irritated that Philip Roth is Philip Roth and he's not.

At the outset of "Here We Are," Taylor tells us (reading) We spent thousands of hours in each other's company. He was fully half my life. I cannot hope for another such friend. To talk daily with someone of such gifts had been a salvation.

Along with their conversations, in "Here We Are," Taylor summons up anecdotes and clear-eyed assessments of what made Roth tick. There's an appealing quality of randomness to this slim memoir that makes it feel like we're tagging along with the two friends on their constant walks, talks and dinners in the dive restaurants Roth preferred on the Upper West Side, where anything could come up, sometimes even big revelations.

Taylor says that after Roth announced his retirement from writing in 2012, he stopped making art, but he still wrote, producing a manuscript of over a thousand pages whose purpose was to air grudge after grudge. Taylor comments that the underside of Roth's greatness swarmed with grievances time had not assuaged.

Taylor also recounts some of Roth's health struggles. Among other things, he suffered from back and heart problems. Taylor recalls one particular trip to the hospital with Roth where they jumped into a cab. The aggressively flatulent driver had Rush Limbaugh on at top volume. Roth, in pain, turned to Taylor and asked, are we to be spared nothing?

There's that voice - dry, droll, delighting in the human comedy and resigned to sometimes being the butt of its ongoing jokes. The greatest pleasure of "Here We Are" is hearing Roth's voice again new, especially when he's talking about his writing.

At one point in their conversations, Roth says to Taylor that what he cares about in his work is (reading) Individuals enmeshed in some nexus of particulars. Philosophical generalization is completely alien to me. All my brain power has to do with specificity. Wouldn't know what to do with a general idea if it were hand-delivered. Would try to catch the FedEx man before he left the driveway. Wrong address, pal. Big ideas? No thanks.

About his development as a novelist from his 1959 debut in "Goodbye, Columbus" to "Portnoy's Complaint," which was published in 1969, Roth confesses, (reading) Oh, I wanted to be literary, wanted to be influenced. There were Flaubert and Henry James, Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. But I discovered I was not a gloomy but a raucous talent. And that's the story of "Portnoy's Complaint," a full-scale farce with which to answer the abominations of the time - assassinations, cities afire, the nightly news from Southeast Asia. I flung my harmless obscenities back at the world-historical ones.

That last line stopped me cold and made me sorely miss the presence of Philip Roth in our world. What an epic Roth might have written, flinging Zoom Seders, sheltering in place, Lysol and toilet paper against our present world-historical obscenities.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Here We Are: My Friendship With Philip Roth" by Benjamin Taylor.

On tomorrow's show, what we can learn from the 1918 influenza outbreak, the deadliest pandemic in history. We talk with John Barry, whose 2004 book "The Great Influenza" is on the current bestseller list. He co-wrote a report on the future of the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons learned from the influenza pandemic. I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help today from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.