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A friendship of ‘Rothian’ proportions
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A friendship of ‘Rothian’ proportions

Ben Taylor chronicles a long-running conversation ‘neither [of us] could live without’

Ben Taylor says he and Roth laughed well together and spoke of dreams, baseball, food, fiction, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner (Roth had an affair with her in London in the 1980s), and especially their shared interest in 
American history. Allison West
Ben Taylor says he and Roth laughed well together and spoke of dreams, baseball, food, fiction, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner (Roth had an affair with her in London in the 1980s), and especially their shared interest in American history. Allison West

Philip Roth and Benjamin Taylor first met in 1994 at a party for a mutual friend. In a quick conversation, Roth asked Taylor what he was reading (Bellow’s “Herzog”), followed by Roth quoting the book and then suggesting, “Let’s have lunch, kid.”

But that wouldn’t happen for a few years, although the two men, separated in age by two decades, eventually became the closest of friends. In the summer of 1998, Taylor, an author and critic, wrote to Roth after reading the proofs of “I Married A Communist,” and then a few days later, Roth called. A conversation punctuated with laughter began, with Roth clearly leading, Taylor ably following.

“Then he hung up without notice and I felt I’d been danced off the edge of the world,” Taylor writes in “Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth”  (Penguin). Three years after that, they had that long-delayed lunch, the first of hundreds of meals and thousands of hours together.

Theirs was a friendship of empathy, ease, and high energy forged in the celebrated author’s later years — when Roth was in his 70s and 80s and Taylor in his 50s and 60s. Both were the grandchildren of immigrants, Roth from Newark and Taylor from Fort Worth, Texas. That they were both Jewish men, Taylor tells NJJN, “gave us a lot of common ground.”

“It was a friendship without ulterior motive on either side; we delighted in each other’s company,” Taylor says, recalling his history of friendship with people of his parents’ generation, “a generation I am rather in awe of.”

They laughed well together and spoke of dreams, baseball, food, fiction, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner (Roth had an affair with her in London in the 1980s), and especially their shared interest in American history — and Roth enjoyed comparing notes on their sexual history.

“I can’t be the first gay man to have been an older straight man’s mainstay,” Taylor writes, adding, “The degree of attachment surprised us both. Were we lovers? Obviously not. Were we in love? Not exactly. Sufficient to say that ours was a conversation that neither could have lived
without.”

Two years after Roth’s death, three biographies are in the works — an official biography by Blake Bailey, who wrote biographies of John Cheever and others and has had exclusive access to his papers; Steven Zipperstein, who is writing for the Yale Jewish Lives series; and Ira Nadel, a professor at the University of British Columbia who is working on a more academic book.

A memoir, “Here We Are” is permeated with love. Taylor writes masterfully about his best friend (as they called each other) and readers get to witness a kinder, more generous and loving Roth than they might have imagined. It’s a story of real life, or as Roth called it, “the unwritten world.”

The author of the award-winning 2017 memoir “The Hue and Cry at Our House”; two other works of nonfiction, “Proust: The Search” and “Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay”; along with two novels, “Tales Out of School” and “The Book of Getting Even,” Taylor also edited several literary volumes, including “Saul Bellow: Letters” and Bellow’s “There is Simply too Much to Talk About: Collected Nonfiction.” A founding faculty member in the New School’s Graduate Program of Writing, he also teaches in the Columbia University School of the Arts.

Taylor knows Roth’s novels well, and uses them to advance the narrative while separating Roth’s life from the lives of his characters. He recalls a line from “Sabbath’s Theater” that “the tenderness was out of control” and says that sometimes one felt that in Roth’s presence, “so different from the crusty public image, the flinty public persona. That wasn’t Philip.”

The author says that he knew there were many “Roth haters” in the world, and he has heard from many since the book was published. But he wasn’t prepared “for the other extreme, the people who are protective of his memory and feel I betrayed his trust.” In response, he emphasizes that the memoir was Roth’s idea.

Frequently, Taylor would spend a week with Roth at his home in Connecticut, with Roth retreating to his studio during the days and Taylor writing in the main house.

“After teasing through something, he was full of joy. He could be very buoyant. Nothing invigorated him like a good day’s writing. Add to this that he had no interest in alcohol — a great advantage,” Taylor says.

Early on in their friendship, Roth told Taylor: “What I care about is individuals enmeshed in some nexus of particulars. Philosophical generalization is completely alien to me — some other writer’s work. I’m a philosophical illiterate. All my brain power has to do with specificity, life’s proliferating minutiae. 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!’”

What for Taylor is “Rothian,” is that “alongside this well-known tough-mindedness there is the Rothian tenderness, the momentary way back out of all complexity, back to when he’d just been Bess and Herman’s boy, not yet also Franz Kafka’s and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s…” The Weequahic section of Newark was his Eden. Roth speaks of his family life as being very happy, with no trace of the overbearing Jewish parents he would write about.

About “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the best-selling novel that attracted a firestorm of attention, including condemnation from Israeli philosopher Gershom Scholem, Roth says, “The book had too much impact. I was not Norman Mailer. Trouble was not my middle name. The book made me too famous, determined too much of my life to come. People don’t believe me when I say this, but I wish I’d just let the individual chapters stand in those magazines.” (The book was first excerpted in Esquire, Partisan Review and New American Review.)

Taylor, who accompanied Roth when he received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2014, says that Roth was genuinely pleased by the recognition, that he had felt misunderstood by many in the Jewish community. At JTS, he was greeted with a standing ovation.

“He would on no account have wanted to go through life as anything other than a Jew,” Taylor says.

While he had instructed Taylor and others that he didn’t want any Jewish ritual at his funeral and burial in the Bard College Cemetery, he did agree that his friends could cover the casket entirely with dirt and fill in the grave, the Jewish custom, as he told Taylor he had first witnessed at Saul Bellow’s funeral in Vermont.

What would Roth have thought of the present moment in America?

“He would have felt the tragedy of ghastly leadership in a time of national peril. He was in awe of Lincoln and Roosevelt; he saw it as the American luck to have had two such leaders at the two most painful moments of our history. With Donald Trump he felt our luck had run out,” Taylor says.

When Roth stopped writing — or as Taylor points out, more correctly, stopped making art, as he kept writing all matter of notes — he would sometimes say he had never been happier, and at other times that “a great dynamism has left me and I feel it.” As Taylor writes, “He missed the bonfire he’d been.”

Over the years, Roth would gift his friend pages of manuscripts, new typescripts, and other papers. After Roth’s death, Taylor deeded the material to the Manuscripts Division of Princeton’s Firestone Library for safekeeping. He did keep one gift bequeathed to him — the map of Newark that Roth kept with him from his days at the University of Chicago until his death. It hung in his Manhattan apartment, and now is in the front hallway of Taylor’s apartment, where he sees it every day.

“I miss him most when there’s something funny that I urgently have to report,” Taylor says. “Inwardly, I do, several times a day. The conversation goes on. Death is powerless to end a conversation like that.”

Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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