P.Hilip Roth and Benjamin Taylor met in 1994 at a party for a mutual friend. In a short conversation, Roth asked Taylor what he was reading (Bellows “Duke”), followed by Roth, who quoted the book and then suggested, “Let’s have lunch, boy.”
But that would only happen after a few years, although the two men, separated by two decades by age, eventually became closest friends. In the summer of 1998, Taylor, a writer and critic, wrote to Roth after reading the evidence from “I Married A Communist,” and a few days later Roth called. A conversation interrupted by laughter began, with Roth clearly in the lead, Taylor skillfully following.
“Then he hung up without warning and I felt like I had danced from the edge of the world,” writes Taylor in “Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor (Penguin). Three years later they had that long delayed lunch, the first of hundreds of meals and thousands of hours together.
Their friendship consisted of empathy, ease, and high energy forged in the acclaimed 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 told The Jewish Week, “gave us a lot in common.”
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“It was a friendship with no ulterior motives on either side; We enjoyed each other’s company very much, “says Taylor, recalling his story of friendship with people from his parents’ generation,” a generation that I’m quite in awe of. “
They laughed well together and talked about dreams, baseball, food, fiction, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner (Roth had an affair with her in London in the 1980s), and most importantly, their shared interest in American history – and Roth enjoyed having fun about their sexual history.
“I can’t be the first gay man to be the mainstay of an older straight man,” writes Taylor, adding, “The level of attachment surprised both of us. Were we lovers? Obviously not. Were we in love Not exactly. Suffice it to say that our conversation was a conversation nobody could have lived without. ”
Two years after Roth’s death, three biographies are in the works – an official biography of Blake Bailey, who authored biographies of John Cheever and others and had exclusive access to his papers; Steven Zipperstein, who writes for the Yale Jewish Lives series; and Ira Nadel, a professor at the University of British Columbia working on a more academic book.
The memoirs “Here We Are” are permeated with love. Taylor is a master at writing about his best friend (as they called themselves) and readers will witness a kinder, more generous, and loving Roth than they would have imagined. It is a story of real life, or as Roth put it, “the unwritten world”.
The author of the 2017 award-winning memoir “The Hue and Cry at Our House”; two other non-fiction books, “Proust: The Search” and “Neaples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay”; together with two novels, “Tales Out of School” and “The Book of Getting Even”. Taylor has also edited several literary volumes, including “Saul Bellow: Letters” and Bellows “There is Simply too much to talk about: Collected Nonfiction”. As a founding faculty member of the New School’s Graduate Program of Writing, he also teaches at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Taylor knows Roth’s novels well and uses them to move the narrative forward while separating Roth’s life from the lives of his characters. He remembers a line from the “Sabbath Theater” that “tenderness was out of control” and says that in Roth’s presence one sometimes had the feeling “so different from the encrusted public image, the stony public person. That wasn’t Philip. “
The author says he knows there are many “Roth haters” in the world and has heard from many since the book was published. But he is “not prepared for the other extreme, the people who protect his memory and think I have abused his trust”. In response, he emphasizes that the memoirs were Roth’s idea.
Often Taylor spent a week with Roth at his Connecticut home, with Roth retiring to his studio during the day and Taylor writing in the main house.
“After being annoyed by something, he was full of joy. It could be very lively. Nothing enlivened him like writing a good day. On top of that, he wasn’t interested in alcohol, which was a huge plus, ”says Taylor.
At the beginning of their friendship, Roth said to Taylor: “What matters to me are individuals caught up in a context of particulars. Philosophical generalization is completely alien to me – the work of some other writers. I am philosophically illiterate. All my brain power has to do with specificity, the proliferating little things in life. Don’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, buddy! Big ideas? No thanks!'”
What “Rothian” is for Taylor is that “in addition to this well-known tenacity, there is Roth’s tenderness, the current way back from all complexity, back to the time when he was Bess and Herman’s boy, not yet” Franz Kafkas and Fyodor Dostoyevsky… “The Weequahic section of Newark was his Eden. Roth speaks of a very happy family life, no trace of the arrogant Jewish parents he would write about.
Regarding Portnoy’s Complaint, the bestselling novel that caught a firestorm of attention, including its condemnation by the Israeli philosopher Gershom Scholem, Roth says, “The book had too much impact. I wasn’t Norman Mailer. Trouble wasn’t my middle name. The book made me too famous, determined too much of my life. People don’t believe me when I say this, but I wish I would just leave the individual chapters in these magazines. (The book was first published in Esquire, Partisan Review, and New American Review.)
Taylor, who accompanied Roth as he received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2014, said Roth was genuinely pleased to be recognized for feeling misunderstood by many in the Jewish community. At JTS he was greeted with standing ovations.
“There was no way he would have wanted to go through life as anything other than a Jew,” says Taylor.
While instructing Taylor and others not to want a Jewish ritual at his funeral and burial in the Bard College cemetery, he agreed that his friends could completely cover the coffin with earth and fill in the grave, the Jewish custom, such as he told Taylor that he had first attended Saul Bellow’s funeral in Vermont.
What would Roth have thought of the present moment in America?
“He would have felt the tragedy of appalling leadership at a time of national peril. He was in awe of Lincoln and Roosevelt; he saw it as American fortune to have had two such leaders in the two most painful moments in our history. With Donald Trump, he had the feeling that our luck had run out, ”says Taylor.
When Roth stopped writing – or, as Taylor rightly pointed out, stopped making art since he always wrote all the notes – he sometimes said he was never happier and other times he said that “a great dynamic is leaving me and “I feel it.” As Taylor writes, “He missed the campfire it was.”
Over the years Roth gave his friend pages with manuscripts, new typescripts, and other papers. After Roth’s death, Taylor gave the material to the Manuscripts Division of Princeton Firestone Library for safekeeping. He kept a present – the Newark card that Roth carried from his time at the University of Chicago until his death. It hung in his Manhattan apartment and is now in the hallway of Taylor’s apartment, where he sees it every day.
“I miss him the most when there’s something funny that I need to report urgently,” says Taylor. “Internally, I do this several times a day. The conversation continues. Death is powerless to end such a conversation. “