Philip Roth is dead. He was old, and it wasn’t exactly sad, and he wasn’t writing fiction anymore, so what did we get from him anyway? Just two days ago I reread an interview he did with the Times by email in January, and his mind was sharp as ever, his writing lucid, interesting, striking, stentorian, rabbinical, secular, inescapable.
On growing old and staying alive (a condition which no longer exists), he said this:
It’s something like playing a game, day in and day out, a high-stakes game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning. We will see how long my luck holds out
He was got after all and eventually. I read Portnoy’s Complaint first of course, like most people, then over the years The Plot Against America, which introduced me to another hero of mine, I.F. Stone, and I skipped around from the whackjob nutty like The Great American Novel to the lump throated transcendant like I Married a Communist and American Pastoral. Novels like Nemesis evoked such a place in time and a feeling of low grade terror that it was like you lived the epidemic in Newark.
Growing up outside of New York City, there was always the added pleasure of knowing where Roth was talking about, but not knowing a lot. Weequahic, Newark, Essex County, the New Jersey suburbs. The tristate familiarity hit home often in his more “serious” novels. Mind benders like Operation Shylock were unmitigated triumphs, giving me over to writing about a writer with a pretentious phrase like that, they whipped you around and drove you nuts, and the detail with which Roth had investigated Holocaust denial! It was detail like that, present in all his books, which he churned out lapidary over the course of his life that was part of what made him really a genius.
There’s a million lines from books of his that I’d love to share, but I’ve only got one notebook of mine on me, and so here’s this from the latest one of his that I read, The Human Stain:
“That’s what comes of being hand-raised,” said Faunia. “That’s what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain,” she said, and without revulsion or contempt of condemnation. Not even with sadness. That’s how it is– in her own dry way, that is all Faunia was telling the girl feeding the snake: we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen – there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic it doesn’t require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity? All she was saying about the stain was that it’s inescapable.