Philip Roth and his friends / The Book of Laughter
THE BOOK OF LAUGHTER
Philip Roth and his friends.
By Claudia Roth Pierpont
OCTOBER 7, 2013
Philip Roth went through the editing of an entire book with Veronica Geng before they finally met and became fast friends—or, as Roth recalls, before “we began to make each other laugh.” Geng was an editor at this magazine, as well as a writer of sharp-edged social satires, when she sent a letter to Roth, in the late seventies, saying how much she admired his work and asking if he had anything that The New Yorker might publish. It was more than fifteen years since he’d appeared in these pages, and the magazine had widely come to be considered Updike country; Roth says he had concluded that the powers that be just “didn’t care for my stuff.” He had no short stories to offer. But he had recently completed a novel, “The Ghost Writer,” and he sent it to Geng to read. Her reaction, she later told Roth, was to march into the office of the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, put the manuscript on his desk, and say, “We should publish the whole thing.”
Milan Kundera, Veronica Geng, and Roth, in Connecticut in the fall of 1980.PHOTOGRAPH BY VERA KUNDERA
Roth was living in London at the time, and he and Geng worked on the book long-distance, in sessions that sometimes lasted close to an hour. Roth has always been ruthlessly self-critical while he is writing. The natural ease and the confiding voice so familiar to his readers are a somewhat deceptive achievement, a hard-won part of the art. He habitually wrote numerous drafts of a book before he approached satisfaction, and he speaks appreciatively of editors at various publishing houses over the fifty-plus years of his career. But he reserves special praise for Geng’s ability to zero in on problems. (“Not the tiniest piece of crap eluded her” is how he puts it. “She invariably landed squarely on what was wrong and left me to face it down, if I could.”) Many readers still consider “The Ghost Writer,” the novel that introduced Nathan Zuckerman and reimagined the story of Anne Frank, to be Roth’s most perfect work. The New Yorker published it, in its entirety, in two installments, in the summer of 1979, putting it into the illustrious company of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” and Rachel Carson’s warning about the coming environmental apocalypse, “Silent Spring.”
The source of the laughter that sealed Roth’s friendship with Geng, when they met for drinks at the Algonquin later that year, can be found in her writing no less than in his. Combining a deep distaste for cliché and pretense with a high-pitched sense of the absurd, Geng produced a body of unclassifiably strange and funny takes on the mores of the day. Her contribution to the vogue for memoirs about affairs with famous men was a six-page essay titled “My Mao.” (“He was round, placid, smooth as a cheese.”) The wedding announcements in the Timesprompted some of her most memorable lines: “The bride, an alumna of the Royal Doulton School . . . is also a descendant of Bergdorf Goodman of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her previous marriage ended in pharmaceuticals.” As Roth sees it, she was “the best humorist since S. J. Perelman, only more quirky and moderne.”
Playfulness and humor were also crucial to Roth’s regard for the work of Milan Kundera, to whom “The Ghost Writer” is dedicated. Roth had met Kundera in Prague, in 1973, when Kundera was among the most harshly persecuted writers of the Soviet-backed Czech regime: fired from his teaching post, his works removed from libraries and bookstores, his foreign royalties largely confiscated by a punitive government tax. Roth visited Prague repeatedly in the early to mid-seventies, and developed a plan to bring the work of Czech and other Eastern European writers to the attention of the English-speaking world, through a series of books that he conceived and edited, “Writers from the Other Europe.”
One of the first volumes to be published, in 1975, was Kundera’s story collection “Laughable Loves,” with an introduction by Roth, who explained both the Czech political situation and Kundera’s refusal to be bounded by it. These were stories not of politics and the state but of “a private world of erotic possibilities,” Roth wrote, marked by Kundera’s distinct amusement at the sexual misadventures of his otherwise wholly oppressed characters. Roth’s praise of Kundera’s ability to take aesthetic pleasure from the absurdities and even the hardships of life suggests Kundera’s bond not only with Roth but with Geng, and, in the fall of 1980, during Kundera’s first visit to the United States, Roth brought the two of them together.
Geng was also a fan of Kundera’s work. Roth remembers her glowing with happiness, in a state of literary transport, through a long weekend that she and Kundera and Kundera’s wife, Vera, spent at Roth’s farmhouse, in western Connecticut. (Vera Kundera, who served as an inexhaustible and spirited translator for her non-English-speaking husband, had been essential to the forging of Roth’s friendship with Kundera, in Prague, and had become an equally valued friend.) And Roth was still busy smoothing Kundera’s American way: Geng soon became Kundera’s editor at The New Yorker, and another of Roth’s close editor-friends, Aaron Asher, became Kundera’s editor at Harper & Row. (Both he and his wife, Linda Asher, also became translators of Kundera’s work.) Some of the conversation between Roth and Kundera in Connecticut appeared as an interview, published under Roth’s byline, in the Times later that fall: promoting Kundera’s new novel, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” the interview was titled “The Most Original Book of the Season.” But when Roth looks back, more than thirty years later, his principal memories of those days are about walks in the woods and laughter after dinner: “Just a country weekend with good friends.”
One can’t laugh as much as Roth has laughed in his life without accumulating friends. The image of the solitary and taciturn writer, staring from the back of a book jacket, is accurate insofar as a great deal of solitude and discipline is required to produce thirty-one books in the course of a career. And yet the endless solitary hours also seem to have produced, in Roth, an intense appreciation for the spells of deliverance from the writer’s cell, and for the people who provide them. In the chronology that is appended to each of the nine volumes of the Library of America’s edition of Roth’s collected fiction, which began publication in 2005, the customary list of books and prizes is expanded and given emotional color by the frequent mention of friends Roth has made over the years. Prepared by the volumes’ editor, Ross Miller, with substantial aid from Roth himself, the chronology features such entries as “1965: Begins to teach comparative literature at University of Pennsylvania. . . . Meets professor Joel Conarroe, who becomes a close friend.” “1982: Corresponds with Judith Thurman after reading her biography of Isak Dinesen, and they begin a friendship.” This entry offers a glimpse of a rather surprising habit of Roth’s, considering his fame: often, when he reads something he admires, he sends a letter to the writer, who is just as often a total stranger. Thurman recalls her shock at receiving an enthusiastic note typed on a plain sheet of paper and signed “Philip Roth,” and her reply, which began, “If you are Philip Roth the candlestick maker . . .” Sometimes the chronology compresses a story of no small personal significance into a few words, as in this entry for 1957: “Meets Saul Bellow at University of Chicago when Bellow is a classroom guest of Roth’s friend and colleague, the writer Richard Stern.”
In the dedication to his collection of essays and interviews, “Reading Myself and Others,” of 1975, Roth called Bellow “the ‘other’ I have read from the beginning with the deepest pleasure and admiration.” Bellow also became one of Roth’s most cherished friends, although there is good reason that Roth did not write of their initial meeting in such terms. Roth was twenty-four years old—eighteen years Bellow’s junior—and a teacher of freshman composition when Bellow visited Richard Stern’s Chicago classroom; Roth was a guest that day, too, since Stern had arranged for one of Roth’s short stories to be discussed. Roth was a passionate admirer of Bellow’s 1953 revolution of a novel, “The Adventures of Augie March,” in thrall to its capaciousness, its ebullience, its startling reinvention of the American idiom. “I didn’t know what freedom was in a writer until I read that book,” he has said. “That you can do anything, that you can go anywhere.” Bellow’s novel also demonstrated that the lives of even the poorest urban Jews could be the stuff of American literature.
The story being discussed in class that day was “The Conversion of the Jews,” a small tragicomedy about a thirteen-year-old Hebrew-school student with a lot of uncomfortable questions for his rabbi, beginning with how he “could call the Jews ‘The Chosen People’ if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal.” Roth had written it a couple of years earlier, and it was still unpublished, having been rejected, he later noted, “by all the classy reviews.” Bellow clearly enjoyed the vivid fledgling work, and Roth went out for coffee afterward with Bellow and Stern, but he was awestruck by the great writer, and Bellow (however “amused by me,” Roth recalls) showed no sign of wishing to pursue a friendship.
Roth embroidered on the experience some twenty years later, in “The Ghost Writer,” when the famous novelist Felix Abravanel attends a Chicago class in which one of young Nathan Zuckerman’s stories is being discussed. Abravanel admires the story but also makes it plain, in his cashmere sports coat and his self-involvement and his devastating, condescending charm, that he is not in the habit of offering help to younger writers. In fact, despite his literary embrace of the “grand human discord,” in person the man turns out to be hardly there at all. One of the most beautifully Jamesian lines in Roth’s rather Jamesian book is Zuckerman’s analysis of Abravanel’s charm: “like a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect.” Roth and Bellow had developed something of a friendly acquaintance by the time “The Ghost Writer” was published, in 1979. They had literally crossed paths on Martha’s Vineyard during summers in the mid-sixties. When Bellow won the Nobel Prize, in 1976, Roth sent a telegram: “There IS justice in the world.” But Roth’s portrait of Abravanel did not bring them any closer.
Throughout the eighties, the two men corresponded and saw each other from time to time. Roth was living in London for half of every year, with the British actress Claire Bloom—they married in 1990—and he recalls that they gave a dinner party for Bellow at their home there, in 1986. Bellow was in low spirits, recovering from the death of both of his brothers and the end of his fourth marriage, and they also took him to a concert of late Shostakovich quartets, to cheer him up. (Not the most conventional idea of a pick-me-up, perhaps, but Roth, a lover of chamber music and of Shostakovich, says, “I wanted him to hear something beautiful.”) Bellow thanked him in a letter, since published, in which suffering and its musical relief are weighed in a typically unflinching equation: “There’s almost enough art to cover the deadly griefs with. Not quite, though. There are always gaps.” Despite such occasions and communications, Roth felt that Bellow remained fundamentally unreachable. The men did not become close until the early nineties, nearly thirty-five years after that first Chicago meeting. An entry in the Library of America chronology for 1991 reads, “Renews strong friendship with Saul Bellow.”
Roth credits a turnaround in Bellow’s attitude, and the real beginning of their friendship, to Janis Freedman Bellow, a graduate student at the University of Chicago whom Bellow married in 1989. Freedman Bellow wrote a very supportive review of Roth’s 1993 novel, “Operation Shylock,” partly in reaction to its quarrelsome reception by several prominent critics, including Michiko Kakutani, in the Times, and John Updike, in The New Yorker. (Although Updike’s review was not lacking in praise, he made it clear that he objected to what he called Roth’s “narrowing, magnifying fascination with himself.”) Roth is convinced that it was Freedman Bellow who got her husband “to read me seriously.” And, on a more personal level, he imagines her telling him, “What’s the matter, this guy really likes you, he really admires you, he wants to be your friend.” Whatever she said, it seemed to work. Roth remembers Bellow calling him up, after he’d read “Operation Shylock,” and saying, basically, “Kid, that was terrific.” No wonder that, in October, 1995, Roth sent the Bellows a letter, reading in its entirety, “Dear Saul and Janis: At last Bellow married a woman who understands me. Yours, Philip.”
Janis Freedman Bellow, a warm and easygoing woman who now teaches literature at Tufts University, insists that there was no need for her to coax her husband into reading Roth’s work seriously. They discussed Roth’s books all the time. “American Pastoral,” published in 1997, was another Bellow favorite, and, Freedman Bellow recalls, “the deepening of my appreciation of Philip’s work would have come from Saul.” She also believes that her husband was “hungering for a connection to Philip,” and that she merely helped him let it happen. There was some tension between the men, she concedes, based on Bellow’s sense of competition. He had a history of saying things he later wished he hadn’t—this is a man who titled a story collection “Him with His Foot in His Mouth”—and he had said a few of these things to Roth. But he didn’t want to be abrasive anymore. “I had that conciliatory gene,” she admits, “but it’s not like I was kicking him under the table.”
During the early nineties, when Roth went to Chicago to visit his older brother, Sandy, he also visited the Bellows. Later in the decade, he and a few other friends regularly got together, in summer, at the Bellows’ house in West Brattleboro, Vermont. Roth’s feeling for Bellow’s work approaches reverence. He speaks freely of having felt “swamped” by Bellow as a writer—“inspired but swamped,” by “the uncanny powers of observation, the naturalness, the seeing into human faces.” All in all, “he made me feel like an amateur.” Although he notes that Bellow’s final novel, “Ravelstein,” published in 2000, has some wonderful scenes and portraits, he also acknowledges that the book is deeply flawed. Understandably so: Bellow was eighty-four by the time he finished writing it. “It’s hard to write a book at eighty-four,” Roth says. “It’s hard to remember from day to day what you’ve done.” He had just turned seventy-nine when he related these thoughts, in 2012, and he had recently decided to retire from writing fiction; perhaps his observations go some way toward explaining why. He had confided the decision only to a few friends. The public did not know it until later that year, when he casually told a French interviewer, “To tell you the truth, I’m done.”
Slightly bending an agreement they had made about mutual candor, Roth told Bellow that he couldn’t properly evaluate “Ravelstein” because he was “out of sympathy” with the character of Abe Ravelstein, a barely fictionalized portrait of the neoconservative philosopher Allan Bloom, who had been a much admired friend of Bellow’s at the University of Chicago. Many people had said the same thing to Roth about his hyperbolically lewd and contrarian hero Mickey Sabbath, in “Sabbath’s Theater,” the 1995 book that Roth believes may be his best. “It allowed me to do fifty things,” he explains about “Sabbath,” “and in most books you do seven.” He has also called it “the freest experience” of his life as a writer.
Roth stayed close to Bellow throughout the final, fading years, as faculties weakened and ailments intensified. Even when things were at their worst, Roth was “a constant presence,” Freedman Bellow recalls. He telephoned frequently. “That could be difficult,” she says. “Saul could be repetitive, and a lot of people thought it wasn’t worth it anymore.” And the two men would end up laughing. “That was the main bond,” she adds, “the way they made each other laugh.”
Bellow had read and reread “The Plot Against America,” Roth’s best-selling counter-historical novel about a homegrown fascist takeover during the nineteen-forties, which was published in late 2004. He carried it around with him everywhere. “It was the Book,” Freedman Bellow says. “The cry around our house was, ‘Where’s the Book? Where’s the Book?’ “ About a week before he died, Roth tells me, Bellow called to say that he’d had a dream about Charles Lindbergh, the all-American and anti-Semitic pilot hero who, in Roth’s novel, is elected President. In the dream, Bellow said to Lindbergh, “Pardon me, sir, I don’t mean to pollute you with my Jewish presence.” By then, Bellow’s condition had deteriorated so badly that, in many ways, Roth says, he was “saved by death.”
Nevertheless, when Bellow died, in the spring of 2005, Roth fell into despair—“about him, about illness, about dying.” He was also in continual pain. He had suffered from intractable back problems for decades, and in the early nineties had begun to work at a standing desk. He underwent back surgery in 2002, but now the recurrence of pain—and the evident need for further surgery—compounded his dark mood. In the days after Bellow’s funeral, Roth put aside the manuscript he’d been working on and began something else. He was too physically uncomfortable to work at his computer, so he wrote in longhand, very slowly, groping after what he wanted. In an interview for the video series “Web of Stories,” he remembered his father, whose younger brother had died the same year as his wife and several friends, saying to him, “Philip, I can’t look into another hole in the ground.” Roth says that he hadn’t quite known what he meant, and had offered to attend the latest funeral in his father’s stead. But now he knew. “I guess you reach a point,” he says, “where you can’t look into another hole in the ground.”
The book that resulted from this realization, “Everyman,” is about death and the illnesses that take us there. One of the book’s strongest scenes depicts a Jewish Orthodox funeral during which the mourners take up shovels and, one by one, fill the gaping hole in the ground, looking “like old-fashioned workmen feeding a furnace with fuel.” It’s a horrible sight; those who can’t lift a shovel throw in fistfuls of dirt. The book’s nameless hero wants to make them stop—it is his father’s funeral—but the process is unstoppable. Roth was describing Bellow’s funeral, blow by blow, inch by inch of covering dirt, and he put the thoughts that he had at the time into the book. “Everyman” was published in 2006 with an ominous black cover, and Roth reported himself highly pleased that the book resembled a tombstone.
The first two volumes of the Library of America edition of Roth’s work had appeared in September of 2005, and the fact is that many of the friends inscribed in the chronology were already dead. Each death, Roth says, came as a shock. “You think, That’s the end of it when your parents die,” he tells me. “After that, you’re done. Nobody’s supposed to die anymore, right?”
Veronica Geng was an early and especially difficult loss. Long after “The Ghost Writer,” Roth had continued to send her all his work to read, “just to hear what she had to say.” They were never lovers, Roth emphasizes, but they came to love each other. When Geng underwent surgery for brain cancer, at Sloan-Kettering, in 1996, Roth was among her steadiest visitors, sitting on the edge of her bed in order to feed her, or taking her outside to York Avenue, in her wheelchair, so that, to the horror of the nurses, she could smoke. (“She was the tenderest person but with a will of iron,” he recalls. “I thought, What the hell, what’s one more?”) Geng had no job at the time, no health insurance, and very little cash, so Roth and a couple of other friends covered her medical expenses, and he set up a fund to provide her with financial backup. She was staying alone in his Upper West Side writing studio, recovering, when a seizure put her back in the hospital. She died on Christmas Eve, 1997, aged fifty-six. Roth gave her ravaging illness—complete with a raw serpentine scar running across her skull—to the intellectually uncompromising and ardently literary Amy Bellette in “Exit Ghost,” his 2007 sequel to “The Ghost Writer.”
Another hard death to absorb was George Plimpton’s, in 2003. Plimpton was one of Roth’s first literary champions—the editor who ultimately published “The Conversion of the Jews,” in The Paris Review—and among his oldest friends, a man of apparently indefatigable energy. Plimpton, too, appears, as himself, in a lengthy tribute in the aptly titled “Exit Ghost.” William Styron, a close friend for decades, died in November, 2006. And in January, 2009, John Updike died, at the age of seventy-six. He was precisely a year and a day older than Roth. The two writers whose names were so often conjoined had started out almost simultaneously: “Goodbye, Columbus” appeared in 1959, just a few months after Updike’s first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair.” They had met each other around that time, rather casually after dinner at the house of Roth’s editor, two young writers having their first success. And they had got along well. Roth recalls Updike’s “leaping, kangaroo-like” energy, and adds, “I was not un- kangaroo-like myself.”
A decade later, they profitably scandalized the country with “Couples” (1968) and “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969). Although they saw each other only occasionally—Updike lived near Boston, Roth in London and New York—Roth wrote a note or made a call when he was particularly impressed by something that Updike had written. He remembers his excitement over “Roger’s Version,” published in 1986, a novel that took on the subject of computers before anyone was really writing about computers, and calling Updike to congratulate him. By the time of Updike’s death, however, the men had not talked in nearly ten years.
In 1996, Claire Bloom published a memoir, “Leaving a Doll’s House,” in which she described, in painful detail, her view of the disintegration of her marriage to Roth. Three years later, Updike published just one sentence about Bloom’s book in an essay on literary biography, in The New York Review of Books. Discussing the rise of a genre he termed the “Judas biography,” written by a former spouse or friend to repay a grudge, Updike wrote, “Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unraveled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.” Roth wrote a letter to the Review, suggesting a slight emendation of the sentence’s all-important verb: “Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, alleges him to have been . . .” Updike responded in print with an affable shrug, stating that the change was fine with him but that he thought his words conveyed “the same sense of one-sided allegations.” Roth did not agree. The wounds from Bloom’s certainly one-sided and widely accepted account had not entirely healed, and he felt betrayed by a friend who ought to have known better—who had actually seen them together, and had told New York, at the time of the book’s release, and in words that Roth easily recites even now, “how proud and protective Philip seemed of her.” Roth never spoke to Updike again.
Roth says today that he may have been a little “too raw” in his feelings then. In any case, he continues to feel Updike’s death as a serious loss—not so much personally but for the culture. He would like to have been able to read Updike on Obama, for example. In the weeks immediately afterward, he spoke with admiration about the way Updike spent his final months: “He was writing poetry!” Most impressive, Updike wrote a poem called “Spirit of 76,” for what turned out to be his final birthday. (“Be with me, words, a little longer . . .”) About these efforts, Roth says, “In the midst of the dread of dying, in the midst of the act of dying, he was writing about the event with the same precise intensity, the same intelligence, the same craftsmanship.” One day in March, 2009, I asked Roth if he regretted having let so many years go by without resuming contact, and he replied, without elaboration, “Yes.”
Still, they were what Roth calls “friends at a distance”—implicating far more than geography—a description that seems to fit Updike’s sense of the relationship, too. Asked if he and Roth were friends, in an interview in the London Telegraph, in October, 2008, just months before he died, Updike gave a cryptic smile and answered, “Guardedly.”
They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse. That’s a very loose analogy, in which Roth would have to be Picasso—the energy, the slashing power—and Updike would be Matisse: the color, the sensuality. Roth calls Updike the only American writer who ever approached the guiltless sensuality of Colette—a genuine tribute from a writer who reveres Colette, and who taught her work in a course at Penn (along with works by Flaubert, Duras, and Tolstoy) devoted to the subject of desire. Updike “was a great writer of the erotic,” Roth says. “I don’t know if he had more audacity than I have, but I sometimes thought he did.” Yet he intends something broader and richer by the comparison with Colette. “It’s apparent everywhere in his work,” he says, “the sensuous apprehension of whatever’s near at hand” and the “aesthetic power.”
The essential difference in the perspectives of Updike and Roth isn’t so much Christian versus Jewish, or believer versus non-believer, or small town versus city, although it involves all of these. Their greatest virtues as writers seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear. Updike was a painter in words—he studied art for a year, at Oxford—although the bleak loneliness of his vision is often closer to Hopper than to Matisse. Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joking, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling, the sound of a mind at work. There’s not a page by one that could be mistaken for a page by the other. But they are united in having spent a lifetime possessed by America. To go from Rabbit Angstrom to Nathan Zuckerman is in fact to go from A to Z in the history of the country after the Second World War—the years in which, as Roth has said, “America discovered itself as America.”
Updike’s Rabbit is a common man, a carefully crafted lens for viewing the social world around him. A onetime high-school athlete, a car salesman, a father, a Wasp, a close reader of Consumer Reports, Rabbit is mired in the ordinary life that Zuckerman—an extraordinary man, a famous writer, a solitary—only imagines that he longs to share. The four Rabbit books (beginning with “Rabbit, Run,” in 1960, and concluding with “Rabbit at Rest,” in 1990) have long been celebrated as a literary mirror of our national progress, with the big historical events (racial turmoil, oil embargoes) quietly thrumming behind an endless profusion of the sort of details that constitute the passing years: Rabbit’s pleasure in the “solid big-car feel” of a “1978 Luxury Edition liftback five-door Corona,” his mother-in-law’s full recall of episodes of “All in the Family,” the choice between coffeemakers at Kmart. You could virtually reconstruct the milieu of these almost ostentatiously average lives from Updike’s books: the hot-dog stands and the gas stations; later, the country clubs and the swimming pools. And given the poetic lustre of the prose—“clean children shivering with their sudden emergence into the thinner element are handed towels by their mothers”—you could even come to find some of it beautiful.
Zuckerman, as he matures in the course of nine books—from age twenty-three, in “The Ghost Writer,” to seventy-one, in “Exit Ghost”—becomes a vital witness to and chronicler of American life. The older and sicker and more isolated he becomes, the more his curiosity and imaginative empathy and his terrible emotional hunger lead him to try to comprehend the ever-mysterious lives of other people, and the ways that history has shaped them. The effects of the historical moment vary widely. The direct and disastrous impact of the McCarthy years on the characters in “I Married a Communist” (1998) and of the literal explosions of the sixties on the Levov family in “American Pastoral” are very different from the toll taken in “The Human Stain” (2000) by the atmospheric prurience of the Clinton-Lewinsky summer of 1998, when “terrorism—which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security—was succeeded by cocksucking,” and when “life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.”
The vengeful ideologies of the extreme right, of the extreme left, and of the enormous if small-minded middle: no one is absolved. Yet Zuckerman, though permanently enraged and unable to bear to read a newspaper, remains a patriot. In “Exit Ghost,” he watches the televised results of the 2004 election with a horror-stricken young couple who see the wreckage of all their hopes and beliefs in the second victory of George W. Bush. And Zuckerman draws a simple lesson, the most consoling one that he can muster. “It’s a flexible instrument that we’ve inherited,” he says. “It’s amazing how much punishment we can take.” One of the many losses in Roth’s retirement is that, as he says of Updike, we will not be able to read him on the era of Obama.
The day I asked Roth about regrets, he was reminiscing about times he had spent with Updike and other friends on Martha’s Vineyard, in the summer of 1967, arguing about the Vietnam War. Updike wrote in some detail, twice, about those arguments—first, transformed into fiction in “Rabbit Redux” (1971), with Updike, a defender of the war, giving his thoughts to the politically conservative Rabbit, while Roth’s views, as Roth remembers and recognizes them, were given to a black revolutionary character called Skeeter. Returning to the subject in his memoir, “Self-Consciousness,” published in 1989, Updike portrayed Roth, then “on the dizzying verge of publishing ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ ” as looking “puzzled” by Updike’s defense of “Johnson and his pitiful ineffective war machine.”
At pains to understand his now embarrassing hawkishness, Updike recalls his revulsion at the antiwar extremists of the era, particularly “the totalitarian intolerance and savagery epitomized by the Weathermen.” For years, he carried in his wallet a slip of paper printed with a Weathermen slogan, the same infamous lines (with small grammatical changes) that the teen-age Merry Levov, in “American Pastoral,” puts up on her wall: “We are against everything that’s good and decent in honky America. We will loot, burn, and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare.” Broadening the subject to the morality of war, Updike notes that in some religious systems merely to be alive is to kill: the Jains try to prevent such killing, he adds, “by wearing gauze masks to avoid inhaling insects.”
It’s a startling conjunction of subjects: Roth, the Weathermen, and the Jains, all within six pages, published some five years before Roth started writing “American Pastoral,” in which Merry Levov evolves from darling daughter to Weatherman to Jain. Roth needed no one to suggest the subject of an American girl’s development into a bomb-building radical; he’d had such a story in mind—and had written fifty or sixty pages toward a novel—back in the early seventies, when prominent members of the Weathermen like Kathy Boudin and Bernardine Dohrn were making headlines. Why focus on a female radical? Because, unlike the angry young men of the antiwar movement, Roth explains today, the women acted without the threat of being drafted and becoming cannon fodder. There was a “purity to their rage,” he says, which made them less easily explicable and more compelling as a subject.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s hard not to see in Updike’s pages the seed of the final phase of Merry’s frightful development, a possibility that doesn’t detract from Roth’s monumental fictional construct, or from the breadth of details that give it life. Wretched Merry, set on doing “no harm to the microscopic organisms that dwell in the air,” fashions a mask from the foot of an old stocking. It seems that Roth and Updike had a nourishing exchange, even at a distance.
Updike discussed his fraught relationship with Roth in the Telegraph interview, in October, 2008, a time when he felt that “Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry, as far as I can tell.” It had not always been so. “I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow,” he went on. But it seemed to him that Roth’s reputation had advanced, and that Roth “seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking.” Whether this is meant as a virtue or a fault is not entirely clear. Updike admits that he has not read everything, but considers himself “more of a partisan of the earlier books than the later.” Still, Roth has been “very good to have around.” One senses the earth-moving, bone-grinding effort behind this kind of lifelong production when Updike explains that, after fifty years of writing, he has recently begun to work on Sunday (it had been his only day off, “as a churchgoer”) and then describes Roth as “scarily devoted to the novelist’s craft.”
For Roth, Updike’s finest works include the early stories, the still rather obscure novel “Roger’s Version,” and, in a category by themselves, the third and fourth Rabbit books, “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest.” (Like Updike, he doesn’t claim to have read everything.) The books he likes least—“If he were here,” Roth remarks, “he would say, ‘Of course you do’ ”—are the ones about the Jewish writer Henry Bech. “To Bech, he assigned all his experiences as a writer, and he koshered the deal by making him Jewish,” Roth says. “I don’t think the character exists beyond the experience of Updike the writer.”
But Roth admires Updike’s whole career: the fortitude, the industry, the sentences, the fluency—the “gush of prose” that he believes Updike (like Bellow) had at his command. “I don’t have the gush of prose,” Roth tells me. “I have the gush of invention, dialogue, event—but not of prose.” It’s a distinction he seems to have thought about carefully. “Many days I was delighted to accept one page after six hours of work. On days when I’d have four or five pages, they would not be fluent, and I’d have to spend four or five days working on them.”
A listener must be careful not to take the mood of a moment as a sign of settled judgment. On other occasions, Roth has described the writing of some of his books—“Sabbath’s Theater,” “American Pastoral”—as an “outpouring.” But, ultimately, he is serious about how hard he worked for what he got, and how different his process has been from Updike’s, or Bellow’s. In his Connecticut writing studio, he has a stack of alphabet cards, the sort that are usually displayed around a children’s classroom, “to remind myself that it’s only the alphabet, stupid—it’s just the letters that you know and they make words.” Still, he says, he had “to fight for my fluency, every paragraph, every sentence.” And then he sits back and imagines a series of books he might have written, in the Updike manner—“Rabbi, Run,” “Rabbi Redux,” “Rabbi Is Rich”—and he roars with laughter. ♦
Claudia Roth Pierpont has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1990 and became a staff writer in 2004. The subjects of her articles have ranged from the Ballets Russes to the Chrysler Building, from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to that of Mae West.
A collection of eleven of Pierpont’s New Yorker essays, “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World,” was published in 2000. Nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, the book juxtaposes the lives and works of women writers, including Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Mitchell, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Pierpont has been the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library.