The hardest challenge for the survivor trying to learn the grammar of death is the move from present to past tense. The voice at the other end of the phone, the name before @, the face on the other side of the door in the city apartment or just past the stone steps in the country house: an echo, a memory, a shadow.
And the laughter, where does it go?
It was (there it is!) a privilege to know Philip Roth, who was my friend for over 30 years. He and my husband, Bernie Avishai, knew each other even longer, which I suppose made Philip something like family.
But then, like my entire generation, I knew him before I knew him. One of the constitutive experiences that closed the roiling 1960s was sitting on the floor in the graduate school apartment of friends in Cambridge, Mass., and reading “Portnoy’s Complaint” out loud. What a relief. After the righteous indignation of the ’50s and early ’60s, the sorrow and the (self-)pity of the postwar years, American Jews could rediscover that we too had genitals and dirty minds – which was also a relief for the Gentiles. We were all, it seemed, allowed to laugh again.
The first time we actually met, back in the mid-1980s, Philip Roth was in Israel with Claire Bloom. Like other passionate readers, I felt I needed to protect him from the Defenders of the Faith, who filled Jerusalem’s streets. He had recently published “The Ghost Writer” (1979) and, after a glass or two of wine in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, I asked if he had written that slim novel for the punch line: Nathan Zuckerman, in his debut appearance as a Roth narrator, is the aspiring young writer who is visiting the Very Important literary eminence, E. I. Lonoff. Zuckerman falls in love with the writer’s young companion, Amy Bellette. Convinced that she of the foreign accent must in “reality” be Anne Frank – who has survived the war and the camps but cannot, of course, reveal that fact – Zuckerman fantasizes their engagement and the inevitable scene when he brings her home to meet his parents. To their first question, he imagines himself responding: “Is she Jewish? She’s Anne Frank!”
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Take that, Gershom Scholem.
But then, Scholem had gotten Hannah Arendt wrong too. And like Arendt, Roth indeed did not “love the Jewish people.” Or any people, nation or religion. He loved some Jews, of course. And lots of goyim. He loved fiercely, devotedly and generously. And as the years went by, and the bookshelf groaned under the weight of all those novels, as loyalties and losses got sorted out and scar tissue formed on the heart and the “heart,” a Circle of Love began to form around Philip. Smart, funny, bruised like him, writers, artists, even a few academics, former or would-be lovers and their children, people who cooked for him and then, with his help, went on to college and life, stayed with him as he aged and were there with him at his dying.
The Nobel Prize that got away
Every year on the day the literary Nobel was to be announced, Bernie would call Philip and say, in his best Swedish accent: “Mr Rot, ve are sorry to haf to inform you that, yet again, you did not vin the price...” It had become something of a joke among his intimates that, due to whatever internal intrigues, PR would never be awarded that prize. It might have been because of the misperception on the part of some Indignant, Humorless Women that Roth was a misogynist. Well, he was no more of a misogynist than he was a self-hating Jew. What he said once about Jews, as reported in “Promiscuous” – Bernie’s study of “Portnoy’s Complaint” – he might also have said about women: “Jews are part of the human race. Worse about them I cannot say.”
But there was something else. And I say this as a woman. For the record: Philip always made me feel sexy, smart, witty – and understood. But Philip really did write as a man – about men. He was, to my mind, the male equivalent of Grace Paley, who wrote primarily about women. Men were largely her foil (“There were two husbands disappointed by eggs...”), but not her center of gravity. Moreover, Roth and Paley helped to create a unique moment in American culture, when Jews and Christians met in a theologically and ethically spacious embrace.
As I wrote elsewhere, Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” and Paley’s “The Loudest Voice,” their inaugural stories from 1959, transformed the American public space into an “urban congregation” – in the comic mode. The little boy who is beaten by his Hebrew schoolteacher because he doesn’t understand why a God who had created the world in six days couldn’t make a virgin pregnant (!!), runs up to the roof and forces all the children below, along with the adults, including the firemen, his mother and the janitor with the sign of Auschwitz on his arm, to get down on their knees and proclaim:
“You should never hit anybody about God.”
Alas, some 60 years later, as the urban congregation has disbanded into sectarian garrisons, as Jews and their evangelical Christian allies, along with militant Muslims, hit people about God all the time, these words have moved from the comic into the tragic mode.
The American tragedy
Indeed, the satirist who had exposed our foibles, as Jews and as humans, understood even before we did that something more sinister was taking place; his next task was as the great tragedian of the end of the American century. The expansive novels such as “American Pastoral” (1997) and “The Human Stain” (2000) captured a moment and completed the era that had been ushered in by Theodore Dreiser in 1925. But I must admit that when “The Plot Against America” (2004) appeared, I thought Philip had gone too far. Why feed into Jewish paranoia by invoking the specter of a Lindbergh presidency, I asked. I clearly didn’t have the imagination for D.J.T. – but Philip did. Though when it played out in what was to be the last year of his life, he would have given anything for his prophetic vision to have proved hyperbolic.
The final act
Maybe the hardest thing for a writer is to know when to stop. Philip knew. He didn’t stop writing, or thinking, or talking. But he knew when the world he had created in his fictions was complete. He had written our lives for 50 years. And in his last, “thin” novels, starting with “Everyman” (2006), which begins at the open grave, he began to prepare us all for death: his own, and ours.
The meetings on the street corners on the Upper West Side or the Russian Tea Room in New York, in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, in the restaurant in Litchfield, Connecticut to which we had to bring some forgotten line from “Old Jews Telling Jokes” in order to gain admittance (in Litchfield, Connecticut!!), will continue to animate our memory as long as we persist on this side of the grave. And it is good to read what others write about Philip; it brings out the cleverest, the wittiest and the most liberated voice in us all, especially those close to the Circle of Love. Yet in the end, although much of the banter between Philip and Bernie, as between Philip and his other friends, could have been performed before an audience in a nightclub, the thing about friendship is how private it is.
Ah, Philip, when you wrote that first novel, you barely knew how hard Letting Go would be when the time came. But when it came, you were ready. And for us, it is time to let you go, old friend. God have mercy on us all.
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has been visiting professor at Duke, Princeton, Yale, Michigan, and Dartmouth.