Other writers have more depth, greater verbal gifts, but few are as wickedly funny as Philip Roth, who recently announced his retirement from writing (and it sounds as though he means it).

In one of those lost chord moments, I recall sitting in my boyfriend’s car outside Chicago’s Newbery Library one cold afternoon, waiting for him to pick something up there. I was listening to a tape he had of Philip Roth reading from one of his stories, and I was rolling with laughter. I can’t find it now – probably wouldn’t recognize it if I did hear it.

I remember, too, my parents howling over Portnoy’s Complaint, reading aloud to one another the scene where his mother describes one of his classmates who’s made it big:

Pianist! Oh, that’s one of the words they just love, almost as much as doctor, Doctor. And residency. And best of all, his own office. He opened his own office in Livingston. “Do you remember Seymour Schmuck, Alex?” she asks me, or Aaron Putz or Howard Shlong, or some yo-yo I am supposed to have known in grade school twenty-five years ago, and of whom I have no recollection whatsoever. “Well, I met his mother on the street today, and she told me that Seymour is now the biggest brain surgeon in the entire Western Hemisphere. He owns six different split-level ranch-type houses made all of fieldstone in Livingston, and belongs to the boards of eleven synagogues, all brand-new and designed by Marc Kugel, and last year with his wife and his two little daughters, who are so beautiful that they are already under contract to Metro, and so brilliant that they should be in college – he took them all to Europe for an eighty-million-dollar tour of seven thousand countries, some of them you never even heard of, that they made them just to honor Seymour, and on top of that, he’s so important, Seymour, that in every single city in Europe that they visited he was asked by the mayor himself to stop and do an impossible operation on a brain in hospitals that they also built for him right on the spot, and – listen to this – where they pumped into the operating room during the operation the theme song from Exodus so everybody should know what religion he is – and that’s how big your friend Seymour is today! And how happy he makes his parents!” And you, the implication is, when are you going to get married already. In Newark and the surrounding suburbs this is apparently the question on everybody’s lips: WHEN IS ALEXANDER PORTNOY GOING TO STOP BEING SELFISH AND GIVE HIS PARENTS, WHO ARE SUCH WONDERFUL PEOPLE, GRANDCHILDREN?


I like the way Roth recently responded to an interviewer who asked him if he’s afraid of death.

“Yes, I’m afraid. It’s horrible… What else could I say? It’s heartbreaking. It’s unthinkable. It’s incredible. Impossible.”

And from the same 2005 interview, some insight on why he has stopped writing:

“When I write, I’m alone. It’s filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety – and I never needed religion to save me.”

I ask him why he keeps writing then, if it’s so lonely and full of anxiety? He sighs – loudly.

“There are some days that compensate completely,” he says. “In my life I have had, in total, a couple of months of these completely wonderful days as a writer, and that is enough … It’s actually a good question… You know, it’s a choice to be occupied with literature, like everything else is a choice. But you quickly identify with the profession. And that’s the first nail in the coffin. Then you struggle across the decades to make your work better, to make it a bit different, to do it again and to prove to yourself that you can do it.”

“But you know that you can do it now, right?”

“I have no idea that I can do it again. How can I know? How do I know that I won’t run out of ideas tomorrow? It’s a horrible existence being a writer[,] filled with deprivation. I don’t miss specific people, but I miss life. I didn’t discover that during the first 20 years, because I was fighting – in the ring with the literature. That fight was life, but then I discovered that I was in the ring all by myself.”

He gets up. “It was the interests in life and the attempt to get life down on the pages which made me a writer – and then I discovered that, in many ways, I am standing on the outside of life”.

It’s the theme played out in Thomas Mann’s story, Tonio Kröger.

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2 Responses to “The Japes of Roth”

  1. Joanne Jacobs Says:

    I’ll never forget my mother and my uncle reading bits of Portnoy’s Complaint to each other and laughing hysterically. They started to call their mother, my grandmother, “Mrs. Portnoy.”

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Joanne: This reading-Portnoy’s-out-loud seems to have been a rite of passage for many!

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