One reason, admire him or no, that he is so large in our thinking, in our imagined landscape of American literature, is that he worked very, very hard to be just that large, if not larger. Man, did he work hard. Not just at the typewriter, though he was famous for that. He worked hard at his career. He was dedicated to that presence as part of his professional life in ways that most of his cohort were not, at least not so fully: not DeLillo, nor Didion, nor Doctorow, nor even Updike for all Updike’s vanity. Before him, Bellow was thus dedicated; so was Mailer. So was, in her New Yorkish way, Susan Sontag, but Sontag was more public intellectual than artist. You might accuse James Baldwin of that kind of ambition but I think you’d be wrong; I think Baldwin’s role was thrust upon him by history. Harold Brodkey would have liked to be that large but he couldn’t bear the exposure to others required in the process. Other people, so crucial to public life, were far too much–horrifyingly–not like himself.
Philip Roth’s death last evening feels like a blow. I’m saddened by it, but at the same time I’m having trouble formulating my thoughts on him; I’ve always had that trouble, though I reviewed his books a few times. I spent my early years not liking him and not liking what I thought he stood for (a naive notion, for what Roth stood for is a topic of continuing interest and mystery). Young and starting out I had looked at Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and I felt I was being written at; that it was schtick. It still annoys me to see described or alluded to The Breast. I love schtick more than most people but almost never between the cloth and board covers of what purports to be literature. (Also interesting to consider: I’d grown up a Catholic boy in Great Neck, a Rothian milieu; minus perhaps The Breast these were stories I felt I knew already and wanted to escape from; I had moved on–to the Upper West Side, don’t you know.)
Then at age twenty-nine I went to graduate school, and the wise critic, novelist and teacher of literature Robert Towers assigned The Ghost Writer, published six or seven years before; and this, to me, was a book I admired from the first, and grew to admire more and more as time passed. And it turned out that I liked everything of Roth’s that I read thereafter. The stretch of five novels in eight years, beginning with Operation Shylock in 1993 and culminating with The Human Stain in 2000, are all long drives, deep in the hole or out of the park. But I didn’t read all his books (I just counted, there are twenty-seven novels of which I read ten) and didn’t feel compelled, ever, to read him. A more personal measure of what a writer means to me, utterly idiosyncratic but, for me, quite reliable, is that I can’t quote a line from Roth; I can’t even feel the meter of his prose. I can feel, first, his intelligence: it was present in every line. I can feel his characters, his situations, which were vivid and compelling; he really is a writer of brilliant situations. But I have never internalized the sentences, which were always perfect but rarely beautiful. He was always himself in the most insistent way—you never didn’t feel the force of his personality, but it wasn’t clear what he wanted, what his sustenance was, what drove him (besides, as he joked more than once, all that he hated). The only time I felt in touch with his deepest self was in reading Patrimony, his memoir of his father, which is a lovely, tender book, and similarly in the Newark/family scenes in The Plot Against America. That’s where his heart resided–but a good deal of his fiction was not about that, so, frequently, it felt as if his heart was not really in his fiction.
There used to be a saying in baseball, not used much anymore: all field, no hit, describing the perennial utility infielder, great defensively but never more than .235 hitter. Roth was all hit, no field. The nuances and filaments of human consciousness, the tissue of relations, as Henry James called it, among people and between people and the world around them was not his bag. He was not delicate. He had an imagination, a fine and colorful one, and he brought it to bear powerfully and deftly upon his experience and his ideas, and wrote it down as well as anyone could ever write it down. He was unfailingly funny, and about the larger patterns of American culture he was usually accurate, if not always right; those patterns were almost always a presence in his books. He found a good deal of imaginative fodder in the idiocies of lust and it could be said that he opened that terrain to serious writers in a way no other writer of his generation could lay claim to.
And he worked insanely hard. Generally speaking the more hours you spend writing the better you will be at it, and no one spent more hours at it than he did. By the middle of his career, he was flawless. (Unless you count the limitations of one’s vision–all that one does not see and does not address–a flaw in art. I do not, as long as what the artist does see is compelling and true, as long as it is personal, authentic, and necessary. Almost everything Roth ever wrote was that.)
Actually, I fibbed–there is one line of Roth’s that I remember, that I can quote, from Everyman, one of his small, later books that I liked a lot (some portions of that book, in fact, are uncharacteristically Jamesian: they tremble). The line was one he would amplify as the years gained on him: “Old age is not a battleground; old age is a massacre.”
I wonder if anyone — any writer, that is — will ever work that hard again to occupy our attention and our imaginations. And succeed.