Memento Mori — May 23, 2018, 10:15 am

Philip Roth (1933–2018)

Remembering Philip Roth

On Tuesday, longtime Harper’s Magazine contributor Philip Roth died at the age of eighty-five. Roth’s first story for the magazine, “Paul Loves Libby,” was published in 1962 and is free to read online through the end of this week. A complete list of Roth’s work can be found here. Below is an excerpt, from our August 2017 issue, of a speech Roth gave at a celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday at Columbia University in 2008.

Seventy-five. How sudden! It may be a commonplace to note that our time here steals away at a terrifying speed, but it nonetheless remains astonishing that it was just 1943 — it was 1943, the war was on, I was ten, and at the kitchen table, my mother was teaching me to type on her big Underwood typewriter, its four upward-sloping rows of round white keys differentiated by black letters, numerals, and symbols that, taken together, constituted all the apparatus necessary to write in English.

I was at the time reading the sea stories of Howard Pease, the Joseph Conrad of boys’ books, whose titles included Wind in the Rigging, The Black Tanker, Secret Cargo, and Shanghai Passage. As soon as I’d mastered the Underwood’s keyboard and the digital gymnastics of the touch system of typing, I inserted a clean sheet of white paper into the typewriter and tapped out in caps at its exact center a first title of my own: Storm Off Hatteras. Beneath that title I didn’t type my name, however. I was well aware that Philip Roth wasn’t a writer’s name. I typed instead “by Eric Duncan.” That was the name I chose as befitting the seafaring author of Storm Off Hatteras, a tale of wild weather and a tyrannical captain and mutinous intrigue in the treacherous waters of the Atlantic. There’s little that can bestow more confidence and lend more authority than a name with two hard c’s in it.

In January 1946, three years later, I graduated from a public elementary school in Newark, New Jersey — ours was the first postwar class to enter high school. That a brand-new historical moment was upon us was not lost on the brightest students in the class, who had been eight or nine when the war began and were twelve or thirteen when it concluded. As a result of the wartime propaganda to which we’d regularly been exposed for close to five years — and because of our almost all being knowledgeable, as Jewish children, about anti-Semitism — we had come to be precociously alert to the inequalities in American society.

The heady idealistic patriotism with which we were inculcated during the war spilled over in its aftermath into a burgeoning concern with contemporary social injustice. For me, this led to my being teamed up by our eighth-grade teacher with a clever female classmate to write — in part on my mother’s Underwood — the script for a graduation play we called Let Freedom Ring.

Our one-act play, a quasi allegory with a strong admonitory bent, pitted a protagonist named Tolerance (virtuously performed by my coauthor) against an antagonist named Prejudice (sinisterly played by me). It included a supporting cast of classmates who, in a series of vignettes in which they were shown attending to their harmlessly healthy-minded pursuits — and which were intended to advertise how wonderful all these people were — played representatives of ethnic and religious minorities unjustly suffering the injurious inequities of discrimination. Tolerance and Prejudice, invisible to the others onstage, stood just to the side of each uplifting scene, arguing over the human status of these various and sundry non–Anglo-Saxon Americans, Tolerance quoting exemplary passages from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt, while Prejudice, appraising her with as much pity as disgust, and in a tone of voice he wouldn’t have dared to use at home, said the nastiest things about the inferiority of these minorities that he could get away with in a school play.

Afterward, in the corridor outside the auditorium, giving me a fervent hug to express her delight in my achievement, my proud, admiring mother told me, while I was still in my costume of head-to-foot black, that, sitting at the edge of her seat in the audience, she who had never struck anyone in all her life had wanted to slap my face. “How ever did you learn to be so contemptible!” she said, laughing. “You were thoroughly despicable!” In truth, I didn’t know — it just seemed to have come to me out of nowhere. Secretly it thrilled me to think I had a natural talent for it.

Let Freedom Ring ended with the full cast of miscellaneous minorities hand in hand at the footlights, joining Tolerance with everything they had as she rousingly sang “The House I Live In,” a 1942 pop oratorio in praise of the American melting pot that had been famously recorded by Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, exiting stage right, bound alone for his evil abode, loathsome Prejudice stalked off in bitter defeat, shouting angrily at the top of his voice a sentence I’d stolen from somewhere: “This great experiment cannot last!”

That was the beginning, the hometown launching of a literary career leading right up to today. It isn’t entirely far-fetched to suggest that the twelve-year-old who coauthored Let Freedom Ring! was father to the man who wrote The Plot Against America. As for Eric Duncan, that estimable Scotsman, years after crediting him with the authorship of Storm Off Hatteras, I sometimes had reason to wish that I had donned that pseudonym before Portnoy’s Complaint went forth into the world. How different life would have been!

The speech is included in Philip Roth: Why Write, which was published by the Library of America in 2017.

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

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Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
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Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

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