My father was hospitalized in 1969. As I recall, it was for kidney stones, though I don’t remember for certain. As he convalesced at Middlesex Memorial Hospital, my father received some visitors. Some brought the requisite gifts: flowers, a box of chocolate, and so forth. But a couple of people brought books. One of the books was a newly published novel. The book cover was bright yellow: impossible to miss. I saw it briefly on the one day I was allowed to enter my father’s hospital room (in those days, people under 18 were personae non grata at hospitals).
The next day the book was in our house. I asked my mom, “Why isn’t Dad reading this?” She got this perplexed look on her face and said, “ Marion Prinz (a Holocaust survivor with a thick accent and nothing but opinions on everything) told me in the waiting room that the book was filled with antisemitism and bad words and that it was so dirty that people would come in and be shocked that your dad would ever have such a book in his room. So I brought it home.”
I was fourteen years old and I’d just been told that this shocking book with lots of dirty parts, was sitting in my house. With my father in the hospital, my mother was so distracted she didn’t consider hiding it. My luck.
So I read Portnoy’s Complaint at 14 years of age.
As Joan Rivers used to say, “Can we talk?” I was shocked, horrified, delighted, scandalized, titillated, joyful… I loved it. I learned more from that book than any other book I’d ever read. Roth answered questions I didn’t even know how to ask: about men and women, sex, angst, relationships, and Jewish consciousness. It was a life-changing experience.
I became aware of the terrible press Roth was getting, particularly from the established Jewish community. He was accused of hating women, hating his parents, hating Gentiles and, of course, hating Jews. Rabbis the world over sermonized about just how poisonous the tome would be for the Jews of America. Portnoy’s Complaint was roundly condemned as blasphemous and profane, with Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem going so far as to call it “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying”.
The critic, Irving Howe wrote in Commentary, that Philip Roth is not a “natural” novelist at all, the kind who loves to tell stories… He is an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny. The reviewers of his novels, many of them sympathetic, noticed his need to rub our noses in the muck of squalid daily existence, his mania for annotating at punitive length the bickerings of his characters. Good clean hatred that might burn through, naturalistic determinism with a grandeur of design if not detail, the fury of social rebellion—any of these would be more interesting than the vindictive bleakness of Roth’s novels.
Such strong criticism made me all the more interested in Roth. Why were so many people so upset with this man, this writer? Was it just the sex? Was it the take on Jewish guilt and Jewish stereotypes? So while I’d begun to read Roth looking for the ‘good parts’, I came away with a true sense of awe regarding the power of words. I started to see, through the manic words of this author, this rebel, just how confused grownups really were. I began to see how desire drove people crazy. I began to learn that sex and death – Eros and Thanatos – were two sides of the same coin. To paraphrase the narrator after Adam and Eve eat the fruit: “And his eyes were opened.”
I went to the only bookstore in Middletown, Huntington Books, and bought Philip Roth. First, Goodbye Columbus, then When She was Good. I loved Goodbye Columbus, the crispness of each short story and the audacity of many of the characters, challenging authority and authoritativeness.
I was hooked on Philip Roth, a man with a relentless need to shout the truth – or the truths – with words so refined, so surgically specific and perfectly chosen. Sometimes I’d have to stop and reread a sentence or a paragraph, not due to its denseness or opacity. To the contrary, I read it over because I couldn’t believe how clearly he was able to express the human condition. Love. Hatred. Lust. Fear. Foolishness.
Over 30 years ago I professed my appreciation for Roth to an antiquarian books store owner. He said, “If you like his work so much, collect him.” Which I’ve done. I am proud that I own a first edition of every work of fiction and nonfiction Philip Roth ever wrote. There’s something special about having a complete set: it’s a form of homage. But it’s not enough.
Philip Roth is gone. The great women and men of the generation before me are dying. The authors and musicians and artists and actors who so illumined my world are dying. I am not so foolish or such a cultural chauvinist to say that there will never be great artists and writers again who match the brilliance of the Depression-WWII-Korea generations. But I know that, as my heroes die, I feel slightly bereft and a bit less… supported, as I make my stand in this increasingly malevolent world.
Philip Roth is gone, my icon of liberation, my narrator on the ramparts, my professor of desire. I plan to reread my favorite Roth: Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy, Patrimony, American Pastoral, Professor of Desire, The War Against America… I don’t know when or where to stop. Strange how the death of a man I’ve never met feels like a personal tragedy. What a writer. What a teacher. May he rest in peace.