If you have ever wondered what becomes of the products of purely happy childhoods, one answer seems to be they become deeply committed artists like Philip Roth. The prolific American writer renounced the making of novels with a flourish several years before his death in 2018. Now we have the first slight but serious work about him, the memoir “Here We Are,” by Roth’s friend Benjamin Taylor, which was published May 19.
This problem of what one is to make from warm and secure beginnings seems to have driven Roth through all that writing, over four decades. Much of it was semi-autobiographical, with the pleasure for his readers always of seeing how he would remake and reorder the world from experience, often jauntily; and how he would seek and fail to make it universal. And there was the marvelous concomitant specificity of things, like the making of gloves, puppets, bombs, scenes and reputations, where Roth expended his greatest effort.
“Philosophical generalization is completely alien to me – some other writer’s work,” he tells Taylor. “All my brain power has to do with ... life’s proliferating minutiae. Wouldn’t know what to do with a general idea if it were hand-delivered ... ‘Big ideas? No, thanks!’”
Roth surfaced in another after-life recently when HBO aired David Simon’s adaptation of Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” which was exquisitely its own creation. But it drew on Roth’s meticulously faithful recreation of his childhood in the novel, a departure from Roth’s more raucous creations. “I spent four years on the book, 2000 to 2004,” he tells Taylor, “and every night before drifting off, I’d say to myself, ‘Don’t invent. Remember.’”
Perhaps the little boy from Newark, New Jersey who is too well loved becomes a sexual anarch. There are sentences in “Here We Are” that at first seem to cry out for elaboration, as when Taylor observes his friend “was not averse to cuckolding inattentive husbands.” But why do we need the details outside his work? Partly in Roth’s case it is to see the Jewish good boy traduced by eros again, something Roth already has shown sumptuously in, to pick just one example, “Sabbath’s Theater,” which Taylor calls his “hymn of praise to the sex drive out of season.”
As Roth explains: “I flung my harmless obscenities back at the world-historical ones.” As he also confesses: “No punishment is too harsh for the demiurge who thought up fidelity.” And: “Our enemies are forever the legions of purifiers and pleasure-haters.”
Roth also wrote some of the finest novellas, that end with the satisfying click of craftsmanship, such as “The Prague Orgy,” a delirious trip into Eastern Europe, and “The Ghost Writer,” about a young writer visiting an established one in New England. When “The Ghost Writer” concludes with the older writer’s wife fleeing, the writer, going out after her, says to Roth’s stand-in: “You must have things to write down. There’s paper on my desk.”
This theme of the betraying artist runs through Taylor’s memoir, too. “We’ve laughed so hard,” Taylor records Roth telling him. “Maybe write a book about our friendship.” Roth dies generously. Near the end, in the cardiac intensive-care unit of a New York hospital, he asks for a moment alone with Taylor and says, “I have been to see the great enemy, and walked around him, and talked to him, and he is not to be feared. I promise.”
Taylor says he wrote that down “as soon as I decently could.”