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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue
Books

Benjamin Taylor's Here We Are


Benjamin Taylor
Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth
(Penguin, 2020)

When I received a copy of Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth (2020), Benjamin Taylor’s excellent new memoir about his friendship with Philip Roth, my first reaction was a distinctly Rothian one: to complain. Not about the book but about its title. It struck me as bland, thoroughly inappropriate for a book about a writer whose project was to banish blandness. At least two of the chapter titles—“There Is a God and His Name Is Laughter” and “Why Must the Atheists’ Booth Look So Sad?”—seemed to me richer and more suggestive, more fruitfully engaged with Roth’s work, than the title on the cover. I texted my complaint to a friend, a fellow Roth fanatic who had already read and loved Taylor’s book.

“It’s sweet in context,” she replied.

That context, given near the beginning of the book, is Taylor arriving at a funeral home to identify Roth’s body. “Duly draped, Philip looked serene on his plinth, like a Roman emperor, one of the good ones. I pulled up a chair and managed to say ‘Here we are.’ Here we are, at the promised end.”

Here we are. My friend was right. “Here we are” is a sweet, and impressively honest, thing to say in the presence of a beloved friend who has gone and done what beloved friends do and died. Not “you’re in a better place now,” which they aren’t, not “the world has ended,” which it stubbornly hasn’t. Here we are.

In an interview a few years ago, Roth rhapsodized about naps: “The best part of it is that when you wake up, for the first 15 seconds, you have no idea where you are. You’re just alive. That’s all you know. And it’s bliss. It’s absolute bliss.”

When you’re not napping, when you’ve fallen asleep for the last time, you know exactly where you are. Or, rather, your friends do.

There is more to the phrase “here we are” than its lack of varnish. It addresses the question that hovers over this memoir and over most of Roth’s work—of how to face death when one believes that there is no life after death, when the atheists’ booth looks so sad. (The booth in question is one that Taylor and Roth pass on a walk near Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, which prompts Taylor to say, “St. Patrick’s it ain’t,” and Roth to say, “the big money is behind the fairy tales.”) “Here we are” poses an alternative to hineni, the Hebrew term meaning “here I am” with which Adam and Moses announce and submit themselves to God, and which another of the 20th century’s greatest North American Jewish writers, Leonard Cohen, used as the terrifying and beautiful refrain to his magisterial song “You Want It Darker,” released on the eve of the twin catastrophes of his own death and the 2016 election.

Roth had a year and a half or so left to live on the night of the 2016 election, but Taylor tells us that he was in the hospital that night for a procedure, and that when Taylor came in confidently predicting that the election was going to go the way it was supposed to, Roth confessed that he was “scared.” But he had a friend to confess this to—many friends. When the end came, Taylor tells us, Roth was “surrounded by a lot of women and a smattering of men.”

This is the attitude that “here we are” throws up against “here I am.” Meeting the end—not a solitary meeting with God but in a convocation of friends. (“When my time comes,” Taylor writes, “the waiting room will not be crowded with ex-lovers.”)

We may be going nowhere, friendship says, but we will go there together. We’ll take the HOV lane to oblivion.

“We’ve laughed so hard,” Taylor quotes Roth. “Maybe write a book about our friendship.” The logic—that laughter is what provides a reason for a book—is distinctly Roth. Heinrich Heine’s remark that “There is a God and his name is Aristophanes,” another way of saying that there is a God and his name is Laughter is important to this book and to Roth’s work, including a favorite of Taylor’s and mine, Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993). “It’s Aristophanes they should be worshiping over at the Western Wall,” says that book’s “real” Philip Roth, who has come to Jerusalem to confront that book’s imposter Philip Roth. (If this is confusing, don’t ask me to explain further, just trust me and read the book.) “If he were the God of Israel, I’d be in shul three times a day.”

The “real” Philip Roth adds: “I was laughing the way people cry at funerals in the countries where they let go and really have at it.”

(Crying at funerals is not “letting go” enough for the author of Letting Go, whose greatest creation, the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, masturbates over the grave of his beloved, Drenka. It’s sweet in context.)

Taylor’s book would not be half so convincing a vindication of friendship—of his particular friendship with Roth, and of friendship in general—if the book worshipped Roth as though he were a god. Roth’s character flaws are neither fetishized nor elided, an impressive feat in a genre—memoirs by friends of the famous—overgrown with hagiographies and hatchet jobs. Particularly incisive is Taylor’s observation of the major divorce between the work and the life: the work is animated by the conviction that all perspectives are partial (Taylor quotes the famous passage from American Pastoral (1997): “That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong”), while the man “was not similarly skeptical about his own self-understanding in real life.” Roth seems to have spent a lot of time rehearsing his grievances, and not in a way that would make room for any voice other than his own. This is virtually the opposite of his fiction, particularly his great late-middle period, stretching The Counterlife (1986) to The Plot Against America (2004), in which he was always passing the microphone.

So there were cracks in the bowl. There is a particularly lovely interlude in which Roth and Taylor sit around Roth’s Connecticut home while Taylor reads Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904). The conversation drifts from reflections on the book’s impenetrability to an enlightening discussion of the motivations of James’s characters to a sidebar about Roth’s decades-long grudge against a writer whose name reminds him of that one of the characters in The Golden Bowl, to a salad the two men make in a bowl that they decide—in the sort of minimally funny joke that friendship exalts far above jokes that might make anyone laugh—to call the golden bowl. This scene ends in a paragraph that serves as a miniature of Taylor’s book, a beautiful description of Roth’s home punctuated by the information that the contents of it are about “to go under the hammer,” to be sold in an online auction. Taylor tells us he has no desire to participate, that he wishes “all of those belongings, especially our golden bowl, safe passages to new homes,” but that a last look at those belongings would shatter him as James’s golden bowl is shattered.

“Here we are, at the promised end.” The promised end is all we have of the promised land; death takes all a person is. But as this book makes affectingly clear, for those like Taylor who knew Roth and remember him, and for those like me who have been reading Roth all our lives and will keep reading him until we die, “Here we are, at the promised end,” is a paraphrase of one of Roth’s most famous lines, the final line of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), spoken by the psychiatrist when his patient, the titular complainer, has finally gone silent: “Now vee may perhaps to begin.”

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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