IRISES AND PHILIP ROTH

I love the early hours before the iris opens. Yesterday they were all closed and now, 24 hours later, after a warm, dry day, two have opened. More will open soon, including the purple ones, but for now it’s just the whites shimmering with promise.

The beginning of anything is so exciting. A new baby, a new story, a new book. Anticipation and mystery. Not mystery like: Will it make it or will it not make it? Just the mystery of creation and how it can go in so many directions, becoming something no one planned or envisaged.

From beginnings to endings, death, and specifically the death of Philip Roth.

His American Pastoral dazzled me, a genuinely great novel. If you’re a writer, you don’t just read, you study, especially when coming across a master prose writer. You read some pages, turn back and start again, reading more carefully this time: How did he set that up? How did he bring this character in so seamlessly? How did he capture the essence of the guy so clearly (and, alas, it was always the guys he captured well)? And that walk along the hedge, with the sun at the horizon and the shadows and colors, and his entire life passing before him—how did he do that?

Three things were always alive for me with Philip Roth. The first was the immense controversy he went through with Portnoy’s Complaint. I was around 17 or so at the time and well remember the Jewish reaction. Even the rabbi, a great progressive, spoke against him in his Saturday sermon.

Roth said that while getting all the anger and abuse was terrible at the time, he later realized it had been a Godsend. He’d gone through it and emerged on the other side. The Jews around him scoffed, raged, and insulted, and he continued to write for years about the Jewish experience in the US and was never afraid again. Never afraid of who he was, of what he was writing, of what people would say. That’s a great lesson to learn when you’re young.

The second was how he wrote, or couldn’t write, about women. His male characters were so obsessed with women they never saw them. I read when he publicly announced he’d stopped writing, admitting his best writing was behind him, but I couldn’t help wondering then whether deep inside he already knew that he, too, had been left behind somewhat, that the time for leaving out women as full human beings was done and gone.

A long time ago I asked Bernie about a certain Zen practitioner we knew who’d written a book. Bernie shook his head. He doesn’t get it, he said. Over and over again, he shows he doesn’t get it.

Do you want to read his book? I asked.

No, he said, why should I read someone showing me again and again how he doesn’t get it?

When it came to women, it’s how I felt about reading Philip Roth. He was masterful at showing, again and again, that he didn’t get it.

Third: Roth’s characters were practical and earthbound. No after-life for them, no heaven or hell, no nirvanas of any kind. They dug in their heels and fiercely remained creatures of this earth, no transcendence allowed. Here and there were hints of very small, private redemptions, but very, very small. They made their beds and lay in them, no excuses. Secular Jewish pragmatism, Brooklyn and Newark rolled into one.

Sometimes it got too discouraging, especially as they aged, got sick, and had to face the end. But face it they did, and if I as a reader yearned for something more positive, just a tiny rainbow at the end, some vision that made the end more coherent and the zigs and zags of life more palatable, Roth was not giving me any.

I admired him for that.