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Culture Kvetch: Philip Roth’s Victory Lap

Philip Roth has been dying for a long time. I don’t mean this in the sense that we begin dying as soon as we enter this world—one of those rare dorm-room epiphanies that has some staying power. No, it’s more that Roth has been considering, and even choreographing, his death in a way few writers have. For decades he’s been writing and speaking about death, especially his own, with anger and bafflement, sure, but also with wonder and mystery, as if it were some esoteric math problem, theorized centuries ago by some mad monk-turned-philosopher. Perhaps, with some heroic effort, a Large Hadron Collider of metaphysics, it could be figured out, if not staved off.

Talking to Der Spiegel in 2006, Roth offered some idea of his relationship with the subject:

Most of my older friends say more or less what I say, which is that I think about dying less now than I did when I was an adolescent. The first discovery was so shocking. Death seemed so unfair. That’s what you think when you’re 14—that it’s so unfair, and ridiculous. I think the closer death comes the more people try to just not think about it.

There’s something peculiar in Roth’s saying he thinks about death less now. It becomes truly weird if you look at his 21st century output—novels about polio, the end of Zuckerman, an expired everyman (“Old age isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre”), an actor’s senescence, a young soldier killed in Korea. And that’s just the last decade or so; from the doddering last days of E.I. Lonoff (The Ghost Writer) to a novelist’s ruminations on his father’s terminal cancer (Patrimony) to “The Day It Snowed,” Roth’s first published short story, which is about a young boy’s confusion over the “disappearance” of some family members (when each dies, he’s left home alone while his family heads to the funerals)—death becomes Roth. It’s the paper he writes on, the ink in his pen.

And here comes the opening of Philip Roth: Unmasked, a new documentary set to air March 29 on PBS, in which Roth says he has two things to look forward to: his biography and his death. He hopes the latter comes first, he says, his expression sly and even happy.

But who’s to say that it will? Maybe the great cosmic joke won’t be that Roth will die, only that the end will come later than he expects. As he writes in The Facts, “the aged know everything about their dying except exactly when.”

Lately we’ve had a lot of time to consider the end of Philip Roth. This year he announced his retirement from writing, speaking as if he were unburdening himself of some awful weight, though it hasn’t been trying enough to stop him from putting together a few dozen books. That news inaugurated a round of encomiums and elegiac tributes that made it seem as if the great writer had died. (It’s also became a litmus test for parishioners in the Church of Roth whether you think that he has actually put down the pen. Count me among the unbelievers.)

But the old master is still vitally, crankily alive. Just last week Roth turned 80, and during a birthday celebration, he read from Sabbath’s Theater, the angriest and most death-obsessed of his books. As David Remnick cracked, “Happy birthday, indeed!”

This is how it goes and how it will probably continue until he passes and only those thousands of pages remain. You can’t have a valedictory celebration of Roth without talking about death, or about sex, Jewish identity, and the onanistic possibilities of liver. And Philip Roth: Unmasked provides a number of these opportunities, featuring interviews with Roth along with Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Franzen, Claudia Roth-Pierpont (no relation), and several others, including friends from Newark and Bucknell. Combining archival photographs with Roth’s personal reminiscences, the film is a leisurely and pleasing tour through his life and work.

Leaning on interviews with Roth, there are plenty of sparkling lines (“I had many opportunities to ruin my life”), as well as some excavations of darker periods. He talks about the breakdown he had during his first marriage and how he was tempted towards suicide, in the 1980s, when suffering from excruciating chronic back pain. But his marriages are still largely glossed over—the second, to British actress Claire Bloom, isn’t mentioned at all—and confessions are few. Viewers may wonder, for example, about his relationship with Mia Farrow, which seems quite close but doesn’t receive much examination. Blake Bailey’s forthcoming biography should answer as many of these questions as is possible.

Zooming out a bit, what emerges from this Roth jubilee is not his singular importance as a writer—though there is that—but how much the culture has shifted. A novelist would have to commit a crime today to appear on the evening news. Yet after its publication in 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint was not only a controversial work; it also sold 350,000 copies in a single month. That’s Harry Potter territory, unthinkable now for a serious literary novel. These days, to have public celebrations and bus tours about a major writer—or even to have one on the cover of Time magazine—feels like a collective act of irony, a deliberate throwback to a time when literature was an essential part of popular culture, rather than a private affair.

As Roth and a number of his peers (Cynthia Ozick, W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, the recently retired Alice Munro) drift towards the exits, the question isn’t whether we’ll see their like again. It’s if, when they appear, we’ll care enough to honor them before it’s too late.

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