His master’s voice

A tribute to the great American novelist Philip Roth at 80.

Philip Roth in New York in 2007. Photograph: Ethan Hill/Contour by Getty Images

1.
I’d taken the train out to East Hampton, Long Island, bringing with me to read only the first volume of John Cowper Powys’s Wolf Solent. This was an ambiguous mission I was on – I’d been invited to a very nice rich girl’s family’s summer house, and I’m justified in calling her a girl because this was the summer after my first year of college and I was 19, a boy of 19. We’d been only friends at college but might be more, away from college: that was the ambiguous mission. I didn’t know what I wanted.

On the train I stared out the window, not making it past more than a chapter of the Powys. The girl and her mother picked me up at the station, a five-minute drive there and back, just long enough that by the time we entered the house, through the kitchen, the girl’s younger brother was caught in the act of pulling from the broiler two overdone, smouldering lobsters, their red partly blacked. The mother chided him, but affectionately, and insisted the lobsters be dumped immediately in the trash. I thought, I’ll eat those, but no. This was a period in my life when I was persistently being startled, to the point of violation, by the behaviour of the wealthy. No reading – not Powys, nor F Scott Fitzgerald, nor Karl Marx – could have prepared me to witness such a thing in real life. We ate something other than lobsters. Then I was shown to the guest room. It was beautifully quiet, with a scattering of books on the shelves.

An evening seemed to yawn before me – the girl and I would have time to be confused about one another tomorrow and the next day. Everything was done very graciously in this house, no hurry. Left alone there with ponderous Powys, I reached instead for a book I hadn’t known existed: Philip Roth’s novella The Breast.

I’d at that point in my reading life kept a useless partition against Roth, who, thanks to the intimidating aura generated by a paperback copy of Letting Go on my mother’s shelves, I’d decided was a best-selling writer of grown-up realist novels of a sort that couldn’t possibly interest me. Oh judgemental and defended youth! But wait, now I had to consider the claims of the book’s dust jacket, that Roth worked in the realm of morbid fantasy, too. The realm of Kafka. This wasn’t fair, I thought. Kafka should belong to me.

Alone in the East Hampton guest room, I gobbled The Breast in one gulp. That’s how it came about, that’s how I began taking Roth aboard, the first tiny dose a kind of inoculation to make me ready for the long readerly sickness I still endure. For it is a sickness, most especially for a reader who wants to be a writer, to open oneself to a voice as torrential and encompassing, as demanding and rewarding, as that of Roth.

2.
My situation in the East Hampton summer house was the stuff of Jewish comedy, if I’d had my Jewish antennae up. Had the brother been played by Christopher Walken, I was in a scene from Annie Hall. But I not only didn’t have my Jewish antennae up, I didn’t know I possessed any. By chance, and unlike a majority of Jews, I’d been raised so as not to take being Jewish, or in my case half-Jewish, in any way personally. I’d have to acquire those antennae elsewhere, by my reading.

It took overtly Jewish-American writing – by Bernard Malamud, who’d retired but was still lingering, thrillingly, around at the college the girl and I attended, and Saul Bellow, and yes, sometimes Roth, who is sometimes, when it serves the cause of the writing, overtly Jewish – to illuminate the connection between what I knew semi-consciously from the writing of the less-overt, such as Nathanael West or Barry Malzberg or Norman Mailer, as well as from sources like Groucho Marx and Abbie Hoffman and my Uncle Fred. What was it that was illuminated? That something aggravated and torrential in my voice, or perhaps I should call it my attempt at having a voice, was cultural in origin, even if aggravated and torrential frequently in the cause of disputing or even denying that point of origin.

As Roth points out, the books aren’t Jewish because they have Jews in them. The books are Jewish in how they won’t shut up or cease contradicting themselves, they’re Jewish in the way they’re sprung both from harangue and from defence against harangue, they’re Jewishly ruminative and provocative. Roth once said of Bellow that he closed the distance between Damon Runyon and Thomas Mann – well, given the generation of reader I’m from, Roth in turn closed the difference between Saul Bellow and Mad magazine. That’s to say, once I’d gained access to what he had to offer, Roth catalysed my yearnings to high seriousness with the sense that the contemporary texture of reality demanded not only remorseless interrogation, but also remorseless caricature and ribbing. Contemporary reality, including perhaps especially the yearning to high seriousness, needed to be serially goosed.

3.
Speaking of caricature, I’m aware I may appear to have lapsed into schtick – a conflation of potted Rothian syntax and shameless confession. My only defence is that I’m employing tools Roth helped instil in me, tools that may in fact be all I’ve got: a reliance on the ear, for devising a voice and then following where the voices insists on going, and a helpless inclination to abide with the self – with one’s own inclinations and appetites – as a lens for seeing what’s willing to be seen, and as a medium for saying what wants to be said.

Call me a Counter-Roth. For it is the fate of a Roth, being the rare sort of writer whose major phases sprawl across decades, whose work encompasses and transcends modes of historical fiction, metafiction, memoir, the maximalist (or putters-in), the minimalist (or takers-out), the picaresque and counterfactual, etcetera and so forth – being the sort of writer who in his generosity half blots out the sky of possibility for those who come along after – to generate in his ambitious followers a sort of army of Counter-Roths. I’ll say it simply: the one certainty in my generation of writers, not otherwise unified, is that we all have some feeling about Roth. We can’t not. Mostly it involves some kind of strongly opinionated, half-aggrieved love.

4.
So, another confession: more then ten years after that encounter in East Hampton, I’d become a published novelist, invited for the first time to a residence at the artist’s colony called Yaddo. By this time I’d pursued my Roth obsession to both ends of his bookshelf, as it existed at the time, as I was to continue following it, right up to the present.

On my arrival at Yaddo, a fellow writer who helped me to my room at West House mentioned famous personages who’d written masterpieces behind the various windows – Sylvia Plath here, John Cheever there – and then, opening the door to what was to be my residence and studio both, unveiled a circular turret featuring a smooth, domed ceiling: “The Breast Room,” he announced. I laughed, thinking he referred only to the shape. Then he explained that Roth, inspired by dwelling within the room’s contour, wrote The Breast in there. As with many circumstances in a young writer’s life, I was exalted and humbled simultaneously – having been delivered by the Yaddo invitation into what I thought was my maturity, it turned out I was again to suckle at the fount of apprenticeship. Incidentally, if this story isn’t true, I don’t ever want to find out.

5.
Of course, I’m beyond my apprenticeship now and no longer even remotely young. In fact, as a college professor, it’s sometimes my duty to counsel other young aspirants navigating an overwhelming encounter with Roth.

I’m chagrined to admit that a quite brilliant English major under my care recently quit work on a thesis on Roth’s 1974 novel My Life As a Man, in despair. With his permission, I quote from the email he sent when, like Nixon, he resigned.

“What can I say about Philip Roth that Philip Roth hasn’t already said (and denied) (and said again) himself? It’s farcical how much My Life As a Man exemplifies this tendency. I was being pretty arrogant: if established literary critics cannot produce the kind of scholarship I feel is worthy of Roth’s fiction, how could I possibly think myself capable of rising to that challenge, without even reading the work my work would supposedly surpass?

“I feel like a guy taking on the marines with a single pocketknife. Going forward, here are the options, as I see them: 1) Write as much of a shitty first draft of this chapter as I can and send it to you, then come back to school next semester and write chapters three and four while taking a fuller course load than I did this semester and applying to jobs so that I have somewhere to live and something to do when I graduate. Or, 2) Tolerate the ‘Incomplete’ on my transcript and take Prof Dettmar’s ‘Irony in the Public Sphere’ instead. My gut is strongly telling me to choose the latter.

“I know I fucked up. If I had done the substantial work I should have done earlier this semester, I would either have made this decision at a better time or not made it at all. But here I am. This is OK with me. I’m not going to grad school and I won’t be any less fascinated by Philip Roth in letting go of my academic obligation to his books.” I quote at length here simply for the pleasure of hearing how the disease has taken hold of the email itself, which bubbles with Rothian vitality and even arrives at the key phrase, “Letting Go”.

6.
I only ever made Philip Roth laugh twice, to my knowledge. That’s weak recompense for the thousand hilarities Roth’s bestowed on me – bitter snorts of recognition, giggles of astonishment at narrative derring-do, sheer earthy guffaws. Of course, I’ve only ever met him a couple of times. The first time I made Roth laugh was in recounting a conversation I overheard while in line for a hot dog between innings at Shea Stadium, between two boorish men confessing to one another their preference for a glimpse of tight spandex even over that of bare skin; I mention this if only for the pleasure of bragging that Roth and I suffer the same fannish encumbrance, for anyone who knows the inside of Shea Stadium has earned whatever joy can be salvaged on the hot dog line.

The second time I made Roth laugh is more important to me: we stood together in the late stages of an Upper West Side brunch party, where I dandled my infant son while Roth looked quite reasonably impatient to be elsewhere. In a quiet panic, bobbing up and down to sooth the six-month-old, I found myself monologuing to Roth’s increasingly arched eyebrows. Finally, straining for a reference that would interest my hero, I turned the boy’s head slightly to the side, displaying the fat curve of his cheek, and said, “It resembles one of those disembodied unshaven cigar-smoking heads in a Philip Guston painting, don’t you think?” The juxaposition of my pink son and the grotesques of Guston, like the earlier juxtaposition of Shea and Spandex, did the trick. And this was another lesson from Roth: In putting across what wants putting across, in seeking a rise from the listener, do whatever it takes, grab any advantage, employ even the baby in your arms. I would have juggled the baby if it would have helped.

7.
To finish, then, with a final confession, according to the Rothian principle of cryptoconfessional storytelling: that though you may hold the cards quite close to your vest, it is best to create the thrilling illusion of having laid oneself generously bare, of having told all. That’s simply to say, I don’t want to leave you hanging in that East Hampton guest room. Did I get anywhere with the very nice rich girl? The answer is no. I saw as little action in East Hampton as I’d seen of those lobsters on their voyage from the broiler to the kitchen garbage pail. Less, even, than I’d seen of the lobsters. The only breast I fondled in East Hampton was Roth’s.

Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and critic. His essay collection “The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc” is published in paperback this month by Vintage (£8.99)