Non­fic­tion

Here We Are: My Friend­ship with Philip Roth

  • Review
By – September 7, 2020

Ben­jamin Tay­lor recre­ates the sto­ry of his unlike­ly friend­ship with Philip Roth in, Here We Are—a star­tling­ly inti­mate por­trait of Roth in his lat­er years. After meet­ing briefly in the mid-nineties, Roth and Tay­lor had become the clos­est of friends by 2001; the dynam­ic seemed to be this, an aspir­ing nov­el­ist and lit­er­ary biog­ra­ph­er more or less adopt­ed by the aging nov­el­ist — a titan of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture — look­ing back at the end of his long career. We spent thou­sands of hours in each other’s com­pa­ny,” Tay­lor recounts, He was ful­ly half my life. I can­not hope for anoth­er such friend.” When Roth died from heart dis­ease, age eighty-five in May 2018, it was Tay­lor who kept a vig­il, watch­ing over the body of his men­tor, lay­ing on a plinth in Colum­bia Pres­by­ter­ian Hos­pi­tal. He was, Tay­lor con­fess­es, the cho­sen par­ent of my mid­dle age.”

Here We Are, seeks to rean­i­mate Roth; it’s a chal­leng­ing aim, to con­vey the fact of Philip as he was.” Sim­i­lar to his famous lit­er­ary alter ego, Nathan Zuck­er­man, and many of his char­ac­ters, Roth embraced the idea of the self as end­less­ly flu­id, slid­ing between iden­ti­ties — like the fig­ure of Cole­man Silk in The Human Stain (2000), which Tay­lor ranks as Roth’s Mas­ter­piece.” In this vein, the nar­ra­tor of Sabbath’s The­ater (1995) pro­claims Roth’s cre­do: The law of liv­ing: fluc­tu­a­tion. For every thought a counter thought, for every urge a counter-urge.”

Out of love and loy­al­ty, Here We Are shows an aging Roth still in motion, rag­ing about old griev­ances and obsessed with lit­i­gat­ing the past.” Roth’s active inner life and his insa­tiable emo­tion­al appetites” con­tin­ued into his eight­ies, a tes­ta­ment to the the young man he’d remained all along.” Roth and Taylor’s often hilar­i­ous con­ver­sa­tions slide back and forth in time, dic­tat­ed by Roth’s fluc­tu­at­ing moods. They return, in mem­o­ry, to Roth’s nos­tal­gia-infused child­hood in Wee­quahic, a world end­less­ly redis­cov­ered” in his fic­tion. They dis­cuss the arc of Roth’s lit­er­ary career and his respons­es to crit­ics (like Irv­ing Howe) and rivals (like John Updike). They revis­it the wrecks of Roth’s two mar­riages: Mar­garet Mar­tin­son Williams in the late fifties (“He nev­er calmed down about their con­nu­bial hell”), and actress Claire Bloom. The lat­ter wrote an exposé about their mar­riage, Leav­ing a Doll’s House, that Roth answered with an unpub­lished 300 page, point by point, rebut­tal; Roth, in Taylor’s assess­ment, could not get enough of get­ting even.” And sad­ly, in light of Roth’s seri­ous heart con­di­tion and oth­er ail­ments, they dis­cuss the process of com­mit­ting sui­cide should Roth ask his young friend for assistance.

Taylor’s achieve­ment in Here We Are is, two years after his pass­ing, to make Philip Roth present for us. Accord­ing to Tay­lor, Roth was an incom­pa­ra­ble stu­dent of inner lives,” who pos­sessed the ter­ri­ble gift of inti­ma­cy;” this abil­i­ty allowed him to diag­nose and pierce the defen­sive pieties guard­ing the self, and the deep­est struc­tures of Amer­i­can soci­ety that he absorbed — often cel­e­brat­ed — and yet sought, in his major nov­els, to expose. This is the Roth whom Tay­lor embraces. Roth’s min­er­al-hard stare” pierces through to Taylor’s very core; at one key point, Roth’s insight saves Tay­lor from depres­sion and his own sui­ci­dal thoughts.

Every­body is full of cracks and fis­sures,” Roth observed in a 1984 inter­view, refer­ring to his lit­er­ary alter ego Zuck­er­man, but usu­al­ly we see peo­ple try­ing very hard to hide the places where they’re split.” This key obser­va­tion applies, above all, to Roth him­self. Ben­jamin Taylor’s deeply mov­ing mem­oir explores Roth’s unhealed fis­sures, the lines of frac­ture” that, as Tay­lor reports, Roth could nev­er mend. Here We Are deep­ens our under­stand­ing of Roth’s his­to­ry-haunt­ed” imag­i­na­tion. Although with­out bio­log­i­cal chil­dren, Roth found in Ben­jamin Tay­lor a true son. Echo­ing the moral les­son of Pat­ri­mo­ny, Roth’s book about his own father, Tay­lor arrives at a dis­tinct­ly Roth­i­an insight: through mem­o­ry we remain filial.”

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Discussion Questions