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A Celebration of Two Writers
I don’t usually go to events of this nature - usually feeling that I would be like a voyeur if I attended a gala for a famous person I have no personal connection to. But having been exhilarated over the years by Roth’s large and varied body of often-dazzling work (twenty-eight books), I felt an overwhelming need to attend the birthday party. My wife (who wrote a section of her PhD on Roth) and I got in line for the event at Columbia’s Miller Theater forty-five minutes early. There were already about two hundred people ahead of us - students, professors, writers, editors, and just people who love the written word. Most were middle aged or older - hopefully not a sign of the often-rumoured death of serious literature among the younger generation.
While waiting for the doors to open, we eavesdropped on the conversation between two men (strangers to each other) directly behind us on line. One was a talkative, well-heeled, camel-haired coat wearing friend of Roth’s from high school, the other a low-keyed, delicate-looking novelist who taught creative writing at Columbia; two strikingly different people, but both sharing a friendship with Roth, both speaking of him with affection and great respect. What their talk made clear, was that for Roth, a very private man, his willingness to take part in such a public celebration was something out of the ordinary.
When we got inside the theatre, every seat was taken. Roth’s celebration was neither an antic party nor a series of speakers serving up reverential platitudes, but a serious literary afternoon spent discussing his work in an incisive manner. There were two panels: the more exciting one consisted of young novelists, discussing Roth’s influence on them as writers; the other was made up mainly of scholars who discussed their favourite Roth work. The novelists called attention to Roth’s sentences and unmistakable voice - a propulsive, provocative, eloquent, often funny one, that leaps off the page, erases the distance between narrator and reader, and makes one want to devour the novel in one gulp. For example, in his last novel, Exit Ghost, Roth writes stirringly of an ageing, impotent Zuckerman’s (his alter-ego) futile desire: “And so I set out to minimize the loss by struggling to pretend that desire had naturally abated, until I came in contact for barely an hour with a beautiful, privileged, intelligent, self-possessed, languid-looking 30-year-old made enticingly vulnerable by her fears and I experienced the bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again.”
But it’s not only Roth’s unique voice that these younger writers embrace. They find Roth’s antipathy to sanitizing reality, and his engaging in inventive and outrageous literary high wire acts liberating (his characters can and will say anything). So he can write about Portnoy’s passion for masturbation with utter honesty and comic verve; he can suggest in a striking satiric and imaginative tale that a young woman, Amy Bellette in The Ghost Writer, may be Anne Frank living anonymously in the US; and he can poignantly capture the tragic “fall from paradise” in American Pastoral of an honourable man who has totally bought into the American dream.
Roth is one writer who, as he has grown older, has not seen a waning of his literary powers. If not every one of his recent novels is a masterwork, he has enlarged his scope by exploring, in his own inimitable fashion, the nature of American society and history, and has confronted his own mortality with a painful nakedness that provides a disturbing shock of recognition to a reader of my age.
While Roth may have mocked convention and goaded his readers, he was never a rebel or radical. But the intellectually risk-taking, macho Mailer built his whole career upon being a public bad boy who courted controversy and celebrity. He was also a source of penetrating cultural insights and sometimes absurd, sometimes excitingly original theories about sex, disease, courage, architecture, and politics, among other subjects - seeking to change the moral consciousness of his time. Mailer may never have been as fine a traditional novelist as Roth, he had a weakness for baroque prose - but he was a great personal journalist. His writing had a profound personal effect on me when I was young. For me, Mailer’s non-fiction, especially his first and third person account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon remains one of the seminal works about the American sixties, and about a generation that - in his words - “had no respect for the unassailable logic of the next step.” And that era, despite its infantilism, was when I, personally, felt most alive.
Roth and Mailer, two giants, who saw and continue to see more deeply into the self and the society than all our television pundits and academic social scientists combined.