Reflecting On A Friendship Between A Lion Of Literature And A Critic
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ben Taylor once told his friend Philip Roth, there's too much of you, Philip. All your emotions are outsize. And the famed novelist told him, I've written in order not to die. Benjamin Taylor's "Here We Are" is a prose poem to a friendship between an aging lion of literature who gave voice to "Portnoy's Complaint," "When She Was Good," "The Human Stain," "American Pastoral," "The Plot Against America," and more than 20 other novels and the younger critic who could make him laugh, think, and sometimes take a fresh look at himself. Ben Taylor, one of the great Proust biographers, a professor at The New School and Columbia, and author of the award-winning memoir "The Hue And Cry At Our House," joins us from New York. Ben, thanks so much for being with us.
BENJAMIN TAYLOR: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: What churned inside of Philip Roth so powerfully?
TAYLOR: Love, a desire for justice, a desire to externalize some vast cauldron of feeling and thinking and an inability to leave alone anything from the past.
SIMON: You write at one point that Philip Roth, he possessed the terrible gift of intimacy. He caused people to tell things they told no one else. That was true of you?
TAYLOR: Yes, it certainly was. He had this mineral-hard stare that was impossible to evade when he wanted to know what was really going on, which is the subject of fiction, of course, what's really going on behind the facades of ordinary life.
SIMON: Is it fair to say he was a much better friend than a husband?
TAYLOR: Well, I think Philip was a natural bachelor. And marriage didn't suit him at all either time he tried it. But I wouldn't necessarily put the blame - certainly, I would not put the blame on his second wife. And his first wife is magnified in the books into a kind of Hedda Gabler or Madius (ph) or some other succubus figure. And he never got over that first marriage. He was still raging about it decades after Maggie's untimely death in a car accident.
SIMON: In a car accident. And second wife, of course, Claire Bloom...
TAYLOR: Claire Bloom.
SIMON: ...The actress. There's a funny story you have in the book about the two of you taking a walk in the park behind the Museum of Natural History, where there is a monument to the - to American winners of the Nobel Prize.
TAYLOR: Yes, ironically enough, it's just steps from his apartment. And there are all the names of the Nobel laureates. We were examining this monument one day. And a lady came up to us and said to Philip, looking for your name? It's not there.
SIMON: (Laughter) Well, and it brings up the question, did he resent not winning the Nobel for literature? Or did he become kind of proud of joining what in some ways is an equally select group of writers - you know, Joyce, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Frost, Murakami - who never won the Nobel also?
TAYLOR: That's right. And not to mention Tolstoy and Henry James and Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov. It's quite a roll of honor those overlooked. I think it just became irritating.
SIMON: Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing when he was 80. I want to play a clip from an interview we were fortunate to do with him a few years ago. And he told us that he was making all kinds of new discoveries, like naps.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
PHILIP ROTH: The best part of it is that when you wake up, for the first 15 seconds, you have no idea where you are. You're just alive. That's all you know. And it's bliss. It's absolute bliss.
SIMON: I love that. Philip Roth, of all people, putting his finger on what's so extraordinary about a nap.
TAYLOR: Yes, he could be rather - even rather bossy in this advocacy of naps. He would sometimes say to me in the country, I'm going to have my nap. You go have a nap, too - even when I didn't feel like it. And he would wake up and say, my nap had a beautiful shape to it. It was just like a gourd.
SIMON: Oh, boy. Can you tell us what he kept in his safe? Because he entrusted you with that knowledge.
TAYLOR: Yes, he wanted to be able to make a rational exit from life if he felt he had to. And he had the equipment with which to commit suicide and said, if I'm unable to get to the safe myself, I would like for you to do this for me. Included among the contents was a box of Triscuits because after taking the pills, he had read you could sometimes become violently ill. Better to - not to do it on an empty stomach.
SIMON: What do you see or hear of him in your life now?
TAYLOR: Well, the conversation goes on. Death is really powerless to end the conversation like that. And when I dream about Philip, he's always in his prime and full of joy. And in waking life, it's when something's funny that I find myself telling - when something crosses my path that I know Philip would like, I inwardly tell him about it. I think everybody does that with the dead. That's one of the things we do with the beloved dead.
SIMON: Benjamin Taylor - his book "Here We Are: My Friendship With Philip Roth." Ben, thanks so much for being with us.
TAYLOR: Thank you, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "LONDON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.