“Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013”
By Philip Roth
(Library of America, 465 pp, $35)
In 1951, Philip Roth left his home in Newark to go to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He would never live in New Jersey again.
But that didn’t matter. It lived in him, a place he knew by heart, a homeland he walked in his dreams.
“I knew where the Empire burlesque house was, the showcase for `Evelyn West, and Her Treasure Chest,'” he boasted in the essay “Juice or Gravy.” “I could direct you to Bamberger’s department store, to Military Park, to City Hall, to Penn Station, to Father Divine’s Riviera Hotel and to every movie theater downtown.”
Memories plus imagination multiplied by talent – this is what makes fiction. And for decades, Roth labored over that equation, turning out dozens of books until he announced his retirement.
The lack of new Roth novels, however, hasn’t meant the end of new Roth books; “Why Write: Collected Non-Fiction 1960-2013,” just arrived. And to read it is to revel in hearing Roth again – shouting with righteous outrage, laughing with good humor, speaking softly with tempered regret.
The book is divided in thirds, and comprises interviews, speeches and essays. A constant, though, is Roth’s understandable annoyance with readers who persist in reducing the wonders of fiction to the gossip of memoirs, and continually conflate him with his characters, particularly that adolescent sex fiend Alexander Portnoy.
Unlike Portnoy, Roth insists, he grew up quiet, polite and normal. After Bucknell, he went to graduate school. He taught, he wrote, and he married (briefly, disastrously, tragically). His short stories began attracting attention.
They also began attracting attacks – mostly from other Jews, who accused Roth of being a masochistic bigot. Roth met the criticisms head-on, accepting invitations to address Jewish organizations, greeting heated insults with cold logic.
His parents were less calm about it.
“They were stunned,” he remembers. “They would go to a lecture about me at their temple, expecting a star to be pinned on their boy just like back in grade school. Instead they’d hear … (that their son) was a self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew. My mother had to hold my father down in his seat, he’d get so angry.”
It grew greater with “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth’s first bestseller – a deliberately graphic, anarchically funny depiction of a vulgar man’s obscene obsessions. Now Roth was accused of pornography, of misogyny. He was famous and infamous all at once.
Still, the writer continued to simply, quietly work. He invented new fictional personas to chronicle. He promoted the work and welfare of writers behind the Iron Curtain. He pushed his art further – writing about baseball, about Nixon, about a man who turns into a gigantic breast.
Was that influenced by a stand-up comic named Lenny Bruce? one reporter asked. No, Roth replied, “a sit-down one named Franz Kafka.”
Admittedly much of this is recycled. The first third of “Why Write” is basically a selection from Roth’s “Reading Myself and Others”; the second third, conversations with other writers, already appeared as his collection “Shop Talk.”
Still, the last third of the book, “Explanations,” has newer, less-traveled pleasures, chief among them “Errata,” the account of Roth’s battle to have mistakes in his various Wikipedia entries corrected. (The site’s anonymous administrators, who possibly have a better sense of irony than we give them credit for, insisted that they could not accept Philip Roth as an expert on the work of Philip Roth.)
Roth is funny here, and again in “A Czech Education,” when he reveals how his work there brought new scrutiny for his friends, as the secret police wondered if Roth was a spy. Why else would this American come to Prague every spring? “Don’t you read his books?” the novelist Ivan Klima asked. “He comes for the girls.”
But if “Why Write” can be a bit of a patchwork, it’s also a summing up, the climax to a self-evaluation Roth began in 2010 when, after announcing his retirement, he decided to reread himself – all 31 books. “I wanted to see if I’d wasted my time,” he confesses. “You can never be sure, you know.”
And having re-read all of it – what was his own verdict?
“My conclusion, after I finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe Louis,” he said. “`I did the best I could with what I had.'”
And that is better than almost everyone else.