Upon the occasion of Philip Roth’s eightieth birthday, acclaimed critic and biographer Hermione Lee likened the newly retired writer first to Shakespeare and then to one of his creations, The Tempest’s Prospero, who famously invokes the audience’s applause as a means to his freedom. But surely, not even Prospero enjoyed such applause as Mr. Roth received on his birthday night, as family, friends, and fans gathered at the Newark Museum on Tuesday evening to honor the literary legend. Dressed in their party best, yet casual and comfortable (no black ties here), guests at the invitation-only celebration—including Philip Gourevitch, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, Library of America’s Max Rudin, official Roth biographer Blake Bailey, and many dedicated Roth scholars and members of the Philip Roth Society—perused collections of American and Tibetan art and visited the nineteenth-century home of the Ballantines, then mingled in the museum’s airy classical court, pacing the marble floors, conversing, sipping sodas and sparkling water, and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and crudités before moving to the auditorium for a program of tributes and speeches.
Liz Del Tufo of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee first welcomed the crowd—and Roth—“with affection,” followed by Aimee Pozorski, president of the Philip Roth Society, who spoke of the society’s wish to honor “the great writing of a great man.” Jonathan Lethem took to the podium, joking that he had prepared “a counter-Roth tribute” and recalling with equal humor his early experience with Roth’s risqué Kafkaesque novel The Breast as a young man. Roth had, said Lethem, “closed the distance between [Saul] Bellow and Mad Magazine,” helping to quell “the yearning for high seriousness” at a time when this was most needed. Perhaps suggesting, for those who were curious, the manner by which Roth handles his detractors, Claudia Roth Pierpont spoke of his humor and wit. When she complained directly to the author about the character Jaime of Exit Ghost, she recalls that Roth quipped, “You should hear what she says about you.” Edna O’Brien, who described the author’s “prodigious energy and zest” that “almost never spiral out of control” and gushed that Roth was “the most perfect tuning fork of the written word of any period,” set the record straight once and for all that the two had never, despite any rumors the contrary, been lovers. Despite this admission, she displayed no shortage of affection for the guest of honor, sharing accounts of her time with Roth and describing him as “morally rigorous … a frugal man but also capable of great generosity … feared and revered … undoubtedly one of Yeats’s great Olympians.”
At long last Roth took to the stage himself amidst a crowd on its feet, now applauding, whistling, cheering. He sat at a large table, appeared calm and composed. “There is no good reason for an eighty-year-old man to regret that things are different,” Roth said, recalling briefly the best and worst days of his life. A clever bout of what the author recognized as paralipsis—speaking of exactly those subjects of which one has promised not to speak—was followed by what David Remnick has called—and what so many others are sure to state—“the most astonishing literary performance I’ve ever witnessed”: a reading of a scene from what Roth has often described as his favorite novel, Sabbath’s Theater, that begins at a cemetery that holds the remains of those closest to the main character, Mickey Sabbath, and ends with the words “Here I am.”
Those hoping for the news that Roth’s retirement was a hoax or an egregious rumor were surely disappointed, as Roth left little hope for a literary encore when he spoke to a hushed room of “having concluded over a half a century of writing.” “I’ve described my last javelin throw,” he said. “I don’t want to describe another death.” Still, the mood of the evening (and Roth) was always upbeat and—to borrow from Lethem—absent of any “high seriousness.” Nathan Englander, who reflects on the author and his works in Philip Roth: Unmasked, for PBS’s American Masters series, airing March 29, explained, “It’s a joy to be here. There are people from Brazil and Rome, critics and literary people from all over the world. It’s great to have so many of Roth’s friends, so many writers together here in Newark.” Indeed, with literary guests from all over the world wandering the court, this Puritan-founded city with its industrial steel landscape and sputtering smokestacks was transformed—or, more accurately, revealed—not only as a literary landmark, as so many cities are, but as proof of a kind of indefatigable literary resilience and fortitude; proof of the existence, still, of an unquenchable literary love that has dwelled in each town and city in America since Melville and Twain.
The celebration wound down with champagne, a toast given by Louise Erdich, cake (in the shape of a book, of course)—and a marching band that paraded ever briefly through Engelhard Court before, finally, everyone joined in to sing a birthday song for the guest of honor. What must the many writers in the crowd have thought upon witnessing such a scene? As guests gathered around Roth to give him their well wishes at the night’s end, Jonathan Lethem remarked to me simply and poignantly, “It makes me think about the goal line.” Doubtless, many in the audience were thinking the same. We had begun as readers—as readers of Roth and of those that preceded him—and now were committed to that same work from which Roth had stepped back and dusted his hands.
“You flood into history and history floods into you,” thought Zuckerman.*
Here we are.
Je Banach is a member of the Residential Faculty in Fiction at the Yale Writers’ Conference. In June of 2013, she will also lead the conference’s seminar on literary discourse (criticism and review). She is the author of teaching and reading guides to works of fiction and nonfiction for Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Simon & Schuster. Most recently, she wrote guides to Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life, and the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion. Banach was a longtime contributor to Harold Bloom’s literary series with Infobase Publishing. A recipient of the New Boston Fund Fellowship in Fiction, she has written for many other academic and popular venues, including Esquire, Granta, Guernica, KGB Bar Lit, Bookforum, Oxford University Press, Publishers Weekly, and PEN.
* From Roth’s I Married a Communist.