Philip Roth turns eighty-one today. You must be wondering: How can you, little old you, partake of such an historic occasion? Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You could masturbate into a piece of raw liver, à la Alexander Portnoy; you could masturbate on your mistress’s grave, like Mickey Sabbath; or you could masturbate into your beloved’s hair, as David Kepesh does.
Then again, there’s no law saying life must imitate art. If you’re absolutely set on not paying tribute through masturbation, there is one other option: you can peruse our archives, where you’ll find a whole host of work by, about, or otherwise in the orbit of Philip Roth.
There’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” a short story The Paris Review published in 1958, later collected in Goodbye, Columbus:
If one should compare the light of day to the life of man: sunrise to birth; sunset—the dropping down over the edge— to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the trapdoor of the synagogue roof—his feet kicking backwards bronco-style at Rabbi Binder’s outstretched arms—at that moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away, in fact, as Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi’s face, the sharp click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been mistaken for the sound of the vast gray light that had just throbbed through the sky.
And “Epstein,” another story from Goodbye, Columbus:
At the corner luncheonette he bought his own paper and sat alone, drinking coffee and looking out the window beyond which the people walked to church. A pretty young shiksa walked by, holding her white round hat in her hand; she bent over to remove her shoe and shake a pebble from it. Epstein watched her bend, and he spilled some coffee on his shirt front. The girl’s small behind was round as an apple beneath the close-fitting dress. He looked, and then as though he were praying, he struck himself on the chest with his fist, again and again. “What have I done! Oh, God!”
There’s our seminal Art of Fiction interview with Roth, from 1984:
It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift … I am a writer writing a book impersonating a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer—who then, to compound the impersonation, to barb the edge, pretends he’s a well-known literary critic. Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade.
If you’re really looking to party hearty, there’s Roth’s speech at our 2010 Revel; Roth reading a eulogy for his high school teacher, Bob Lowenstein; an account of Roth’s eightieth birthday party last year; and Roth giving invaluable life advice (“quit while you’re ahead”) to a young writer.
It’s more pleasure than you could give yourself, if we dare say so.
“[Subscribe to] The Paris Review.” —Philip Roth