Philip Roth, 1933–2018


In Memoriam


Philip Roth, a towering figure of twentieth-century literature, has died at the age of eighty-five. He had a long history with the The Paris Review. His story “The Conversion of the Jews” was pulled from our slush pile when Roth was just twenty-five years old, and published in issue no. 18 (Spring 1958). Roth then made his first visit to New York, where he met the magazine’s young editors and writers. The connection was immediate. As he described in his speech at our 2010 Spring Revel, “This time I sent my story not to The Paris Review slush pile, from which I’d been plucked first time around by none other than Rose Styron, but right to the top.” His next story, “Epstein,” was published in issue no. 19 (Summer 1958), and Goodbye, Columbus was published in issue no. 20 (Autumn–Winter 1958–1959). In the early eighties, the writer Hermione Lee interviewed Roth for our Art of Fiction series. In her words, Roth “listens carefully to everything, makes lots of quick jokes, and likes to be amused. Just underneath this benign appearance there is a ferocious concentration and mental rapacity; everything is grist for his mill, no vagueness is tolerated, differences of opinion are pounced on greedily, and nothing that might be useful is let slip.” In 2010, The Paris Review presented Roth with the Hadada Award for lifetime achievement.

In the interest of letting nothing useful slip, here is a quick roundup of our various and varied Philip Roth pieces from over the years. 

In which Philip Roth gives invaluable life advice (“quit while you’re ahead”) to a young writer: 

With every table in the dining room occupied and me, the only waiter, neglecting the needs of a good fifty patrons, I approached Roth. Holding out Balls as a numbness set into the muscles of my face, I spoke. “Sir, I’ve heard you say that you don’t read fiction anymore, but I’ve just had my first novel published and I’d like to give you a copy.”

His eyes lifting from his iPhone, he took the book from my hands. He congratulated me. Then, staring at the cover, he said, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.”

These words worked on me like a hit of morphine. Like two hits. It felt as if I was no longer the occupant of my own body. The legs had gone weak, the ears warmed, the eyes watered, the heart rate increased rapidly. Barely able to keep myself upright, I told him, “Thank you.”

Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

After which I went back to work.

A scene from Philip Roth’s eightieth-birthday party

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.”

In which Philip Roth announces his retirement:

Do you still have the desire to write?

No. Anyway, I have no intention of writing in the next ten years. To tell the truth, I’m finished. Nemesis is going to be my last book. Look at E. M. Forster. He stopped writing at around the age of forty. And I, who used to churn out book after book, haven’t written anything in three years. I’ve been working instead on my archives so I can turn them over to my biographer. I’ve turned over thousands of pages which are like memoirs but not literary, not publishable as such. I don’t want to write my memoirs, but I wanted my biographer to have the material for his book before I die. If I die without leaving him anything, what will he start with?

But you just spent our whole interview saying that the life of a writer has no bearing on his work, and yet you find it important that someone write your biography?

I have no choice. If it were up to me, I’d prefer that there not be any biography of me, but there will be biographies after I die, so at least I want to make sure that one of them’s correct. Blake Bailey wrote an excellent biography of John Cheever, who was a friend of mine and a tough subject for a biography, since, being gay and alcoholic, he spent almost his entire life in concealment. Bailey got in touch with me, we spent two whole days talking, and he convinced me. But I won’t control his work. In any case, twenty percent of it will be wrong, but that’s always better than twenty-two percent.

In which Roth attends the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of his favorite New York restaurants, the Russian Samovar, and celebrates its proprietor Roman Kaplan:

“Mazel Tov!” said Philip Roth to Roman when he arrived around eight-thirty, in the middle of several Russian speeches. Roman had already spoken and enjoyed a postspeech indoor cigarette. To Alexander Izbitser, the dapper house pianist, Roth apologized for his own khakis and blazer. He promised he’d wear his tux for the fiftieth … Roth started coming regularly to the Samovar around fifteen years ago. Business was better in those days, he said—of course, it was the late nineties. He met Roman; they became friends. “I come here sometimes alone,” Roth said, just to dine with the proprietor. What do they talk about? “Death,” interjected Thurman. “I mostly listen,” said Roth. Roman tells him about his problems, about his past. Sometimes he reads Roth Russian poetry. “Do you think he’s courting me?” Roth asked.

Of course, there’s our 1984 Art of Fiction interview with Roth:

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.

And finally, Roth’s acceptance speech for The Paris Review’s Hadada Award: