I’m a big fan of Philip Roth. His early stories are vivid, including Goodbye, Columbus, and Portnoy’s Complaint was a seminal (no pun intended) book in my reading development. I read it when I was about 20 and thought, wow, you can write about that! His characters were tortured and thought and spoke in a mad rush of words.
There’s a cheeky pleasure in reading his early stuff, but it’s his late-career writing that took him to another level. As someone reading from far away it felt as if this work – more thematically complex, more sober – was a reflection of the journey he was on himself. It felt as if he explored in his novels the themes and stories he wondered at himself. The early stuff is like a barroom lothario using his easy charm to get laid. The later stuff is a man of the world unwilling to barter with easy words, intent on the questions life has posed him.
I admire him as a writer, but I relate to him as a man. In particular, though I’m a different character to any he’s written of, I found myself reading his stuff hooked on the same themes. To me, his writing development reflects his personal experience. Other authors write variations on the same themes throughout their life, but his books are true to the stage of life he’s in, and what he sees.
I find that interesting and I relate to it. It helps that I share some of the same appetites as his characters, and Roth himself.
I enjoyed reading this piece, but there are two things from it I particularly want to share.
This first is a reflection on getting old and turning away from the erotic possibility:
“Wait ’til you go well and truly to sleep where the body forks,” he said. “A great peacefulness, yes. But it’s the harbinger of night. You’re left to browse back through the enticements and satisfactions and agonies that were your former vitality—when you were strong in the sexual magic.” The peace was hard-won. “First my vehement youth, all fight and craving,” he told me. “Then this so suddenly—old age telling me to have a long last look. I’ve come through. I’m on the other side of all battles. Aspiration, that beast, has died in me. Whenever death comes to mind, I tell myself, It is now and here we are, and this suffices. So long as we’re alive, we’re immortal, no?”
I wrestle with the fear of this, even now, when possibility still exists for me, and I have every expectation of fruitful years ahead. But what happens when I don’t? There’s a sense of essence I feel leaking away, and in a way, I think he explored that – the mind going on while the trappings of the body subsided. If you read Everyman, he counts back from it all ended to when it was all possibility. It’s both heartbreaking and beautiful. It haunted me when I read it first.
Near the end of this piece Roth is quoted reading from Conrad, and lingering on the phrase:
‘In the destructive element immerse.’
It’s a lovely phrase, and I think it resonates to Roth because it’s this he had to contend with. I think it means to accept the darkness inside you and make it yours. There’s the great temptation to conform and behave. We tend to the sensible because it’s what society expects.
I’m always torn by this. I want to give in to myself all the time. How many times have I written, I want to be myself? It feels true to me to accept this and know it’s true – to embrace that essence regardless because all else is meaningless.
I think a good part of his writing explores that, in different ways. I think it likely mirrored his own torment – a man of strong appetites and opinion, sensitive to the world and seeking through his (often controversial) books to investigate and attempt to understand it.
In the destructive element immerse – good advice.