Dear Philip, I only met you twice — although “meeting” overstates my attempt, after coming across you unexpectedly in public spaces, to engage you in the barest way. Each interaction revealed a completely different aspect of you, so much so that — upon reading the Doppelganger-infused fiction of “Operation Shylock” — I began to understand how there might be two of you, the literary monk and the social raconteur.
The first time was on the corner of Broadway and 79th Street, near your apartment, as I later learned from one of your essays. I had just picked up a couple of cheap paperbacks on the sidewalk near Columbus Circle — $2 each for Camus’ “The Stranger” and “The Lives of a Cell,” by Dr. Lewis Thomas — and I was walking uptown toward my place. The rain had just started, and as I hurried across 79th I saw a tall man to my right, walking with purpose, enclosed inside a raincoat. I was struck at first not by any semblance to Philip Roth — it hadn’t yet occurred to me, just starting to find my literary sea legs in my late 20s, that you actually existed off of the page — but by the raincoat, sturdy if not fashionable, pulled slightly tighter than seemed necessary by the still very light drizzle. If there were ever a moment to engage the father of Portnoy, warning him about a puddle, or commenting on the novellas of Saul Bellow, that would have been the time. But the raincoat, the color of baked earth, was like a force field of protection. I had the sense that if I were to speak, the words would bounce off the coat and land harmlessly on the wet ground, indistinguishable from the raindrops, and just as meaningless.
The second time we met was in the slightly overheated bowels of the City College of New York’s graduate center near Times Square. The literary critic Alfred Kazin was being celebrated, and smart people had just said smart things about the irascible, working-class Brooklynite who had re-made American letters with his first book of criticism, “On Native Grounds,” at 27 — only slightly older than you when you began to re-make American fiction with “Goodbye, Columbus.”
After the talk I gravitated toward a jovial group of 60-something men in a lopsided circle near the back. A tall man was telling a story, and men were doubled over in laughter. I gingerly penetrated their gathering, hearing only the very end of the story — “as if he could hit a ball to save his life” — before realizing that it was you. You were wearing a dark blazer and slacks, clearly fashionable, and leaning back with the grace and power of a man who didn’t need to rise to his full height to project his authority. As the men laughed I awkwardly joined the circle, like a shy boy throwing caution to the wind at a high school dance, a question forming on my lips. But you were finished, and as you turned to get your coat the men lost interest in each other and grabbed for their umbrellas.
In The New York Times recently, discussing your announcement to stop writing, you said you had just bought an iPhone, and that “Every morning I study a chapter in ‘iPhone for Dummies,’ and now I’m proficient. I haven’t read a word for two months.” In addition, the Times reported that you are “collaborating on a novella, via e-mail, with the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend.”
In a related story on a British website, there is a picture of you smiling. (Well, maybe “smiling” is going too far, the way my having “met” you is overdoing it). The photograph reveals a man for whom a half-century’s burden of the most exacting discipline and expectation have been lifted. You said recently that, upon re-reading your work in its totality, “I began from the last book forward, casting a cold eye. And I thought, ‘You did all right.’” And in the picture one discerns a social man, giddy with excitement over new technology and an avuncular relationship with a child, coming across the achievements of a fastidious writer and enjoying those achievements objectively, without having to ask: “What more could I have said?”
The question I wanted to ask you in the university basement has returned to my consciousness. It is the question all writers ask and desperately need to know: How do I balance the need for monkish discipline, and the stimulation of the “madding crowd,” in order to craft literature that can penetrate a raincoat, and stop a group of men from leaving a library in order to hear just one more story?
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.