I didn’t mean for this to become obituary blog; I’ve actually had this post on the back burner for several months, long before learning of Philip Roth’s death last week. I also didn’t mean to make “back burner” into a cooking pun but it’s also unusually opportune. Like soup simmering on a Sunday afternoon, these thoughts needed those months to percolate, to become more than the sum of its parts. It took these memorial days, reading others’ recent memories of Roth, to feel ready to serve up my own (although, like soup, it’s hard to declare writing “done” – it always promises to be better the next day).
Well before I picked up one of Roth’s novels, I had heard about them. I heard they were provocative; I heard they were disgusting. I heard they were brilliant; I heard they were misogynist. The opinions were so divided that I never got around to reading one of his books until after college, when I heard that Roth was retiring. Then I knew there was at least one thing that both of us could agree on: that writing is agonizingly, torturously hard.
“Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time,” Roth remarked to the New York Times when he retired in 2012. Before then, he was prolific, coming out with nearly a book a year. But for someone who spent so much of his former life writing, in retirement Roth didn’t seem to miss the process a bit. He entertained in his Connecticut house, he went to movies, he hosted parties, while on his disused computer on the Upper West Side a Post-it read, “The struggle with writing is over.”
So why enter into that struggle in the first place? Is it to delve into our own thoughts, to better understand ourselves? By most accounts, Roth did that well. His narrators are made in his image (white men, Jewish, usually from New Jersey), sharing even their most uncomfortable thoughts. To enter that particular struggle, you need to be comfortable spending lots of time with yourself, or at least have the willingness to untangle all the mysteries you contain. “The audience I’m writing for is me,” Roth admitted, “and I’m so busy trying to figure the damn thing out.”
While he was trying, Roth did not cook. He relied on others to do it for him: first mother, then his wife, then a private chef. And like Roth’s writing, his preferred dishes focused on the familiar. His favorite meal was soupe au pistou and, like their creator, his narrators turned to similar comfort foods: cabbage soup, matzoh-ball soup, cream of mushroom. Soup was a salve for Roth, providing a sense of continuity that stretched back to childhood. “During a winter snowstorm what is more thrilling, while stamping off the slush on the back landing at lunchtime, than … to smell cream of tomato soup heating up on the stove?” remarks the titular anti-hero of Portnoy’s Complaint. Soup is the safety that comes from sameness.
But there’s another reason we write, and read: to move beyond ourselves and discover the unfamiliar, to touch the unknown. And that’s where Roth leaves me cold. As another writer put it this week, Roth’s novels aren’t curious about the inner worlds of anyone outside his intended audience: himself. “Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth.”
We’ll all gravitate toward warm soup on a cold afternoon, relishing the feeling of familiarity that comes with comfort food. Writing about ourselves is like trying to recreate one of those old recipes, to grasp for a taste of our past to better understand our tangled present. But when we reach for the unknown ingredient, the untested recipe, we force ourselves to move beyond our own experience, and identify with others—and in the process, learn more about ourselves than we ever did alone.