New Yorker: At His Birthday Party Philip Roth talks of Death

New Yorker has been churning out amazing content in the past few issues. David Remnick continues that flow with his account of Philip Roth's eightieth birthday celebration in Newark.

Remnick explains that death was Roth's main topic in his birthday remarks. An odd choice for a birthday festival for most folks but not for Roth.

Now, we usually don't dwell on the subject of death in our thoughts. But today we conclude our recitation of Kaddish for our dad. And that put us face-to-face with the subject. As we said in another post, we feel that through the public synagogue Kaddish ritual we firmly rooted our dad's soul into the community of Jews that he so loved and served with such dedication. As the community of Israel lives and flourishes, so does the energy of our dad live on. One form of immortality.

Dad's body rests in a cemetery in Israel on Har Hamenuchot overlooking the hills of Jerusalem. His presence there roots his soul in the Zionist dimension of our collective reality as a people. As the State of Israel lives and flourishes, so does the vitality of our dad live on. Another form of immortality.

Roth eloquently writes of the stones in a cemetery in New Jersey and the memory of his family. Roth has certainly rooted his soul in a public vital body of writing that will live on for a long time. A Rothian form of immortality.

Here is Remnick's teasing conclusion to his essay:

...Roth is the author of thirty-one books. His favorite, he has said, the one in which he felt the most free as he wrote it, is “Sabbath’s Theater.” Laughing a little to himself, Roth said that the novel, which was published in 1995, could easily have been titled “Death and the Art of Dying.” Its epigraph is Prospero’s line in Act V, Scene 1 in “The Tempest”: “Every third thought shall be my grave.” And within is the line from Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

“The book is death-haunted,” Roth said. Mickey Sabbath, the turbulent, profane, and libidinous hero, is a man who is beyond discretion and taste, whose outrageous adulterous behavior is, Roth said, “his response to a place where nothing keeps its promise and everything is perishable.” As a boy, Sabbath lost the person closest to him in the world—his older brother, Morty, whose plane was shot down, in 1944, over the Japanese-occupied Philippines.

With that introduction, Roth read pages three hundred and sixty-three to three hundred and seventy of “Sabbath’s Theater,” one of the most stunning passages in all his work. He was not about to let us forget what eighty means. In the novel, Sabbath has gone south (“Tunnel, turnpike, parkway—the shore!”) to visit the Jewish cemetery where his grandparents, parents, and brother are all buried. I will not ruin it for you. To get the feel of the night, you must read the passage in full—or, better, read the novel entire. And imagine that this passage—with its great elegy of gravestones, with its memories of life lived, of a life cut short, and all of it in particular—imagine that this is what Philip Roth chose, very deliberately, as his birthday message, his greeting, his farewell. These were not his last words—please, not that!—but they were what he chose. Death-haunted but assertive of life. The passage ends with his hero putting stones on the graves of the dead. Stones that honor the dead. Stones that are also meant to speak to the dead, to mark the presence of life, as well, if only for a while. The passage ends simply. It ends with the line, “Here I am.”

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