FILE – In this Sept. 8, 2008, file photo, author Philip Roth poses for a photo in the offices of his publisher Houghton Mifflin, in New York. Friends and admirers will gather Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in the New York Public Library for a tribute to Philip Roth, who died in May. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
NEW YORK – Philip Roth had it all planned.
“Many years ago, I got in the mail a letter in which he outlined the instructions for his memorial service,” his good friend Joel Conarroe told a meeting of hundreds Tuesday during a tribute to the midtown Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library. The author of ” American Pastoral,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other famous novels was as accurate about his death, Conarroe explained, as he was about his life and work.
icipants included Robert Caro, Salman Rushdie, Mia Farrow and Don DeLillo, and speakers ranged from Conarroe, president emeritus of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, fellow authors, such as Edna O’brien, Norman manea, and Judith Thurman. The setting of the library, Celeste Bartos Forum, and the glass dome in the ceiling, was requested by Roth. So were the speakers, even though the list has changed over time as such previous choices as Saul Bellow and William Styron died. Roth also picked out the music, Gabriel Faure’s “Elegie in C minor, op. 24, which ended the nearly 2 ½ – hour ceremony.
Roth died in May. He was 85.
According to Conarroe, Roth wanted as much laughter as tears, and the guests shared memories of his mind, and the surprising tenderness for a man so direct and unsparing in his work. Thursday spoke of driving around Connecticut with Roth as he searched for a proper burial place, which he called “A grave with a nice view.” New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont noted that he referred to are Manhattan, where other authors in the area lived, as a “Writers Block.” Roth never had children, but friends remembered his report, and the meaning of playing with their children, or via e-mail on stories with them, or sitting on the floor of his dark studio and there a light shone on the ceiling to make the room look like a planetarium.
Roth despised sentimentality almost as much he hated death, but he apparently had exceptions. Bernard Avishai, a Dartmouth College professor who wrote a book about ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,” recalled Roth the unlikely joy after the adoption of two kittens. “I’m really under hypnosis,” he said of them. But his feelings changed and his mood was darker the next time Avishai spoke with him.
“I had to have my two sweet kittens,” Roth told him. “I fear that I have become dependent.”
Roth often struggled with depression and physical ailments, but his friends described a happy man over the last few years, after he shocked the literary world by revealing that he is the 2010 novel “Nemesis” would be his last book. Pension does not leave him helpless, but liberated. He read, swam, walked, socialized, and are intended to be post-publication years as a welcome return to the rebellious but loving son that he had when growing up in Newark, New Jersey. “I’m home,” he liked to tell friends. “I won.”
His health quickly failed in 2018, and he spent his last weeks in the hospital, a goodbye, moving, and comical. Several ex-girlfriends looked at him. Manea, only three years younger than Roth, recalled that he and his friend along who had more stent procedures. Pierpont remember Roth to look around in his room in the hospital and the expression of relief that he didn’t have to write it down. Even the proximity of death, what the old atheist called “the enemy” do not throw him.
“I see that the big enemy and ran to him and said to him,” he told the writer, I’m Taylor. “And he is not to be feared. I promise.”