Review: Writer reflects on his friendship with Philip Roth

“Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth.” by Benjamin Taylor (Penguin Books)

For 20 years, Benjamin Taylor was a confidant of Philip Roth. Over the course of their friendship they talked often and intensely — about books, sex, fathers, food, politics, baseball, Jewishness and more. Crucially, Taylor was at his bedside in 2018, when Roth died of congestive heart failure at age 85.

Now, the younger man, a noted author in his own right, has written a moving memoir of what it was like to be an intimate of one of the towering figures of 20th century American literature, the author of 31 books who won just about every major literary award except the Nobel Prize.

“There was no dramatic arc to our life together. It was not like a marriage, still less like a love affair. It was as plotless as friendship ought to be. We spent thousands of hours in each other’s company. He was fully half my life. I cannot hope for another such friend.”

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In eight lyrical chapters Taylor moves back and forth in time, presenting a series of vignettes and remembered conversations that offer an unvarnished view of a brilliant, driven man who was controversial almost from the start of his career, largely for his portrayal of his fellow Jews and women.

Taylor, his best friend, was sympathetic but not blind. As a gay man some 20 years younger, he brought a bit of an outsider perspective to the friendship. And like Roth, he believed the nonfiction writer must strive for the truth — in his case, to capture “the fact of Philip as he was.” So, while he recognizes Roth’s flaws — chiefly, an unending sense of grievance and sometimes unseemly desire for revenge — he loves him anyway.

“Philip’s inner life was gargantuan. Insatiable emotional appetites — for rage as for love — led into paths where he seethed with loathing or desire,” he writes, recalling how he once told him, “There’s too much of you, Philip. All your emotions are outsize.”

In the end, Roth emerges as a funny, philosophical, even tragic figure, raging toward the end against “the stupendous decimation that is death sweeping us all away” — a quote from “The Human Stain” that Taylor uses at the front of the book.

“To talk daily with someone of such gifts had been a salvation,” Taylor writes. “I’m not who I’d have been without him. `We’ve laughed so hard,’ he said to me some years ago. `Maybe write a book about our friendship.’”

And so he did.

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