Talking to the Enemy

Saul Bellow’s last and some say his best novel was Ravelstein, the title character of which is a thinly-disguised Allan Bloom (below), famed University of Chicago professor of political philosophy, author of The Closing of the American Mind, and the novelist’s dear friend.

Bellow (above), who was eighty-four on the date of the book’s publication, brings Ravelstein across as a garrulous, large-souled, flamboyant, clutzy force of intellect and appetite. He has money, thanks to the success of his book, and he is enjoying it immensely while dying of a mysterious illness, which we are left to assume is AIDS.

The novel covers the last two years of its hero’s life, and it is narrated by an author named Chick, standing in for Bellow. Thin on plot and incident, the story is carried by Ravelstein’s character, yoked as it is to sensual pleasure (in the form of $4,500 Lanvin sports coats, perfect pours of espresso, a young Singaporean lover) and the worlds of ideas and politics. It is about the life of the mind, friendship, other things that make life worth living, and death:

[Ravelstein] and Nikki slept on Pratesi linens and under beautifully cured angora skins. He was perfectly aware that all this lucury was funny. Under charges of absurdity he was perfectly steady. He was not going to have a long life. I’m inclined to think he had Homeric ideas about being cut down early. He didn’t have to accept confinement in a few dead-end decades, not with his appetite for existence and his exceptional gift for great overviews. It wasn’t the money alone — his great best-seller windfall — that made it possible; it was his ability proven in the mental wars — the positions he held, the fights he proviked, his disputes with Oxford don classicists and historians. He was sure of himself…”

Benjamin Taylor is a New York writer (fiction and non-fiction) who was privileged to play important roles in the lives of the two towering figures of late twentieth-century American literature. He was entrusted with the editorship of Bellows’ letters as well as a collection of his non-fiction. This month he released his own book about the life of the mind, friendship, other things that make life worth living, and death: Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth.

Taylor’s book is a memoir, not a novel, but it shares a genre of sorts with Ravelstein: writers writing about other supremely talented writers who are close friends of a different sexual orientation. There is no doubt as to the bond between Taylor and Roth:

To talk daily with someone of such gifts had been a salvation. There was no dramatic arc to our life together. I 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. I’m not who I would have been without him. “We’ve laughed so hard,” he said to me some years ago. “Maybe write a book about our friendship.”

Our conversation was about everything — novels, politics, families, dreams, sex, baseball, food, ex-friends, ex-lovers. Philip’s inner life was gargantuan. Insatiable emotional appetites — for rage as for love — led him down paths where he seethed with loathing or desire. “There’s too much of you Philip. All your emotions are outsize,” I once said to him. “I’ve written in order not to die of them,” he replied.

Taylor does a remarkable job in this short book of bringing Roth to life in all his dimensions: his moods, his conversation, his messy love life, his fights with critics, and his art.

There are tender, human moments with the good folk of rural Connecticut that make you like Roth. There are surprises, including Roth’s mental breakdown and stay at the Silver Hill psychiatric hospital in the nineties, and a later desperate struggle to withdraw from fentanyl. There are other revelations—that Roth spent the last years of his life writing a thousand never-to-be-published pages of answers to his critics, including ex-wife Claire Bloom—that leave you wondering how Silver Hill ever discharged him.

Taylor is especially good on Roth’s art, often in an indirect, anecdotal manner:

I am at Philip’s country house, in the pool. I swim a few laps then dog-paddle, then just float on my back. He comes out. “Found it!” he announces. “Opened the book and skimmed for 10 minutes and there it was. Goes like this, and you’re ideally situated to hear it: ‘A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns. The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up … In the destructive element immerse.’ This has been my credo, the lifeblood of my books. I knew it was from Lord Jim but didn’t know where. All I had to do was put myself in a trance and I found it: ‘In the destructive element immerse.’ It’s what I’ve said to myself in art and, woe is me, in life too. Submit to the deeps. Let them buoy you up.”

The men knew each other for twenty years, and their friendship grew over that time. Those happened to be the most fruitful years of Roth’s life. He was in his late fifties when he left Silver Hill, and wrote all of his masterpieces in the following twenty years.

Taylor (above) was especially close to Roth at the end. He had been given instructions on how to help Roth commit suicide in the event of his incapacity. He visited Roth daily during his last three weeks in the cardiac intensive-care unit of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. There were a lot of people in and out of Roth’s room during those weeks: friends and relatives and former lovers. There were goodbyes. There was weeping.

Near the end he asked for a moment alone with me and said something I wrote down as soon as I decently could: “I have been to see the great enemy and walked around him, and talked to him, and he is not to be feared. I promise.”


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