“I saw and heard something remarkable just a few hours ago,” wrote New Yorker editor David Remnick a little over five years ago, “something I’m not likely to forget until all the mechanisms of remembering are shot and I’m tucked away for good.” He had attended an eightieth-birthday celebration for the late Philip Roth at the Newark Museum. There, after a series of tributes from fellow literary figures including Jonathan Lethem, Hermione Lee, and Edna O’Brien, the Newark-born-and-raised novelist gave what Remnick described as “the most astonishing literary performance I’ve ever witnessed.”
Roth began by naming all the memories of his Newark childhood about which he would not speak that evening, from “the newsreels at the Roosevelt Theatre” to “the fights at Laurel Garden” to “seeing Jackie Robinson play for the Montreal Royals against the Newark Bears, at Ruppert Stadium” and much else besides. Then, after admitting that he had committed paralipsis, the rhetorical technique of bringing up a subject by saying that you won’t, “Roth finally settled into his real theme of the night: death. Happy birthday, indeed!”
You can hear Roth’s performance in its 45-minute entirety in this video, in which he also reads a passage from 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater. You can see Roth giving another reading from that book, which he calls his favorite (and also “death-haunted”), in the 92Y video at the top of the post.
Its title character, the sex-obsessed 63-year-old puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, exists as a law unto himself. He lives a chaotic, sordidly pleasure-seeking life in response, Roth explains, “to a place where nothing keeps its promise and everything is perishable.”
Among Roth’s 31 books, the standalone Sabbath’s Theater lays a fair claim to the title of his masterpiece. But unlike other memorable Roth protagonists, Sabbath starred in no other books. The most sprawling character-connected series Roth wrote, which spans nine books written over nearly three decades, features novelist and authorial alter ego Nathan Zuckerman.
You can hear Roth read selections from the first three Zuckerman novels, 1979’s The Ghost Writer (also known as Zuckerman Bound), 1981’s Zuckerman Unbound, and 1983’s The Anatomy Lesson, in the three videos above. Roth’s last cycle of novels were connected not by common characters but by their short length and, in their brevity, even more intense explorations of the themes, or theme, always dear to him: what it means to have grown up American at a certain period in history, and how that meaning transforms and deepens with age.
In the video above, Roth reads the end of 2010’s Nemesis, his final novelistic meditation on that theme. In it several characters of his generation, then young boys, watch their teacher throw a javelin. “Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder, and releasing it then like an explosion, he seemed to us invincible.” The awe Nemesis’ narrator and his friends feel witnessing that athletic mastery, Roth’s readers feel — and will continue to feel — witnessing his literary mastery.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.