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Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth

Review

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth

My connection with author Philip Roth takes me back more than a half-century. While visiting relatives in Winnipeg, Canada, in the summer of 1961, a member of the group remarked about a book he was reading. It so impressed him that he went out to his car, returned with it, and read aloud portions of the novella describing a Jewish wedding in Newark, New Jersey. I listened attentively, but it would be a few years before I myself would read GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, a collection of stories that remains vivid in my memory.

In its early stages, my interest in Roth’s writing was based upon his ability to focus on Jewish-Americans and how they were living in their post-World War II homeland. As the years passed, I avoided some of his more controversial novels but did marvel at his ability to consistently produce provocative fiction. Unlike some of his contemporaries who stopped writing later in life, Roth soldiered on and published his 31st and final book, NEMESIS, at age 77. While he would never be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, his honors did include the Man Booker Prize, two National Book Awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

"...a brief but enjoyable journey through the life of a legendary author that seamlessly moves from discussing Roth’s works to relationships with such fellow writers as Saul Bellow and John Updike."

HERE WE ARE is not a Philip Roth biography. Benjamin Taylor met Roth long after he had established himself as an iconic American writer. Over several years they became friends and began spending time with each other in a relationship that Taylor observed “[w]as 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.”

Call HERE WE ARE what you wish. It is a brief but enjoyable journey through the life of a legendary author that seamlessly moves from discussing Roth’s works to relationships with such fellow writers as Saul Bellow and John Updike. This is not ponderous literary analysis, but a light and thoughtful examination of a great writer and how he performs his craft. More than anything, Taylor has produced a book about conversations and companionship.

Roth’s career had no shortage of influences and critics. His early writing was attacked by a number of Jewish readers and intellectuals as that of a cynical young man who had turned his back on his religion. Roth denied the accusation: “I was brought up in a Jewish neighborhood and never saw a skullcap, a beard, sidelocks --- ever, ever, ever --- because the mission was to live here, not there.” Responding to those who labeled him a self-hater, he wrote his fourth book, PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, which ironically remains the best-selling novel of his career.

A major portion of HERE WE ARE recounts philosophical life discussions between Roth and Taylor. As he aged and no longer wrote for publication, Roth continued writing and sharing thoughts with Taylor on his failed marriages, past relationships and declining health. Many wide-ranging conversations and observations between them populate this less-than-200-page portrait, a touching recreation of a lasting friendship. For me, it is also a reminder that there are still some Philip Roth novels I have yet to read --- and now is as good a time as any to start.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 22, 2020

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth
by Benjamin Taylor

  • Publication Date: May 19, 2020
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525505245
  • ISBN-13: 9780525505242