Arts & Culture

Hello Phillip Roth, Goodbye Norman Mailer

Last week was a big one for Jewish literary elder statesmen: Carnegie Hall held a tribute to the late Norman Mailer Wednesday, and Columbia University saluted Phillip Roth's 75th birthday two days later. That Norman Mailer was Jewish was never … Read More

By / April 17, 2008

Last week was a big one for Jewish literary elder statesmen: Carnegie Hall held a tribute to the late Norman Mailer Wednesday, and Columbia University saluted Phillip Roth's 75th birthday two days later.

That Norman Mailer was Jewish was never mentioned at his memorial, where speakers included Charlie Rose, Joan Didion and Sean Penn. We did hear about his love of food, education, books, family and questioning authority—none of which were attributed to his being Jewish.

Susan Mailer, a psychoanalyst in Chile, is the daughter of Mailer and his first wife Beatrice Silverman. She said she thought of her dad as a “master weaver,” quoting him as saying “Our family is a fine tapestry. You must take care it doesn’t unravel.”

Truly the star of the show was Stephen Mailer, the sixth child and second son. He told the audience he would channel his father and spoke in Mailer’s voice, expressing pleasure at being memorialized at Carnegie Hall, then fell to the floor, apparently being hit by the force of the spirit. Mailer was a believer in reincarnation.

Journalist Lawrence Schiller said of Mailer, “He was my rabbi.” He shared that Mailer “helped me become a better person. … We talked about how easy it is to hurt our children without ever knowing it."

Author William Kennedy related about talking with Mailer and author Russell Banks on tape after Mailer read from his Hitler novel to The Writers Union last May: "There sat this venerable atheist justifying his belief in God, reincarnation and the devil."

Roth, meanwhile, refused to justify anything. "Would you have done anything differently in your career?" I asked him in the green room after his tribute April 11th. He replied wryly to the laughter of associates gathered round, "No. I never make mistakes.”

Known for granting few interviews, Roth was very friendly when I first introduced myself, though slighty reticent in answering questions. Granted, I was the only journalist present. Although signs in the venue proclaimed, "Philip Roth will not be signing books today," the Pulitzer-prize winner gladly signed my Library of America edition of his work. Then he said that he wouldn't sign any more.

The top story of the afternoon, which brought down the house and made the Times, was Roth’s recollection about the release of Portnoy’s Complaint. He told his mother that she might be getting a lot of calls from journalists and that she didn't have to speak to them. It was only after she died that his father told him she’d burst into tears after their conversation, weeping, "He has such delusions of grandeur!"

In his introduction to the event, Columbia University English professor, Ross Posnock, said, "Early on, conventional wisdom cast Roth in the role of the rebellious Jewish son and junior partner of the firm Salinger, Bellow, Mailer and Malamud."

Nathan Englander drew gales of laughter as he revealed how he became acquainted with Roth's work: "I first heard a literary reference of my mother's [when as] a teenager in suburban Long Island locked in my room, she'd have to scream upstairs, 'Dinner's ready, Portnoy!' Very funny. But, I'm Jewish, for those of you who don't know."

Englander continued, "But anyway. It was a very closed world, and I, actually, am thankful Portnoy's Complaint was also the first book I read which I'd like to say was on the shelf in their [my parents'] bedroom with these little gated bookshelves and it was behind the books, as befitting our religious community. And when I found out, that was a world that cracked open for me that was really big."

Author Charles D'Ambrosio admitted there may be "gender enthusiasm" about Roth's works. The audience laughed when he recalled bringing up the celebrated author to a woman at an airport in Minneapolis who bristled and said she didn't like his work, "Portnoy's Defense."

Moderator and New Yorker writer Judith Thurman quipped, "Alan Dershowitz!"

Another New Yorker writer, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation), discussed her favorite Roth novel, Sabbath's Theater. She said, "In the early books, Roth's heroes have a…suspicion, you might say, that Jews were excluded from being truly American." As for character Mickey Sabbath, "He is to his Croatian girlfriend what the shiksas were to Alexander Portnoy. He is America, itself. … She calls him her American boyfriend…. 'You are America, yes, you are.' "

Roth only spoke for about six minutes at the tribute. (One organizer hadn't expected him to talk at all, I was told privately.) He nodded his head after the audience applauded, put on his glasses and joked to the crowd, "I'm glad to be reminded that it's not a funeral. I was beginning to have my doubts." After his talk, he again nodded twice, his bow to the standing ovation.

Related: A Last Interview with Norman Mailer Am I a Jewish Writer? And Does It Matter?