“Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013” Library of America, 452 pages, $35.
Here in 1973 is Philip Roth describing with conspicuous art a 1924 photograph of Franz Kafka, taken at what was Roth’s age at the time, when a sick Kafka was 40 and approaching death. “His face is sharp and skeletal, a burrower’s face: pronounced cheekbones made even more conspicuous by the absence of sideburns, the ears shaped and angled on his head like angel wings; an intense creaturely gaze of startled composure--enormous fears, enormous control; a black towel of Levantine hair pulled closely around the skull the only sensuous feature.” (Italics mine)
Here is Philip Roth in 2014 expressing pleasure and shock at the writer of “Portnoy’s Complaint” he once was: “shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased to be reminded that I was once so reckless.” In writing “Portnoy” “I wasn’t looking for my freedom from anything other than the writer I once started out to be. I was looking not for my catharsis as a neurotic or my revenge as a son, as some have suggested, but rather an enlivening liberation from traditional approaches to storytelling.”
But “because of the dramatic alteration in moral perspective over the last forty-five years, news of a carnality seemingly so calamitous when Portnoy first trumpeted his phallic history to his analyst in 1969 has in our time been largely defused. As a result my immoderate book born in the tumult of the sixties is now as dated as ‘The Scarlet Letter’ or Portnoy’s coeval stablemate, Updike’s ‘Couples’ another genitalic novel then still shocking enough to challnge a generation’s sagging certainties about the boundaries of eros and prerogatives of lust.”
How warm and inspiring that in his late years Philip Roth so welcomes his historic brotherhood with Updike. The biggest difference during their simultaneous lifetimes is that so many came to understand Updike’s nonfiction and critical prose to be close to the zenith of his achievement. That was never true for Roth but collected as it is here in this great Library of America anthology, you can see both the gigantic stylistic distance he traveled and the brilliance he never stopped manifesting no matter what he did.