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  • Philip Roth in His Silence
  • Pia Masiero (bio)

I had the chance to meet Philip Roth in person just once, during the celebration of his eightieth birthday in Newark, back in 2013. I was invited among many other members of the Philip Roth Society and my meeting the man actually amounted to shaking his hand and sharing a couple of thoughts, including my invitation (declined) to come to the Venice International Literary Festival I direct. On that occasion, he spoke to the gathering about the motivations for his decision to stop writing fiction. The news had already got out, but hearing it in his own voice made it more authentically final. He told us: "I don't want to describe the blade of the auger that you use for ice-fishing [. . .]. I don't want to describe, spadeful by spadeful, how a grave is dug [. . .]. I don't want to describe another death [. . .]. I don't wish any longer to contemplate in fiction the destructive, the blighted, the bruised, the assailable, the accused, their accusers, or even those who are whole, sane, and beautifully intact" ("The Ruthless Intimacy of Fiction" 394).

We officially entered a new phase then—the phase of his fictional silence. Silence is certainly close to death—one might venture to say it prefigures it—but it is not death: Roth could still—if sparingly—be interviewed, he could still be met near his Upper West Side New York apartment: fictionally silent, yes, but alive. Most of all, during his birthday at the Newark library he presented the decision to stop writing fiction as joyful: "I for one awoke one fine morning with a smile on my face, understanding that miraculously, seemingly in my sleep, I had at long last eluded my lifelong master: the stringent exigencies of literature" (393). How could we not connect—at least partially and in spite of our eagerness to have more to read and enjoy—with his smile and his sense of liberation? With Philip Roth's death, the prefiguration of death contained in his fictional silence has become the stark reality we have to face and accept—death's absolute silence.

The Italian philosopher Virgilio Melchiorre's words come to mind: "the other's absolute silence reveals that, from now on, a number of my possibilities have become impossibilities; specifically those possibilities, those modes of being, that I shared with the other [. . .]" (113, my transl.). He continues "[t]hose modes which are now impossible, those co-possibilities I cannot live [End Page 86] with anyone else and which will be forever forbidden, are such because they are rooted in the other's existence [. . .]; that very life by which I was crossed, will never be given back to me" (114, my translation). We can easily relate to these words thinking about a beloved one with whom we shared moments and places, tears and laughter; and yet, when I think about it, Melchiorre's words would seem to apply to the case of Philip Roth as well, someone whom I have met vicariously, that is, through his books and on that single occasion in person. I believe this feeling is shared by many of his readers. Has this got to do with the way in which Roth writes or the way in which we read?

Let me try to answer this question starting from my own experience as a Roth reader. I did not arrive at Roth's books via the usual venues—his fellow Jewish American writers and his ambivalent relationship with his Jewish community—but through a syllabus meant to be read by a group of scholars variously (and loosely) related to American Studies, who came from eighteen countries. We spent six weeks together in Louisville attending the United States Department of State 2005 Institute on Contemporary Literature. To give you an idea of the diversity of the group, suffice it to say that I was the only one from the European Union. The book by Roth on the syllabus was The Human Stain and it joined a list comprising, among others, DeLillo, Gómez Peña, Pynchon, and Kingston. Sensibly enough, the book was intended to represent Jewish American...