St. Peter (checks list): Philip Roth! Philip Roth? Shouldn’t you be in Jew heaven?
Roth: There is no Jew heaven. Except maybe Connecticut.
St. Peter: Welcome to … what are you doing?
Roth: I’m getting on the couch.
St. Peter: That’s a heavenly cloud.
Roth: Every week, Tuesday 4pm. Psychoanalysis!
St. Peter: But I’m not an analyst.
Roth: A Jew in a beard in front of a set of pearly gates? Listen, I hate to break it to you …
St. Peter: This is getting a little more Woody Allen than Philip Roth.
Roth: Woody Allen is a lot more Philip Roth than Woody Allen — the best film ever made of my books was Annie Hall — but ack, I couldn’t stand to write a straight obit in my head. It’s going to be wall-to-wall portentous, the great man, American Pastoral, Zuckerman unbound yada yada yada.
St. Peter: Really, and how does that make you — oh my god!
Roth: Ya see? That was what I did I guess. It’s all there in Goodbye Columbus, my first book, a sensation in the 50s. A smart Jew from Newark, New Jersey — the city that looks at Manhattan across the water — got into Chicago U, with one aim only …
St. Peter: To reconcile and synthesise the American anglo literary tradition with the shadow, irony and humour of a European Jewish tradition in ways that was not possible for writers such as Isaac B Singer and Bernard Malamud?
St. Peter: Excuse me?
Roth: Shiksas. Tall nervous blondes who want you to read their poetry, toothy brunettes from the glee club, later goy English birds. And finally the students: episcopalians with footballer brothers whose hobby is “gangling”.
St. Peter: I didn’t pick that up in the obit.
Roth: Neither you won’t. Notice how my obits aren’t actually about anything? Apparently I wrote studies of American life. But it’s obvious from ‘Columbus onward that I wrote from ambition, the outsider’s drive, sexual hunger, the need for mastery.
St. Peter: They’re saying American Pastoral is your best book.
Roth: American Pastoral isn’t my best book. A high-school reunion, a blonde Jewish athlete type, a daughter turned Weatherman-style terrorist? It’s John Updike’s best book, sure — man does that guy’s oeuvre read like a raunched up LL Bean catalogue with each passing day — but it’s not mine. It’s in all the obits because it’s the book of mine most acceptable to the current era. Which, as I said, when I quit novel-writing in 2010, is an era in which novels don’t matter anymore. Ya see, doctor.
St. Peter: I’m not a doctor.
Roth: Ya see, doctor, Carmen Callil had it right when she quit the panel that gave me the first international Booker prize. My best work can’t be assimilated to the current era. If I’d died in 1975, everyone would be talking about Portnoy’s Complaint and nothing else. The raging anger towards a mother, trying to break down the bathroom door when her kid’s in his 20s, and the raging hunger for sexual conquest of Portnoy’: “even while he’s pumping away, he’s thinking of the next pussy”. Assimilate that!
St. Peter: But they say you were the last literar-
Roth: I’m the last vitalist! I’m the Schopenhauer of the deli sandwich counter! I am the most honest straight male writer you’ll ever read. One female protagonist in thirty novels. Relationships virtually transcribed, acts of revenge with an ISBN, all beautifully done. Read Claire Bloom’s memoir of living with me, then read my I Married A Communist for the rebuttal. See? Even my “historical” novels burn with it. Look at the titles: Everyman, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal. It’s not as if I didn’t leave any clues. When the obits quote what I said about quitting writing because it is isn’t enough anymore, they skip what I also said: that it might never have been.
St. Peter: So Nemesis is …
Roth: The rule-proving exception. My last novel, about polio in Newark in the 50s. A rebuke to my more sentimental notion of a purposeful life. Polio makes people … give up. Nemesis is a rebuke to the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness. That it coincided with my departure is no coincidence.
St. Peter: Alright, enough. Coming in?
Roth: What’s there?
St. Peter: Seventy-two shiksas.
Roth: Sounds like hell.
St. Peter: Which for you, is heaven.
Roth: So, vee now at last begin?