In Claudia Roth Pierpont's lucid, informative and sympathetic Roth Unbound, the titular boundless one is quoted as saying that if he were dying and had time to read one last thing, he would choose Thomas Mann's "Mario and the Magician." This is a wonderfully weird little parable of fascism from 1929, an example of Mann at his most Stephen King-like. (I hope that comparison doesn't give Harold Bloom a coronary; we've already lost too many literary figures in the past year.) And as a German literary-political allegory involving a magical hunchback, the tale must have influenced the young Gunter Grass. I don't know if Roth was able to re-read it before his death last week, but giving it a read this week would be a good and original way to remember him.
Sam Shepard, Denis Johnson, William H. Gass, John Ashbery, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth--the big dominoes are tumbling now; great and good American writers are falling faster than courtiers in the last act of a Jacobean tragedy. Time, as it periodically does, is wiping out a literary generation. The best of them will, hopefully, die into their books; the rest will rest deservedly unread and unremembered. (Time's blade is cruel, its judgment harsh, and it spares no one--just ask Booth Tarkington.) Roth understood this process well, and he was surely the person least surprised by his demise. Shostakovich once said, "All my symphonies are tombstones," and Roth could've said the same of his later novels. Every one of them, from Sabbath's Theater through Nemesis, is written in and around the prospect of death. If the contemporaneous novels of W. G. Sebald (a decade younger than Roth, he somehow seems older...) body forth what Susan Sontag called "a mind in mourning," the best of Roth's late works, equally mortality-soaked, equally death-haunted, play a similar theme in a jazzier tempo and a spikier key, creating a sound so different from Sebald's that few readers would consider the two men kindred. Roth was facilely compared to Lenny Bruce at the beginning of his prominence and to Woody Allen a few years later, but I prefer to see late Roth as a Robin Williams figure, his marvelously manic improvisations a tightrope walk over the inevitable abyss. Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal are marvelous examples of a good, concise general definition of art: Art is life punching back at death. Late Roth is like Ali coming back after a long rope-a-dope to deliver a single, crushing, downing blow--and he does it while dancing as smoothly as Astaire.
He's been dead for over a week and I can't write about him in the past tense. The perpetual present ineluctably intrudes. I hope it always will. His books will always be alive, ferociously alive. We should all live so wildly.