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Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth by Benjamin Taylor

Here We Are - My Friendship with Philip Roth by Benjamin Taylor

Title: Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth
Author: Benjamin Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books USA 
ISBN: 978-1524705787
Genre: Literary Memoirs
Pages: 192 
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 3/5 

With the passing of time, and as you become older, you are set in your ways. There are some things you cannot change, and perhaps don’t wish to either. And somewhere down the line, much against your will (I think), you end up making new friends, and somehow, they stay. Them coupled with the ones who know you and who you know inside-out. I thought this book would be about that – a friendship.

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth by Benjamin Taylor is exactly what the title says or should’ve been. It started off with so much promise – the first two chapters of a rather small book, and then you got to see the promise only in the last two chapters and that was that. I expected more. I expected glimpses into their friendship, but all I got was Benjamin Taylor gushing over Roth’s works. Well, it is a literary memoir, but then why tell us that it is a friendship with Roth, and then not reveal enough to feel something.

This is the second book read this year, and once again not very impressed by it. The writing like I said shines in places, and leaves you wanting more. Taylor speaks of Roth and his thoughts on being Jewish in the world. Of his characters, his parents (very briefly), his wives (again not too much other than speaking of Claire Bloom), and about being an atheist and such. But never does he speak of what it was to be his friend and vice-versa, except till the very end. Taylor knows so much about Roth, and yet the reader is left with nothing. There are several literary references – more than enough books (Roth’s and others’) that are mentioned. It makes for a great reading list but that’s about it.

Books and Authors mentioned in Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth:

Playlist for Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth:

  • The House I Live In by Frank Sinatra
  • On A Note of Triumph by Norman Corwin
  • Emerson Quartet
  • Friends will Be Friends by Queen
  • Bach
  • Beethoven
  • Brahms
  • Piku’s Sarod Theme
  • Pather Panchali Theme
  • Who Wants to Live Forever by Queen

Top 20 Favourite Books of Nadeem Aslam

I have loved and enjoyed reading Nadeem Aslam’s books. I have always been curious as to what authors read and what compels them to perhaps classify what they read as their favourite reads over time. With this, I start this series with Nadeem Aslam’s favourite 20 books published within his lifetime, each of which he has read at least twice.

The list is amazing and might I add extremely compelling. You would want to pick up each book and read it at least once. Here goes the list. From here on, every word and emotion is that of Nadeem Aslam’s. Thank you Nadeem for this list.

1982 – Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

In just over 100 pages Marquez tells us everything about men, women, love, hatred, corruption and fate. It includes the great line: ‘Life resembles bad literature.’ After Jude the Obscure it is quite possibly the most despairing novel I know. And it is brilliant.

Buy Chronicle of a Death Foretold from Flipkart.com

1986 – An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World

An old man looks back over his life – and Ishiguro builds up an indelible picture of his fears and anxieties through everyday conversations with his daughters, grandson, people in the neighbourhood. There is very little description and yet you imagine each scene vividly.

Buy An Artist of The Floating World from Flipkart.com

1987 – The Enigma of Arrival by VS Naipaul

The Enigma of Arrival

A book full of long rich sentences that recall Proust, and anticipate Sebald. It made me look deeply at the English countryside I live in. I believe mercy is greater than justice; and so I do not agree with Naipaul’s political outlook, but having read everything he has ever published I think this is one of his enduring works.

Buy THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL from Flipkart.com

1987 – Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love in the Time of Cholera

A story about love and other diseases of the flesh. A book full of nouns – river, parrot, ship, almonds… This is the master at the height of his powers, naming the world into being. Everything Marquez touches becomes magical: if he were to remove the frame from around a mirror, the mirror would most certainly flow down the wall like water.

Buy Love in the Time of Cholera from Flipkart.com

1987 – Beloved by Toni Morrison


There are subjects on which the world maintains a silence closely resembling sin. Beloved speaks about one such sin. It is a terrifying book, and yet it makes rapturous eloquent use of the sky and land and tree and food and clothing. Beyond everything else it’s a book about how people talk: the dialogue is musical, elastic, by turns funny and serious. Dazzling.

Buy Beloved from Flipkart.com

1988 – The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz

The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz

In any crisis I turn to Milosz. What to do when you have to accept a savage emotional wound? Where to find the courage to trust another human being after betrayal? When you want to know how you deserve such a fate? Milosz’s verses address something that remains mysteriously inconsolable within me.

Buy New and Collected Poems

1990 – Omeros by Derek Walcott


Walcott – one of the greatest poets in the English language – relocates Homer to the Caribbean, because the past belongs not just to those who created it – it belongs to everyone, everywhere. So the Greek heroes become poor fishermen and Helen is a servant girl. It is profound, beautiful and endlessly inventive. It’ll even break your heart.

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1992 – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient

The first 120 pages of this book are the holiest pages I know – prose whose beauty eases the poverty of the world; startling images; and characters you care about like your family. The book speaks of love and lovelessness, about the acceptance of loss, and how compared with love almost everything in life is easy.

Buy The English Patient from Flipkart.com

1993 – All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
1994 – The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

The Border Trilogy

Most people behave badly because they ask too little of themselves. In these books McCarthy – who is one of my great loves – writes about very young men hurled into unknown landscapes, a world frequently absent of radiance. They survive or they die – but they hold onto their integrity, because only the gentle are ever really strong. And McCarthy’s prose is the closest thing I know to an electric shock. It is energy made visible; what Saul Bellow called ‘life giving and death dealing sentences.’

Buy All the Pretty Horses from Flipkart.com

1995 – Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth

Sabbath's Theater

From the first sentence on this is a funny, serious, and frightening book – the story of a man at the end of his tether. Dirty, ugly, fearing the loss of his sexual prowess, Sabbath wanders around New England and New York like Shakespeare ranting at street corners, screaming the song of the land.

1997 – American Pastoral by Philip Roth

American Pastoral

A book about a man whose daughter is a terrorist, and how he tries to hold onto the ideas of justice and dignity when the smell of blood is in the air and it’s the age of prominent madmen. I disagree strongly with the political stance of this book, but as a novel it contains some of the most intense dramatic scenes in recent years.

Buy American Pastoral from Flipkart.com

1997 – Taoos Chaman ki Mynah by Naiyer Masud

Taoos Chaman Ki Myna

A novella from the Urdu master of Lukhnow. A man steals a bird from his employer’s menagerie for his little daughter. This is a hear-quickening tale. I don’t think I understand all of its mysteries but perhaps that is how it should be; if you see a statue of a veiled maiden, you mustn’t try to chisel off the veil in the hope of uncovering the face underneath.

1997 – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things

The key text about all of India’s yesterdays and todays. It is almost elemental. There are a 100,000 miles of blood vessels in a human body, and every drop of blood in mine is grateful to Arundhati Roy for having written this. By turns sorrowing and ecstatic, it possesses a touch that has a sting of starlight to it.

Buy The God of Small Things from Flipkart.com

1997 – Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain

Not only a painful love story, but also a fierce attack on the economic disparities within the USA. From its astonishing and brilliant first paragraph onwards, Proulx tells us that the two lovers are foredoomed not solely because they are homosexual in an unforgiving landscape, but because that they are poor, men who cannot really afford luxuries like love. The need to make a living and support their families is also what keeps the two men from coming together.

Buy Brokeback Mountain. Annie Proulx from Flipkart.com

2001 – My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red

The greatest book by the one of the very greatest novelists of our time. A murder mystery, a monograph on miniature painting, a love story, a rich and subversive inquiry into the past. Its heroine, Shekure, is one of the best portraits of a woman from the Islamic word that I know.

Buy MY NAME IS RED from Flipkart.com

2004 – Gilead by Marilynne Ronbinson


The letter an old priest writes to his very young son, who will not read it until long after the priest is dead. Every single paragraph of this book is full of quiet wisdom – as though a form of music has been found to express silence.

Buy Gilead from Flipkart.com

2004 – An End to Suffering by Pankaj Mishra

An End to Suffering

Pankaj Mishra’s writing is what I turn to first when I need to make sense of the world. And this book is one of the loveliest and most serious meditations on what Buddha brought into the world.

Buy An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World from Flipkart.com

2007 – The Collected Stories of Intizar Hussein

Exactly 50 years’ worth of stories from the Pakistani master. Read sequentially, these stories chart every single social, historical and cultural event Pakistan has been through in the last half century. Magnificent.

2008 – 2666 by Roberto Bolano


The third world novel as it should be written today – post Naipaul, post Marquez. Part 4 of this book alone should ensure Bolano’s place among the immortals. Please read it.

Buy 2666 from Flipkart.com

The Humbling by Philip Roth

Doubtless Philip Roth should have won a recent Nobel Prize for literature. Roth’s late fiction simply and relentlessly confronts his reader with what too many American writers – think of Fitzgerald who grasped it more fully than Hemingway (who “outlived” him) – have failed to do: depict old age in its wonders, depths, and cruelties. Nick could remind us after his vicarious ride through Gatsby’s life, that the vision of a constantly improving future is simply an illusion, and he could write elegiacally about the loss of `his” city (New York, not Paris) and of his own mind in his essays, but his body couldn’t withstand his own bingeing assaults on it. Dead at 44, his ghost later emasculated by the insecurities of Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, he could not, regrettably, tell us about the voyage into aging. That was one loss.

Our great Jewish writers – Malamud, Bellow, and Roth — did give us fictional and true visions of what it means to be old. Perhaps because they grew up with some old people around, unlike so many readers in America. Funny that our most influential medium on the young has no rules at all except the inviolable: “Don’t dramatize aging or maturity. Keep that face Botoxed!” That’s the second loss. (Apologies to Papa Smurf and Grandpa Simpson.)

During his long career, Roth occasionally gets angry with his critics and with his own faithful readership. The unknowable source of pain for the writer in The Anatomy Lesson, devastates Zuckerman and may derive from the criticism of the author by a prig-critic, or, it may derive more existentially from the fictional author’s books themselves (writing as unrewarded Promethean torture). Then Sabbath’s Theatre, the book in which he seems most disappointed with just about everyone, puzzles because the reasons for the attacks are not evident; or even if the reason for the hostility is a defense of obscenity, then the rage of Mickey Sabbath still seems directed at readers who don’t care about art.

‘The Humbling’ is a novel about everything that Roth has been writing about since he published `The Plot Against America’ (TPAA) in 2004: aging, death, lust in old age, betrayal, loss, grief. And while he will probably never write a long novel like TPAA again, ‘The Humbling’ is as good as anything he’s written since then.

It’s true that `The Humbling’ is very brief. In fact it may have less words than anything Roth’s published in the fifty years since ‘Goodbye, Columbus’. But it’s still a very good read, better written than his last book (‘Indignation’), and more entertaining than either of the other two that Roth published after TPAA. Some bad reviews of ‘The Humbling’ that I’ve read had lowered my expectations so much, which may have helped me appreciate it, but I really believe that this is a fine work.

‘The Humbling’ reminds me of a couple of similarly short, focused novels of Roth’s last decade (‘The Dying Animal’ from 2001 and ‘Everyman’, 2006); and seems to hit the main themes of those two. It has the same kind of tension and steady movement toward a mysterious conclusion — and the same commitment on Roth’s part to profound honesty and well-paced storytelling. He is “painting what he sees” here in terms of both human behavior and the human heart, which is what good artists are supposed to do, whatever talent remains in their own hands, heart, and mind.

Though there are portentious references in it to Anton Chekhov’s plays and the lead character is an actor, ‘The Humbling’ reads more like a short novel by Ivan Turgenev. Like Chekhov, Turgenev was a great Russian writer from the 19th century, who was highly influential as a prose stylist. Roth’s new work is arranged in the style and tragic-romantic mood of Turgenev’s ‘First Love’, ‘Asya’, and ‘Spring Torrents’, which also deal with the difficulties of infatuation, inter-generational or cross-cultural love, and the compulsions of lust. Those works are very well known and loved in Russia, and like ‘The Humbling’ they are are all very honest and mature, and are crafted with great respect for the relationships within literature which interlink the tool of language, the art of storytelling, and reality. If you like ‘The Humbling’, you might enjoy these works by Turgenev, which are roughly as long as ‘The Humbling’.

Something happens to Simon Axler, a successful actor in his mid-sixties, and he loses his instincts for stage. Concurrently, his marriage collapses and Simon becomes deeply depressed. Concerned about his suicidal thoughts, he checks into a psychiatric hospital, where he establishes a quasi-friendship with a patient whose young daughter has been molested. In a month, Simon stabilizes and is released, but he remains depressed. At this point, his agent appears, urging him to work with an acting coach renowned for rejuvenating dispirited actors. Great parts, such as James Tyrone, are within his reach. But instead of addressing his problems directly, Simon develops a relationship with a 40-year old woman, who has had disturbing effects on her prior lovers.

In telling this story, Roth explores such subjects as performance, instinct, illusion, delusion, and the twisted integrity of the deeply depressed. It’s not Roth’s best work, because certain elements in the story–molestation, bizarre sexual activity, and cross-generational relationships–are actually distinct subjects, not inverted or inside-out manifestations of the same or similar subjects. As a result, the themes don’t tie together with Roth’s usual grave discipline and surprising insight.

And if you like Roth’s past work and you accept that he’s no longer willing or able to write long novels, you won’t be disappointed in the ‘Humbling’.

Here’s an interview of Philip Roth on “The Humbling”:

The Humbling; Roth, Philip; Random House; Jonathan Cape; Rs. 299