While we were in Jersey City last month seeing our marvelous new granddaughter, one afternoon we drove over to Newark to pay homage to one of our greatest writers, Philip Roth (1933-2018). We found the street where he grew up and parked across from his old house. Back in his day, it was a working class Jewish neighborhood, and now it’s a working class Black neighborhood. His boyhood home had a plaque honoring him, but otherwise it looked like the other houses.
We also went to the Newark Public Library to see the new Philip Roth Room. The writer bequeathed a significant sum and his own books to the library where he spent many hours as a young reader. We enjoyed looking through his collection and inspecting various personal items, including his manual typewriter. The curator was a pleasant woman who knew a lot about Roth and his books. There were no other visitors on the weekday afternoon we were there, but she was hopeful that visits would pick up after the pandemic.
The Plot Against America, the unexpectedly timely HBO series about fascists who try to seize power in the U.S., is based on Roth’s novel. It probably inspired some new readers to try Roth, and I hope more will do so. His books confer the out-of-body travel pleasures of good realist fiction, along with arresting honesty, naughty humor, and a fierce passion. The physical Newark he grew up in has changed almost beyond recognition, but the sweet, quirky, hardworking place can still be visited in his books, like The Plot Against America and American Pastoral.
On our trip I also finished re-reading Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov. I hesitated to re-engage with this famous book, which makes an uncomfortable proposition: that we sympathize with an unrepentant child molester. There’s moral risk, to say the least. It casts a hypnotic spell that feels exhilarating as it drowns our sensibilities. The monstrousness of the narrator is almost obscured by the beautiful and hilarious language. Nabokov’s close observations of our consumer culture and hypocrisies cut to the heart. The book is hard not to love, and also hard to feel entirely good about.
Having not read Lolita for forty years, I was surprised at how much I remembered, but still, I’d forgotten a lot. Plus there was a lot I just hadn’t processed initially. For example, without belaboring the matter, Nabokov makes clear that Humbert H, in addition to being a scholar and old world aesthete, has a history of mental illness, alcoholism, and obsession with violence.
Side note: It’s curious how we systematically and unconsciously overestimate the capabilities of language. Those most accomplished in language may be the most prone to overlooking the vast realm of experience where language is irrelevant, and even counterproductive. Likewise, intellectuals with strong verbal skills often view abstractions as superior to the simple and concrete, and easily mistake them for reality. Thus our leaders zealously pursue reasonable-sounding but impossible goals, such as defeating “terrorism” or “drugs,” at horrific cost.
But the great works of Roth and Nabokov are a reminder that language can also expand our conceptual world. Great writers make us question our preconceptions and see new possibilities.