Taylor, Benjamin. “Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth”, Penguin Books, 2020.
A Portrait of a Friendship and Philip Roth
In “Here We Are, writer Benjamin Taylor shares about his long, intimate friendship with novelist Philip Roth (1933-2018). Roth was already considered as one of America’s most esteemed living novelists when Taylor, a founding faculty member of the New School’s Graduate School of Writing, met him in the mid-1990s. Roth’s past had already been through two miserable marriages, many past lovers, and debilitating health concerns. Roth was “irascible and mercurial” but he was also very real and very candid.
Taylor captures the essence of Roth’s charmingly enigmatic humor and complex behavior perfectly. He shares his memories of their friendship, writing about their quiet, often amusing moments together. Unfortunately, Taylor tells us that “A lot of conversation got squirreled away.” Taylor quotes Roth throughout and he was there for Roth throughout his declining years. This book is his poignant reflection on his experience with Roth and what their friendship has meant to them both. What is really fascinating is Taylor’s statement, “I can’t be the first gay man to have been an older straight man’s mainstay.” He goes on to say that Roth was searching for a “beautiful young woman to see to him as Jane Eyre looked after old Mr. Rochester.” Instead he got Taylor and they became very strongly attached to each other. They loved each other but they were not lovers. Taylor describes their relationship as was “a conversation neither could have done without.”
As we have come to expect from Benjamin Taylor, this is a beautifully written book that is both a portrait of Roth and a meditation on friendship and loss. Philip Roth’s place in the canon is secure, but what is less clear is what the man himself was like. Through Benjamin Taylor’s memoir, we see Roth as a mortal man, experiencing the joys and sorrows of aging, reflecting on his own writing, and doing something we all love to do: passing the time in the company of his closest friend. Taylor presents us with a glorious ode to friendship and shows how it can brighten everything we do.
Roth encouraged Taylor to write this book and gave him “explicit instructions not to sugarcoat anything and not to publish it until after his death.” Taylor’s memoir will be the definitive account of Philip Roth. It is almost as if Taylor has resurrected Roth ad I was shocked as my opinion of Roth that I had was very, very different from the Roth presented here. Yes, Roth was rancorous and tender, funny and sweet.
Like that friendship, this account is loyal and kind and very funny. The laughter turns into tears as we near the end. Taylor revives Roth’s presence while at the same time gives us a study of two very different men coming together because of a shared set of obsessions and mutual comforts.