Friday, May 21, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt two)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

During lunch breaks on Union Square, Roth had wandered over to the used bookstores along Fourth Avenue, and bought a number of Modern Library editions for twenty-five cents apiece (a third of his hourly pay). His first real exposure to serious literature had come two years before, when Sandy brought home a summer reading list from Pratt that included Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In later years Roth liked to describe his younger self as “exogamous” (“I wanted to go out”), and he discovered the world beyond Newark largely through Anderson and other gentile writers with provincial origins in the South and Midwest—Faulkner, Dreiser, Lardner, Lewis, Caldwell—and aesthetic education he remembered on receiving his lifetime achievement medal at the 2002 National Book Awards: “through the ruthless intimacy of literature, its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars—through the passion for the singular and the aversion to generality that is fiction’s lifeblood—I would try to come to know their American places as specifically as I knew my own.” While still a teenager, Roth was captivated above all by the gargantuan lyricism of Thomas Wolfe, the lonely wandering epic novelist who sought to “set down America as far as it can belong to the experience of one man.” Wolfe was the catalyst for Roth’s ambition to become an artist of titanic appetites—geographic, intellectual, sexual—and he even succeeded in pressing Wolfe’s sprawling tomes on his friends. Heyman, in his retirement, would remember his old wistful longing to lead a Wolfean life, and try to revisit Look Homeward, Angel (“insufferable!”).

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