What I like best about writing books is the feeling, when done, of having emptied the well. I feel delivered of what I held and agreeably vacant. Looking over what I’ve written, at the end of a big project, I always think: Couldn’t do that again. Indeed, in this empty-well state I tend to wonder if I’ll ever write again.
To be sure, the well has a way of re-filling. Something new intrigues or perplexes you. Before you know it you’re off again. In a novel, it’s some new mystery I want to deepen, some ineffability surrounding the characters, the setting, the action, that grants it the breath of life. In memoir and biography, it has by contrast been some overwhelming wish for clarity: to say what happened and what it meant. These two drives, the wish for mystery and the impulse to clarity, are the poles of my mental life. Finishing Here We Are, I felt I’d captured a friendship with a close friend, much as in my memoir The Hue and Cry at Our House I’d captured a family. In Naples Declared it was an ancient city. In Proust: The Search it was a modern man. In each case I found that I had something to say—the galvanizing moment. One’s task is then to find the most natural—the inevitable—way of saying it.
All writing is the imposition of form on formlessness. In memoir, you start with the unmanageable raw stuff of memory. Then you select and shape and give to the messiness a form. Actually, memory is already an artist, suppressing this and highlighting that without your consent.
Finishing Here We Are, I felt I’d captured a friendship with a close friend.
From my time with Philip, I learned how to work harder. He always said his own work ethic was derived entirely from his parents. He’d make his breakfast, glance at the news, then go to work till lunch. Then he’d go back to work till five, when he’d go for a swim. Then he’d have dinner and go back to work. It was a harshly, beautifully dedicated schedule. Not that there was no time left over for real life. He could love and hate and rage with the best of them. Once, in exasperation, I said: “Philip, there’s too much of you. All your emotions are outsize.” He said: “I’ve written in order not to die of them.”
And what did I learn writing Here We Are? Well, it might be more accurate to say what I gained—some portion of the clarity I was seeking; Philip as he was; Philip and myself as we were. Friendship flourishes when two people feel equal in each other’s company, even if the world regards the one as a genius and the other as merely talented. Insofar as we were friends, the worldly differences between us were set at naught, even if I looked up to him. Which I unfailingly did, as the book shows.
Sitting at my desk day after day following Philip’s death, I got to know him better. There came the clarity of retrospect. Amid my grief, I was inexplicably lighthearted. I gained anew what William Maxwell called, with unimprovable accuracy, “the happiness of getting it down right,” the satisfaction that comes of having found an adequate form for what it is you have to say.
Benjamin Taylor’s Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth is out now from Penguin