From Philip Roth’s home to mine: on buying a piece of his estate

Since reading Portnoy’s Complaint sometime back in the 90s, I’ve never been a Philip Roth fan. But tell me he’s dead and they’re selling his stuff, and I’m all over it.

I blame it on Twitter: specifically, author and Chicago Tribune “Biblioracle” columnist John Warner, who, on that fateful day, tweeted he’d won an auction for Philip Roth’s alarm clock.

Wait. What?

It was Saturday, July 20. I work part days on Saturdays, and to stave off the boredom and resentment I always have my phone next to me, left hand scrolling Facebook and Twitter limitlessly. Running bang up against John’s tweet, I grabbed the URL for the Roth estate auction.

Ebay made up the entirety of my previous auction experience. I used to drop in once in a while, to snap up old Penguin paperback editions and the occasional oddity, like a postcard from the town in the Netherlands where my family hailed from — hey, big spender.

Litchfield County Auctions is the real deal, where the rich go to pick up Persian rugs and Chippendale armoires. I felt like someone’s hick relative in overalls, sucking on a piece of straw. But such is the beauty of the internet: “belonging” there only means I haven’t reached the limit on my credit card.

It was phenomenal, like someone had taken Roth’s house just as he’d left it, turned it on its side and shook every, single damn thing out. You name it, they sold it. There were ratty old afghans, lamps and tables, fine collectible Chinese vases and figurines, paintings and so many silver pieces. So many.

As it was a live auction, all I had to do was shove my credit card information at them, watching as each item came up and bidding commenced. While some things went for tens of thousands, a few bits and bobs, I noticed, were quite affordable. Tentatively, I hit the bid button for a couple vases. When they rose too high for my blood, I went on to a Chinese figurine. Unwilling to chase it over $ 100, I scrolled ahead to upcoming items.

Then I saw it: a Chinese reverse painting on glass.

I had only the vaguest idea what “reverse painting” meant, but it was lovely and the estimated sale price was in the range I was willing to spend. I watched as one person bid, then another. It wasn’t getting a lot of attention; I held my breath. When last call!, then final warning!!! popped up I swooped in and bid as the gavel came down.

I imagined the glowing face of the high bidder as the auctioneer was ready to call it, mentally measuring out the place he’d hang it next to the fireplace, his new “Roth niche.”

Then, BAM!

“You’ve been outbid, sucker!”

All’s fair in love and auctions.


My impression of Roth’s writing, aside from the narrow scope of my experience with Portnoy, was that he’s a man’s writer. And when I say man’s writer, I’m staring squarely at Ernest Hemingway — poster boy for excess testosterone. Not that I imagine the scholarly Jewish writer had a penchant for big game hunting, nor that he regularly got toasted and ripped off his shirt in his editor’s office, as Hemingway was wont to do.

Roth was a bit more restrained. Just a tad.

Fairly or not (probably not), judging him solely based on a novel about a young man’s obsession with masturbation, I’ve always believed he’s a writer obsessed with sex.

Before you start going all feminist on me, I know full well women have written about sex. I have no issue with that, but, to my knowledge, none have done so quite so famously as Roth, at least not on the topic of young men and masturbation. And I’m not only not interested in young men and masturbation, I actively avoid it.

Perhaps I should use the word masturbation one more time in this post, what do you think.


Hey there, fella. You’re one magnificent bastard.

Since the Roth item arrived, I’ve begun researching his life and work, reading reviews and watching interviews on YouTube. Though it pains me to say it, I may have rushed to judgment. Philip Roth wrote some 30ish novels. The more I read, the more it behooves me to investigate him further before making up my mind he’s not my thing, if for no other reason than I own one small piece of his estate.

That I bought on impulse. Because Twitter made me.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely Chinese reverse painting on glass I need to hang in my Philip Roth niche. I don’t have a fireplace, but I do have an Ikea dresser. Chippendale it ain’t, but what did we decide about “belonging”?

It’s all about having room on your credit card.

My Nemesis, Moby Dick

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It’s taken me a very long time getting back to Moby Dick. In college I tried, oh how I tried, to make it through the book without falling asleep. And I’m not sure that’s a comment on the novel myself, as much as my exhaustion having so much to read and so little time, especially as I again last night – very late – read Chapter One and was entranced by the language and the humor.

Yes, humor!

In college I “read” the book and wrote a paper on it, all without having actually gotten through it to any appreciable extent. I no longer remember how far I did make it but I testify it was nowhere near far enough to write a paper on it with any degree of coherence. How did I do it? I read about the book, dipped into some of the key scenes and received a respectable B on the paper.

The professor, as back story, despised me. I don’t mean in an adolescent accusation way, either. It was full-out hatred. What makes it all the more pathetic is she was – and is, she’s still doddering along – a nun, who ought to have known better than to piss off God by hating me. The situation was, I had recently broken up with the son of a family she turned out to be friendly with and she thought I was no better than the village whore because of it. Actually, the buffoon played me for a fool and dumped me but she may not have realized that.

Neither here nor there.

All this made getting past her with a B felt all the sweeter. The old hag. She’s the same woman who had the audacity to tell me later, in a meeting we scheduled regarding another assignment, I should get out more and perhaps I’d meet a nice young man to marry. I kid you not. And, at the time, I was engaged. What did all this have to do with the assignment and/or meeting? Absolutely nothing.

In any event, that’s the back story of my experience with Moby Dick and I am just now getting back to the book. I’m Irish. I hold grudges. It’s a simple truth. And that nun must be 110 by now, I can’t believe she’s still in the land of the living. I thought she was near death when I was in college so it’s a mind-blower she’s kept alive this long. Only the evil die incredibly old?

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I became all the more keen on reading Moby Dick after visiting Melville’s House in Pittsfield, MA, back in 2007. It was the year our vacation, strangely enough, allowed time for my Dead Author Tour. I consider it strange because I’m the only reader of classic literature in my family and my kids have next to no patience being force-marched from author’s home to author’s home. Why they humored me I don’t know to this day but I’ll take it.

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I love photographing things authors would have touched, original items from the house. Imagine his hand turning his doorknob. Such a mundane occurrence to him but such a poignant reminder he existed to me.

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IMG_1055-2Melville’s barn, from his house.

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More on Melville and Moby Dick forthcoming.