A Brief Encounter with Philip Roth

With a few laughs and gaffes, the famously reclusive and charismatic author accepted the French Legion of Honor award in New York City

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Danny Garcia / French Embassy in the United States

An elegant man with a mustache, wearing a black suit, stood stiffly onstage, carrying a plush maroon pillow. On it sat a gleaming white and green medal, strung on a wide red velvet ribbon. But this wasn’t Buckingham Palace, and the man carrying the medal wasn’t one of the imperturbable guards there. The medal-bearer glanced around the room, taking it all in, barely squelching a grin.

In front of him, an audience of nearly 100 people, dressed almost entirely in black and buzzing in French, waited expectantly. We were in the ornate Payne Whitney mansion, and the person expected momentarily was the famously reclusive and press-resistant author Philip Roth. The literary icon, who has written 24 novels in a career that has extended more than half a century, was about to pick up the latest award in his storied career: the French Legion of Honor award, France’s top honor.

For a shy guy, he’s had a lot of practice at the podium. By age 26, he had won the National Book Award for his first novella, Goodbye, Columbus. Then the riotously funny Portnoy’s Complaint, which brought Roth to fame, was selected by the Modern Library as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century. From there on, it was a blur: the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Faulkner award three times, the National Humanities Medal at the White House.

That’s not chopped liver, mind you. But the one that got away is most remarked upon in literary circles. Roth, who many consider the greatest living American novelist, has never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as the literati believe he should. But that’s Stockholm stuff, and this was Fifth Avenue, with Central Park in all its leafy fall glory framed in the windows.

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When Roth finally entered the room, also wearing a black suit (he clearly had gotten the fashion memo), the très chic audience applauded exuberantly.  At 80 years old, Roth looks a decade or two younger, trim and dynamic, his hair laced with grey but still plentiful.

The moment had arrived. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius sang Roth’s praises, and took the medal to place it around Roth’s neck. But all of a sudden, it was more Woody Allen than Francois Truffaut. The medal, only recently perched on the maroon pillow, clattered to the floor.

From where I sat, a few rows back, it was impossible to tell whose embarrassing faux pas this was. But it was Roth’s finest moment.  He cracked a joke: in a mock mournful way, saying “so quickly!” as if the prize was over before it reached his neck. The crowd laughed with relief, and order was restored. The Foreign Minister placed the medal around his neck, where it was supposed to be, and the crowd rose, clapping rapturously.

Having warmed up the crowd already, Roth was read to rock and roll. “You can sit down. I’m not the Pope,” he said to the assembled. Bigger laugh this time. After telling the crowd that “I have long since forgotten that French I learned at 13,” he admitted that he was surprised when he first learned how well his work was received in Europe. “It was a bit startling.”

Then something really startling happened: a cell phone went off, and rang three times before the owner managed to silence it.  More Woody Allen, but Roth stayed on track and gave gushing praise to the French. Then, looking every bit the professor he used to be, as if he were wearing a hood at a commencement, he left the stage.

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The group traipsed on for a ceremony to lay the bricks for what will be the only French bookstore in New York City. Then, voila! The flutes of champagne arrived, and the crowd relaxed into cocktail party mode. And there was the mustachioed medal bearer himself, having morphed into a waiter carrying a tray of champagne glasses.

Philip Roth was surrounded by admirers eager to shake his hand. I knew the ground rules well: no interviews at all. So I waited in the crowd to shake his hand, sans ID and title. This English major was not going to miss her moment.  When it was my turn, Roth greeted me as if he were in a bar mitzvah receiving line, going through the motions. I mumbled something shyly about how much it meant to meet him. And I must have really mumbled, because he leaned in and asked me to repeat myself. I said, “I’m just excited to meet you. But you don’t want to talk with me. I’m a reporter.”

I suddenly had his full attention. “Where are you from,” he asked, in a cat-and-mouse teasing tone. “TIME magazine,” I replied. “You’re right — I don’t.” And then both of us started laughing. We were on the same wavelength.  We just stood and grinned at each other for a long minute or two. Then he smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and dramatically said, “Adios!” Then he was gone.

I hope he’ll feel more like talking after he wins that Nobel.