It’s a Saturday night in the middle of the summer, and I probably should be outside.
Instead, I sit at my computer in a self-absorbed stupor, chasing genius. I have been notified that the estate of the late novelist Philip Roth is being auctioned off online. While I’m hardly a Roth expert, he wrote about subjects that are at the center of my being: the Jewish family, complicated relationships, personal identity, and the eternal, evolving and illusive American Dream.
While his words often described the fragility of our existence and society, his dedication to storytelling serves as a reminder that writers need to grow in their craft. Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Goodbye, Columbus” reveal a glimpse of the American Jewish Experience … but “American Pastoral,” “The Plot Against America” and “Sabbath’s Theater” open a vein of honesty where shame and duty coexist.
Roth died last year and much of his estate was recently collected from his homes in New York and Connecticut. I have never participated in an auction but from somewhere deep in the Internet his belongings seemed to whisper: you need something that you don’t have now and it will help your writing.
I begin to bid on Roth’s items, and slowly grow comfortable with the process. Still, as I review his personal knickknacks – ranging from a poster of LBJ to a vintage Balinese shadow puppet – I do question the jolt of vicarious pleasure of obtaining a famous person’s possession. Deep down, many of us seek to at least approach, or try on, a certain level of greatness – even if we don’t deserve it. Is that what this is really all about?
Then, as his typewriters soar way beyond my paltry bids (his IBM Selectrics eventually sell for $4,800 and $5,000, and his portable Olivetti Lettera garners $17,500) I realize that I am not solely seeking a connection to Roth. It’s the writing I want. As Roth’s acolytes bid on his suitcase with a hand-written luggage tag (it sells for $550) and a Sandy Koufax card ($950), I lower my expectations and understand that anything I can obtain will suffice.
And then, in a matter of minutes, I suddenly own six items from the Roth Collection – including two small writing tables, a Queen Anne Style Tiger Maple Lowboy desk, an antique mahogany bureau, an early-American maple chest, and a well-trodden Balooch rug.
The road to the auction house in Litchfield, Conn., is filled with heavy weekend traffic, rolling hills, and buses stuffed into parking lots along the Mass Pike. My boyhood pal David has offered to assist, and without him the mission could not take place. Many decades ago, he handed me “Portnoy’s Complaint.” He is an artist and understands that craft needs attention. Who else would want to spend 10 hours with me in a stuffy box truck? He actually has moving blankets, and knows how to schlep and pack furniture (among his many skills). We talk about things middle-aged men discuss: families, children, careers, the mysteries of old girlfriends and the human condition (the next day we meet and discuss the trip, and mankind, and I ask, “How is that we went from stardust to kvetching?”).
After four hours, we sidle into the low-slung auction warehouse where workers seem nonplussed about Roth’s goods. “We’ve done bigger auctions. We had the Joan Rivers estate,” a sleepy-eyed manager with a clipboard tells me before disappearing behind a landscape of maple and mahogany.
Workers quickly gather the bureaus, desk, tables and rug in the lobby, and I slide into a small leather chair (sold for $400). I missed out on this comfy seat as well, and as I imagine what might have been – “He has a Roth chair,” my friends might have said – I notice Roth’s electric typewriters sitting on a table three feet away.
I look around and wonder why they’re not encased in glass or at least protected. The IBM Selectrics are gray, worn and dusty. A worker rushes by and shrugs when I ask if I can touch the keyboards. “Sure,” she says, leaving me alone with Roth’s instruments. I have mixed feelings as I run my fingers across the keyboards. It’s like opening a stranger’s diary. The dalliance with the typewriters is brief, and just before I lift my fingers from the sticky keys I grasp that there will be no transference: someone else’s insights are theirs forever, and that the process – at least in writing – is more important than the tool you use.
I hover near the Selectrics for a few moments, and then bid them farewell.
The Roth loot is quickly dispersed. I decide that it’s time to throw out a hand-me-down bureau that I’ve been using for the last 25 years. When I set the Roth bureau down in my bedroom, I notice that the shelves don’t glide – they just make a lot of noise when I try to open them.
I tell myself that I will find a place for the other bureau, the Lowboy desk and side table. In the meantime, I go through the boxes of a long delayed writing project and pull out my notes and folders. In the space where they sat for the last year, I place a rickety Roth table and then set the newly organized folders on its shiny surface. It’s now within reach of my keyboard.
I do not think too much about the table, or Roth’s Balooch rug. When I look down I see the frayed threads from the carpet wrapping around one of the table’s legs. I suppose they belong together.
Steven A. Rosenberg is the editor and publisher of the Jewish Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.