Philip Roth's latest honor was as much for what he has done for other writers as for his own work.
Roth received the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award Tuesday night. He was cited for such novels as "Portnoy's Complaint" and "American Pastoral," but also for his advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s for writers in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern bloc countries during the Cold War. PEN, in the midst of a weeklong "World Voices Festival," is an international writers' organization that defends human rights.
The ceremony included readings from two Roth books, "Everyman" and "American Pastoral," and brief films of and about Roth. The author laughed along as he watched himself on screen joking about the daring humor of James Joyce, and was clearly moved by a clip of Czech writer Ivan Klima thanking him.
Roth's support for Klima, Milan Kundera and other Eastern European writers was personal and literary. He traveled to Prague every spring from 1972-1977, arranged to have such peers as Arthur Miller and William Styron send money to persecuted authors and oversaw the U.S. publication of novels by Klima, Kundera and others.
Roth, 80, has announced his retirement from writing books, but not from the written word or prepared text. He spoke briefly, and forcefully, before the hundreds gathered for the PEN Literary Gala at the Museum of Natural History, with attendees including Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Eugenides.
During his speech, Roth recalled the "thoroughgoing education" his friends in Eastern Europe had given him about life under a totalitarian government. He spoke of some of the best minds of Czechoslovakia being forbidden to write, travel or even drive, and forced to work at "menial jobs" such as selling cigarettes and washing windows.
"Every day brings a new heartache, a new tremor, more helplessness, and yet another reduction of freedom and free thought in a censored society already bound and gagged, the usual rites of degradation. The ongoing unmooring of one's personal identity, the suppression of one's personal authority, the elimination of one's security," he said, then added, "And anger."
"Anger. The maniacal raving of a manacled being, frenzies of futile rage, ravaging only oneself. ... The toll of the anger."
Decades later, the Iron Curtain long torn down, he ended his talk with humor and a reference to his reputation as the author of such ribald works as "Portnoy's Complaint" and "The Breast." Throughout his time in Prague, he had been wiretapped and followed. Finally, in 1977, he was questioned by police after leaving an art museum and its "ludicrous exhibition" of Soviet paintings. Roth was advised to leave the country; police then questioned Klima about his friendship with the American author.
"As Ivan later told me in a letter, he had only one answer, one, to give them," Roth explained. "'Don't you read his books?' Ivan asked the police.'"
"As might be expected, they were stymied by the question. But Ivan quickly enlightened them: 'He comes for the girls.'"