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Philip Roth: Another Missed Opportunity

Since I’m an Edith Wharton fan and I am planning to write a biography (but not of her!), I went to hear Hermoine Lee, an Oxford University English professor, speak at Columbia University this evening about her just published biography of the novelist. I wanted to learn some tricks of the trade.

I arrived early at Low Library and took a seat in the third row of the nearly empty rotunda. Soon afterwards, a professorial man in a tweedy brown jacket sat down in the seat right next to me, which struck me as odd, considering that he might have been expected to leave an empty seat between us in such uncrowded circumstances.

I glanced at him, thought he looked vaguely familiar, couldn’t place him, and went back to working on some writing. (I now blush to think he might have been looking at the page.) Fifteen minutes later, along came my husband, who sat down in the seat on my left. The “professor” soon moved one seat over, laying his coat across the seat between us.

When Hermoine Lee took her seat onstage, I noticed her nod in greeting to the man on my right. Then, the person who introduced her mentioned that she had once written an essay on Philip Roth.
And then, of course, I knew.

I cast a sidelong glance at “the professor,” and realized the person I had studiously ignored while I continued my own scribbling was arguably our country’s most famous living literary novelist (especially with Kurt Vonnegut, whom my husband and I had been discussing, memorialized on the front page of the newspaper on my lap). Well, there’s also John Updike, who, as it happens, has just published a review of the Wharton bio in the latest New Yorker.

I had just missed the opportunity to have a 15-minute tête-à-tête with the perpetrator of Portnoy. After the Wharton talk concluded, I lamely inquired if he was Philip Roth and told him that it was nice to see him. He returned the pleasantry and was off to commune with the academic types up front.

Why do these near brushes with greatness always happen to me? I must be losing my nose for news.

an ArtsJournal blog