How did Philip Roth, widely acclaimed as the greatest living American novelist at the time of his death last week, come to be buried at Bard College?
At first glance, the connection does not seem apparent. Although Roth received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the college in 1985, and taught a class there in 1999, he had no formal relationship to Bard. What he did have was a deep and abiding friendship with Bard President Leon Botstein and Bard professor and writer-in-residence Norman Manea.
The agreed-upon narrative goes like this: some years ago, Roth told Botstein that he desired to be inhumed in the small cemetery on Bard’s Annandale campus. When asked why, Roth inquired if Manea was planning to be interred there. Told yes, he then asked if Botstein was also planning to “stay on,” as it were, at the college he served for so many years. Yes, again. To which Roth replied, “I want to have interesting people to talk to.” (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports a slightly different version of this answer. According to Blake Bailey, Roth’s biographer, what Roth actually said was that he wanted “to be buried near Jews so I have someone to talk to.”)
In either case, Roth was having a laugh, as he was most emphatically dismissive of the metaphysical realm — post-mortem, his novels, not some incorporeal version of himself, will conduct his conversations. It is also a safe bet there was no graveside chanting of the Mourner’s Kaddish at his burial on Memorial Day, as he “expressly forbid,” according to Bailey, any religious rituals at his funeral. Yet time-honored practice often has a way of subtly insinuating itself. At Roth’s gravesite on Sunday, a full day before the burial vault was lowered into place, someone had already placed a pebble upon it, in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Roth’s one experience of participating in a class at Bard, a survey-course of his own work that he co-taught with Manea, was by all accounts a stormy affair. The class read and discussed seven of Roth’s novels; the storm broke when they got to Sabbath’s Theater, whose main character is socially and sexually out of control. As David Remnick recalled it a year later (2000) in The New Yorker, “Manea feared that his students would attack Roth for the usual reasons: that his portrayal of women was insufficiently sympathetic, that his ideas about sex were retrograde.” Sure enough, several students levied “passionate, fully flowered charges of misogyny” against both that book and I Married a Communist, as Jonah Weiner, who survived the course, remembered in a piece written for Slate magazine in 2012. According to Weiner, Roth gave as good as he got, presenting “transcripts of the court proceedings of artists brought to trial during Stalin’s great purge” and attempting to “draw a parallel between the Stalinist prosecutors and the feminist-minded readers among us who’d confronted him.”
Last Sunday, in a light rain, the Bard cemetery seemed far from that turbulence, far from the heated arguments about Jewishness, male chauvinism, political correctness, and what all. Roth’s burial vault, and the hole covered by several lengthy wooden boards that would soon accommodate it, was shaded by a venerable pine, a stately maple, and several other trees and shrubs, and softly serenaded by birdsong. Mushrooms were glistening in the wet pathways between graves, and only the faint whoosh of cars passing on Route 9G disturbed, but only mildly, the sense that this place was far removed from the noisy circles of the world.
But if, contrary to Roth’s belief and expectations, his sly desire for conversation beyond the beyond could be fulfilled, he would not have to wait for Manea and Botstein to join him in Bard College’s cozy, well-shaded necropolis. Not twenty paces away from his grave are the stones of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt and her husband, philosophy professor Heinrich Blücher. Imagine how bracing and passionate those conversations would be, to the great delight of the phantom class of students and professors all around them.