The Arty Semite

Taking a Cold Shower in Philip Roth’s Room

By Beth Kissileff

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Someone on the grounds crew at the Corporation of Yaddo, the artists colony in Saratoga Springs N.Y., has a sense of humor. In the “Breast Room” (so-called because Philip Roth wrote “The Breast” while residing in it) of the West House building, the shower is mislabeled. When one turns the dial from off at the bottom, through C, to H at the top, the water gets (and stays) cold. However, if one moves the lever just above the off switch where one would assume the cold would be, hot water comes blasting out. Clearly, someone was encouraging Roth to take a cold shower when he stayed here. And, how different literature would be if he had.

Or maybe the installer of this shower was encouraging those writers residing here to learn the lesson, of “getting hot water when the tap says ‘cold.’” This could certainly be the story of my own writing life, persisting in writing, realizing that even though I’ve gotten plenty of rejections and cold water thrown in my face, the hot water is still there if only I know how to get to it. In this case, all I had to do was ask the groundskeeper; I wish it were only so easy to find an agent to start turning cold water to hot.

During my residence, Miep Gies, the woman who sheltered Anne Frank and her family, passed away at the deservedly ripe old age of 100. Not only did Gies save Anne Frank’s life, she saved her words: finding her diary and bringing it to her father Otto. Gies brought the world a remarkable and powerful voice, in giving a dead woman a chance to speak she helped make the world aware of the specific, real individual human beings killed in the Shoah.

Had Anne Frank’s diary not been published, Roth would not have written “The Ghost Writer” and “Exit Ghost,” which feature his evocation of a woman he imagines could be Anne Frank herself.

Roth wrote, in an essay called “Writing about Jews,” about the nature of fiction: “The world of fiction, in fact, frees us from the circumscriptions that society places upon feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways not always available in day-to-day conduct.” I’m grateful to Gies, Frank, Roth and the cold shower for the chance to be away from my day-to-day life and have space to create fiction, cold water and all.


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