My only interaction with George Plimpton, the legendary founder of The Paris Review, occurred about a dozen years ago. I was aware that I was dealing with a “famous person,” but he didn’t seem to be … that is, he wasn’t acting as if he considered himself to be a grand person with me only a fly on his schedule. The matter at hand was Sven Birkerts‘s interview with Joseph Brodsky, which I planned to republish in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Apparently, there were several versions and we were sorting them out. I can’t remember how the issue is resolved, and I can’t remember precisely the conversations, except I refer to them in my later correspondence, so I know they must have happened.
Hence, I was interested to read Philip Roth‘s treatment of Plimpton in Exit Ghost. The words, of course, are embedded in a work of fiction, and come from the mouth of the elderly writer Nathan Zuckerman, who is returning to New York City in 2004, after 11 years of seclusion in the Berkshires. He is shocked to learn of his colleague’s death, in his sleep at age 76, the year before – and he is doing some late-life wrestling with his own mortality, too. In Roth’s novel, Plimpton ingenuously winds his way into the last 50 pages, and accounts for some of the most moving passages in the book. Here’s one such passage, though not his final word on the subject:
George escaped his glamour without losing his glamour, only further enhancing it in autobiographical books seemingly driven by self-deprecation. Climbing into the ring with [boxer] Archie Moore he was simply practicing noblesse oblige in its most exquisite form – a form, moreover, that he had invented. When people say to themselves “I want to be happy,” they could as well be saying “I want to be George Plimpton”: one achieves, one is productive, and there’s pleasure and ease in all of it.
Nobody on such casual good terms with the mighty and the accomplished and the renowned, nobody so in love with the excitement of deeds and words, for whom the suffering that is mortality seemed so remote, nobody with as many admirers as George had, with as many attributes as George had, nobody who could speak to anyone and everyone as easily as George did … On I went, thinking that the closest George would ever come to dying would be to simulate it in an article for Sports Illustrated. …
How could George be dead? I kept coming back to that. George’s having died a year ago made everything absurd. How could that happen to him? And how did what happened happen to me for these past eleven years? Never to see George again – never to see anyone again! I did this because of that? I did that because of this? I defined my life around that accident or that person or that ridiculously minor event? How outlandish I seemed, and all because, without my knowing it, George Plimpton had died. Suddenly my way of being had no justification, and George was my – what is the word I’m looking for? The antonym of doppelgänger. Suddenly George Plimpton stood for all that I had squandered by removing myself as forcefully as I had and retreating onto Lonoff’s mountain, to seek asylum there from the great variety of life. “It’s our time,” George said to me, his singular voice ringing with its spirited confidence. “It’s our humanity. We have to be part of it too.”