Vita Nuova

The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography

by Philip Roth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 195 pp., $17.95

What Philip Roth calls an autobiography turns out to be a fairly short book that says little directly about his life since the 1960s, as if to suggest that he found the “material” for his fiction early. He had what sounds like a rather pleasant childhood; he went to college and graduate school, and did well. He made an awful first marriage, his writings offended many of his fellow Jews, he suffered various physical and psychic ailments, he found domestic and professional success. The facts in The Facts aren’t extraordinary or copious; as he complains in a prefatory letter to his invented character Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s life now seems to him painfully less alive than his books:

As a matter of fact, the two longish works of fiction about you, written over a decade, were probably what made me sick of fictionalizing myself further, worn out with coaxing into existence a being whose experience was comparable to my own and yet registered a more powerful valence, a life more highly charged and energized, more entertaining than my own…which happens to have been largely spent, quite unentertainingly, alone in a room with a typewriter.

It seems hard to blame all this on Zuckerman. For nearly thirty years Roth has been inventing more vivid and perhaps more entertaining versions of himself, from Neil Klugman, Gabe Wallach, and Alexander Portnoy to David Alan Kepesh, Peter Tarnopol, and Zuckerman himself. And the writer in his lonely room is an image he has been invoking, and relishing, for some while, as in some of the interviews included in Reading Myself and Others (Penguin, 1985):

Outside of print I lead virtually no public life at all. I don’t consider this a sacrifice, because I never much wanted one…. Writing in a room by myself is practically my whole life. I enjoy solitude the way some people I know enjoy parties. [1974]

You should read my books as fiction…. As for my autobiography, I can’t begin to tell you how dull it would be. My autobiography would consist almost entirely of chapters about me sitting alone in a room looking at a typewriter. [1981]

The isolation of a literary vocation—the isolation that involves far more than sitting alone in a room for most of one’s waking existence—has as much to do with life as accumulating sensations, or multinational corporations, out in the great hurly-burly. It seems to me that it’s largely through art that I have a chance of being taken to the heart at least of my own life. [1981]

So for him the impulse to retrieve and do justice to “the facts” is new, though not simply so. However you parse it, the book’s subtitle is truthful. This is an autobiography of “a novelist” and not just of Philip Roth, whoever he may be; and like any personal memoir, it’s “a[n] autobiography,” one of many conceivable tellings of a life and not its …

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