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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 necessary story. The Facts is a tricky title, quite apart from the notorious philosophical uncertainty of factuality itself. The who, what, where, when, and why of Roth’s personal history are attended to, but in a very selective way even for so necessarily selective a genre; he tells us that some important names have been changed, some events are minimized or left out, some of the facts may be more factual than others.

After an affectionate prologue on his parents, he makes a kind of five-act drama of his life up to the early 1970s. We hear how Jewish and “American” influences shaped his childhood in Newark; how he studied English literature and had a love affair during college at Bucknell; how teaching at Chicago led to his fatal involvement with the woman (here called “Josie Jensen”) who became his first wife and most grievous enemy; how fiction like the short story “Defender of the Faith” and Portnoy’s Complaint caused a scandal among many American Jews; how he finally acquired relative freedom through separation from Josie, psychoanalysis (that fine school of “reckless narrative disclosure”), a healing love affair, Josie’s accidental death in 1968, and the momentous publication of Portnoy the next year, though with intimations that it was for a time a kind of freedom that lay close to moral disaster.

The themes running through this history won’t astonish those who know Roth’s novels. Jewish neighborhoods like his in Newark were fairly secure places in the 1930s and 1940s, so much so that many children in them weren’t especially aware of the cultural homogeneity that sheltered them. To know you were “a Jew” you had (as Roth’s father did) to work for WASP institutions like Metro-politan Life, or go to Bradley Beach in the summer and risk getting beaten up by the tough young goys from Neptune, or flee from the riots after football games between the mostly Jewish high school and its intolerant rivals. “America” was what you wanted, but it only seemed to exist away from home, out there where things could be uncomfortable or dangerous for Jews. For young Roth and his friends, it was baseball that gave the readiest imaginative access to America, not so much through playing it as through using it to generalize your born identity, with all its Old World encumbrances, into that of the ballplayer—as in the adult Alex Portnoy’s lingering desire, “Oh, to be a center fielder—and nothing more!”

If Bernard Malamud hadn’t used it first, A New Life would have served as a title for several of Roth’s novels, and the other narrative sections of The Facts pursue the theme of assimilation and its discontents in various ways. At college, to his surprise and pleasure, he was rushed by a non-Jewish fraternity; mightily tempted by the invitation to “become an honorary WASP” but fearing “self-censorship” if he accepted, he decided that Bucknell’s Jewish house would be a better theater for his style and talents. He thought it more interesting to be a Jewish literary intellectual immersed in Henry James, E.E. Cummings, and Thomas Wolfe, and his heavy campus affair was with a worldly gentile.

At Chicago, he tells us, he continued to study and emulate the gentile literary masters, while beginning the relationship, with the troubled, blonde, archetypally Middle-American Josie Jensen, that decisively altered his life as a man and an artist. Later, he says, the writing of Portnoy would rid him of the confining tyranny of James and Flaubert, but though he separated from Josie in the early 1960s, he would not be rid of her influence until her death, if ever.

Roth represents Josie as in some sense a figure of his own creative will; recalling his recovery from a ruptured appendix in 1968, he remarks that “for years afterward I was to think and brood and fictionalize obsessively about how I had made Josie happen to me.” The angry daughter of an abusive “small-town drunkard” and thief, married and divorced young by a man she claimed had stolen their children from her, penniless and unqualified for any work that might pay decently or meet her sense of her own talents—she represented for Roth, he suggests, the discovery of an America without Jews that still had its own victims. Here, for once, was “material” to exercise the imagination fully: “Without doubt she was my worst enemy ever, but, alas, she was also nothing less than the greatest creative-writing teacher of them all, specialist par excellence in the aesthetics of extremist fiction.”

Josie is of course a presence in many of Roth’s novels, most openly in When She Was Good and My Life as a Man. In an interview in 1984 he answered the question “Can you talk about your marriage?” by saying:

It took place so long ago that I no longer trust my memory of it. The problem is complicated further by My Life as a Man, which diverges so dramatically in so many places from its origin in my own nasty situation that I’m hard put, some twenty-five years later, to sort out the invention of 1975 from the facts of 1959.

Certainly in The Facts Josie seems not so much remembered as agonizingly reconstituted yet again by the powers of fiction-making.

Here Roth can suggest that his own immigrant grandparents would have recognized in Josie’s history the vice and “family savagery” their own people knew more than enough about from their dealings with the Christian peasantry of Russia and Poland: “She would have seemed to them nothing more or less than the legendary old-country shiksa-witch, whose bestial inheritance had doomed her to become a destroyer of every gentle human virtue esteemed by the defenseless Jew.” The tone sounds skeptically amused, but the view he attributes to his grand-parents conveniently serves his own continued animosity toward Josie. He needed her, it seems, both as a window on a world outside the one he inherited and as shadowy confirmation that there was some cogency to the Jewish life he found so grating. He needed her to be different, and his fury at her encroachments on his space—her fantasy-claims to have been the “editor” of his earlier books and her willful conversion to Judaism, which might seem to someone else too complex and affecting to inspire mere rage—suggests what was at stake, and for him still is.

Yet Roth would not be Roth if he didn’t detect the ironies—the literariness—of his own feelings. In The Facts he encloses a relatively conventional autobiographical narrative within something strikingly different, an exchange of letters about the book between the author and his latest and richest fictional anti-self, Nathan Zuckerman, hero (if that’s the word) of the Zuckerman Bound trilogy and The Counterlife. In his letter to Zuckerman Roth explains that his impulse to autobiography began in the confusion and fear of postsurgical depression in the spring of 1987, after he had finished The Counterlife. Though he “was educated to believe that the independent reality of the fiction is all there is of importance and that writers should remain in the shadows,” this breakdown moved him to look for an understanding of his present condition in his past: “So as to fall back into my former life, to retrieve my vitality, to transform myself into myself, I began rendering experience untransformed.” It does seem natural to seek approval of such an effort from Zuckerman, himself “reborn” in The Counterlife—though of course some of the reality games in that elusive novel hinge on whether it was Zuckerman himself or his dentist-brother Henry who died following heart-bypass surgery meant to support his erotic ambitions.

The desire “to transform myself into myself” sounds a little too innocent coming from a writer as sure as Roth is that the idea of a stable, unitary self is chimerical; yet one can sympathize with his “exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions, and lies,” the whole repertory of dirty tricks successful fiction requires. But one might not have expected him to begin the search for “the original, prefictionalized factuality” by soliciting the advice of someone who exists only within fiction. If Zuckerman is not a fact, how can his judgment of this matter be worth anything, and how can we trust the authenticity of the Roth who addresses him?

Clearly we can’t trust it, and clearly Roth doesn’t expect us to. As if to elude any too easy understanding, he proposes alternate sources for the book. If illness and boredom with writing about Zuckerman were part of it, the book may also be rooted in his grief for the death of his mother and for the signs of mortality visible in his octogenarian father; and mixed in, he allows, may be a practical effort to recover his supposedly lost power “to make real life amazing” for the benefit of future novels. And “the question” he finally asks Zuckerman—“Is the book any good?”—is notably a writer’s question, one that has rather little to do with recovering lost personal truths for private reasons.

As conventional autobiography The Facts has considerable interest, not least in Roth’s fond recalling of relatives, teachers, lovers, and friends who have mattered to him. Other things appear that aren’t clear in the novels, and they are worth knowing about. But the most absorbing record is that of the struggle between the facts and the fictionalizing imagination, between what Roth (borrowing from Paul Goodman) elsewhere calls the written and the unwritten world. And this struggle comes to a remarkable climax in the book’s epilogue, Zuckerman’s answer to the author’s plea for counsel.

The counsel given—“Don’t publish”—is devastating; you might as well tell a writer “Don’t live.” This, Zuckerman charges, is not a book of facts but a compounding of new impostures, not all of them very convincing: “In this book you are not permitted to tell what it is you tell best: kind, discreet, careful—changing people’s names because you’re worried about hurting their feelings—no, this isn’t you at your most interesting.” He notices, for example, that Roth’s account of his feelings for his father as death approaches him, while credible and moving, isn’t particularly Rothian or even (as Roth seems to suppose) particularly Jewish: “It could be anybody, almost…. This is the incredible drama that nearly all of us encounter in relation to our families.” It’s Zuckerman’s cruel guess that “you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were. By now what you are is a walking text.”

Roth has always enjoyed what amounts to reviewing his own novels, in essays, lectures, and interviews—describing their methods, defending them from attackers, amplifying the fictional aesthetic behind them. (His days in graduate school don’t seem to have been wasted.) Zuckerman’s essentially hostile reading of The Facts is a strong and in many ways acute critical assessment, one that—in view of who’s writing Zuckerman’s lines for him—represents Roth’s deep uneasiness about “the unwritten world.” Whatever the writer may intend, radical insincerity is inherent in writing anything, and its effects are most troubling to the writer when the subject is his own experience.

I have to agree with Zuckerman that there are signs of evasion, for example, in Roth’s reticence about his psychoanalysis: “Come on,” Zuckerman taunts him, “what did you and the doctor talk about for seven years—the camaraderie up at the playground among all you harmless little Jewish boys?” I have to agree that Roth’s effort to make Vietnam and the 1960s somehow responsible for Portnoy’s Complaint looks like a minimizing of what the book owed to poor Josie: “You owe that great explosion of anger to her…rather more than to Lyndon Johnson.” And Zuckerman presses hard on an old wound when he accuses Roth’s gestures of accommodation with Jewishness of betraying the creative energies within the “self-hatred” it was so common to berate him for in his younger days.

Though The Facts is much less bland and evasive than Zuckerman makes it out to be, his gruff, skeptical voice lends animation to a book that seems to need some toward its end. He is of course pursuing an intention that’s very much his own—by an old but still neat paradox, Zuckerman’s life as a fiction is imperiled by Roth’s new interest in his own prefictional life. Zuckerman knows only too well that he may at any time cease to be “someone through whom you can detach yourself from your biography at the same time that you exploit its crises, themes, tensions, and surprises,” that Roth’s fascination with self-displacement is all that gives Zuckerman being. And though The Counterlife cannily left his fate uncertain, the fictional character who speaks at the end of The Facts seems quite satisfied with his present lot and anxious to have it continue.

For Roth, autobiography turns out to be the continuation of fiction by other means, or often by the same ones. The Facts is a lively and serious version of a novelist’s life, but it seems even more interesting as a new way of formulating the questions about the imagination that Roth has been pursuing with increasing complication in the Zuckerman novels, in my view his finest work yet. It’s as if this autobiography were an elaboration of a moment in The Counterlife when Zuckerman’s brother Henry complains bitterly about how Nathan’s art continuously betrays the truth of ordinary lives like Henry’s:

In his mind it never mattered what actually happened or what anyone actually was—instead everything important distorted, disguised, wrenched ridiculously out of proportion, determined by those endless, calculated illusions cunningly cooked up in this terrible solitude,…always this unremittingly dreadful conversion of the facts into something else.

It’s in effect the same plea for common sense voiced by Maria, Nathan Zuckerman’s young English wife, near the end of The Facts: “Existence isn’t always crying out for the intervention of the novelist. Sometimes it’s crying out to be lived.”

Something has gone wrong in these objections, to be sure. The “actuality” both characters want to defend is itself an illusion of art. Neither of them exists anywhere except in Roth’s books, and Henry may not “exist” even there, since Roth leaves open a strong possibility that Henry is already dead and that Nathan is writing his words for him. The author holds all the trumps; strictly speaking, writing is always only writing, while life is…well, something else. But if Henry and Maria miss the point, missing the point has its own kind of value, as Roth knows perfectly well. If the Zuckermans and Kepesh and Tarnopol and Portnoy and all the rest do not exist anywhere except in writing, then neither does the “Philip Roth” who purports to record his own life in The Facts. But then again they all do exist somewhere else, in the stubborn, naive will to credence through which even the most skeptical and sophisticated reader ignores the novelist’s claim that it’s all just “creative” sleight of hand. Among all the other things to be grateful to Roth for is his willingness, from time to time, to let us care about figures, himself included, who his theory of fiction pretends are only phantasms of language.

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