Theme and Variations


by Philip Roth
Simon and Schuster, 208 pp., $18.95

In Philip Roth’s last novel, The Counterlife, Nathan Zuckerman’s brother died, was buried in New Jersey, and then started another life in Israel. Things more unorthodox still happen in Deception: time and reality are more finely splintered, knocked sideways, abolished, and arrogantly reassembled. The novel is about a love affair. The lovers are aware that their story is an early model for The Counterlife, in which Zuckerman was married to an Englishwoman called Maria. In the fictional time scale, Deception therefore ought to precede The Counterlife. So it is startling to learn, at the very outset of Deception, that Zuckerman is dead. Of course one realizes that death, with Roth, is not necessarily a permanent condition. Still, in this new novel, Zuckerman is and stays dead. A young writer is working on his biography, and the middle-aged lover in Deception, whose first name is Philip, is writing a novel about the young writer writing a biography of Zuckerman.

Philip has all the usual Roth concerns and obsessions: Jewishness, anti-Semitism (especially British anti-Semitism), East Europeans in the West, the process of turning reality into fiction, and sleeping with Gentile women. He is living in London, and the unnamed married Englishwoman he sleeps with is the raw material, the notes for the Maria he was married to in The Counterlife. She (the mistress in Deception) can remember dining with Philip in a London restaurant when he was insulted by a woman at the next table making anti-Semitic remarks. That was a key scene in The Counterlife, but the two diners there were Zuckerman and his wife, Maria. Husband and lover…wife and mistress are possible variations within the same episode. Deception, like The Counterlife, is a novel about novel writing.

The backbone of Deception consists of pre- and post-coital dialogues between Philip and his mistress when she visits him in his one-room studio in Notting Hill Gate. Apart from an occasional stage direction like “laughing,” “crying,” it’s all talk. The talk has a lot of charm, erudition, and wit. It’s beguiling, and it needs to be, because in some ways this novel is an act of aggression against the reader, who might go away in a huff: it also needs to be beguiling because the erotic charge in the love affair is words. Philip loves his mistress—as Zuckerman loves Maria—for the way she talks: “I’m an écouteur—an audiophiliac. I’m a talk fetishist.” Philip’s dialogues with his mistress are intercut with others he has with his wife, with an ex-mistress who has cancer, with another ex-mistress (and ex-student) who has had shock treatment, with several Czechs, and a Pole. Each voice is a cunning and captivating piece of mimicry. Only one of them belongs to a man; and the Polish woman, with her fetching broken English, is another subject for audiophilia; “I’m kissing your English,” says Philip. Two of the Czechs and the Pole have no obvious bearing on the main story. Their sad tales of exile, of dépaysement in the West, read…

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