The Chronicle Review

Do We Know Philip Roth?

Photograph by Chris Maluszynski, 
Moment, Redux

April 07, 2014

I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and 
I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or what it isn’t.
Philip Roth, Deception

New Jersey signage willfully misleads. I am en route to a conference commemorating Philip Roth’s 80th birthday, and having a hard time finding Newark. As I ascend the Pulaski Skyway my thoughts incline to Portnoy’s Complaint, whose protagonist "whacked off" atop its steep and shaky gradient while riding a public bus. Unable to find the author’s city of stories, I reascend the span from the opposite direction.

I’m lost. A less daft Roth scripture comes to mind. It’s about human error, and it’s well known to the scholars I’ll meet if I ever get off this bridge. The passage is found in American Pastoral, the New Jerseyest of Roth’s 29 book-length works of fiction. Our narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, observes that life is about getting people wrong. For him our every engagement with others is marked by "getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again." "That’s how we know we’re alive," he sighs, "we’re wrong."

Is everything we scholars know about Philip Roth flat-out wrong?

If we transpose these insights back into the key of Roth’s fiction—the key of "me"—the following questions arise: Do scholars who labor like a chain gang aside the highway of Roth’s renown toil in vain? When yet another of his novels leaves us utterly perplexed, is that a good sign—a sign that we’re alive? Is everything we scholars know about Philip Roth flat-out wrong?

As I finally pull in to the hotel, I imagine myself proposing a toast to tippled emeriti and ABDs alike: "To our beloved Philip Milton Roth: a marvelous writer who—let’s just face it, folks—we do not, and cannot, know."

Roth, for his part, has repeatedly discouraged us from trying to know him through his fiction. It’s a warning I am reluctant to heed and eager to interrogate at the conference.

Yet, on the face of it, Roth’s counsel is not unreasonable. I see that clearly, as can my own internal critic who resides in the crawl spaces of my mind. What’s strange about my inner antagonist is that he always assails me in the crisp, linear cadences of Nathan Zuckerman’s prose. Too, he articulates his thoughts in italics, which is also pretty weird: "Jacques, of what interest is it to ‘know’ Philip Roth, anyway? A serious student of literary art cares not a whit about Roth the Man, or Ozick the Woman. It’s the fiction that counts, tateleh. Build a wall of separation between this writer who you shall never know and what he has written. The biographer’s task is minor: the ‘life story.’ The literary critic’s is major: loving scrutiny of fiction’s incandescent complexity."

My demurrer, who reasons like a fedora-clad New Critic from 1955, raises a valid point. He imparts the classic Comp Lit 101 lesson that knowing the novel and its central protagonist is one thing, knowing the novelist another. Normally, an army of literary scholars grapples with the former, the stray biographer with the latter.

Philip Roth writes novels about novelists who are "Philip Roth" and stumble across guys named "Philip Roth." Then, for kicks, he corrects those clodhoppers who surmise he may be writing about Philip Roth.

Yet this time-tested division of labor, with its ethos of sola scriptura, does not apply here. That’s because Philip Roth scumbles the fiction and the fictionalist like no other American author. Philip Roth writes novels about novelists who uncannily resemble Philip Roth. Philip Roth writes novels about novelists who are "Philip Roth." Philip Roth writes novels about novelists who are "Philip Roth" and stumble across guys named "Philip Roth." Then, for kicks, Philip Roth proceeds to correct those clodhoppers who surmise he may be writing about Philip Roth.

Just a few weeks back, in The New York Times Book Review, he issued this correction yet again. That he did so in response to a question that the journalist Daniel Sandstrom wasn’t even asking calls attention to the author’s hypersensitivity to the charge that he writes autobiographically. Since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, in 1969, critics have been asking Roth, as David Remnick put it, "‘Are you the guy in your novels?’" And for just as long he has retorted with often testy variations on this theme: "Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters," he lectured Sandstrom, "is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s ‘thoughts’ violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel."

Many are the modes that Roth specialists get to know their subject: Roth in his fiction; Roth denying he’s in his fiction; Roth gowning up and professorially interpreting his fiction. All of this summates to a reading experience unique in American letters. It’s as if a minute, translucent hologram of Philip Roth—shucking, jiving, decrying anti-Semitism—prances upon the thin ledge of our dust jacket. His scriptures taunt us with a dictum that merges Kant’s Enlightenment credo with Roth’s preening self-absorption and Zuckerman’s aforementioned mantra: "Dare to know Philip Roth?" I hear him snickering. "Wrong again!"

What makes Roth unusual is not that he writes about individuals that resemble him. I don’t need my antagonist to remind me that fictionalists do that all the time. Rather, Roth doubles down, so to speak: His doppelgängers write precisely the type of novels that he (Roth) is writing (and that we are reading!). In so doing, he wrenches his audience fore and aft, from the "real life" of a fictional author back to the fiction he confects.

A vertiginous case in point is the 1974 My Life as a Man. This experimental novel introduces us to Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s semi-sovereign clone of the next 33 years. He is an aspiring writer who, we understand only later on in the book, was conjured up by another aspiring writer named Peter Tarnopol.

Are you confused? Good. Glad to hear it. Welcome to a Roth scholar’s world (of recursion). Much of the confusion stems from his decades-long practice of composing fictions within his fiction. Why he keeps doing this is no trivial question. Maybe Roth was raised by a troop of Russian nesting dolls, or grew up in a house of mirrors.

As for Zuckerman, he was born in two different incarnations in My Life as a Man and appears, or is discussed, in 11 other Roth novels. His career, which began in 1974, ended in 2007 with Exit Ghost (though he was pronounced dead—sort of—in the 1990 Deception). The narratologist Pia Masiero has observed that core personality characteristics, siblings, and pregnant wives drift out of his life without any explanation. Zuckerman, we might conclude, lacks a stable self. In this regard, he is Roth’s everyman. The soul is always fluxing; that’s why we always get people wrong.

Alan Cooper, an emeritus professor of English at York College, City University of New York, in his important discussion of what he calls "ZuckerRoth" suggests that the author may have had scads of fun with his double. With the fame-afflicted Zuckerman of the 1980s, Roth took "distorted public perceptions of himself" and grinningly "distorted them further." The accuracies, though, often trump the distortions. The Zuckerman mock-ups we meet in that decade often perfectly mirror You Know Who.

He grew up in Jewish Newark. He was raised by adoring, albeit overbearing, parents. He venerated baseball and non-Jewish women in equal measure. He brawled with irate tribesmen and literary grandees about the merits of his fiction, especially an unforgivable hit novel that scandalized assorted squares.

With the immediacy of a pop-up book, The Anatomy Lesson of 1983 foregrounds Roth’s blur of novel and novelist, central protagonist and author, fiction and reality. There, Zuckerman mixes it up with a critic named Milton Appel (read Irving Howe) who trashed Carnovsky (read Portnoy’s Complaint) on the pages of Inquiry (read the December 1972 issue of Commentary).

But this metafiction was just an initial public offering prior to a phase of autofiction, or fiction in which the actual author is the central protagonist. By 1988, Philip was conversing with Zuckerman. Roth opens The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography by requesting a little feedback from Nathan on the book we are about to read. Zuckerman renders his verdict: "Don’t publish—you are far better off writing about me than ‘accurately’ reporting your own life." He’s right, by the way: Roth underperforms in The Facts. This raises the possibility that he intentionally wrote 50,000 words of banal-retentive prose in order to heighten the impact of Zuckerman’s spectacular Act V stemwinder, which brings down the curtain on this pseudo-autobiography.

"Philip" re-emerges in 1990’s Deception (a novel?) and 1991’s Patrimony: A True Story (which the uninitiated read far less skeptically than did seasoned Roth observers). By the 1993 Operation Shylock: A Confession, we spy two Philips in Israel, one of whom sports a prosthetic member. The Roth family stars in the alternative history The Plot Against America (2004), just as it did in an earlier short story about Kafka tutoring young Philip in Hebrew.

Critics, understandably, grew tired of spotting Philip Roth taking leisurely Sasquatch walks through his own literary landscapes. "His narrowing, magnifying fascination with himself," complained his frenemy John Updike in 1993, "has penetrated to a quantum level of indeterminacy." A more charitable assessment might allow that narcissism is the hallucinogen that lets Roth think big. Few have probed the possibilities of experimental fiction while maintaining such robust readability. Few can induce in a reader the grin of a stuntman who has been playfully chucked headfirst through the Fourth Wall. And few have used fiction so nimbly to demonstrate how fiction gets done; how raw experience gets gutted, processed, reshaped, refined, and varnished by the artist into fiction.

Debra Shostak, a professor of literature and film at the College of Wooster, has coined the pitch-perfect phrase "fictions of self-exposure" to describe the author’s arsenal of masks, doubles, ventriloquist dummies, and so forth. The sheer pervasiveness of Roth’s self-exposure, as Updike correctly sensed, is unusual (I haven’t even mentioned another alter ego, the mercurial David Kepesh). Most writers don’t spend decades fictionalizing themselves and virtually daring readers to discern their "true" autobiography within the text.

Updike, for example, composed 186 short stories and 23 novels. Episodes from his life undoubtedly pervade his body of work. Still, the author of the new biography, Updike, Adam Begley, told me he couldn’t think of any character called "John Updike" therein. We learn in Philip Davis’s biography of Bernard Malamud that he toyed with a character named "Malamud" in an early draft of Dubin’s Lives. The conceit was edited into the oblivion of the archives. Cynthia Ozick may write about quirky, hypercerebral, women martyred by sexist imbeciles, but one doesn’t read every single page of The Puttermesser Papers or Cannibal Galaxy asking oneself: "Is this character Cynthia? I wonder if it’s Cynthia." My point is that there is something qualitatively and quantitatively different about the literary operations Roth performs. Figuring out why he does this is a legitimate scholarly task.

The Roth@80 conference, like any gathering of humanists, features a mix of virtuosi, neurasthenics, and careerists who overestimated the upside of their chosen career. The hotel, with its conspicuous security detail, has seen better days ("Guys who grew up in Flatbush ought to refrain from casting aspersions on Newark!" snorts my antagonist). Each of its tiny, airless conference rooms was dimmed in the type of melancholy, November sunset light that Roth described in his short story "The Conversion of the Jews."

There is, however, one notable thing about this gathering: As the culminating spectacle on the evening of March 19, 2013, Philip Roth will deliver the closing address. He does not pop into any of the 65 or so scholarly presentations on March 18. No Roth scholar I know expected him to do so.

Reader, would you think less of me if I confess that I exacted some futile and shameless revenge: I blew off my first (and probably last) opportunity to sit in the same room as the master.

Roth discusses his art as if he were Professor of Philip Roth Studies at the University of Incontrovertible Fictional Truth.

It’s not that I dislike Roth—quite the contrary! It’s just that over the years I have come to recognize that the more I hear and read Roth on Roth, the less I understand about Roth. One difficulty is that he tends to discuss his art as if he were Professor of Philip Roth Studies at the University of Incontrovertible Fictional Truth. He has all the right answers. All the right questions, too. As it turned out, I learned from a C-Span viewing, all I missed was Roth reminiscing about Newark, talking about all the things he’d never write about again now that he’s retired from fiction, then reading a very long passage from Sabbath’s Theater.

As ever, the author assiduously evades queries about how his self relates to his fiction. In fact, he skillfully positions himself to avoid such queries in the first place. I can think of very few interviews (including the one he memorably conducted with himself) in which a critic really put him on the spot. Nor can I recall anything on the order of sedulous push back from an interlocutor who challenges Roth’s self-created orthodoxy.

When it comes to querying Philip Roth, a two-tiered system now prevails. In Tier One stand those permitted to engage with him in substantive discussions of his oeuvre. These include documentary-filmmaking friends (Livia Manera), media-titan friends (Tina Brown), New Yorker friends (David Remnick, Judith Thurman), and plain old friends (Bernard Avishai, author of Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness). Access to Roth’s thoughts on his fiction, if granted, is often granted to Friends of Philip. There are not too many FOPs in Tier Two. It is composed of a peck of academic Roth experts, many of whom delivered those March 18 presentations in Newark (an exception being the estimable Hermione Lee, who interrogated Roth brilliantly in a 1984 issue of The Paris Review). The quality of non-FOP scholarship is uneven. But all things considered, some of the most precise, original, and sophisticated thinking on his work emerges within this cohort. By training and temperament, though, few of these scholars probe Rothian autobiography. Their approach approximates the sola scriptura ideal mentioned earlier.

We know, then, astonishingly little of Roth’s life outside what he has told us in his fiction. And this is why Roth’s tendency to open up mostly to friends, or those (understandably) awed by him, does not conduce to analytical insight. I think of a 2000 New Yorker piece in which Remnick, "over sandwiches," chatted with the great author. Remnick rehashed the tale of Roth’s traumatic 1962 encounter with outraged Jews at Yeshiva University, recounting the story more or less exactly as Roth narrated the episode in The Facts. Never mind that that account was rendered in a book where Zuckerman, a fictional character, questioned Roth’s account of everything.

That evening at Yeshiva University has become the stuff of literary legend. In Roth’s telling he was verbally assaulted to the point of psychic collapse by critics of the Mosaic persuasion who harangued him about the stories in Goodbye, Columbus. I never doubted his version of events—that is, until my Georgetown University colleague Jason Rosenblatt, professor of English, made his introductory remarks at a Roth event my academic unit staged a few days before the Newark affair.

Some 50 years ago, Rosenblatt covered that symposium in his capacity as features editor of Yeshiva University’s newspaper, The Commentator. To hear him tell it, the proceedings were nowhere near as indecorous as Roth portrayed them. The session, he reports, was organized and moderated by Professor David Fleisher, who was a huge fan of Roth’s. In The Facts it is claimed that the (unnamed) moderator "grilled" the author for half an hour. Rosenblatt wonders if Roth may have confused Fleisher with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who chastised Roth from the floor. The latter was a detractor. But as a former lawyer who had come to the defense of political radicals in the past, he may have been less of a reactionary philistine, argues Rosenblatt, than would appear from Roth’s retelling.

With a writer who whisks his personal experiences so generously into the batter of his fiction, we need biographical assistance. In 2004 we were led to believe that such assistance was on the way. Roth handpicked his friend Ross Miller to produce an authorized biography slated to appear by 2010. For reasons that are still unclear, Miller abandoned the project in 2011, slamming the door on his way out. (According to an account in a campus newspaper, Miller characterized Roth as an aging writer in decline.)

In June 2012, a second chronicler was anointed by Roth. But although he is a gifted biographer, Blake Bailey’s account won’t appear for another decade. (Since no one seems to be in any rush, might I suggest its release be postponed to 2033, in celebration of Roth’s 100th? Or why not 2083, to commemorate the sesquicentennial?).

Last year a literary biography appeared, in the form of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. The author reports that her friend was generous with his time: "He has answered many, many questions. He has let me prowl through the files in his attic in Connecticut." All of which creates, I think, the structural preconditions for catastrophic "Rothian path dependence"—or the error of understanding the writer through the very interpretive frameworks that he has provided.

Nowhere is this problem more conspicuous than in her treatment of Philip Roth’s first wife, Margaret Martinson Williams. Roth fans "know" all about Margaret, whose variants (Martha, Lucy, Lydia, Maureen, Josie, etc.) appear in many of his novels. To hear Philip tell it in The Facts, she poisoned his existence from not long after he met her, in 1956, to the moment he married her (reluctantly and through a ruse), in 1959, to their separation, in 1963, to the crippling alimony settlement that followed, to her death in a car accident, in 1968. And well beyond, apparently.

The author of Roth Unbound, however, doesn’t seem curious about this woman outside the frame of Rothian portraiture. She observes that Margaret was the "heroine of his life, the heroine he was looking for." Yet Roth—er, Zuckerman—conceded as much in his anti-Philip philippic in The Facts: "A good case can be made that you [Roth] were deliberately drawing out of her every drop of her chaos. … You were more responsible for what befell you than you wish to recall."

Nor does Pierpont show much in the way of sympathy. Exhuming Margaret’s soul for one final showing, she asks her friend about his first wife’s larger significance for his art. Not content with the often savage fictional reworking that took place in nearly half a dozen novels, Roth razes Zuckerman’s somewhat more generous assessment to ground: "Nathan Zuckerman was making it up," he sighs, "I don’t owe her shit."

For Pierpont to let this go is baffling and exemplifies the ethical dilemmas involved in writing Rothian biography—dilemmas she seems not to have pondered at great length. For all we know, Maggie Roth was every bit the insufferable person she was made out to be. Yet given her centrality to his fiction, the biographer is professionally obligated to probe the possibility that Roth got her wrong.

At the Roth conference, I sat on a panel about "Roth and Literary Biography" with Ira Nadel, of the University of British Columbia. The author of some fine studies of Leonard Cohen, among others, is currently at work on a biography titled "The Counterlives of Philip Roth." When I asked him about this subject, he responded:

"Maggie played a much greater supportive role than Roth has admitted since he remembers only the bad and not the good. In letters to his editors, he praised her critical sensibility and even supported her efforts to work in publishing, including several projects she proposed, although they were not fulfilled. She was also an important part of his five months in Italy when he met William Styron, Wallace Stegner, and Donald Klopfer of Random House. There is more to her story."

When it comes to knowing Philip Roth we are like commercial jets. And Philip Roth is like the air-traffic controller. And the honey-voiced captain who announces we’re cruising at 30,000 feet. And the guy with the orange Day-Glo batons ushering the conveyance to the gate. Via "autobiographies," "confessions," and literary (self) criticism, he charts our interpretive path. We must be cognizant, respectful, and even appreciative of his flight plan, but sovereign from its proposed trajectories.

There are countless aspects of Roth’s fiction that we don’t understand or know very much about. Besides wanting to understand why he compulsively sprinkled his work with variously mutated clones of himself, I have some questions that are silly: Did he really come across a survivor who penned Holocaust-themed porn, as related in Patrimony? Some are idiosyncratic: Why did a pregnant Maria Zuckerman disappear from his story world forever (does this have anything to do with the fact that an alleged model for Maria, Janet Hobhouse, died in 1991)? Some make me scratch my head: What exactly is the 1990 book, Deception, that purports to be a novel? Some leave me speechless: What on earth was going on with Notes for My Biographer, a book by Philip Roth (?) that appeared and disappeared from, followed by a swell of denials from author’s agent and publishing house alike that it ever existed (see Derek Parker Royal’s excellent account of the mayhem)? Some require consultation with the CIA: Was Roth actually conscripted by the Mossad to gather intelligence on anti-Zionist Jewish activists, as he claims (and then unclaims) in Operation Shylock?

Other unknowns drag me to the left-hand pole of the life-art continuum: Was Roth’s portrayal of Eva Frame, the shrieking, self-hating Jewess in I Married a Communist, some sort of literary revenge killing? Was it payback for his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s unflattering remarks about him in Leaving a Doll’s House and elsewhere? Among other allegations, she accused her former husband of "perpetrating a virtually incestuous betrayal." The actress alleged that Roth made sexual advances toward her surrogate daughter, her own daughter’s friend.

The issues that intrigue me most concern the nexus between narrative forms and ideas that obsessively recur in his fiction. Roth once referred to a novelist’s "obsessional theme." An author, he remarked, "lays siege to it time and again because … [it] is the one he least understands—he knows it so well that he knows how little he knows." I have noticed four or five major obsessional themes in his work that have not been canvassed by scholars. I restrain myself here to just one: incest.

In his texts, this obsession might begin—I can only speculate—where so many of Roth’s obsessions begin: his first wife, whom he once dubbed a "specialist par excellence in the aesthetics of extremist fiction." Comparing (rather unecumenically) his proper Jewish family with her dysfunctional gentile one, Roth alludes in The Facts to "a half-realized attempt at childhood seduction" which she endured at the hands of a family member.

This reported fact was fictionally supersized years earlier in My Life as a Man—a text strewn with victims of sexual violence. Zuckerman’s wife, Lydia, is molested, at age 12, by her father. He subsequently disappears, though a certain Cousin Bob later exposes himself to her in an art museum. "If you ever lay a finger on my daughter," Lydia screams at Zuckerman, "I’ll drive a knife into your heart!" (Roth later claimed that Maggie voiced a similar threat to him with regard to her daughter, Holly).

Lydia’s eventual suicide permits some lurid plot developments, one of which is foreshadowed in Zuckerman’s description of her daughter, Monica: "a lanky ten-year-old already budding breasts more enticing than her [Lydia’s] own." By story’s end a shame-faced Zuckerman runs away to Italy with the lover he calls Moonie, now age 16. In the same book (but in a different story) we learn that Peter Tarnopol’s wife, Maureen, was sexually abused by her first husband and his friend. A confidante later reveals to (a skeptical) Tarnopol that Maureen was "forced" by her father.

Some of Roth’s most memorable heroines are incest victims. In The Human Stain, Faunia Farley is said to have been molested by her step­father. In American Pastoral, Zuckerman tries to imagine what caused the fall of his childhood hero, Swede Levov (whom he always gets wrong). In the fiction within a fiction that emerges, incest is the original sin that causes the collapse of the House of Levov. Readers of the following passage may cringe at the description of Swede’s 11-year-old daughter, Merry, who drew the sexual abuse upon herself: Levov "lost his vaunted sense of proportion, drew her to him with one arm, and kissed her stammering mouth with the passion that she had been asking him for all month long while knowing only obscurely what she was asking for."

In Roth Unbound, Pierpont reminds us that Maggie’s daughter was so outspoken about the Vietnam War that she was known as "Hanoi Holly." She draws a connection between the latter and Swede’s daughter, Merry—a radical whose antiwar activism leads her to domestic terrorism. If this is indeed the case, then it means that Roth may twice have used Maggie’s daughter as inspiration for a character subjected to incest (Moonie of My Life as a Man and Merry of American Pastoral).

Zuckerman’s valedictory in Exit Ghost bolsters his contention that we always get people wrong. The onetime champion of unfettered artistic expression (see TheGhost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson) is now trying to suppress the publication of a manuscript. Who would have ever imagined Zuckerman capable of that? Huffing about New York City in adult diapers, the frail author endeavors to censor a forthcoming biography that contains revelations about his deceased literary idol. These would include the discovery that he had had sexual relations with his half-sister.

Amid all of that taboo, Zuckerman has a dream:

"Ma, can you do me a favor?" She laughs at my naïveté. "Sweetheart, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you. What is it, darling?" she asks. "Can we have incest?" "Oh, Nathan," she says, laughing again, "I’m a rotting old corpse. I’m in the grave." "Still, I’d like to commit incest with you. You’re my mother. My only mother." "Whatever you want, darling."

When I asked Debra Shostak about this exceedingly peculiar passage she responded that "perhaps the most disturbing taboo of all inescapably draws the taboo-breaking author, who thrills at shaking up the fiction and the reader." By the same token, she calls attention to the "remarkable innocence with which Zuckerman dreams of seducing his mother."

A traditional scholarly approach to Roth’s obsessional theme would cleave the fiction from the fictionalist. Thus, we might interpret the fixation with incest as a self-reflexive jab. Perhaps this is the author’s wry comment on his autobiographical style that brutally violates the trust of family members. Or maybe Roth is just being faithful to the truism that incest is a grand and grim theme of human existence requiring the artist’s scrutiny.

Of course, it would be most helpful were someone to ask the author himself why the subject intrigues him so. My antagonist might riposte that it is untoward to interrogate a novelist as such. Yet it is Roth, and no one else, who hurls his life and his art at each other in that Superconducting Super Collider that is his fiction.

Perhaps I should have proposed a different imaginary toast at the Roth conference: "Come, let us genetically modify literary criticism!" With regard to Roth, we need to engineer a specialist capable of venturing into the contiguous realm of literary biography. Actually, we need a team of specialists. A few working on the Zuckermans. Some scrutinizing the various Philips. Others learning about Maggie Roth and her family. Their labor will rage against the sentence of always getting him wrong.

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His most recent book is How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). He is also a book-review editor at the journal Philip Roth Studies.