Philip Roth Comes Clean, Autobiographically


roth-unboundIn 1993, when Philip Roth was promoting Operation Shylock, he consented to give interviews in an unprepossessing Simon & Schuster office. Interviewers were led to him for sessions strictly limited to 45 minutes.

I was one of the 45-minuters.

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Operation Shylock is the one where a character calling himself Philip Roth is making trouble around Israel for the real Philip Roth. It’s the volume Roth insisted was non-fiction, although most (all?) readers viewed it as fiction, including those at The New York Times, who put the “novel” on the fiction bestseller list and definitely not on the nonfiction one.

Me? I figured Roth’s stance was simply another stratagem in the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t game he’s played with his followers over the decades. I’d long since decided that whether or not he was writing novels that were more or less transmutations of his life-how many authors don’t do the very same thing?-he was surely getting a (perverse?) kick out of putting the autobiographical carrot in front of a reader’s nose and then pulling it away.

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As Roth once said or had written-maybe both-“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 isn’t.”

So at the interview I figured I was in a one-on-one position to participate in the pastime and asked if he was sticking to his Operation Shylock story-to the “true” story-he’d told. He said he was and lobbed a few disparaging comments about interviewers and others who continued to badger him on the tiresome subject.


I sympathized. Why wouldn’t I? I knew that even if a novelist is writing about what he or she knows, like his or her own life, it will most likely become fictionalized. Put it this way: Novelists either write to present an idealized-maybe only an enhanced-view of their world, or, at the other end of the spectrum, they write about their worst fears of what they could become.

I sympathized, but I didn’t say so to Roth. Instead, I continued the autobiography-or-not banter, and after not too much time got to Portnoy’s Complaint. I said that I had no idea whether Roth was writing about himself in that reputation-making tome, but it sure felt as if he were writing about me. (No need to elaborate on why I’d said so. Nor did I mention that I’d actually buttonholed him once or twice on Manhattan streets to thank him for his books. I was too aware I could have been one of the nuisances he’d drawn on for his Alvin Pepler character.)

When I’d uttered the writing-about-me remark, the tall, thin, five o’clock-shadowed Roth leaned forward with a triumphant laugh and said, “From now on when people ask whom I was writing about in Portnoy’s Complaint, I’ll say, ‘I was writing about Finkle!'”

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I recount the scene because Claudia Roth Pierpont has published Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books (Farrar Straus Giroux, 353pp., $27), in which Roth-with whom Pierpont has become friendly over the last decade-is far more forthcoming about the autobiographical nature of his work.

Not that he hasn’t offered thoughts about it previously, as, for instance, he did to Hermione Lee for a 1981 Paris Review exchange. In that interview he said:

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Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade. Think of the ventriloquist. He speaks so that his voice appears to proceed from someone at a distance from himself. But if he weren’t in your line of vision you’d get no pleasure from his art at all. His art consists of being present and absent; he’s most himself by simultaneously being someone else, neither of whom he “is” once the curtain is down. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it-all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life.

But while he may have been generous about his life and work before, Pierpont’s critography is as good as anyone is likely to obtain now or later about Roth’s whys and wherefores. And she’s careful not to commit a hagiography. While she’s not one of the women who dismiss Roth for his perceived misogyny-far from it-she does point out books she likes less than others. She’s tough on The Professor of Desire (which I found absolutely absorbing), glowing on Sabbath’s Theater (which I found overcooked) and tends to regard the American Pastoral/I Married a Communist/The Human Stain trilogy has few equals in late 20th-century American literature (on that we agree).

One thing she accepts without question is that the 80-year-old Roth means it when he says he’s written his last novel (Nemesis-a strong one, too). And that’s something I don’t believe. I find it hard to accept that exhausted as he may be from the compulsive demands he’s made on himself for 55 or more years, he won’t be captivated by another mental image or thought he’ll feel compelled to develop into another of his long or short works.

I say I can’t believe it-or is it that I don’t want to believe it? Roth, you see, is that writer who represents, for me, what so many of us readers want: the author who, if not writing about us, seems at the very least (and very most) to be writing exclusively for us.

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Roth also told Lee:

What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book-if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them.

Where Roth is concerned, I haven’t returned. I don’t want to. With a favorite author, who does?

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