The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography by Philip Roth - review by Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming

Do We Really Need to Know?

The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography


Jonathan Cape 208pp £12.95 order from our bookshop

Of all the many and wretched women processed through these pages, the luckiest is surely Mildred Martin, who supervised Roth in ‘independent reading’ at Bucknell University. She admired him and has obligingly supplied diary entries as testimony to the boy’s genius in discussing Yeats. She also remained resistant to Roth’s hubris, self-preoccupation and, presumably, his sexual attentions. It is even possible that she has escaped having her name changed here – every other victim goes by a pseudonym, less the protection of a sensitive writer, one feels, than the final turn of the screw in the manipulation game.

This is a miserable and frequently distasteful collection of facts: tales of attaining manhood, repression and chain-breaking stunts, of betrayal and mutability. A nervous breakdown, intimations of mortality and the need for ‘demythologising to induce depathologising’ are among Roth’s motivations in recording the facts which, as he says, no-one ever asked for. These motivations are the purest and the most moving facts in the book. Everything else is subject to Roth’s gamesmanship.

The Facts is addressed as a letter to Nathan Zuckerman, whose response by return of post comes along so predictably that one might wave to it in the distance. Roth is asking his creation whether he should publish the book, Zuckerman is in cracking form as an acerbic critic, appalled by the idea. Zuckerman is generously permitted to be the better writer of the two, and the sharper, rather tending to the idea that fiction is more engaging than fact at the best of times. Jokes about facts, autobiography, lies, fiction and issues relating to the naked and the dead are all pre-detonated in the book, and Zuckerman fields as Roth bats. Each covers for himself and for the other in anticipation of possible criticism. Thus one is left uncomfortably with the facts themselves as the main action in the game.

The facts are treated in a matter-of-fact manner. Philip Roth was brought up in Newark, the son of much-loved and much-loving parents. The ‘Americanisation’ of the Jewish community in which he lived is the strongest narrative of his early life, and is considerably more intriguing than his tales of football and the Weequahie High. Like most adolescents, he hopes to leave home, and is rather impressed with tales of the opposite sex. Eventually escaping to Bucknell, he encounters great dilemmas about which fraternity to Join, whether the Jewish Sigma Alpha Mu or the non-denominational Phi Lambda Theta. This question involves almost as many facts as his editorship of the magazine Et Cetera in which, after several carefully described issues, he manages ‘to reveal a flash of talent for comic destruction’ which gets him into Bucknell’s hottest water. A fawning biography could hardly contain the extent of banal detail which this and his other japes inspire in Roth during this account of his first thirty-six years. Even the assistant director of admissions, ‘a courteous middle-aged woman whose name I have now forgotten’ gets a mention simply because she existed in relation to Roth. Little of this matter is pertinent to the tale, and it rarely knits up usefully in the narrative.

A mention in despatches is quite an achievement for the nameless administrator, nonetheless, since few are granted more. Roth’s first girlfriend Paula is defined as a sophisticate because she ‘chainsmoked and drank martinis’. Perhaps it is the inconvenience of the period, the need for back-scat couplings and concealment which distracts Roth from her character, or perhaps the memories have evaporated (although he never forgets his own tricks), but ‘the most sophisticated undergraduate couple at Bucknell’ remains only what that predication states. After a long affair, a possible pregnancy and a good deal of sophistication, Roth ‘wants to be free from the exclusivity of monogamous love’, hardens his heart and accepts a graduate place from Chicago. Here is Paula’s obituary:

‘Paula Lindquist became Professor of French at New York University. She was forty seven when she died of cancer in 1979, only a few months after I had been back to Bucknell to receive an honorary degree.’

Remembering that she regularly had to clamber through Roth’s windows, here is her epitaph:

‘It could never have been easy, in any way, getting in and out of them.’

What you might call hard lines.

The next woman, Josie, really bursts the poison sac in Roth. The facts about her are scattered through the rest of the book. The daughter of an alcoholic whose doomed marriage and abandoned children, Roth muses, would have seemed to his Jewish forbears ‘par for the course’ in gentiles, seems like ‘the most fearsome female that a boy of my background might be unfortunate enough to meet on the erotic battlefield’. Josie sadly never had the advantages of that amour manquée, Gayle Milman, the Jewish girl who got away. ‘Could Josie have been … permitted to press her nose up against the glass of the picture windows of the Milmans’ large suburban house, she might have stood there weeping with envy and wishing with all her heart to have been transformed into Gayle.’ Perhaps the guard dogs prevented it. Much to Roth’s irritation, which one would not dare to fathom, Josie becomes Jewish.

Equally annoyingly, after a pregnancy terminated with what Roth calls ‘the scraping’, Josie receives the counsel of a Rabbi in the clinic because she signs herself as Jewish. Later she marries him after faking a pregnancy test – outraging Roth into outbursts of fiction. Zuckerman retorts ‘Everything you are, you owe to an alcoholic shiksa’. He, of course, can get away with this. Years later, when Josie has been killed in a car crash, releasing Roth from the shackles of financial support – ‘That was the first tangible result of my no longer being married to her, I could take a taxi to the funeral home to bury her’ – he points out that the only experience worse than writing about the relationship ‘would have been for me to have endured that marriage without afterward having been able to find ways of reimagining it into fiction with a persuasive existence independent of myself’.

Josie is succeeded by May, and again the ‘anthropological dimension’ of the affair is pertinent to Roth, whose sense of tribal difference is so acute – fortunate in the fiction, less so here – that even a visit to a tart involves the detail of her nationality. While the passage of politics and the trappings of the writer’s life in the shape of agents, contracts and publishers, editors and fellow writers get punctilious attention, it is difficult to sec that the facts of this autobiography aren’t more often a parade of the facts of life on a grand scale. This is a novelist’s autobiography, of course, and the incidents arc frequently annotated as a concordance to the novels. This bit of life becomes that bit of fiction, and Zuckerman blesses it all with his practical criticism, and his fraternal advice. Apart from the wit and intelligence of Zuckerman’s riposte, he also asks critical questions of an unquestioning narrative, such as how close the narration may be to the truth, how much censored, in short how much fiction? He also wonders why so little of the man’s inner turmoil is included:

‘Come on, what did you and the doctor talk about for seven years – the camaraderie up at the playground among all you harmless little Jewish boys’

Alarmingly, Zuckerman appears to think that the punters will be vastly disappointed, that ‘the bad boy is going to be perceived as good, and you will be given the kindliest reception. Well maybe that’ll convince you better than I ever could to go back to being bad. This is the post-Counterlife Zuckerman speaking, too. Roth is considerably less outrageous here than his fictional self-personifications, but apart from the moving filial affection of the opening pages, he can’t possibly be chastised for presenting himself as good or pleasant in any way.

Like Chuck Berry’s egregious autobiography, The Facts might well have had chapters titled ‘Maybellene’, ‘Marybeth’ and so forth, for all its sense of organic development or its respect for women. It is quite unfair that any writer should be forced to add another word to the autonomous works he has produced after prolonged creative effort, and Roth has been scrupulous in letting his great works speak for themselves. It would also be naive to hope that the author of a superb novel such as The Ghost Writer would be admirable in his plain clothes, but then as Roth says, ‘Nor was there any call for this book, no one sent down for an autobiography from Roth.’ Honesty is legendary as the best policy, but perhaps it could have waited for the call.

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