Facts Schmacts

John Sutherland

  • The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography by Philip Roth
    Cape, 328 pp, £12.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 224 02593 7

Authors can be terrible liars, and never more so than when they are in the autobiographical vein. Like salesmen, they are at their most dangerous when most sincere. Roth’s publishers trumpet The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography as the facts, a novelist’s autobiography – ‘Roth and his battles, defictionalised and unadorned’. It’s the more suspicious since Roth’s previous writings have played ducks and drakes with factuality and fictionality. He specialises in ‘I’ narration, with its easy slippage into straight authorial address. He has used his childhood in Weequahic so often that even though I have never been to Newark NJ, I feel I know its pre-war streets as well as I know the Bull at Ambridge. The funniest thing Roth has written by way of explication of his fiction is that ‘the personal element is there’ – an understatement that ranks with ‘I may be gone for some time.’

Roth’s titles have often teased with implied offers of frank confession: Reading Myself and Others. The Ghost Writer, ‘My True Story’, etc. In the preface to the last Peter Tarnopol solemnly announced that something truer than true was on its way: ‘Presently Mr Tarnopol is preparing to forsake fiction for a while and embark upon an autobiographical narrative, an endeavour which he approaches warily, uncertain as to both its advisability and usefulness.’ Assuming that Tarnopol, creator of Zuckerman, speaks for Roth, creator of Tarnopol and Zuckerman, it would seem that the wariness of 1974 has finally been overcome.

Deciding to write an autobiography is one thing; doing it something else. It is one of Roth’s provocative tags that the writer cannot know his past, he can only recount. Correspondingly, the primary question is not what is truth, but how do we tell the truth? What does it mean to come clean, tell it as it is, let go? Probably Portnoy’s Complaint is Roth’s most persuasive answer. You tell the truth when you kvetch – when you whine – and you tell the truth when you are privately closeted with your analyst. All the rest is evasion and false consciousness. By his own confession (cunningly loaded as the word is in Roth’s mouth), it was marital rage and psychoanalysis in the mid-Sixties which enabled him to make the liberating break into truth-telling.

The Facts is no kvetch. If anything it’s surprisingly (suspiciously) mellow. Especially in the early sections, it recalls Woody Allen’s over-tenderised Radio Days. And it is certainly not a transcript of what goes on between Roth and his therapist. It is the least bannable of any book he has written. No organisation of rabbis, league of Jewish mothers or Southern Baptist preacher will protest this publication. Anyone wanting to know if Roth himself actually did that awful thing described in the ‘Salad Days’ section of My Life as a Man to a young lady under the ping-pong table, yelping ‘good shot’ and ‘nice return’ to allay her parents next door, will be disappointed. The Facts contains not a single lavatorial or sex scene. No family liver is profaned.

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