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.

Roth, being Roth, cannot keep the facts he does tell entirely straight. Framing the (strangely brief) autobiography is an exchange with Nathan Zuckerman – the hero and sometimes the narrator of the Eighties trilogy. Roth’s letter requesting his alter ego’s imprimatur forms a preface to The Facts. Roth explains how he came to write it. Its quest for ‘original prefictionalised factuality’ grew out of certain ‘necessities’. These were in turn the consequence of a ‘crack-up’ which the author suffered in the spring of 1987. Tantalisingly, Roth won’t elaborate (‘there’s no need to delve into particulars here’ – why not?). As part of a general nausea, he emerged sick of ‘fictionalising’ Roth. If this manuscript ‘conveys anything, it’s my exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions and lies’. The Counterlife (1987) finished in a riot of fictional artifice with characters arbitrarily dying and coming to different (‘counter’) life and finally defecting from the novel in disgust at what the author was doing to them. ‘I’m leaving you and I’m leaving the book,’ the heroine tells the narrator in a farewell note, ‘and I’m taking Phoebe away before anything dreadful happens to her.’ After this excess the author was evidently surfeited. ‘Did literature do this to me?’ David Kapesh asks when he wakes to find himself in a gigantic breast. It did and it has done awesome things to Roth. Hungover, he yearns for the equivalent of decaffeinated coffee, literature purged of everything literary.

Stylistic nakedness is one imperative. As a postscript to his preface, Roth touches on another ‘necessity’ – his mother’s death in 1981 and his father’s great age (86) and fragility. The autobiography opens not with the hero’s birth but with a vivid recollection of Herman Roth’s near-fatal attack of peritonitis in late October 1944 when Philip was ten. He was saved by sulfa powder, newly developed during the early years of the war to treat battle-front wounds. But it was a very close thing and the revealed mortality of his father during the height of his Oedipal conflict affected Roth deeply. The narrative skips forty years to Herman at death’s door – but this time with no wonder drug to come to his rescue: ‘now, when he is no longer the biggest man I have to contend with – and when I am not that far from being an old man myself – I am able to laugh at his jokes and hold his hand and concern myself with his well-being, I’m able to love him the way I wanted to when I was sixteen, seventeen and eighteen but when, what with dealing with him and feeling at odds with him, it was simply an impossibility.’

Using a bleak and economical English, Roth goes back past those adolescent years to describe a Newark childhood in which the real enemies were not Germans or Japs but ‘the Americans who opposed or resisted us – or condescended to us or rigorously excluded us – because we were Jews’. That shoulder-to-shoulder use of ‘us’ and ‘we’ sounds strange from an author who has been accused of writing for Dr Goebbels. Roth – the alleged Jewish anti-semite – seems to have changed his spots. The tone of The Facts is dutiful and piously filial. Portraits are correspondingly respectful. His father, it emerges, was never the constipated nudnik of Portnoy. Neither did he disown Philip’s writing and die in rage at its offences to patriarchal Judaism. Herman Roth was the loyalest and proudest father an author could have. Although she figures only on the edge of The Facts, Roth’s mother was, as he describes her, a quiet, intelligent woman – ‘vigilant’ perhaps, but nothing like the vampiric and castrating Sophie Portnoy. His brother Sandy was and is nothing like Henry Zuckerman. And so on. The family facts are – unusually in Roth’s writing – extraordinarily touching and restrained.

The narrative touches briefly on Roth’s beloved baseball: beloved because it was, in the Forties, ‘a great nationalistic church from which nobody had ever seemed to suggest that Jews should ever be excluded’. This great nationalistic sport inspired Roth’s one formal attempt at the great American novel and – paradoxically – his most innocently comic piece of writing (‘Call me Smitty,’ it begins). According to The Facts, the only true fellowship Roth has known in his life was playing ball at school. Put another way, baseball was his purest experience of being American, not Jewish-American.

The bulk of The Facts is taken up with his college years, 1950-1958, at Rutgers, Bucknell and Chicago. Among other revelations is a recollection (which future biographers will seize on) of his early storytelling activities at 95 per cent gentile Bucknell College. As an undergraduate, Roth would regale his goy friends with robust imitations and salty routines from his native Jewish Newark community, delivered in stand-up comic manner. Meanwhile he was writing fey sub-Salingerian literary exercises in which ‘the Jew was nowhere to be seen.’ It would be a decade and a half before Roth satisfactorily worked out the tension in his storyteller’s art.

The Facts skates over the educational aspects of Roth’s ‘Joe College’ years and ignores altogether his time in the Army. The facts he principally engages with are those of his love life, and the meat of the book concerns three affairs with non-Jewish girls. The first was in 1954, when Roth fell in love with ‘Polly Bates’ (a pseudonym). Following various couplings in his lodgings made acutely uncomfortable by the prying of his landlady (an episode recalled in the early sections of When she was good), Polly found herself pregnant, as she thought. Roth faced the prospect of buckling down to marriage and giving up the writing nonsense. To his relief (though perhaps not – desire for children that never came runs through The Facts as a pathetic refrain), Polly turned out not to be in the club, after all. It was the end of the affair and Philip caddishly (as he now thinks) left her to go off to Chicago. Here in 1956 he met a divorcée with two children, ‘Josie Jensen’ (another pseudonym), working as a waitress. This led to the central emotional disaster of Roth’s life – something that reverberates through all his subsequent fiction. Like Polly, Josie put the frighteners on Roth with an unplanned pregnancy. The child was aborted (semi-legally). By this time, he had seen ‘the obvious strains’ of marriage and children among his contemporary writer friends and intended to avoid such enemies of promise. (Roth’s Miltonic sense of authorial destiny is something that emerges very clearly from The Facts.) He messily separated from, and then allowed himself to be again entrapped by, his shiksa-witch Josie. Again she played the pregnancy card – this time dishonestly. Roth was taken for a sucker. Setting the descriptions of Josie/Maureen’s ruse in My Life as a Man and The Facts side by side is instructive:

She went from my apartment to the drugstore by way of Tompkins Square Park, lately the hippy centre of the East Village, but back in the Fifties still a place for the neighbourhood poor to congregate and take the sun. There she approached a pregnant Negro woman pushing a baby carriage and told her she represented a scientific organisation willing to pay the woman for a sample of urine. Negotations ensued. Agreement reached, they retired to the hallway of a tenement building on Avenue B to complete the transaction. The pregnant woman pulled her underpants down to her knees, and squatting in a corner of the unsavoury hallway – still heaped with rubbish (just as Maureen had described it) when I paid an unsentimental visit to the scene of the crime upon my return only a few years later – delivered forth into Maureen’s preserve jar the stream that sealed my fate. Here Maureen forked over two dollars and twenty-five cents. She drove a hard bargain, my wife.

In The Facts we read:

The urine specimen that Josie submitted to the drugstore for the rabbit test was purchased for a couple of dollars from a pregnant black woman she’d inveigled one morning into a tenement hallway across from Tompkins Square Park. Only an hour early she’d left my apartment, ostensibly for the drugstore, with a bottle in her purse containing her own urine.

The facts are there in both versions. But the 1974 fictional text exuberates with a savage bitterness that rejoices in its own redundancy. The autobiographical version is, by contrast, burned-out and blurred at the edges. The sum of money – so telling a detail in the novel – is rounded down to ‘a couple of dollars’. Passion spent is not, on this evidence, as good for Roth’s writing as his anything but speechless rage.

Roth married Josie, although he didn’t have to. The marriage was short. In ‘My True Story’ it is also rendered as hideously violent, with battery taking over from sex as the most gratifying form of marital intercourse: The Facts corrects the fictional version. The marriage certainly went badly wrong, but homicide was not on the cards. And there seems to have been a silver lining. Roth credits his wife’s provocations with helping him make his all-important break from Henry James, noting, enigmatically: ‘It took time and it took blood.’ After the inevitable divorce in 1966, Roth was skewered on ever-mounting alimony payments ($125 a week in 1967) and taunted by Josie’s promise never to remarry and release him. He killed her (as Lucy) in When she was good (1967). She obligingly killed herself in a car accident in 1968. He felt very guilty and apparently still does. The Facts confronts this most painful of emotions with great honesty.

The last of Roth’s great loves was ‘May Aldridge’. Since she is presumably still alive, the portrait is shadowy. Roth dwells on her money and good breeding, as if to make the point that the son of the insurance salesman from Newark has done rather well for him self. May was/is ‘a gentile woman at the other end of the American spectrum from Josie. She had been sent off to the best schools by a Cleveland paint-manufacturing family that had achieved enormous financial success, as well as the civic distinction and social prominence that once came automatically to American clans of British stock.’ This affair lasted five years. The Facts ends – prematurely – in September 1968 with Roth deciding never to tie himself down to a woman again: ‘I was determined to be an absolutely independent, self-sufficient man.’ Roth unbound.

Roth provides his own epilogue-review of The Facts in the form of a letter from Nathan Zuckerman. It begins: ‘I’ve read your manuscript twice’ (echoes of Irving Howe’s ‘the cruellest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice’). Zuckerman strongly advises against publication. Fact, Zuckerman notes, is not Roth’s strong suit. It makes him too nice! ‘Kind, discreet, careful – changing people’s names because you’re worried about hurting their feelings – no, this isn’t you at your most interesting.’ Fiction, Zuckerman instructs the novelist, might actually help him get behind the blank wall of fact: could it not be that Josie’s impossible behaviour had another cause than the sheer malicious lunacy he has recorded?

I think she was more of an alcoholic than she was a schizophrenic. Did that never occur to you? ... That urine trick, which still from your point of view looks pretty wicked, didn’t seem all that wicked from hers, you know. Not only do people lie when they’ve been drinking, but the distinction between fiction and reality is not always that clear to them.

Fiction would allow Roth to write from his dead wife’s point of view something like My Life as a Woman with That Man which would reach to a human truth beyond fact, and possibly to the same kind of tender understanding that he has achieved with his father. The way forward is back to the novel. He needs Zuckerman as indisputably as Zuckerman needs him. Roth, it seems, is bound once more on his wheel of fiction. But it would also be nice to have some further instalments of fact.