BOOKS

Intimate affairs

Philip Roth mixes truth and fiction

Brian D. Johnson April 30 1990
BOOKS

Intimate affairs

Philip Roth mixes truth and fiction

Brian D. Johnson April 30 1990

Intimate affairs

BOOKS

Philip Roth mixes truth and fiction

Sex sells. That would explain the dust jacket of Philip Roth’s new novel, Deception, which features a picture of a man’s hand curled around the naked flank of a woman in bed. It would also explain the blurb, which describes the book as “Roth’s most provocative novel about the erotic life since Portnoy’s Complaint." That work was published two decades ago, and Roth, now 57, has written another 13 novels since. But, for many readers, his name is still synonymous with Portnoy, the book with all those indelible images of the boy who could not stop masturbating.

Roth’s characters are grown-up now. They no longer lock themselves in the bathroom. But, with their love affairs and lies, they are still playing games of sexual hide-and-seek. Roth’s new novel is about adultery, in a manner of speaking. True to its title, Deception is deceiving. Despite the erotic hard sell of the dust jacket, there are no graphic descriptions of sex—or of anything else. The novel is pure dialogue, without a phrase of exposition or attribution, without a single “he said” or “she said”—just bare-naked talk.

Deception distills a number of Roth’s favorite obsessions. It ponders the dilemmas of being male, being Jewish and being a writer. And, like his previous novel, The Counterlife (1986), the narrative hinges on a riddle about autobiography and fiction. With the possible exception of John Updike, Roth has plumbed the male psyche more thoroughly than any American novelist of his generation. It can become tedious— he sometimes writes as if he is stuck in a bad marriage with his own legacy. But, in Deception, he breaks fresh ground, at least stylistically. “You see Roth as a musician in this book,” Updike, a friend of Roth’s, told Maclean ’s last week. “It’s tempting to see his work as variations on what seem to some people not enough themes. But you have to admire the way he sticks to his themes and, like Bach, does one more turn through his obsessions.”

Roth’s new book marks a departure in several ways. With Deception, he made a controversial move to a new publisher and received the largest contract of his career: $2.1 million for a three-book deal. Abandoning the literary house of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Roth moved to the more commercial firm of Simon and Schuster. Recently, the chief executives of the two companies have been sniping at each other like combatants in a custody battle. His former publisher, Roger Straus, predicted that Simon and Schuster will lose more than $1 million on Roth. It printed 100,000 copies of Deception,

although none of Roth’s recent novels has sold even half that number. Simon and Schuster’s Richard Snyde called Straus “a bad loser.” During a recent interview with Maclean’s, Roth seemed merely amused by the issue of his commercial potential. He said that his new publisher “tried to put as much distance as he could between my old dust jackets and the new one. I said, ‘Go ahead, do what you want to do and see what happens.’ ” Sitting in a lavish comer office high above midtown Manhattan, a Simon and Schuster executive roost borrowed for the interview, the novelist wore a tweed jacket and grey flannels, with a blue buttondown shirt and a dark paisley tie. He talked about his life, his writing and the blurred

boundary between them. “You get tired of your own voice, tired of your own sentences,” he said. “This book is a momentary escape from all kinds of narrative building blocks that I have been playing with for a long time. It is primarily about two people in hiding. They have a sexual life, but the rest of their life is only talk—talking and listening are almost erotic activities.”

Most of Deception consists of precoital and postcoital conversations between adulterous lovers: an unnamed literary Englishwoman and

a Jewish-American novelist named Philip, who is living in London. Roth, too, is a JewishAmerican novelist who has lived in London, but he insists that Deception is fiction, not autobiography. The novel’s protagonist offers the same argument to his shocked wife after she discovers a notebook recording his conversations with his mistress. He tells her that he made the whole thing up, that she has been taken in by a trick of literary ventriloquism. “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography,” says the fictional Philip. “I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction.”

Deception offers teasing glimpses through the keyhole that connects the two, but Roth is impatient when critics start fumbling for a

skeleton key. It has been suggested that novelist Janet Hobhouse may be a model for Philip’s mistress in Deception. Like the character, Hobhouse is a British writer who fell victim to cancer. And she once lived in an apartment upstairs from him, just as the narrator’s lover lived upstairs from him in Roth’s previous novel The Counterlife. Asked if Hobhouse was indeed a model, Roth grabbed a copy of The New York Times, scanned the front page and picked a woman’s name at random: “Sarah Lyall. Suppose I say to you it’s Sarah Lyall. Once you know that, what do you know? All you know is gossip, which is to know nothing. It’s a silly game.”

But Roth’s peekaboo narrative provokes curiosity. And he admits that he is “ruthless” in exploiting personal intimacy and betraying confidences for the sake of a good story. “Anybody who enters a writer’s life intimately knows that we play for keeps,” he said. “It’s a kind of gangsterism. I don’t know why anybody has anything to do with me—I wouldn’t.” Laughing, Roth added, “Really, I should have a big sign that says ‘Beware— vicious writer.’ ”

Willing to take her chances, British actress Claire Bloom, 59, has lived with Roth for the past 15 years. They share a farmhouse in Connecticut.

Their relationship has had its rocky moments, he admits, but not because of any indiscretions that he has committed on the page. “Claire’s in the same business,” he said. “Writing is my acting—it’s very much a kind of performance. You go into a room apart from other people and concentrate. You release inhibitions—and relinquish a sense of consequence.”

Added Roth: “You are both the performer and the audience, rather like a child playing by himself.”

The son of a life insurance salesman and his wife, Roth was raised in Newark, N.J. As he later wrote in his 1988 memoir, Fads: A Novelist’s Autobiography, he tried to fulfil “the mythological role of a Jewish boy growing up in a family like mine—to become the hero one’s father failed to be.” After starting a career as a university teacher, he won the National Book Award for his first book of stories, which featured a novella titled Goodbye, Columbus (1959). After Letting Go (1962), a belabored first novel about Jewish intellectuals, and My Life as a Man (1974), the thinly veiled story of his disastrous marriage to Margaret Martinson, which ended with her death in 1968, the profane candor and wit of Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth famous in 1969.

In the 1970s, Roth attempted more fanciful works, including The Breast (1972), the comic tale of a man who turns into a giant mammary gland. But, during the past decade, Roth has devoted himself to an increasingly self-absorbed style of personal realism. A trilogy of novels, collected as Zuckerman Bound in 1985, features a character named Nathan Zuckerman, a novelist famous for writing a

profane best-seller. Zuckerman resurfaced in The Counterlife and underwent a quintuple bypass operation — eerily foreshadowing Roth’s own quintuple bypass last summer. “This was rather uncanny,” recalled Roth. “I thought, ‘Not bad, what do you do next?’ Claire said, ‘Just don’t become a breast.’ ”

Roth’s fiction is more typically fixated on the male organ—from the candid confessions of masturbation in Portnoy to the passionate defence of circumcision that concludes The Counterlife. Indeed, his work contains some of the most introspective discourse about male sexuality that American literature has to offer.

With Deception, Roth’s duet in adultery, he finally gives equal time to a female character— making her at least as authentic and sympathetic as the man. But the novel’s viewpoint remains stubbornly male. In one amusing

stretch of playacting, the mistress interrogates Philip in a mock trial, asking him, “Can you explain to the court why you hate women?” Roth said that the scene grew out of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a future state that enslaves women. Roth simply reversed the premise. “It was a tiny inspiration,” he added, “but I enjoyed it enormously—imagining a feminist dystopia, a hard-nosed feminist state.”

Roth clearly has a keen sense of politics that goes beyond gender and Jewishness. Taking a number of trips to Prague in the early 1970s, he played an active role in helping to publish Eastern Europe’s dissident writers. But the world’s political landscape remains largely absent from his own fiction. And when The Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe attacked American novelists for abandoning social realism in his now-notorious Harper’s

magazine essay last November, he singled out Roth. Citing an early essay by Roth, Wolfe wrote that it taught “a generation of serious young writers... that it was time to avert their eyes.” Roth says that he was misquoted. “Tom is not a good reader,” he said. “I ran into him on the street about a month ago and took him for a cup of coffee to straighten him out.” Referring to Wolfe’s affection for impeccable white suits, Roth added, “We were both amused by each other’s clothes—we were worlds apart.”

Roth’s writing agenda seems increasingly personal. He has just completed Patrimony, an autobiographical memoir about his father that is scheduled for publication next year. Meanwhile, he says that he is grappling with the beginnings of a new novel. “Whenever I finish a book, I’m absolutely empty,” he said. “I don’t know what the hell to write about. But, after a while, something starts to cook. And it’s often an argument with your previous book—you try to undo it.”

Constantly quarrelling with his characters— and himself—Roth appears to thrive on ambivalence. In Deception, he writes about “the terrible ambiguity of the ‘I,’ the way a writer makes a myth of himself.” Tearing down the myth and building it up, Roth keeps improvising new variations. And as he redraws the line between truth and fiction, the object of the game, like an imaginary mistress, remains elusive.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON