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The Life of Philip Roth, or, Zuckerman's Complaint : THE FACTS A Novelist's Autobiography by Philip Roth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 195 pp.)

September 11, 1988|Ralph Baumgarten | Ralph Baumgarten is a licentious poet and teacher of literature in Philip Roth's novel, "The Professor of Desire." As "Murray Baumgarten," he is the author of "City Scriptures: Modern Jewish Writing" (Harvard University Press) and the forthcoming "Understanding Philip Roth" (University of South Carolina Press)

Dear Roth: I like having Zuckerman, the fictional figure you've nurtured for more than a decade, turn up in your autobiography. How sly to play the old tune of the charming, self-effacing young (old?) Jewish writer--yourself, in the prologue--writing Zuckerman a letter, asking for his advice, relying on his candor.

Not that it will fool anybody. Beginning your account of "the facts" by writing to him and asking what he thinks of this as your effort at self-exposure is a terrific way to let us all know this is not your adieu to fiction. It's like reading an old manuscript in which the signature was written in reappearing ink: Now you don't see it, now you do. As a writer I'm envious of the ploy.

Zuckerman, of course, falls for it. Did you think he wouldn't kvetch at your abandoning him? You're quite right when you tell him on Page 10 that never before have you worked without having the imagination fired up by a Portnoy or Tarnopol or Zuckerman. That's what's powerful and original here. But then you let him get away with telling you how mistaken you are, how much you need him after all, and things get a bit sticky. Please, Roth, I'm telling you this for your own good.

When Zuckerman begins his letter with "the candor you asked for," I knew he would tell you not to do it. "Don't publish," he says. "You are far better off writing about me than 'accurately' reporting your own life." I ask you in all honesty, didn't you know that's what he would say? So long as he can persuade you that you've left out that devilish "imagination" that gave Zuckerman license to cavort through two states and three countries, you will just go on being his servant. Truthfully, can you say you don't see through him when he brings in his English wife, in her eighth month of pregnancy, with her cheeky list of objections to your autobiography? "Nothing is random," she complains. "Nothing that happens to him has no point. Nothing that he says happens to him in his life does not get turned into something that is useful to him. Things that appear to have been pointlessly destructive and poisoning, things that look at the time to have been wasteful and appalling and spoiling, are the things that turn out to be, say, the writing of 'Portnoy's Complaint.' "

That Maria doesn't fool me. The exchange between the two of them on 188 is a tip-off:

" 'Uh-oh,' she said, 'still on that Jewish stuff, isn't he? Doesn't bode well, does it?'

" 'For us? Doesn't mean anything either way.'

" 'Why,' she asked, 'do you have to say everything twice.'

" 'Do I?'

" 'Yes.'

" 'When you want someone to do something, you say everything twice. Obviously you are used to being disobeyed.' "

As if she didn't know how easy it is to get a Jew interested in a good quarrel. She's baiting him, and she's baiting you. It's just like the Arabs and the Israelis; they don't want to be bored with their borders the way the Americans and the Canadians are. Zuckerman pronounces that you're "not an autobiographer, you're a personificator." More Jew-baiting! And all those high-minded moral distinctions between the ethical motive of autobiography and the esthetic motive of fiction. I hear Yiddish theater is making a comeback on Second Avenue. Let me recommend Nathan and Maria. Take my friends the Zuckermans, please!

Don't you say that "the facts" come from a different medium? For a change you're not projecting all those cultural problems onto characters. What a relief! It's about time you admitted how skeptical you are about the possibility that characters exist. I know all your work has been devoted to wondering whether there are any after all, while puncturing the relentless American belief in character. So it's a pleasure to read this interview you've conducted with yourself.

I enjoy following Philip Roth the artist-to-be progressing from life in the family, through schooling in college and postgraduate degrees, to the discovery of his role as a writer, lover, husband and intellectual. In this pattern, the increase of knowledge and experience leads to the embrace not of harmonious wisdom but of a polemic stance: In growing up and responding to the demands of the various institutions he must deal with, he progressively extricates himself from all of them. He repudiates the entanglements of all institutions and conventional habits. Increasingly, he confronts the blunt facts of life directly, calling their disguises to our attention as a way of discrediting their ideological power.

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