Though Moby Dick (1851) begins with the words “Call me Ishmael,” only the most naïve reader would call Herman Melville by that name. A first-person narrator is as fictional—and nonfictional—as any other character that authors insert into their creations. Erica Jong’s first novel, Fear of Flying (1974), is the bawdy story of a randy young woman named Isadora Wing who happened to have much in common with her inventor. Its sequel, How to Save Your Own Life (1977), portrays Isadora agonizing over the fact that almost everyone assumes that her first novel, Candida Confesses, is an exact transcription of her own life. Is How to Save Your Own Life an exact transcription of Jong’s anguish over the public’s failure to distinguish between exact transcription and fiction?
Throughout a productive career, Philip Roth, too, has seemed to be drawing more directly than most other novelists on the circumstances of his own life. His recurring characters Peter Tarnopol and Nathan Zuckerman are akin to each other and to their creator in being prominent American Jewish authors. Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a scathing satire of the American Jewish middle class, was denounced from synagogue pulpits for allegedly telling secrets out of court. His most notorious novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), an epic of onanism, inspired Jacqueline Susann to declare: “Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.”
Rich, infamous, and miserable, Roth reacted to the scandal of Portnoy’s Complaint by writing Zuckerman Unbound (1981), in which Zuckerman is made rich, infamous, and miserable by publishing Carnovsky, a novel vilified for “depicting Jews in acts of adultery, exhibitionism, masturbation, sodomy, fetishism, and whoremongery.” The hapless Zuckerman is given the first and last words in The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. It is as much a meditation on the nature and limitations of autobiography as it is a candid account of the elusive writer’s life.
What induced Roth, who has guarded his privacy somewhat less than J. D. Salinger but much more than Norman Mailer, to abandon the masks of fiction and provide what he coyly calls “the facts”—as though the Muse were no longer Calliope but Sergeant Joe Friday? On the dust jacket of The Facts is a 1950 photograph of Roth’s senior homeroom class at Weequahic High School in Newark. The future author gazes into the camera with a cherubic smile, the kind of boy of whom teachers and parents were justly proud. Yet one notes that, in the group portrait, he is standing slightly to the side of the others, as though already committed to Emily Dickinson’s ambition to “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.”
In his 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction,” Roth bemoaned the imagination’s inability to rival the grotesque reality of contemporary American life. Why invent when the world already offers up events and characters that exceed the powers of fantasy? Roth’s fictions have been a slanted tribute and challenge to that world. His new autobiography is a carefully constructed demonstration of how difficult it is not to shape “the Facts.”
Despite its subtitle, The Facts does not attempt a complete chronology of the novelist’s works and days. Instead, it is a series of five retrospective sketches, each connected to a crucial stage in the growth of a prominent American Jewish author. Roth begins with an account of his stable childhood in a lower-middle-class Newark neighborhood where almost everyone was Jewish and his principal interest was baseball. His father, a sedulous insurance salesman denied advancement because of his company’s gentlemanly anti-Semitism, is presented more sympathetically than the fathers in any of Roth’s fictions. The next chapter, “Joe College,” is a memoir of initiation into a very different environment, the rural, goyish campus of Bucknell University, where he began to cultivate literary and amorous interests. The section’s climax comes with Roth’s perverse decision to break with his girlfriend Polly Bates, because their relationship seemed idyllic.
At the physical and emotional center of the book is Roth’s version of a disastrous marriage to the woman he pseudonymously calls Josie, though her real name—Margaret Martinson Williams—is public knowledge. A bibulous divorcée with two abandoned children, “this wretched small-town gentile paranoid” represented a denial of everything a “nice Jewish boy” was reared to respect. Yet, for all the turbulence...
(The entire section is 1917 words.)