The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, Philip Roth 1988

Roth, two years after his death at 85, remains one of America’s most important authors of the past century, and in this creative and superbly written work, he offers up a version of his life having reached the age of 55.  The subtitle is revelatory since this is not a standard autobiography.  Yes,there is the inevitable chronology of childhood, high school, college, early career, travel, women, wives, but with a twist that is classic Roth. The book begins with a letter to Nathan Zuckerman asking him if Roth should publish this work, and it ends with Zuckerman’s response.  Zuckerman is Roth’s greatest creation, a writer with characteristics remarkably reminiscent of Roth who is the main character in nine of his books from The Ghost Writer to Exit Ghost.  He serves as the ‘other voice’ in Facts as he serves as Roth’s alter ego and doppelganger in the novels.  Roth ostensibly writes this autobiography as an attempt to ‘set the record straight’ about the two accusations that dogged his writing career—misogyny and self-hating Jew.  But as Zuckerman points out, the author of an autobiography inevitably ends up picking and choosing what to include and what to leave out (as Dave Matthews famously sang/wrote) and allows the writer to ‘pull his punches’.  Roth cleverly uses Zuckerman to hint at where he has done both.  The writing is classic Roth—powerful and smooth, reminiscent of the feelings one has of riding the rapids of the Colorado in a zodiac—dangerous and exhilarating.  Zuckerman points out that Roth’s main purpose in writing the book and in all of his writings has been to struggle with his need for freedom from the constricted family and community of Jewish Newark in the 1940’s and from the women who his testosterone-driven desires have entangled him with.  The reader is left with the impression that writing this book has enabled Roth to achieve a greater understanding of these issues but also that they remained unresolved.  The lack of resolution was probably a relief to Roth since these issues were the driving force behind his creativity, misogyny and anti-Semitism as his muse.  Roth’s readers are often both exhilarated and angered by his books and The Facts is no exception.  A must read for anyone who loves his novels and wants to know more about the man, despite the fact the he remains a cipher even after reading this book.  Such a shame that he never won the Nobel Prize, at least as deserved as that other Jewish-American author of the 20th C, Saul Bellow.

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