Re-reading Roth–with a guide to the players

Last February I wrote here about the pleasures of re-reading books, fiction and nonfiction, as a way of coping with the plague that kept us locked down and isolated.  I’m returning to one aspect of that theme today with a question:  Does learning additional information about a writer’s life affect how you re-read that writer’s work?  The question arose because I read Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography when it was published a month or so ago and then was led to re-read a few of Roth’s novels.

Before I address the question of how it affected my re-reading of the novels, I need to mention, as you may know, that Blake’s book was dropped by the publisher, W. W. Norton. The biography, authorized by Roth, is large (over 800 pages), comprehensive, and based on extensive interviews and access to Roth’s personal papers.  That it’s being pulled after publication–and not for reasons related to the book itself–is unprecedented.  Norton’s rationale is that Blake was recently accused of rape and of sexual misconduct during his much earlier career as a public-school teacher in New Orleans.  The accusations are ugly, although no legal charges have yet been filed. The extraordinary response by Norton has drawn condemnation in literary circles and will surely be the subject of extensive litigation.  But that’s not my concern here. I’m not taking sides on the big issue but focusing on how reading that biography affected my re-reading of Roth.

D. H. Lawrence told us to trust the tale, not the teller.  We should read fiction on its own terms, not looking for clues about what real events may have shaped it.  air enough. But it’s silly to ignore the fact that authors write what they know about (another age-old cliché), and so events and people they have experienced are bound to appear in their work.  In Roth’s case particularly, details of his personal life so vividly make their way into his fiction that he has always been considered an autobiographical novelist, a description he tirelessly denied to the point that many critics simply say he protested too much.

I’m a huge Roth fan.  I rank him and John Updike as the two greatest American novelists of the past 50 years for his immense output, his verbal felicity, his humor, his willingness to engage deep universal issues.  I think the so-called American trilogy—American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain—are the most vivid and insightful fictional treatments of what it means to be an American, or what America means.  Because I have read American Pastoral several times recently, I decided to re-read the other two novels in that sequence after reading Blake’s biography.  The characters and events of I Married a Communist and The Human Stain are so clearly modeled on real people and events that they deserve the label romans a clef.  Blake’s biography is an item-by-item portrayal, a guide to the players and actions.

But does knowing so much more about the people and events he turned into fiction change how I experienced the novels on second reading?  One good example that helps me answer that question is the pivotal plot device in The Human Stain:  the central figure, a college professor, is accused of racism because of a word he used (“spooks”) quite innocently in asking if several students who didn’t appear in his class actually existed.  He is in essence tried and unjustly convicted, resigns his position, and enters into a period of depression, vengefulness, and despair.  When I first read the novel, I considered that part of the plot literally incredible—just not believable.  Then I read in Blake’s biography that this exact situation occurred to a friend of Roth’s who taught at Princeton and had been accused of precisely the same thing—asking if some missing students were real or “spooks.”

Roth used the actual event but then injected a twist:  the professor, like his real-life counterpart, is white and Jewish, but the fictional one turns out to be an African-American who has been “passing” as a white Jew his entire adult life.  The charge of racism takes on greater complexity in this situation, and the falsity of the character’s life becomes the focus for exploring the larger theme of identity, of what labels attach to us and how we can and cannot change them.  So what Roth does with an actual event is what all good fiction writers do, using a simple
“fact” to create a character, initiate a plot, and raise larger themes.  Knowing about the real-life event made me admire all the more the way Roth worked to weave a complex story.  He wasn’t merely repeating a true story but applying his considerable literary imagination to something to make it blossom into a compelling tale.

So did the biography make me experience the novel differently?  For the most part my answer is yes.  Yes, because it made me accept that what I previously thought a bit hard to believe had actually occurred to someone, and yes because knowing that and then watching Roth in effect improve on the matter by adding a level of complexity gave me a greater appreciation of his imagination and his ability to develop characters and explore themes.  I could list dozens of further examples because Roth was a ruthless exploiter of actual people and events to develop his stories.  I didn’t need Blake’s detailed report of these instances to help me enjoy Roth’s fiction, but as in the one example I described, knowing about them deepened my understanding of how he worked and made me even more appreciative of his talent.  I think you can trust both the teller and the tale.

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