The fact-fiction divide

[Philip] Roth … said he would discuss only his writing and would answer no questions about his personal life. Fine. Yet in Roth’s case, this created a major hurdle, because … he is an exceptionally brazen alchemist of the personal into the fictional. For that matter, so is his chief fictional alter ego, the Roth-like novelist Nathan Zuckerman — though both writers are prone to arguing the point.

I was supposed to be talking with Roth about the recently-issued third volume of his collected works. That volume included his 1974 novel My Life as a Man, an act of imagination in which a writer named Peter Tarnopol — whose spectacularly failed first marriage looks a great deal like Roth’s own — struggles to exorcise it. In the process, Tarnopol creates a character named Nathan Zuckerman, who writes his own variations on the marital train wreck. How, exactly, were we supposed to discuss this without getting personal?

I tried. It mostly didn’t work. Asked why he had used Tarnopol and Zuckerman to play with the fact-fiction divide, Roth objected to the question. “I’m not playing with it. I don’t care to play,” he said. “This man is trying to transform his experience into fiction. He imagines it once, he imagines it twice and says: ‘The hell with it, here’s the straight story.’ As simple as that.”

Not to me, unfortunately.

Bob Thompson

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