My Sunday Guardian column.
“I wake up in the morning, get a big glass of orange juice and read for an hour-and-a-half. I've never done that in my life.” Philip Roth, who announced his retirement last month, seems to be enjoying not writing. "This is nice," he joked in the same recent interview. “They should have told me about it earlier”.
Having re-read all his books, he says the one he’s the most partial to is Sabbath's Theatre, followed by American Pastoral. While those great novels certainly contain all the coruscating power that Roth is known for, there are two others which reveal that he’s adept in not only realistic rants that get under the skin, but also what's called experimental or postmodern fiction -- not exactly a genre you’d associate with Roth.
There’s 1986’s The Counterlife, to begin with, which some claim is his best work. Ingeniously structured to reveal overlapping, alternative lives, it’s narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's famous alter-ego. The novel can be seen as a distorting hall of mirrors: first, Zuckerman attends his brother’s funeral; then, it segues into a section where the brother hasn’t died after all but has left his family to move to a fundamentalist commune in Israel. Later, in an ironic inversion, it's the brother who attends Zuckerman’s funeral. As a coda, there’s a chapter dealing with Zuckerman's non-dead life in idyllic Chiswick, living with an English wife and her family.
Some sections are revealed to have been a draft of a novel written by Zuckerman in an effort to turn reality into fiction; others are more ‘real’, whatever you take that word to mean. One of the subjects of The Counterlife, then, is suggested in a letter written by Zuckerman: “The treacherous imagination is everybody's maker -- we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other's authors”.
The Counterlife is specifically mentioned in 1993’s Operation Shylock. This novel, sub-titled ‘A Confession’, also toys with convention. It’s narrated by one Philip Roth, a famous writer, who discovers that there’s a character impersonating him in Jerusalem; this person has been attending the thronged trial of an alleged Treblinka guard, and making public pronouncements about a plan to rehabilitate Jews in Europe.
From the start, the ‘real’ Roth claims that this is a true account of events -- among the novel’s characters, there’s his then-wife, English actress Claire Bloom, and his old friend, Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld -- which is why he decides to write it as a testimony rather than as “a Zuckerman followup to The Counterlife”. At one point, the narrator says of his double: “It's Zuckerman, I thought, whimsically, stupidly, escapistly, it’s Kepesh and Tarnopol and Portnoy – it’s all of them in one, broken free of print and mockingly reconstituted as a single satirical facsimile of me.”
Roth goes in search of his doppelganger, tracks him down, and in the process has run-ins with a gallery of other characters: con-men, a rare books dealer, a Palestinian ex-classmate, the impersonator’s girlfriend and more, all of whom he has lengthy debates with. He’s then approached by Israeli intelligence for a covert operation, the details of which, contained in a chapter titled 'Operation Shylock’, have been excised from the novel. The final piece of puckishness comes in the book’s last words: “This confession is false”.
Operation Shylock is looser and baggier than the superbly-structured The Counterlife, but in both, Roth experiments not just for the sake of experiment, but as a way to find newer, more effective containers for his concerns with masculinity, Jewishness and the interplay between fact and fiction. “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” Picasso famously said, and Roth echoes this: “So much of fiction provides the storyteller with the lie to reveal the unspeakable truth”. In our time, no-one’s combined “playful hypothesis and serious supposition” to reveal such truths better than Philip Roth.