Yes, John Updike had more talent, as Philip Roth is said to have granted. And if the rule in fiction is to show, not tell, even books as majestic as The Human Stain broke it wantonly. Still, miraculously few of the 900 pages in Blake Bailey’s new biography of Roth feel redundant or undeserved. The season’s most anticipated work of nonfiction sticks to the facts: it is hardly Bailey’s fault that the facts of his subject’s life are so abundant. Here is Roth going out of his way to succour Czech dissenters in the cold war. Here is Roth being as crass about the Germans as any gin-dazed Englander.
And here, above all, is Roth in deep introspection, processing his real-world traumas through stories and ciphers. No artist captured better, earlier, the democratisation of therapy from Freud’s social class to the broad middle. The question is whether other ways of going at life came to be disdained into the bargain.
Lots of people navigate this vale of tears without systematic examination of their own feelings. They lack the time, or the cash for professional counsel, or the slightest interest. Having been raised by and among people who meet all three criteria, I am not sure they would have been happier or even more interesting had they answered the call of inward contemplation.
What is far richer material than self-analysis, in fact, are the little tactics that people use to evade it. Some work all hours, lest they be left alone with their thoughts. Others use levity as a means of deflection. Whatever the ruse, though, this, it seems to me, is where true drama (and comedy) resides. If it amounts to “repression”, don’t assume the superiority of the opposite.
Updike chided Roth’s “magnifying fascination with himself”, which zoomed right down to the “quantum level”. Another author, William Boyd, talking to this newspaper about Roth’s quasi-autobiographical novels, was curter: “You’ve done 12 of them, mate.” But the problem was never Roth himself, who, let’s not be coy here, out-wrote everybody in the anglophone world as the 20th century petered out. It is the underlying culture of self-involvement that he embodied and spoofed. Call it Roth-ism, if only because Knausgaard-ism won’t do.
When Tom Wolfe labelled the 1970s the “Me Decade”, one devoted to “observing, studying and doting on” the self, he could not have known how taciturn, how brutely stoic, that era would come to seem. Much of the change since then has been for the better. It is handsome that my employer invites me to share any sorrow or distress I might be feeling, even if it invites me quite a lot. Beyond a certain point, though, there are such things as diminishing and even negative returns. Must adverse events always be “worked through” to be overcome? Does anything kill romance more reliably than a couple’s scrutiny of it?
In the end, it is in art where emotional nakedness might have run its course. A person’s interior life is most captivating when glimpsed in snatches. The telling slip, the allusive code, even the strained smile: these things pique curiosity. Explicit self-disclosure can shut it down. Maybe this, not anti-Americanism, is why the likes of JM Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize, while Roth searched poignantly for the Swedish postmark in his mail. (Bailey conveys how much he minded.) He outdid them for primal force of writing, for a sense of the epic and for productivity. Give me one of his chapters (“The Stump”, in The Plot Against America) over most writers’ entire canons.
It is just that he left the reader with so little to infer or intuit about his characters’ private selves. Closing his books, I feel drained by their torrential momentum. But I don’t keep wondering about them.
Modernism, a godsend in painting and architecture, was a strange thing for literature. It took an already introspective form into uncharted depths of the navel. Browsing my local bookshop, it is the self-absorption of the new stuff that stands out. The typical release will concern such world-historical events as a really bad break-up, and bear a name like Clouds Have Their Own Tomorrow. It was Roth’s genius to make the inner life sing. It was his unintended legacy that lesser beings tried their hand.
Email Janan at
Follow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Letter in response to this column:
Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ has the appeal of introspection / From Alastair Conan, London CR5, UK