Art – Reality and Roth

March 30, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t know a lot about the sociology of art. But one thing that’s interesting about art is that art is artificial. That means there’s a special relationship between audience and artist. They have an unspoken agreement that it’s all a lie, that it isn’t real. But at the same time, they have to pretend that it is real.

Magicians make a big show of making things disappear or reading minds. They wave their hands in a big flourish or furrow their brows in deep concentration. But we know they’re just pretending. They don’t come right out and say, “This is just a trick – the vase of flowers didn’t really disappear, and I can’t really read your mind.” But we know that’s the deal, the same way we know, without being told, that the actors playing Romeo and Juliet don’t really die.*

Novelists, too, admit that they are telling lies. They make up characters, give them made-up names. Alexander Portnoy (he of the complaint) is a fiction, a character invented by Philip Roth. But in later novels, Roth went on to create a character, Nathan Zuckerman, who was very much like Roth and had even written a book much like Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth was deliberately blurring the line between author and character, between reality and fiction.

In Operation Shylock, he smudged that line even further. The novel is subtitled, “A Confession,” and its narrator is a novelist named Philip Roth. Yet another character in it is a man who goes around claiming to be Philip Roth and propounding political ideas that are at odds with those of the real Philip Roth. Well, not the real Philip Roth the author, but the “real” Philip Roth the narrator of the novel. Or are those two the same?

And now life is imitating art. A fictitious Philip Roth is saying things that the real Philip Roth disagrees with. As Judith Thurman reports in the current New Yorker, a right-wing Italian tabloid published an interview with Roth by freelancer Tomasso Debenedetti in which Roth said he was “disappointed” with President Obama. Asked about this by another Italian journalist (for the respectable and more leftish La Repubblica), Roth said he’d never heard of Debenedetti or the tabloid and that the statement was “completely contrary to what I think. Obama, in my opinion, is fantastic.”

I suppose there’s a satisfying irony here – Roth’s own meta-chickens coming home to roost – but he’s not the only one. Debenedetti also published an interview with John Grisham, whose novels stick closely to the conventions of fiction. That interview too was critical of Obama. And it was entirely made up by Debenedetti.


(I have a personal association between Roth and sociology. I was in grad school when the first chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint was published in the premiere issue of New American Review, a journal formatted as a drugstore paperback. I got a copy at the newsstand and had barely started reading it when it was time for a class with Talcott Parsons. I sat there in the auditorium, keeping the book discreetly below the level of the seat in front me, trying to read and listen at the same time – an impossible task. It was Portnoy or Parsons. I think I made the right decision, but a few of my classmates wondered just what it was that Parsons was saying that I found so amusing.)**

*Magicians resent performers who claim to have real magical powers but who are, in reality, just doing magic tricks – people like self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller. In those cases, magicians will do what they would never do otherwise – expose the secrets of the “psychic’s” tricks.

** UPDATE, July 20. Our library has
. New American Review volumes on the shelf, and in checking yesterday, I discovered that it was issue #3, not #1. The excerpt from Portnoy was the first piece in that issue, and it began with this sentence: “Did I mention, Doctor, that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?” No wonder Parsons lecturing on Weber lost out.

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