Review

The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography

by Philip Roth



Philip Roth begins his autobiography, THE FACTS, with a letter to
Nathan Zuckerman asking for Zuckerman's take on the work. However,
there's a catch.  Zuckerman is the alter-ego and main
character in many of Roth's works of fiction, a very Roth-like
writer whose fictional career is a near mirror-image of Roth's own
literary life. Roth writes:

"Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of
your imaginings of the facts. There is something naive about a
novelist like myself talking about presenting himself 'undisguised'
and depicting 'a life without the fiction.'  I also
invite oversimplification of a kind I don't at all like by
announcing that searching out the facts may have been a kind of
therapy for me. You search your past with certain questions on your
mind --- indeed, you search out your past to discover which events
have led you to asking those specific questions. It isn't that you
subordinate your ideas to the force of the facts in autobiography
but that you construct a sequence of stories to bind up the facts
with a persuasive hypothesis that unravels your history's
meaning."

Roth's "sequence of stories" begins with his remembrances of
growing up Jewish in Newark, New Jersey. Watching his father
confront the local enemy --- prejudice --- in the workplace was
tempered by, on the one hand, a general fear of the events
unfolding on the international front with Germany and Japan and, on
the other hand, a love of baseball.

We follow Roth through his college years, his early success as a
writer, his first marriage, and in the wake of that, the turmoil
that the publication of PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT brought to this young
novelist's life.

The book ends with an open reply by Nathan Zuckerman to Roth.

"I've read the manuscript twice. Here is the candor you ask for:
Don't publish --- you are far better off writing about me than
'accurately' reporting your own life...on the evidence of what I've
just read, I'd say you're still as much in need of me as I of you
--- and that I need you is indisputable... I am your permission,
your indiscretion, the key to disclosure... In the fiction you can
be so much more truthful without worrying all the time about
causing direct pain."

In THE FACTS, Philip Roth explores the boundaries between his life
and his craft, where they intersect and where they diverge. His
clever use of Zuckerman as critic and devil's advocate proves a
unique slant on autobiography, and the sleight of hand needed to
carry if off only enhance an admiration for his ability, wit and
candor.

Reviewed by Vern Wiessner on January 21, 2011

The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography
by Philip Roth

  • Publication Date: January 28, 1997
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0679749055
  • ISBN-13: 9780679749059