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Philip Roth’s Next Book and Biography: What’s Going On?

You, Roth, are the least completely rendered of all your protagonists. . . My guess is that you’ve written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were. But now what you are is a walking text.

–Nathan Zuckerman to “Philip Roth” in The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography

(Photo of Philip Roth from NNDB.com. Click on photo to go to site of origin.)

When I first heard a few years back that an authorized biography of Philip Roth was being undertaken by a scholar who was handpicked by Philip Roth, and an intimate of Philip Roth, and A-OK by Philip Roth’s standards, I heard myself mouthing my mother’s fatalistic catch-phrase, “Oh, ça va mal finir, tout ça.”

My concerns had less to do with the biographer than with his subject.

The biographer is Ross Miller, a University of Connecticut professor emeritus who is the co-editor (along with Roth) of the Library of America series enshrining the master’s oeuvre. He has not said much about the project since it was announced in 2004, but what he has said strikes me as responsible and intellectually serious (though see below).

Here is Miller ruminating on the potential difficulties created by having a close personal relationship with his object of scrutiny:

The friendship [with Roth] is the basis of all of it. I don’t think the friendship is threatened by it. As we always do, we’ll contend over the work. And that’s fine. I think the work will be better. Why else would you risk allowing (access to) somebody who knows everything and could write it completely independently?

Fair enough. But independence, I demur, is foremost among the virtues that we crave in a Roth chronicler. For we need Philip Roth to be on intimate terms with his biographer like we need a pyromaniac manning the graveyard shift over at the old Fireworks Factory down by the children’s hospital.

This is, after all, Philip Milton Roth we are talking about—the Dark Knight and chuckling Riddler of American Metafiction. The author has spent decades leading us to believe that he is either fictionalizing his own biography (in works such as My Life as a Man, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson), or offering us “autobiographies” and “confessions” that winkingly insinuate that they should not be believed (see Operation Shylock, Deception, Patrimony).

In The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography he presented a self-portrait so self-serving, static, and stilted that his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, justifiably wrote him back and implored him not to quit his day job in fiction.

As others have argued as well, we don’t need Roth to be working in tandem with his biographer. On the contrary, what we need is an international literary tribunal, located in the Hague, to place a restraining order on Roth, requiring him to stay at volume’s length from anyone exploring the relation of his life to his art (Too, we need that other tribunal in Sweden to grant him the prize he so clearly deserves).

In any case, the Miller bio slated for 2010 has yet to arrive and doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the horizon.

Manuscripts are always late, but were we to speculate (rashly) about the delay, we would call attention to a 2007 piece in The New York Times about the project. That article raised the suspicion–at least in my overheated, Zuckerman-forged, mind–that a patina of tension had crusted over the Ross/Miller relationship.

The article’s author, Rachel Donadio, went on to note, quite rightly, that literary biography is hard enough as it is. Having the old grandees chiming in, looking over the writer’s shoulder (“Strike thatI wasn’t wearing tan slacks when I met that prostitute in Vienna. They were teal and checkered“) can be quite taxing on a researcher.

Then came a spate of suspicious activity earlier this year. In January, Professor Miller gave a lecture at the University of Connecticut. The campus newspaper’s report on the talk–whose precision and comprehensiveness I am wont to question–quotes Miller as referring to Roth as “too big to fail” and “an artist in decline.” (Not true: Roth’s most recent work, Nemesis, is quite good).

More peculiar still is the confused status of Roth’s next offering, entitled–if you wear a pacemaker please stop reading here–Notes to My Biographer!

OK, that’s really strange. I mean strange enough to be a put on.  Why is “walking text” Philip Roth writing about, or to, his biographer? This is precisely why we issued that restraining order.

If there was any effort to lessen the confusion, the pre-launch of Roth Book Number 31 did not do it. As Professor Derek Parker Royal, founder of the Philip Roth Society, explained, Amazon and Barnes & Noble Web pages devoted to the book popped up for a moment, catching everyone by surprise. Then they just as suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

Royal then shared this:

Later that day the Roth Society is contacted by a knowledgeable and authoritative source—I won’t mention who—asking that we take down our two blog postings mentioning Notes for My Biographer. This source suggested that the information surrounding the upcoming release was unfounded and, as such, shouldn’t be listed on our Web site. Any further mentioning of the book would be counterproductive. Not wanting to transmit false or misleading information, and not wanting to be accused of furthering literary gossip in any way, the Society officers decided to take down the two blog postings, as per the wish of this authoritative source. Obviously, I had deep reservations about doing so. Weren’t we an independent scholarly and reader-oriented organization? Shouldn’t we let Society members know what information might be available out there?

To the estimable Professor Royal–who has produced some really good scholarship on Roth– I would note the answer to all of those questions is “Yup.” I would remind the “Society officers”–are they uniformed?–that literary gossip is, all things considered, a force for moral good in the fictional universe.

Last, let me stress that there is no plot against anything underfoot.  The confusions I am referring to are all good confusions, Rothian confusions through and through.  If it results in more press for our greatest living author, then all the better.

I don’t know what’s going on, but if Nathan Zuckerman in The Counterlife could argue that, “This profession [writing fiction] even f&$@#s up grief,” then now we’ve learned that it f&$@#s up the release of your authorized biography as well.

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