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.
I teach in two distinct performative modes. In the first, primarily used for social-science instruction, I am the INTIMIDATING KNOWLEDGE EXPERT. From the moment I take attendance—and you better be in your seat when I call your name, Chuck—we are on the clock. My clock.
I speak drone on for about 75-80% of the class. The maws of my tense charges are sandblasted with facts, theories, counter readings, historical illustrations, and the occasional human interest story.
Don’t yawn, or appear to be texting because I will call on you. Oh yes I will. And you will stammer. And the pleasure will register on my face in the way that unsightly extras in a Kung Fu movie toothily smile and flail their arms at the Act Two thrashing of the Good Guy.
In the second mode, I affect a completely different teaching persona. I am now, to use a term I particularly abhorred from the 90s, a…