Marcel Proust wrote in a cork-lined room to shut out all but the sound of his own memories. Whenever recent writers write of writing they tend to refer to Proust and his soundproof room, but to write of writing is already perhaps to take the path of Proustian self-absorption and to reveal which one of the two sorts of writers one is. The one sort has himself for subject and inspiration, the other looks outward and marvels at the otherness of others.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But perhaps the line of division is really not that sharp. Reading Donald Rayfield’s life of Chekov, I was surprised at how autobiographical a writer Chekov was. And, after all, there is a vast cast in Proust’s Remembrance, more than Marcel for sure. Still the line is there. Flannery O’Connor does not appear in any of her stories. Hemingway is absent from none of his.
As preparation for reading American Pastoral, I have just gone through the previous Nathan Zuckerman novels of Philip Roth. It is no secret that Zuckerman is Roth in the trilogy of novels brought together in Zuckerman Bound. Zuckerman is a writer and we are asked to writhe in anguish with him under the whip of notoriety and affluence. The turn was taken with Portnoy, after the amazing Goodbye Columbus, the superb Letting Go, and the ominous When She Was Good.
The first volume was a collection of short stories along with the titular novella. Letting Go remains my favorite Roth, a bildungsroman and autobiographical, apparently, but so very much more than an author’s imaginative self-portrait. James’s Portrait of a Lady is, so to speak, a character in the story as well as a point of reference, even a measure. Roth was going for the gold and as far as I am concerned he won it. Technically, the novel is a marvel; Roth’s comic gift is there, but as contrast to the tragic themes. When She Was Good, which followed, is the imitation of an imitation, Roth trying to write a novel of midwestern Christians. A counterfeit coin, it does not survive a nibble, let alone a bite. The beginning, it should be said, has an almost elegiac perfection. And then came Portnoy.
The subjective turn. The writer as his own subject. And a writer in therapy at that. For so many books one has felt privy to Roth’s sessions on the couch. Psychiatrists presumably listen to anything. It is not good to expect such patience in others, especially when one is writing fiction. There are not many with the talent to survive so long a desert exile, but Roth is one of them. Does American Pastoral represent a departure?
John Updike wrote two books about a Jewish author, Bech a Book and Bech Is Back. He characterized his imaginary author as a Jew d’esprit. Bech is certainly an imagined Jewish writer, someone other than Updike, no Zuckerman. Updike has problems of his own, of course, but remains with Roth at the top of the heap so far as American writers go. A Protestant and a Jew. Walker Percy, alas, is dead.
Whether a writer is his own subject or not, he is the filter through which the fiction passes. Flannery O’Connor may never have written about herself but everything she wrote is unmistakably hers. One could perhaps question whether a realist epistemology is adequate for any kind of fiction. It is surely wrong to think of knowing as knowing our knowing, but the writer, however objective his subject matter, is telling it as it is in the sense of how he at least sees it. But even if all his imaginings involve himself, this does not mean that his self-imaginings need amount to much.
It has often been remarked that the missing character in Chesterton’s autobiography is himself. I am sure that there was as much lint in his navel as in anyone else’s — very likely a lot more — but when he picked a subject to write about it lay before his eyes, not behind them. Trollope wisely chose to have his autobiography published posthumously. It tells us a lot about him as a writer, at least on one level, but the sturm und drang are missing. And one misses them. Graham Greene seemed to have forgotten his children’s names in his two volumes of memoirs but he remembers his own dreams, having gotten into the practice of searching them for meaning. My mother did that too, but she was Irish and it wasn’t an obsession.
This column originally appeared in the June 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.