An older friend of mine went to high school in Newark with Philip Roth, Weequahic High School class of 1950. For obvious reasons, I grill my friend about Roth whenever the opportunity presents itself, and in one of these interrogations I learned that Swede Levov, the “steep-jawed insentient Viking” who is the hero of Roth’s American Pastoral, was based on a real classmate at Weequahic.
I should not have been surprised. Roth has been playing peekaboo with his readers for years, inserting himself to varying degrees into his fictions. It has become an ongoing theme: like the silhouette of Hitchcock in old movies, we seem to recognize Roth — or aspects of Roth — in all his books, particularly in the flawed writers, Peter Tarnopol, Nathan Zuckerman, even a character named “Philip Roth.” They are all plainly Roth, the reader understands, and they are all invented too. The point of all this line-blurring is to get beyond fictional realism and closer to reality, to the actual lived human experience. Roth’s novels have a vivid, confessional quality not just because Roth is an extraordinary writer (though obviously he is), but because his books pretend to be more than fictions — they sometimes are more than fictions.
A similar fission occurs whenever a writer’s face seems to hover behind the pages. Conrad, Melville and Hemingway all are recognizable in their stories. Even in a fantasy like The Great Gatsby, the reader’s experience is influenced by the knowledge that Nick Carraway shares much of his creator’s biography: Midwestern boyhood, Ivy League education, witness to “riotous” Jazz Age parties. Nick is the thinnest mask for Fitzgerald. When we read Gatsby, we understand that the voice and the sensibility are Fitzgerald’s own. In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron goes a step further, all but stepping onstage himself, undisguised, inside the story. [Read more…] about “The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon