Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

#603 – #606, #608


Waiting in his car
a timorous husband
looks at his watch
and sighs.


Shrouded in a doorway
he watched her pass
and followed like a shadow.


She smiled when I encouraged her
but she would not pay the ferryman.


I found the bath empty:
someone must have committed

17 October 1986


I bent over the coffin to kiss him
but he turned his head away.

20 October 1986

I have never been the biggest fan of the haiku. I like the idea of the haiku. I like koans. I like proverbs. I like concision. And, for me, poetry is all about that. As I’ve got older I’ve found myself producing slightly longer pieces but nothing you couldn’t fit onto an A4 page with breathing space. Why, in 1986, I decided to write a handful of, what I called at the time, “haikus” I have no idea. These days I admit to writing one haiku (#996) —although even that one doesn’t stick to the rules—and regard the above handful as nothing more than short poems. ‘Nightmare’ was published in Inkshed #19 in the spring of 1990.

Sunday, 27 December 2015


Poem With No Title

This poem has no caption
and that's my problem:
what am I supposed to take from it?

And no instructions,
so what do I do with it?

And if it has any answers
then I don't know the questions.

17 October 1986

This is the eighth poem in my collection Reader Please Supply Meaning. Only a few people have ever read it before today. Which is a shame because although the poem itself is nothing to write home about the collection as a whole is rather good. IMHO. I hadn’t intended to publish another book of poems so soon after This Is Not About What You Think but I was so scunnered after spending months polishing my short story collection Making Sense and not selling a single copy that I slipped into a funk for months and a poetry collection was the easiest thing to put out next. (Technically I did sell one copy of Making Sense to a friend in Ireland—you know who you are—but I’d already posted him a copy and so I refunded him.) The poetry collection fared no better. Worse in fact, if you can imagine that. At least the short story collection garnered a few decent reviews. But I tried not to let it get me down and got lost in working on The More Things Change, my fourth novel which I ended up spending the best part of a year on. (Technically it’s the third but I decided to publish Milligan and Murphy first as it required less editing.)

The More Things Change won’t sell. This is not pessimism or fatalism. This is a hard fact. I will publish it because it’s a damn good book and quite probably the best thing I’ll ever write and I’ll send out review copies and gift copies and that’ll be that. I might try a few competitions too this year. Always shied away from them in the past. But that’ll be it. I’ll move onto my next novel, Left. Or the second short story collection, Still Making Sense. (Technically it’s the second half of a single themed grouping.) But it’ll probably be the novel.

Which brings into question this blog. I said I’d take a year off to work on The More Things Change and expected I’d go back to articles and reviews after that but I think I’ll stick with the poems. If the odd review turns up then so be it. I’ve enough poems to get us through to my ten year anniversary and maybe we’ll call it a day then. It—and by ‘it’ I mean the blog—has not been a huge success and most of those who were writing blogs when I started have packed it in for Facebook or real life. I suffer Facebook at the best of times but let’s not get me started down that road.

It has been suggested I seek out a traditional publisher for my books. It’s not the worst suggestion in the world but at the moment I don’t have the energy for that. It takes me all the time I have to get done what I’m doing now which is next to sod all. Christ knows what’s the matter with me but I worry where it’s heading and that’s another road I don’t want to get started down. This post has been moany enough as it is.

In a few days it’ll be 2016. I still think of these dates as science-fictiony. I remember watching Blade Runner in 1982—1982!—and seeing ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ on the screen and thinking it was so far off and now it’s nearly here. Back to the Future Day is history. 2001 is history. 1984 is history. It all passes. And all our fussing and fretting won’t do a damn thing to stop it or even slow it down. From the new book:

At her leisure the Widow Time will methodically locate every scrap of paper you’ve ever written or typed on, every tape you’ve ever been recorded on (both video and audio), each and every hard drive, flash drive, zip drive, DVD, CD and even floppy disk if you’re old enough and reduce them to dust and all copies will be ground to dust and all those who remember hearing any of your words or seeing your face will be expunged from history and one day—one day or another, one day much like any other but most likely a Tuesday—a generation will awaken that has never heard of you and is none the worse off; it is the nature of things, built-in obsolescence.

Oh, and after all that, happy new year when it comes.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


An Old Friend

The pangs of conscience came later
like an ancient dog,
blind and arthritic,
that he could not bear to destroy.

Though a good few paces behind him,
and forever late,
it always arrived,
knowing no one else would have him.

Even if the old man could find sleep,
when he opened his eyes
the dog would be there,
its pearly gaze transfixing him.

17 October 1986

I’m not a bad person. I tell myself I’m not a bad person. Some people think I am. I’ve done bad things—who hasn’t?—but does that make me bad? And who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad. If you’re a Christian that would be God and there’s not much he’s not expressed an opinion on over the centuries—theft, murder, fornication, idolatry—but he’s never been big on explaining why certain things are bad for us.

Eleven years after I wrote this poem I did a bad thing. According to some. I started living with a woman who wasn’t my wife. My mother point blank refused to meet Carrie until we’d tied the knot. Perhaps she couldn’t stop us living in sin but she was sure as hell not going to sanction the union by breaking bread with us. Carrie understood on an intellectual level—on an emotional level she was upset—but we were all adults and we got over it. At least we got on with it. When my mother was dying—not that we realised that was the case until it was too late—both me and my wife were there and Carrie did most of the practical work. Before she died Mum called Carrie her “angel”. Which she was.

People can and do spoil things. They do it by trying to impose their own set of standards on others. Often they’re well-intentioned—my mother certainly was—but even when we do get to do our own thing somehow they manage to sully it. We don’t just want to do our own thing. We want people to approve of us. From the new book (the 'Jim' is not me but there's a lot of me in him):

[F]ornication was a sin he had found both need and opening to commit on a number (albeit a small number) of less than ideal occasions before although not for some years and, as he recalled (it was not that long ago), it was a mightily enjoyable sin, one of the classier ones that didn’t involve oxen or asses, if you discounted the post-coital guilt that always followed. That he had renounced his parents’ moral code, opting to decide for himself what was right and wrong, was one thing. Living with their disapproval was another. Not that they ever knew. It didn’t matter that they never did and they never would. That was neither here nor there. What mattered was that had they known they would have disapproved. More than that, they would have been hurt, mortally wounded. They would have sat there with otter eyes, hanging their heads wondering where they went so wrong.

Today, by the way, is our eighteenth wedding anniversary. The photo is of the card I gave her. And, yes, they’re pencil shavings.

Sunday, 20 December 2015


The Drowning Man

Though I kept my rooms on
I'd given up all hope of an audience
when one day I was summoned.

It was like an interview in the womb
before being granted life.

He read what I'd brought without comment,
and then addressed me in the half-light:

"There is a drowning man in us all,"
he said,
"and like a man who never sleeps
he is driven mad by his own existence."

He said no more;
but then he'd said it all.

We never met again.
I did not expect we would.

And that's all I can remember,
except his eyes:
as if some prisoner inside him
was peering out through them at me.

I had only ever seen them in a mirror.

17 October 1986

This is the sixth of The Drowning Man Poems. Thirty years on I cannot think of a single change I might make to it. I have no idea where it came from but it’s one of those poems like ‘Common Denominator’ (#534) I can’t get over writing. I’m not an idiot. I know I have a facility with words. But every now and then I write a sentence or two and there’s this disconnect. I know I wrote them but I can’t imagine writing anything that good ever again nor can I figure out how I managed to write the words I’m looking at. Where did they come from? Was it the crazy guy I sometimes glimpse in the mirror who wrote them? Always a possibility.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015



I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography. I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide. – Philip Roth, Deception

This year I’ve been actively seeking out novels written in dialogue so it was only a matter of time before I got to Philip Roth’s 1990 novella Deception. Having read several books by him—Indignation, The Prague Orgy, Nemesis, The Ghost Writer, The Dying Animal, The Humbling and Everyman—I thought I had a pretty good idea what to expect here but this was something very different.

I’ve never been one of those writers who plunders his real life for ideas. Whenever I think about it I reflect on the scene in Hannah and her Sisters where Hannah gets upset with Holly because it’s obvious that Holly’s book is all about her family and contains things about Hannah’s marriage that Holly really shouldn’t have been privy to:

Hannah: I'm upset about what you wrote.

Holly: My script?

Hannah: It's based on Elliot and me.

Holly: Loosely.

Hannah: Not loosely. Real specifically. Is that how you see us? Can I not accept gestures and feelings from people? Do I put people off?

Holly: It's a made-up story.

Hannah: No, it's exact. The situations, the dialogue, everything. It's full of details about Elliot and me... which I don't see how you could know about.

FactsA writer’s just asking for trouble when he does that. And yet so many of us do. Even great writers like Philip Roth apparently. Or do they? On the surface the male protagonist in this book appears to be a thinly-disguised version of Roth. He’s even called Philip and this ‘Philip’ is the author of books where the main character is a certain Nathan Zuckerman. That really should settle it: this is biography, or—let’s do the man a favour—semi-autobiography. Roth opens his actual autobiography The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography as follows:

Dear Zuckerman,

In the past, as you know, the facts have always been notebook jottings, my way of springing into fiction. For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific, and not with the philosophical, the ideological, or the abstract. Yet, to my surprise, I now appear to have gone about writing a book absolutely backward, taking what I have already imagined and, as it were, desiccating it, so as to restore my experience to the original, prefictionalised factuality. Why? To prove that there is a significant gap between the autobiographical writer that I am thought to be and the autobiographical writer that I am? To prove that the information that I drew from my life was, in the fiction, incomplete? If that was all, I don’t think I would have gone to the trouble, since thoughtful readers, if they were interested enough to care, could have figured as much for themselves.

The reality of Deception is that Roth did work in a studio flat in London’s Notting Hill. At the time of writing the book Roth was in a long-term relationship with the British actress Claire Bloom (they first met in 1966) who he ended up marrying (in 1990 shortly after he finished Deception—notably Bloom proposed to Roth). They also ended up divorcing most acrimoniously a few years later. In the book there’s a conversation between the writer ‘Philip’ and his wife (who, in early drafts had been named ‘Claire’) where she’s discovered his notebook and questions him regarding the contents: just how fictional was his fiction? It’s a good question and one that hovers over this book. The wife accuses him of having an affair. She’s read the novel he’s been working on (which is ‘Philip’s’ version of Roth’s The Counterfile) and feels she knows the Englishwoman there but, she says, “this is not that English woman, this is not the model for that English woman, this is the real woman! Don’t pretend they are one and the same.” ‘Philip’ says he doesn’t:

One is a figure sketched in conversation in a notebook, the other is a major character entangled in a plot of an intricate book. I have been imagining myself, outside of my novel, having a love affair with a character inside my novel.

This, of course, is not dissimilar to the defence provide by Humbert Humbert in Lolita when Charlotte Haze finds his journal in which he’s recorded his feelings for her daughter:

Let us be civilized people. It is all your hallucination. You are crazy, Charlotte. The notes you found were fragments of a novel. Your name and hers were put in by mere chance. Just because they came handy. Think it over. I shall bring you a drink.

Roth’s autobiography (written in 1988 by the way) is interesting because as you might’ve noticed a) it’s addressed to a fictional character, his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, but also because b) we get to read Zuckerman’s critique of Roth’s book. He says:

Dear Roth,

I’ve read the manuscript twice. Here is the candour you ask for: Don’t publish—you are far better off writing about me than “accurately” reporting your own life. Could it be that you’ve turned yourself into a subject not only because you’re tired of me but because you believe I am no longer someone through whom you can detach yourself from your biography at the same time that you exploit its crises, themes, tensions, and surprises? Well, 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.


What you choose to tell in fiction is different from what you’re permitted to tell when nothing’s being fictionalized, and in this book you are not permitted to tell what it is you tell best: kind, discreet, careful—changing people’s names because you’re worried about hurting their feelings—no, this isn’t you at your most interesting. In the fiction you can be so much more truthful without worrying all the time about causing direct pain.

leaving a doll's houseOdd that after writing this book he would then produce a novella like Deception. Or maybe not so odd. Supposedly the first step to recovery for an addict is admitting to themselves (as well as others) that they’re an addict. But that admission isn’t a cure-all in itself because there are plenty of addicts who know they’re addicts but just keep right on flushing their lives down the pan. Roth acknowledges in his biography what he’s like and then keeps right on doing it. And one can’t say that Bloom didn’t know what she was getting into. Her first letter to Roth included praise for his novel My Life as a Man, a warts and all account of his what Morris Dickstein in his review for the New York Times calls Roth’s “operatically unhappy” first marriage. It was clearly only a matter of time before Roth turned his talent on her. In her own kiss-and-tell autobiography, Leaving a Doll's House, Bloom writes:

Almost immediately I came upon a passage about the self-hating Anglo-Jewish family with whom he lives in England. Oh well, I thought, he doesn't like my family. There was a description of his working studio in London, letter-perfect and precise. Then I reached the depictions of all the girls who come over to have sex with him—in the most convoluted positions, preferably on the floor. As Philip always insisted that the critics were unable to distinguish his self-invention from his true self, I mindfully accepted these Eastern European seductresses as part of his "performance" as a writer; but I was not so certain. Finally, I arrived at the chapter about his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife, who, as described, is nothing better than an ever-spouting fountain of tears constantly bemoaning the fact that his other women are so young. She is an actress by profession, and—as if hazarding a guess would spoil the incipient surprise lying in store—her name is Claire.

As it is she actually gets off fairly light. The character of the wife only appears in one chapter of the book where she challenges him after flicking though his notebook and ‘Philip’ ends up storming out of the house. “The only woman in my studio,” asserts ‘Philip’, “is the woman in my novel. It would be nicer with company but it doesn’t work that way.” The wife isn’t convinced:

‘How can she be imaginary when she knows all these things you couldn’t possibly know? She is someone who comes to your studio and she is why you have been so distracted and totally uninterested in me now for months.’

The defence calls James Ellroy (from an interview with Chris Harvey):

Ellroy, one suspects, is just glad to be back with the characters he loves: “I wanted to know these people again, because they’re so stunningly real to me, and with all but a few cases in my personal life, maybe just one case in Helen Knode, they’re more real to me than the real people I’ve known.” He slips into an imagined reunion with them: “I’ve missed ya. Hey. I love ya. I’m back. You’re doing this crazy s--- at the beginning of World War II. Hey, Dudley, you’re an opium addict, bet you didn’t know that, hey Dud? Hey, but you f--- Bette Davis, how bad can it be?” [bold mine]

Try typing into Google “more real to me than” and see how many writers have said something similar to the above.

Going back to My Life as a Man it’s worth looking at how it’s structured. As Wikipedia puts it:

The work is split into two sections: the first section, "Useful Fictions," consisting of two short stories about a character named Nathan Zuckerman, and the second section, "My True Story," which takes the form of a first-person memoir by Peter Tarnopol, a Jewish writer who authored the two stories in the first section.

Deception isn’t nearly as complex but we’re still faced with the ethical issue: what right does an author have to cannibalise the lives of his family and friends? At one point his (fictitious?) ex-lover says to ‘Philip’: “All the time I thought you loved me for my body when in fact it was only for my sentences.” This is some time after this ‘Philip’ has published his version of Deception (although the book is never named) and she’s calmed down enough to phone him. She’s been mad with him—furious—and so Roth would’ve known how Bloom would’ve been likely to react when he finally handed her the manuscript of Deception to read. Perhaps this is why he (uncharacteristically, apparently) waited several weeks to show it her. Interestingly the e-book I read doesn’t have the usually disclaimer saying all the characters contained within are works of fictions and any similarities to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Fiction is deception. Writers are liars. For some perverse reason we think telling lies is a way to get to the truth while it’s got its knickers down and Roth is no exception. Metafiction is deception squared. And one of the primary goals of metafiction is to look at the craft of the writer. I wrote a poem once called ‘Salome’:


"I thought you'd be pleased," she said
when she presented me
with the typescript of our conversation.

Well I was, in a way, flattered at least,
but I'd never intended
what I'd said to have such permanence.

Better such things to be viewed
through the veil of memory.

29 October 1989

and when I showed it to the girl who’d inspired it—unusually I hadn’t dedicated the poem to her which is odd because I was quite besotted by her—she was appalled at the thought that I might’ve recorded the things we’d shared, not flattered, not in the least. I can only imagine her face if I ever did choose to write about our relationship because we haven’t spoken in almost twenty-five years.

CounterlifePoets especially suffer from readers’ inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. As soon as you put ‘I’ in a poem then immediately the poem’s all about you and they feel cheated—lied to and not in a good way—if they learn you made the whole thing up. This is what Roth says in The Counterlife:

It’s all impersonation—in the absence of a self, one impersonates selves, and after a while impersonates the best the self that best gets one through... What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do, and not only of myself—a troupe of players that I have internalised, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required, an ever-evolving stock of pieces and parts that forms my repertoire... I am a theatre, nothing more than a theatre.

In his biography, again, Roth writes (well, Zuckerman responds):

What one chooses to reveal in fiction is governed by a motive fundamentally aesthetic; we judge the author of a novel by how well he or she tells the story. But we judge morally the author of an autobiography, whose governing motive is primarily ethical as against aesthetic. How close is the narration to the truth? Is the author hiding his or her motives, presenting his or her actions and thoughts to lay bare the essential nature of conditions or trying to hide something, telling in order not to tell? In a way we always tell in order also not to tell, but the personal historian is expected to resist to the utmost the ordinary impulse to falsify, distort, and deny. Is this really “you” or is it what you want to look like to your readers at the age of fifty-five? You tell me in your letter that the book feels like the first thing you have ever written “unconsciously.” Do you mean that The Facts is an unconscious work of fiction? Are you not aware yourself of its fiction-making tricks?

Did Philip Roth have an affair with an English woman over a period of several years? Does it matter? Come to think of it did the conversations with the two Czechoslovakian women, the Polish woman and the male Czech expatriate take place exactly as recorded in the book? Or at all? Are they more or less likely to be fiction? And what about the ex-mistress with cancer, or the other ex-mistress (and ex-student) who has had shock treatment? I assumed these were the Englishwoman—I was deceived—but apparently not.

That Deception might feel more like notes for a novel rather than a finished novel is, I’m sure, no coincidence. That his partner would get upset by what she read in the novel comes as no surprise since his character’s wife gets upset by what she reads in his notebook; this is life imitating art. I wonder if Roth would’ve been disappointed, felt he’d somehow failed, if Claire Bloom hadn’t batted an eye when she read his book? So what is it? A novel pretending to be a notebook or a notebook pretending to be a novel?

The final chapter of this book poses a problem. If ‘Philip’s’ notebook comprises the chapters preceding the one where his wife confronts him then what’s happening in the final chapter? I can see two ways of reading this, either the Englishwoman was real and this is a final conversation or, inspired by his wife’s reaction to the notebook, this is a final chapter imagining a pleasanter encounter with the Englishwoman after she has read about herself in the novel ‘Philip’s’ written.

One of the big problems with a dialogue novel is how to distinguish who is talking. In Me & You Powell presents us with two interchangeable characters—it doesn’t matter which one’s which—and in Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Eggers changes location—Buildings 52, 53 and so voxon—and we quickly learn who’s chained up in each building but in Deception Roth shows little regard for his readers and I was lost at the start of every chapter and I was not alone (see Fay Weldon’s comments in the next paragraph). I’d assumed that the book would only contain two people—I was expecting a version of Nicholson Baker’s Vox—but, no, there’re all these Czechs popping up; there’s a whole chunk in fact that reads like an outtake from The Prague Orgy. But think about it, if this is a notebook then it would be confusing to anyone other than the note taker. All I have to do is look at some of the notes I’ve written—which immediately jog my memory—but anyone else would struggle to make any sense out of them if they ever could. They’re not deliberately cryptic. They’re just a kind of shorthand. Which is what we have here. No exposition, no description, just what was (or might have been) said.

In her review in The New York Times Fay Weldon described this as a “swift, elegant, disturbing novel … that reads like a brilliant radio play for a minority (that is to say, brilliant) audience.” She admits Roth’s thrown down a gauntlet:

[T]his literary navel-gazing is a risky occupation. Is this novel a portrait of Roth or non-Roth in hateful literary London, having it off with the wives of his friends? What conceit, to think we're interested. Yet he gets away with it even as he angers us. […] Who is this Olina, who is referred to all of a sudden in the dialogue, with no introduction? Male, female? Who's talking anyway? Do I have to go back yet again and count up—he, she, he, she—to find out? Why doesn't this author turn up and help?

There is no question here: Roth pulls no punches. As his alter ego yells out towards the end of his row with his wife, “I write what I write the way I write it. … I will publish what I publish however I want to publish.” And we readers be damned? Yes, so it seems.

The actual conversations are interesting. The book begins, for example, in media res. It’s as if we’ve sat down on the bus or train and there’s this couple behind us chattering away and it’s impossible not to take an interest in what they’re saying. And that probably is the real attraction here. Writers are voyeurs but then so are their readers. A brief exchange:

        ‘Did you listen to that record I gave you?’
         ‘No. I had to hide it.’
         ‘Why do you have to hide it?’
         ‘Because it would be unusual for me to buy a record. I don’t often do it.’
         ‘What are you going to do with it?’
         ‘Well I’ll play it in the evening when I’m alone.’
         ‘What are you going to do if it’s found? Salt and pepper it and eat it?’
         ‘I did buy records, but I did get so upset for a while that—well, that’s history.’
         ‘What? Did you have fights about that too?’

This isn’t the best Roth I’ve read but, as I’ve said, I’ve focused on his later novellas, none of the famous stuff although I did watch the film adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint and can’t say I’m desperate to read the book now. I should probably read Operation Shylock. It’s supposed to be his masterpiece. Deception isn’t. It’s an experimental novel and as I’m always quick to point out, most experiments fail but Operation-Shylockthat doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile ventures; it’s how we learn. And what I learned from this book is that an author needs to have a little more respect for his readers than Roth’s shown here. We don’t need to be spoon-fed but as most of us aren’t that brilliant a little help here and there would be appreciated.

I know a lot of people don’t care much for Roth—my wife is one of them—and there are good reasons from what I hear and maybe if I had read all the famous books I wouldn’t care much for him either—I was certainly not impressed by the way he treated Claire Bloom when they parted company—but for a book about a love affair the one thing there’s very little of (or even talk of) is sex. That doesn’t mean that ‘Philip’ is not sexist because he is, and manipulative and full of himself. But clearly he’s also capable of attracting women. As was Roth. Roth and Bloom were a couple for years. He must’ve been doing something right. That ‘Philip’ treats women as fodder sounds bad—they’re something to be recorded and studied—but he’s a writer: that’s what we do. Witness for the defence, Randy Murray:

A writer is a dangerous friend. Everything you say, all of your life and experience, is fodder for our writing. We mean you no harm, but what you know and what you’ve done is unavoidably fascinating to us. Being friends with a writer is a bit like trying to keep a bear as a pet. They’re wonderful, friendly creatures, but they play rough and they don’t know their own strength or remember that they have claws. Choose the stories you tell to your writer friends carefully.

What’s interesting about ‘Philip’ and the Englishwoman is that over the years the sex dries up and all they have is the conversation but it seems enough. Better than sex? Better than the wrong kind of sex perhaps. A far cry from Portnoy. Or maybe not:

What I'm saying, Doctor, is that I don't seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds—as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America—maybe that's more like it. Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthorp, General Washington—now Portnoy.

If Portnoy was Roth in his youth then why shouldn’t ‘Philip’ be a middle-aged Roth not entirely disinterested in sex but more interested in other kinds of intimacies? Indeed the subject matter covered in this little book is broad: sex, infidelity, family and work, psychotherapy, politics, sleeplessness, divorce lawyers, the anti-Semitism of the English, and how far a writer should be allowed to go for his craft.

The chapters with the Czechs seem out of place at first but Hermione Lee in an article in The Independent suggested that Deception is “also about obstacles to freedom, which is why the novel has other voices cutting across the lovers’ voices of Roth’s obstructed Eastern European characters.” It’s a thought. ‘Philip’ basically hides himself away in his flat and blames it on the locals’ attitudes towards Jews. One thing I haven’t mentioned and really should is the humour in the book. Although it’s far from being a comedy there are a few moments that made me smile, particularly this one in which the Englishwoman has taken on the role of female prosecutor and ‘Philip’ that of the accused writer:

        ‘The women in your work are all vicious stereotypes. Was that your aim as a writer?’
        ‘Many people have read the work otherwise.’
        ‘Why did you portray Mrs. Portnoy as a hysteric? Why did you portray Lucy Nelson as a psychopath? Why did you portray Maureen Tarnopol as a liar and a cheat? Does this not defame and denigrate women? Why do you depict women as shrews, if not to malign them?’
        ‘Why did Shakespeare? You refer to women as though every woman is a person to be extolled.’
        ‘You dare to compare yourself to Shakespeare?’
        ‘I am only—’
        ‘‘Next you will be comparing yourself to Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker!’

Is this Roth answering his critics? Who knows? All the above taken into consideration I have to say I did actually like this book. Now, after doing some research, I’ve a better idea what’s going on and who’s who I think I could relax into it a second time but I’m not in any great rush to read it again. Too many other books crying out for attention.


rothPhilip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, which became the scene for his early novels. His father was an insurance salesman of Austro-Hungarian stock. Roth attended Rutgers University for a year before transferring to Bucknell University. He studied at the University of Chicago, receiving his M.A. in English. In 1955 Roth joined the army but was discharged after an injury during basic training period. Roth continued his studies in Chicago, and worked from 1955 to 1957 as an English teacher. He dropped out of the Ph.D. program in 1959 and started to write film reviews for the New Republic.

Roth, known to be both literary troublemaker and (arguably) the greatest living American writer, has been praised time and time again for his works of literature, beginning in 1959 when he won the National Book Award for his novel Goodbye, Columbus. Ten years later appeared Portnoy's Complaint, a “masturbation story” about young man's search for freedom using forbidden sex as his way of escape. The book gained a great international success and ended up being translated into several languages.

Roth has a well-known style for his use of exploration of American identity that often gets tied together with sexual and familial love. We often see parallels between his novels and his own life, and although his novels do seem eerily biographical, he has sworn up and down that they are, in fact, not.

Philip Roth has had three of his novels made into movies, including Goodbye, Columbus, The Human Stain, Portnoy's Complaint; Battle of Blood Island was adapted from the short story ‘Expect the Vandals’. Roth has also won over twenty awards for his novels, including two National Book Awards and the Man Booker International Prize. Somehow the Nobel Prize keeps eluding him though.

Sunday, 13 December 2015


Obituary (4.10.86)

The drowning man is dead; you killed him.
And in my waking hours I will him stay so.

Yet he haunts my dreams
and lives on in my memories
like the reality of a scarred face.

And the world is full of broken mirrors.
Not that it matters: nothing does:
someone will resurrect him.

4 October 1986

A few poems ago I wrote about demon possession. Now I’m writing about ghosts. There are ghosts in the new book—which is finished now (“finished” being a relative term) and Carrie’s pronounced it “excellent” (which I’m hoping is not a relative term)—but they’re just a literary device. In the park, for example, Jim sees his father’s ghost:

I used to see my father's shade out of the corner of my eye. I’d never see him arrive and he disappeared as mysteriously. I’ve not seen him in many a moon.

What do we mean by “ghost”? The book contains two additional definitions to those we’re already familiar with:

A ghost in this context is an avatar for the imagination. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on!”


I dubbed a “ghost” the kind of pathetic individual who’s not all there who haunts a past he or she never truly had rather than make a life in a present they no longer recognise.

Perhaps because I was a poet before I was a novelist—and fully expect to still be a poet once I’m done with all this prose malarkey—I’m far more comfortable with sentences that are open to interpretation than someone like, for example, Orwell who is known for his clear, direct, and precise writing style. I like that we can take a familiar word like “ghost” and redefine it or perhaps I should say expand its definition.

It’s interesting that I use “broken mirrors” in the poem. I use it in the book too: “Humanity is like… How did Pound put it? A bundle of broken mirrors.” By 1986 I’d pretty much given up trying to read Pound but maybe that line had hung around in my head. Who knows? I might’ve come up with it myself. It happens.

The final two lines of the Pound’s poem ‘Near Perigord’ read:

And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors . . . !

Pound actually created a photography machine that used mirrors to create shattered portraits but he’s not the only one to use the expression. Borges wrote, “We are our memories are that chimerical museum of changing shapes, this heap of broken mirrors.” I remember the expression from an article on Beckett, ‘Beckett's Godot: “A bundle of broken mirrors”’ in which neither Pound nor Borges is mentioned; the author references instead Wordsworth and Hamlet.

In my book though what do I mean when I refer to Mankind as a bundle of broken mirrors? Well several times in the book I make mention to Man being made in God’s image. But we were broken. We are reflections, albeit distorted ones, of our creator. I talk a lot about God in the book—and he’s not without a few things to say himself—but, remember, it’s only a novel. The God in my book is a work of fiction. He only exists in my imagination as are all the characters in the book, avatars of the imagination. The characters in my book are all “broken”. They are imperfect and incomplete. It’s what makes them interesting. I can’t think of anything more boring than perfection and my book is certainly not that but I can live with “excellent”.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


For No One Else

I do not want you
to read my poems any more.

You see only the words
and not the mysteries.

But what is worse is
you don't want to see.

28 September 1986

beer matI was surprised to see this poem crop up here. I would’ve sworn I’d written it about my first wife because there definitely came a point when I stopped showing her my work. I don’t remember getting to that stage with F. but maybe I did or maybe I was thinking about my first wife when I wrote it. Hard to tell. I’ve definitely not got to that stage with Carrie and her opinion still matters. I take that as a good sign. It helps that Carrie’s a writer. No other woman I’ve been involved with has written and so they could never understand how important it was to me. I might as well have been showing them a new beer mat I’d ordered online. They always treated writing as a thing I did and it’s so much more than that. I talk about this in the new book:

My wife used to read all my stuff when she was alive. She would check over everything I gave her whenever I presented it to her; it was never a bad time even when my timing was off which, as I recall, it often was. She read it and then passed comment on it. Customarily she would make notes in the margins, circle certain words or recommend alternative punctuation. It exasperated me no end when she handed the pages back and there were no such addenda. It used to grate on me. I was never convinced that the work was perfect so the problem had to be she had not read it deeply enough or carefully enough or she had only understood it superficially, only read it as a story, an arrangement of plots and subplots, text and subtext, dialogue and description. No, those were merely the strings to my bow, not the music; that was something intangible, something beyond crass notation. It is as good as analogy as any. Perhaps one day that will find itself interred in some godawful book of quotes but hopefully not. “Did you not like it?” I would say and she would say it was “fine”—that was her go-to word—but I would continue to interrogate her: what about the character development? did she feel my hero grew or shrank as the case may be? did he have his own voice or was it merely me mouthing off?
     “No, dear,” she would say (it was the only time she ever called me “dear”). “I think the voice was fine—very… not you.”
     On and on I would go, whittling away, but never asking the key question. I never said, “Did you get it?” did she know what I meant. I never hinted at things like that for fear she might say, “I guess not—sorry,” and I would have failed. I did not wish to fail.

I should be done now. I had one last block of minor changes to make before passing it over to Carrie to read and then my laptop froze during the latest Windows update—damn you to hell Microsoft!—and I’ve had to reinstall my laptop from scratch. So guess what I’ve been doing for the last two days. Which is also why I’m writing on this at 10am on Wednesday. Normally I do not like to leave things this late.

Sunday, 6 December 2015


The Gospel According to Estragon

Godot came today.
We weren't prepared.

If anything we were rather disturbed –
he wasn't supposed to come
(nor was he what I'd expected).

So we killed him
and buried him under the tree
and went back to waiting.

Nothing more to be done.

28 September 1986

GodotI wonder who’s best known, Godot, Yorick or Howard Wolowitz’s mother from The Big Bang Theory? Godot we never see—at least not in Beckett’s play (he finally turns up in Daniel Curzon’s Godot Arrives)—Yorick’s skull is the only part of him we ever see—except in Kenneth Brannagh’s adaptation where there’s a flashback and Ken Dodd plays the jester—and we only ever see the occasional bit of Mrs Wolowitz (never her face) after the finale to season 5. It’s a popular trope having a character who’s referred to constantly but who never appears like Captain Mainwaring’s wife in Dad’s Army (although she is in the upcoming film) and Arthur Daily’s wife (“’er indoors”) in Minder.

Waiting for Godot has always been a great source of inspiration for me. I eventually wrote my own sequel, Vladimir and Estragon are Dead, but made damn sure there was no Godot in it. There’s also a lot of Godot in my new book:

Maybe he had already found himself—the thought had crossed his mind—and not been all that impressed. That couldn’t be me! No way, Pedro! No doubt it happens more often than people care to admit. And the longer the unwashed masses are prepared to wait it out the greater the likelihood they will be disappointed. It happened to the Jews. A woodworker’s apprentice was not what the prophets promised so they renounced him and went right on waiting for their saviour, waiting for the sake of waiting, waiting as the basis of a whole religion. Christians, on the other hand, are expecting his Second Coming any day now. Muslims are waiting on the Mahdi, Buddhists on a bodhisattva named Maitreya, Hindus on Kalki astride his Schimmel with a blazing sword.

I’ve just finished my 13th draft of The More Things Change. Once I’ve uploaded this blog I’ll take out all the footnotes (of which there are now 1453), and send a copy of the book to my tablet to begin reading for the 14th—and hopefully—final time.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015



Of my feelings
I can never forget that I am their host.

They possess me, not I, them.

And I have nightmares of exorcisms
and what they would leave me.

Better the devils you know.

28 September 1986

Not one of The Drowning Man poems but certainly related. The title comes from Mark 5:9, “Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion,’ he replied, ‘for we are many.’” Jesus is, of course, addressing a demon-possessed man. In the end the demons leave the man and enter a large herd of pigs (about two thousand according to the account) that then rush down a steep bank into a lake and drown. The account raises some interesting questions like How come the demons could get into the man on their own but needed permission to leave him? but I’m not really interested in debating them. The story provides a good metaphor for how I was feeling at the time contending with a host of feelings that I wasn’t ready to accept as my own. I suppose it really should be ‘horde’ of feelings if we’re talking about demons and not angels.

What of the man? “When [the townspeople] came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind…” (Mark 5:15). Good for him. But what about me? If I managed to rid myself of all these feeling—maybe not two thousand but a lot—where would that leave me?


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