For all the seeming self-exposure of the novels, he was a great defender of his solitude, not because he particularly liked it but because swarming emotional anarchy and self-exposure were possible for him only in isolation.
I think of Proust and the several years he rarely left his cork-lined apartment working on his masterpiece. I think of Salinger secluded at his home in the forested hillside of New Hampshire, Salinger who after the enormous success of Catcher in the Rye, rarely broke his silence. After To Kill A Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee did much the same, refusing interviews and public appearances. The creative life is usually solitary and it is in that solitude that a writer finds his story. Perhaps it also creates a strong desire to be heard. Every writer says much the same. Martha Gelhorn put it well, “I always live alone to work, cannot do it otherwise except as total immersion.”
In a way brothers probably know each other better than they ever know anyone else.
One summer my brother and I met at a cafe in the beautiful town of Lucca in Tuscany. The warm afternoon was drawing to a close. The buildings surrounding the piazza glowed in that late afternoon Tuscan light. And he started to tell me about what he saw. He saw things I did not even notice until he pointed them out. It was like that with each building. The object; its meaning; historical importance and why it was placed there and not somewhere else. It was dazzling. He did know a great deal. But above all he wanted to tell me about it. I had never heard him so spontaneously outgoing to me or interested in what he was talking about. It turned out to be our last day together. We never had a better one.
…what matters isn’t what made you do it but what it is you do.
I listen to people tell me what they intend to do and what their attitudes and beliefs are or I read the same things in their writings and I say to myself this is really of no importance. What is important is how they translate their beliefs and attitudes into behavior, what they do when push comes to shove in real time. Many years of experience and a fair amount of research have taught me that the finest of intentions often fall by the wayside under conditions of even the most minimal pressure.
There is no you, Maria, any more than there’s a me. There is only this way that we have established over the months of performing together, and what it is congruent with isn’t “ourselves” but past performances—we’re has-beens at heart, routinely trotting out the old, old, act….It’s all impersonation—in the absence of a self, one impersonates selves, and after a while impersonates best the self that best gets one through.
Does it make any sense to speak of a self, an identity that is the same today as it was 30 or 40 years ago, a self that lies hidden behind most of the actions that constitute our daily life? Or are we, as the author of the passage above suggests, little else but performances of who we imagine our self to be or might wish to be?
On this account the notion of a self as a distinctive identity is a myth. Instead we are impersonators like actors on the stage with a range of parts we perform to meet the demands of the situation or the image that we think others have of us.
I have been searching unsuccessfully for my self for years. Instead, what I find are the various behaviors I enact over time, a set of behaviors that has remained consistent for most of my life now. If this is what is meant by “self,” then I admit the search has been successful after all.
The quoted passages above are from Philip Roth’s novel, The Counterlife. The novel depicts the various lives two brothers lived or might have lived--one is never quite sure. It is an imaginative, forceful, confrontational novel that is Roth at his best.
I might note that Roth, an intensely private man, also lives in virtual solitude at his home in Connecticut. He works from early morning until the end of the day, every day, in his studio back in the trees away from the house. He says he cannot do otherwise, that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he couldn’t write every day.
My responses reflect the way I read a novel or most any book for that matter. I read a passage, come to a halt for one reason or another, place a mark in the margin, and then continue mulling it over for a while. From time to time I return to the passage and others from a really excellent book after I have entered all the marked passages in my Commonplace Book. And every so often these passages serve as the basis for something I write.