Philip Roth was prepared to stare the soul resolutely in the face – and for that he can be forgiven most things, says David Baddiel
On page 532 of my preview copy of this biography of Philip Roth there is a footnote. In it, Blake Bailey quotes from Roth’s novel Deception, where the character of Philip Roth asks his mistress what she would do if she was approached after his death by a biographer. Would she talk to him? She replies she might, if he was intelligent and serious. Bailey then adds, with self-deprecating wit: ‘Emma Smallwood did not respond to my request for an interview.’ Emma Smallwood is the name of one of Roth’s many lovers. It is not her real name.
OK, so: a fictionalised version of the subject of the biography I’m reviewing is quoted in words written by the subject of that biography, speaking about an imaginary biography to a fictionalised version of an unnamed woman. Her identity is then revealed, although with a fictional name, by the actual biographer, but only in her absence, in her refusal to say anything about the subject; which plays out — or doesn’t — the scenario the fictionalised Philip Roth was imagining when ‘he’ asked ‘her’ the question in the first place. It’s possibly the most meta footnote in the history of footnotes.