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Knowing a real-life Philip Roth character


by Jerome Weeks 5 Nov 2007

A fairly unnerving prospect, yes? Considering the number of unhappy, unsavory, twisted, driven, needy sorts of people who populate a typical Philip Roth story. This past weekend, I moderated a panel on literary criticism at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. One member of the panel was Steven Kellman, UT-San Antonio English prof, prolific author […]

CTA TBD

A fairly unnerving prospect, yes? Considering the number of unhappy, unsavory, twisted, driven, needy sorts of people who populate a typical Philip Roth story.

This past weekend, I moderated a panel on literary criticism at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. One member of the panel was Steven Kellman, UT-San Antonio English prof, prolific author of literary studies (Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text) and the recent Nona Balakian winner, the top prize given by the National Book Critics Circle to a book reviewer. In subsequent discussions with him, he mentioned something I’d not been aware of — which many readers are unaware of.

In Roth’s latest novel, Exit Ghost, the author returns not only to his infamous alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, but a number of other characters, including the late E. I. Lonoff, a short story writer whom Zuckerman knew and admired. It’s fairly well known by now that the model for Lonoff is not Bernard Malamud, as some originally surmised, but Henry Roth, author of the classic 1934 novel, Call It Sleep. It’s in Exit Ghost that the Henry Roth model is made plain: Zuckerman is pestered and infuriated by a would-be biographer of Lonoff, and sets out to quash the biographer’s project because it advances the theory that Lonoff suffered a huge case of writer’s block over guilt about his incestuous relationship with his sister.

I didn’t make the following connection because, frankly, I’ve not enjoyed the recent Zuckerman novels much, so I didn’t get far into Exit Ghost before moving on to other books. But — the name of the thoroughly obnoxious biographer in the novel is Kliman — and Steven Kellman is the biographer of Henry Roth. It was Steven who argued — in Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth — that shame over being expelled from high school for theft and a long adolescent incestuous relationship with his sister caused Roth to forego major works of autobiographical fiction after Call It Sleep.

A slight, cheeful fellow, Steven is hardly the ominous, 200-lb, 6-ft three Kliman who bedevils Zuckerman, but otherwise, it’s hard not to see, well, the resemblances. Steven writes about the echoes for the Jewish book site, Jbooks.com here.

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