'I could be his Muse, if only he'd let me.'
- An entry from Maureen Tarnopol's diary
Peter Tarnopol has recently battled his way through a horrific marriage. As it stands, he still deals with his ex-wife, Maureen, as she fights for a greater amount of his weekly salary, of which she currently receives one hundred (1970s) American dollars from a total that is not much higher. Tarnopol, a writer who initially showed great promise but who, though he writes and writes and writes, seems unable to produce anything of any great quality, still suffers mentally from the three years he was married. He visits a psychiatrist, Dr Speilvogel, and has recently begun a new relationship with the astonishingly submissive Susan, who seems to exist purely to help Tarnopol through his rough times.
He has written something, however. Two short stories, both dealing with Nathan Zuckerman, a character who shares roughly the same biography with Tarnopol, who himself shares a remarkable similarity to the real author, Philip Roth. This novel is the first that directly examines the relationship an author has with their writing and, through the thin disguise of Tarnopol, allows Roth to dissect and lay bare the horror and tragedy of his first marriage, to Margaret Martinson.
Tarnopol's life parallels Roth's in ways that are so similar it is difficult to believe Roth's claim that he does not write about himself. Indeed, in other works it is clear that he has polished, altered, added to and changed the biography of himself from which he draws his fiction - as do many authors. But in this novel, the key elements of each man's life are too similar, too identical for this to be anything but a confession disguised as a, well, a confession.
Peter Tarnopol is a charming, intelligent, witty man who has had remarkably difficulty in escaping the clutches of his wife Maureen, for all that they are separated. Initially successful as an academic and then as an author, the reader is introduced to little scenes and examinations of Tarnopol's life before he fell under the sway of Maureen. In these Tarnopol was confident, clear in his path through life, and manifestly devoted to literature. We learn his daily schedule, his ideas on writing and reading, his hopes for a future that extends infinitely with repeated days that are very much the same as before. There is, of course, a rub: '...at twenty-five, for all my dedication to the art of fiction, for all the discipline and seriousness (and awe) with which I approached the Flaubertian vocation, I still wanted my life to be somewhat original, and if not violent, at least interesting, when the day's work was done.' And there is his downfall. Tarnopol's methodical, orderly life is shattered by the addition of someone who is not orderly, who will not allow themselves to become trapped into the compartmentalised structure that is Tarnpol's life.
And who can blame Maureen? It is of course important to remember, as it is with any story recounting a divorce, that the person telling the tale is somewhat biased. For all their good intentions - and it seems that Tarnopol does not have good intentions so much as he wants to rid himself of the difficulty of his late twenties life through the cleansing burn of cathartic revelation - the divorcee, the divorcee, the separated, the broken-hearted - their story is tainted by a desire to show themselves in a better light than the other person, whomever they may be. It is to the credit of Tarnopol, however, that in his confession he does not stray from revealing the negatives of his own personality, though one of course must wonder if this is what he did reveal, what behaviour did he leave to rot in the dark corners of the relationship?
There is a sense that what Tarnopol wants is not life but literature. Flaubert and Tolstoy are referred to most often, with plenty of other authors scattered throughout. Tarnopol is a writer in the sense that he cannot seem to allow himself fully into the world of the non-writers. He is bewildered, bemused, confused, destroyed, caught up in and thrown about by life, when all he wants to do - professes to do - is write. Then write, Tarnopol! Yet it is of course the inexorable pull of 'reality', the 'real life' that everyone else seems to have, that draws him from this shell of literature-as-everything to life-as-something, even if his life turns out wrong.
It goes without saying that if the character of Tarnopol is not liked, then the novel will not be enjoyable. Indeed, there is nothing to this novel without Tarnopol. This novel is Tarnopol, in every sense of the term. This is the greatest strength of the work if Tarnopol's charm is received well, but if the reader finds him insufferable, then the novel fails. The plot is slim, and is written with a jumping back and forth style that sometimes comes across as overly complicated. As is often the case with Roth's work, if the story was told in a strictly chronological order it would be a) Not a Roth novel and b) Not particularly interesting.
As mentioned, Roth's own life parallels - or more accurately, Tarnopol's created life parallels Roth - the difficulties experienced within the novel. Both Maureen Tarnopol and Margaret Martinson purchased urine from a pregnant black woman to trick their partner into staying with them by faking a pregnancy test. Both Maureen and Margaret died in car accidents. Is this important to the enjoyment of the novel? No, it is not. But it is important in the sense that from great tragedy a writer - in every sense of the Flaubertian term - can emerge. Roth - and, we presume, Tarnopol - managed to rise from the ashes of a disastrous relationship to continue the pursuit of literature. Lucky for us.