A few days ago, noting that their careers and obsessions converge in ways that seem uncanny, I suggested that Philip Roth and Woody Allen were not just doppelgangers, but might in fact be one and the same person.
I've just now read Roth's 1970 novel My Life as a Man, which must be the most self-consciously narcissistic "fiction" ever written -- at least since Ben Jonson’s Fountain of Self-Love four hundred and seven years ago. The novel is a large helping of Philip Roth, followed by more Philip Roth and with a dollop of Philip Roth to the side. My Life as a Man purports to be drawn from the writings of Peter Tarnopol, who is one of the Roth’s many alter egos. The first part of the novel comprises two short stories by Tarnopol, so-called, about a character named Nathan Zuckerman (the very Zuckerman destined to evolve into the most highly developed of Roth’s self-projections -- Roth’s very own alter-ego-issimus). So here's the design of My Life as a Man: Roth, writing as Tarnopol, writes about Zuckerman, who is Roth himself. It’s a closed loop, a totalizing tautology, a pleonasm brought to perfection -- a literary eruv with nothing inside but Roth hisself.
In the latter part of the novel, the psychoanalyst Abraham Spielvogel amusingly diagnoses Tarnopol as "one of the top young narcissists in the arts." But gosh, just because R/T/Z can poke fun at his self-love (sometimes called autoeroticism) doesn’t mean that the novel becomes less oppressively claustrophobic.
While reading My Life as a Man, I couldn't help thinking, “does Roth do anything other than act like Belmondo looking at himself in the mirror? does he have interests other than Roth?”
Like Roth, Woody Allen appears in his own works as a familiar continuing persona –- he's always more or less the same guy: bespectacled, nervous, death and sex obsessed, self-mocking, a deliverer of one-liners -- who may not be Allen but is certainly constructed of woodyallenian raw materials. Allen’s collected works, like Roth’s, approximate an autobiography.
It's clear that one element of their doppelgangerism is their almost equivalent obssession with self. But there are also more precise parallels.
In "Useful Fictions," which is one of the short stories that comprise the first part of My Life as a Man, Peter Tarnopol tells the story of Nathan Zuckerman's disastrous marriage to a woman named Lydia Kettering. (It's a most puzzling liaison, because Zuckerman dislikes -- actually hates -- Lydia right from the start. Roth/Tarnopol claims that exogamous Zuckerman is enthralled or perhaps even hypnotized by Lydia's difference -– by her distinctly unJewish, unbourgeois, uneducated, undisciplined personality. But Zuckerman’s attraction to her is inadequately explicated; it makes him seem not enigmatic but dull, dense, pathetic and ultimately incomprehensible. It's not the character who's flawed; it's the artistry of the writer. After some lunatic adventures, the Zuckerman/Kettering marriage begins to collapse. And then Zuckerman takes a shine to Lydia's daughter Monica, whom he met when she was just ten years old. (Cf. V. Nabokov, Lolita, 1959). After Lydia’s suicide, Zuckerman takes sixteen-year-old Monica to his bed and to Italy. When she turns twenty-one and is technically no longer his ward, he proposes marriage. She refuses him. Smart girl.
Here’s the question, class. Can anyone recall the name of a prominent film writer and director who formed a relationship with the daughter of his longtime companion? Let me give you a hint: Roth grew up just west of Manhattan in Newark; the director in question hails from just east of Manhattan in Brooklyn. No hands? No takers? Let me offer another hint: the young lady in question is named Soon-yi Farrow Previn. Anyone want to take a guess? Yes, that’s right, it’s Woody Allen, whose romance with Mia Farrow’s daughter scandalized the nation in 1992.
Omigod! Woody did in the '90s what Phil fictionalized in the '70s: he married his wife’s daughter.
Did Woody read and study My Life as a Man? Did both men imagine that Lolita was designed as a how-to guide to sexual manners? Or was there something in the seltzer that provoked both of these guys to dabble with the incest taboo? What, in other words, gives? Are Roth and Allen joined at the hip or at the area adjacent to the hip or are they in fact the same person? Stay tuned as we explore this continuing mystery.