School of Arts and Sciences
In a haunting memoir, an Upper West Sider puts family secrets—including AIDS—under the microscope
Naturally, for a born-and-bred reader like Roth, the path to self-knowledge leads through literature—not the literary theory he studies at school (and about which he writes acutely and sympathetically), but the books his father gave him growing up. What did it mean, exactly, Roth wonders, when his father handed him a copy of Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kröger: was he supposed to model himself after the hero, a life-averse artist, or was his father trying to confide something about his own experience? What about Oblomov, with its hero who is too weak-willed to even get out of bed? In its later sections, The Scientist turns into a literary detective story and also an object lesson in the way the self can be constituted by literature.
But it is the mystery of his father’s life and death that propels Roth’s continual questioning of received truths. Roth’s father’s sister is Anne Roiphe, the novelist and memoirist, and after her brother died, she published 1185 Park Avenue, a memoir in which she not-so-subtly implied that he was gay. This comes as a total shock to Roth, who never suspected that his father could have contracted AIDS in a more typical fashion. As he sets out to confront his aunt and mother, interview his father’s friends, and learn the truth about his sexuality, Roth becomes yet another kind of scientist—a detective, a biographer, a posthumous psychologist.
By the end of The Scientists, Roth has learned a good deal about his father and revealed a lot about himself; but he is too experienced a sufferer to offer any illusion of catharsis. We see him late in the book, a man his thirties, divorced, professionally frustrated, still capable of hurling a wineglass at the wall during a confrontation with his mother. “An idea, or a form, or a way of life does not dramatically expire,” he writes: He is allegedly talking about “the death of the book,” but he is also talking about childhood, and memory, and obsession. The book he has written is not “the end of my unaccomplished mourning, the unsaid Kaddish” that his father forbade him to recite over his grave. It is, rather, a report from one moment in that mourning, which will continue to inform his life, just as all our childhoods loom behind our adulthood. But few people manage to view themselves with the candor and subtlety that Roth summons in The Scientists.
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