• Home
  • Latest
  • TV
  • Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In conversation with Ira Nadel

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In conversation with Ira Nadel

Posted on 19 May 2021

In April, Ira Nadel, one of the world's leading Jewish biographers, spoke with Anthony Julius, Deputy Chairman about Ira's biography subjects, his approach to research and what we can learn from the lives and stories he documents.

Ira is a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of British Columbia and his books include Joyce and the Jews, Biography: Fiction, Fact & Form, along with biographies of Leonard Cohen, Tom Stoppard, and David Mamet.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Anthony Julius

Welcome everyone to a Mishcon Academy session.  I have a particular investment in this session, partly because it was at my suggestion that Professor Nadel was invited.  But I would like to welcome you, Ira, biographer of Philip Roth.  First of all, let me introduce you as the distinguished serial biographer across a range of biographical subjects.  Maybe you could begin by explaining what your particular interest in Roth was?

Ira Nadel

I’d long been interested in the question of, how do you tell the story of an individual’s life?  What are the challenges and how do you go about it?  And so my interest in biography really from the beginning, was always about theme and trying to find some singular event that I felt initiated the major activities of that particular subject.  Now, my interest in Roth goes back a very, very long way.  I grew up in New Jersey.  I was born in the same hospital as Philip Roth, but then I became fascinated by the books and the writing, especially as I went on to Graduate School.  And that fascination with Roth never left and then as I developed this very strong interest in biography and wrote about these other figures, I always wanted to come back to Philip Roth. 

Anthony Julius

I wonder whether you don’t also struggle with the temptation to turn the biography that you’re writing into your own novel, and so thematise it that the novelist Roth becomes your fictional creation?

Ira Nadel

Well, I wouldn’t presume to construct a fictional creation.  I like history, I think fact is critical but I want to try to understand the facts not in a linear fashion but, if you will, in a kind of circular fashion where incidents from his childhood find a kind of restatement in his mature life.  But the interesting thing about Roth, for me, is this persistent struggle in his own work between autobiography and fiction. 

Anthony Julius

So, you must feel that the ground that you’re covering had already been covered in some slightly mysterious way by your subject?

Ira Nadel

My job is not to look at the novels and then, pardon the phrase, ‘deconstruct them’.  It’s to look at the life and see how the life has been transposed into this creative drive through a series of fictional characters that in many instances have actual sources and bases and nowhere is it more evident than in Roth’s representation of women.  And when I began to look at those relationships it became absolutely clear that there were two or three key themes that repeated themselves in his fiction, but they emanate out of experiences in his life. 

Anthony Julius

Let me ask you to just give an outline of the facts, to take a rough formulation, of his life. 

Ira Nadel

Initially, here we have this young man being born in the weequahic or Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey and he goes to a University, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and he begins to develop an interest in writing.  So, he then goes to the University of Chicago where his literary life really begins to ignite and he begins to publish a collection of short stories at the urging of a younger professor that he meets there, Richard Stern and this is his first book, 1959, ‘Goodbye, Columbus’.  To his shock and surprise, the book wins a national book award.  Anyway, he quickly publishes two, his first novel called ‘Letting Go’, University Novel and then ‘When She Was Good’, a mid-western novel that is a complete disaster.  But his marriage is breaking up, he’s feeling quite deceived by this woman and betrayed – excuse me – he’s living alone in New York and he’s beginning therapy.  And he suddenly realises that he needs to write a book about this self-discovery and freedom from these inhibiting elements in his life and the result is ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’.  Of course, it was one of the first books, not the only one, to focus on sexual misbehaviour, masturbation, language which was very frank and it was a sensation.  But it had this negative effect because again he was too much in the spotlight which he really did not seek. 

He begins a long journey - and I’m summarising a great deal – and that journey finally reaches a stopping point in the late ‘80s.  He’s back, he’s met and he’s been living with Clare Bloom for 12 years, as partners; 3 years as husband and wife but really the marriage also was fraught with too many upheavals and challenges.  Big divorce and Clare Bloom publishes an inciting autobiography called ‘Leaving The Doll’s House’.  And once ‘Leaving The Doll’s House’ came out, he did nothing but write against Clare Bloom.  And then, as he moves into older age, he does something that very few popular, well-read authors do, he says, “I quit, that’s enough.”

Anthony Julius

He was planning to announce his retirement from fiction writing when I saw him once in New York.  He said, “You know, people think that novelists, creative people generally, pull their art out of them like a spider pulls a web but it’s not true,” he said, “actually, we have a finite amount of material, a finite amount of creativity and I’ve reached the end of mine.”  Do you think that that was right?  Do you think he’d got himself right at that point?

Ira Nadel

No.  I do not and I think what happens with many creative figures, is almost a rediscovery, a re-invigoration, in the last, shall we say, 25% of their creative life.  I think Roth, his habits as a writer, generally worked from the outside in.  In other words, he would experience something, he would meet people, he would remember incidents from his own private life and use that material as the fictional grid of a long set of stories.  You know, with Philip Roth, he was deeply and consistently worried about his reputation and if people began to write negative reviews of his work, he became very upset. 

Anthony Julius

Speaking as a lawyer who’s done a fair amount of libel work in my professional career, my sense generally is that when clients commit to libel litigation, when they freely commit to litigating themselves, they are making a choice against their own creativity.  I wondered whether Roth, in a sense, had solved that conundrum.  He was able to commit his creative genius to the pursuit of a kind of settling of accounts?

Ira Nadel

I entirely agree with you.  I mean, anger and discontent is a seamless, seamless theme throughout his entire life.  He had some very prolonged and serious friendships that would always break off.  And they would break off because that other person insinuated or implied something which was contrary to Roth’s own narrative of his own life. 

Anthony Julius

Part of the worst, some people have said, is a kind of endemic constitutive misogyny and I wonder whether you think this is something that actually is a limitation in his work, or is part of that marriage of the negative and the creative which we’ve just been talking about?

Ira Nadel

I think the marriage you refer to, is the result of personal experiences that he had and the most significant is the relationship with Maggie, who he married as a result of her deception.  Where she says, “I’m pregnant,” he does the honourable thing and he marries her because she is pregnant.  But in fact, what happened where she went to Tompkins Park in New York City and bought, bought a urine sample from a pregnant women, went to a pharmacy, gave that as her own sample and of course the test came back positive. This act of deception, this moment of betrayal, shaped all of his relationships with women.  He distrusted intimacy and he distrusted the idea of a truly loving exchange with another person, a woman.  So, it’s no surprise that women are represented the way they are. 

Anthony Julius

Did you feel that in order to do justice to his literary work, you also had to come to his defence as a, as a husband?

Ira Nadel

Not really but I did I think feel a responsibility to represent the women, in a much more complex fashion than he did.  When he writes about Clare Bloom, he neglects the way he helped her.  All he mentions is – what he mentions is expressed through anger and, you know, “She disturbed my life.”

Anthony Julius

There is another biography of, of Roth in circulation.  In a very curious and un-anticipatable way that biographer has been caught up in his own drama of sexual scandal and misconduct.  I wonder whether you could just summarise what’s happened?

Ira Nadel

It was surprisingly and explosively revealed that charges of sexual misconduct were brought against this other biographer and documented important charges that are really very, very upsetting.  Now, what this suggests and there is a somewhat notable link to Roth, is that there was this active concealment on the part of the biographer and that this is typ… not typical but characteristic of Roth himself.  So, I think it’s very disturbing and it’s disturbing to the public, it’s disturbing to students of Roth, that the person telling Philip Roth’s story comprehensively exhibits many of the characteristics that Roth himself tried to fictionalise or to conceal.  But it puts his account in a deeply troubling context so that anyone believing that they are getting some sort of – I guess I must use the word, ‘honest’ account, of Philip Roth - now have to see it in light of something other, which reshapes that particular narrative. 

Anthony Julius

Do you think that in the light of this affair, biographers along with politicians and celebrities of sorts, have to worry about the circumstances of their private life becoming a metaphor for legitimate investigation?

Ira Nadel

I do, of course, of course I do.  But if they agree to be the subject of a biography, they must understand that it’s an attempt – there is no – never a definitive line, but it’s an attempt to tell the full story.  But they have to have trust in their biographer.  But to write about a living subject is a very challenging thing. 

Anthony Julius

I was going to ask you whether you found that writing about living subjects or whether you felt that you had to edit what you were saying in such a way as to take account of susceptibilities?

Ira Nadel

To a very minor degree.  You have to have the trust of the subject.  You have to obviously engage with them; they have to understand who you are.  Every subject is different and you know, so, when I approach you Anthony, to write your life, I can just imagine what you’re going to tell me. 

Anthony Julius

Well, I mean on that bombshell because I was going to ask you who your next subject was and you’re telling me who your subject is, I’m going to thank you very much for, for giving your time. 

Ira Nadel

Well, it’s a great pleasure.  I hope people pick up the book and read with enthusiasm, this account of Philip Roth: A Counterlife. 

Anthony Julius

Bravo.   

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com. 

How can we help you?

How can we help you?

Subscribe: I'd like to keep in touch

If your enquiry is urgent please call +44 20 3321 7000

Crisis Hotline

COVID-19 Enquiry

I'm a client

I'm looking for advice

Something else