The Scientists: a Family Romance
Union Books, 208pp, £14.99
In the autumn of 2004, Marco Roth wrote an obituary (he called it an “autothanatography”) of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida for n+1, the New York-based literary magazine he founded with three friends. The critic and literary theorist Edward Said had also died the year before. With the deaths of Derrida and Said, we were witnessing, wrote Roth, the passing of the “last great generation of intellectuals”.
The fashion for “theory” in the United States, Roth thought, had been the expression of a “hope for the future of thinking and education” on the part of “intelligent, angry and alienated Americans” – Americans not unlike Roth himself. However, despite the patina of political radicalism it acquired when it crossed the Atlantic from Europe, theory wasn’t going to change the world. Yet it could and did, Roth insisted, “change individual lives”, redeeming the “discomfort some people felt about subject and object, language and self”.
Roth develops this thought in his memoir, The Scientists, his first book. He was, he tells us, one of those awkward, unsettled young Americans who found, if not solace exactly, then a kind of negative affirmation in theory – ratification of their sense that the world is largely indifferent to human projects and that we live at the mercy of vast, impersonal forces (“language, desire, economics, evolution”) over which we have no control. (In one of several deftly handled comic set pieces, Roth describes an undergraduate friend of his letting his hands glide, with a mixture of “salaciousness and pedantry”, over a copy of Paul de Man’s The Resistance to Theory, a work in which theory’s unconsoling truths were refined to a sort of icy perfection.)
For Roth, the lessons of theory were as much spiritual (though Derrida and de Man would have hated the word) as they were intellectual – theory offered a way of reconciling oneself to the ineluctability of “ordinary human misery”. From an early age (he’d been a precociously adventurous reader as a child), he writes, “It [had] seemed perfectly natural to me that . . . literature was a kind of mirror of the self.” Roth is too intelligent, however, not to see that this habit could appear theoretically suspect. He recalls later, when he was in graduate school, confiding to an acquaintance that he was working on a book about the relationship of literature to life and being told that the project was “deeply disgusting”.
After graduating from Columbia in the mid-1990s, Roth went to Paris with the intention of “apprenticing” himself to the “master”, Derrida. Things didn’t work out quite as he’d hoped. He arrived in the French capital in late summer but Derrida didn’t begin his seminar until mid-November and was frequently absent on teaching trips abroad. And when Roth secured a slot to deliver a presentation to the great man, he got the date wrong.
The Scientists is not just an intellectual memoir, a memoir of reading, however. It is also a memoir of Roth’s father. He had travelled to France on what he wittily calls the “Eugene Roth Jr Memorial Scholarship Fund”, in reality a reasonably substantial chunk of the money he inherited when his father died from Aids. Eugene, a scientist, was infected when his son was 14 – he was working on sickle-cell anaemia and was pricked accidentally with a used needle. The young Marco was made to keep his father’s condition a secret from all but the family’s closest friends.
Characteristically, Roth’s anatomy of his relationship with his father is also an inventory of the books that Eugene gave him when he was a teenager. By his father’s graveside, Roth summons a list to mind: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons – books about families, certainly, designed to soothe the unruly feelings of an adolescent but also artefacts of a central European, liberal, upper- middle-class culture on the brink of destruction. This was a culture that Roth’s parents had sought to preserve in facsimile on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, regularly throwing open their apartment on Central Park West to chamber recitals and poetry readings. Roth’s elegy for his father, therefore, is also an elegy for a New York Jewish intellectual milieu that has all but disappeared.
One of the things Roth learned from theory was that most human lives don’t describe a satisfying narrative arc. The stories we tell about ourselves are assembled from fragments and there is nothing settled or definitive about the way pieces are put together. He received a rather brutal reminder of this truth when his aunt, the novelist Anne Roiphe, published a memoir that seemed to suggest that Eugene had not told his wife or son the whole story. When he learned of his aunt’s insinuations about his father’s sexuality, Roth feared “becoming what a French literary theorist would call ‘the narrated’ . . . [a character] in someone else’s drama”. To his credit, he has managed to make the story his own.