Page 99 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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Tha t is the life. But then there is the counterlife. People may
die, the novel tells us, but there is never an end to the imag­
inative writer. It appears that while Nathan was going through
his ordeal, he fantasized another reality, one more to his liking.
What he has done is to write a fiction in which he projects
his illness and his love affair on his brother, a successful and
mildly philandering dentist in New Jersey. It is his brother who
is having an affair with Maria, a Swiss woman this time, and
who is suffering from the sexually debilitating effects of heart
medication. It is his brother who seeks to remedy his situation
by having a by-pass operation and dies on the operating table.
But that is not the only counterlife that Nathan tries on his
brother. In another variation, he imagines that what Henry,
the brother, really wants is to redeem himself from his hum ­
drum bourgeois existence. Nathan therefore imagines Henry
running away from his family responsibilities in New Jersey —
not with a woman this time — toward a search for his deeper
Jewish identity — shades of Eli Peck — in the West Bank area
of Israel known as Judea.
In each of the five parts of
The Counterlife,
the central pre­
occupation is with creating a new identity by use of the imag­
ination. Israel itself is characterized by Nathan as “a whole
imagining itself.” (TC, p. 145) At the beginning of the book,
novelist Nathan Zuckerman has come to the conclusion (if not
to say, the confusion) that reality is artificial and only fiction
is genuine. It is for that reason that he first creates a brother
who dies as an unredeemed sinner and then recreates him as
a Jew seeking his redemption in Israel. But Roth does not let
his character, or his reader, off the hook with so simple a
transformation. Roth sows doubt in the mind of the reader by
entertaining the contrapuntal idea that to seek a new identity
in one’s old identity is a ruse.
And yet, Roth seems to be arguing that even in real life, out­
side the framework of the fiction, we are all constantly using
our imagination to create new lives for ourselves. We are not,
like Pirandello’s characters, merely in search of an author. We
are all authors. “The treacherous imagination is everybody’s
maker — we are all the invention of each other, everybody a
conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s