“HAPPINESS WRITES WHITE,” said the French novelist Henry de Montherlant; it is only suffering that compels a person to leave a legible trace—that is, to become a writer. The Scientists: A Family Romance, the new memoir by Marco Roth, is a beautifully intelligent and moving testimony to the truth of this sad maxim.
Ordinarily, it is appropriate to be a little skeptical when a writer of Roth’s age—he was born in 1974—tries to write a memoir. Surely autobiography is a genre reserved for the old, who can look back with wisdom over a completed life, or for those who have lived through some extraordinary experience. Roth’s story is not outwardly very exciting—he has been a graduate student, a critic and teacher, and most notably, a cofounder of the magazine n+1—and he makes no pretense of having mastered his life enough to write about it objectively: “Whatever I am,” he writes, “I am not an unbroken storyline.”
Instead, Roth claims another, inarguable right to memoir: the right that comes from having suffered, from spending half his life struggling in the coils of a “family romance” he can neither resolve nor escape. “If I have a more than ordinary need to relive the past on the page,” he acknowledges, “it may be because I have a more-than-ordinary fear of reliving that past elsewhere.”
Roth’s childhood, he reveals, was the source of a double trauma, one dramatic, one so subtle that it takes him much of the book to fully understand it. The obvious trauma came when he was 14 years old and learned that his father had AIDS. Eugene Roth had been infected, his son was told, in a laboratory accident: a medical researcher working on sickle-cell anemia, he accidentally pricked himself with a used needle. Four years later, Roth’s father died, too early to be helped by the later-generation drugs that have made AIDS into a manageable condition. In the interim, Roth writes, his life was dominated by the need for secrecy: he had been instructed never to mention to anyone that his father had this stigmatizing disease.
What does it do to a young man to spend his adolescence in the shadow of death, the bearer of a terrible secret? In Roth’s sober account, we learn that it breeds fantasies of omnipotence. His father was a scientist, and the teenage Roth dreamed of following in his footsteps, of finding a cure for his father’s disease, though he knew this was impossible:
I was now in my third year of high school. If I managed to spend all my time studying protein synthesis and immunobiology and everything else, even if I was some sort of teen genius … I could not, even by superhuman application, hope to be a doctor and a scientist in less than three years. I begin to feel less cheater than cheated. Is there a reason to study this if my father cannot be saved? If I will not be the one to save him? What good is this kind of knowledge?
But if Roth can’t become this kind of scientist—a hero out of The Microbe Hunters, a book his father shared with him—he is destined to become a different kind of scientist: a student of the mystery of his family, trying to figure out the truth about why it works the way it does. In this sense, all children are researchers, who succeed when they manage to dispel childish illusions and fantasies about their parents and begin to see them as flawed human beings. This is a difficult enough task under ordinary circumstances—if any family, seen from inside, can be called ordinary—but what do you do when it turns out that your family really is built on secrets?
This is the second trauma that Roth endured as a child: the sense that he was growing up in a home that was secretive and hypocritical. Most concretely, he was forced to keep the secret of his father’s illness—even though, he writes, he eventually confessed it to a high-school friend, who told someone else, so that “by the time I graduated, it was possible that anyone who knew me and my friend knew about my father, which meant, in all likelihood, most of the school knew and kept it from me. This did not, for me, make the secret any less secret or less powerful, nor did it make me feel any better for having talked.”
But the deeper uncertainty of Roth’s upbringing was cultural and linked in a definite yet intangible way to Jewishness. Roth describes his childhood as, in some ways, a New York Jewish dream of culture and affluence. He grew up in an elegant apartment on Central Park West, where his family regularly hosted musical performances; he attended the elite Dalton School, before going on to Columbia and Yale. “You are a person,” his father would instruct him, with the implication that it was up to him to become the right kind of person, a full, cultured individual. His father scorned baseball, television, and pop music; above all, he scorned the wealthy family he had left behind, with their conventional Reform Judaism and Park Avenue bourgeois values. All of these were badges of Philistinism, with the implication that to live rightly—idealistically, intellectually, indifferent to material things—was to be part of the chosen people:
I’d seen actual, historical Philistines in my illustrated history of the Jews, “sea-peoples,” the book mysteriously called them, with beards, cruel faces and spears, who worshiped flesh-shaped gods like the one in my coloring book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew these people were the historical enemies of the Jews, that I was a Jew of some kind, though not the synagogue-going kind, nor the Zionist kind, either. … It seemed then that my father meant me to be one of these Jewish heroes with unruly, curly hair like Samson’s, to resist these invaders who’d brought him such grief.
The whole picture is curiously familiar, if anachronistic. It is the childhood of a thousand nineteenth-century German Jews, whose Judaism took the form of worship of culture and dedication to Bildung. (The way Roth writes about his childhood apartment seems consciously to pay homage to Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900.) And the main purpose of The Scientists, as it takes Roth past his father’s death and into college, post-collegiate study with Jacques Derrida, and then graduate school, is really to interrogate this cultural ideal, to calculate the repressions and evasions it demanded.
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.
This piece was originally published in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a Senior Editor at The New Republic.