“Betrayal is an overwhelming charge, don’t you think? There was no contract drawn up stating that in matters pertaining to you I would forswear my profession. I am a thief and a thief is not to be trusted.” “Not even by his moll?” “However visible you may be feeling, you weren’t identified in that book or made overly identifiable. However much you may have served as a model, the great British public happens to be ignorant of it and you only have to not tell them for them to remain ignorant.”
Cursory background reading leads one to discover that this novel was written when Roth spent time living in London, where he was married to the actress, Claire Bloom, best known to my generation for her role in Brideshead Revisited, a TV series which helped to set a nostalgic vision of what Britain might have been, whose shadow still seems to hang over the country. Whilst in London, Roth slotted into its literary circles, hanging out with, among others, Hare and Pinter. Deception includes one section where the narrator, a Jewish US writer, tells of how he has to suffer at dinner parties as British intellectuals chastise him for both US and Israeli foreign policy, and it’s not hard to imagine Roth and Pinter battling it out over the port in some grandiose Notting Hill dining salon. Deception would also appear to be written in the shadow of Pinter’s masterpiece, Betrayal. Both Pinter’s play and Roth’s novel are constructed around the notion of affairs in literary London. Curiously, Deception is also written for the most part in dialogue, so that it reads like a play, with the occasional stage direction thrown in.
The two works differ in ways that are far more than political. Roth seems to rebel against what he perceives as a British instinct towards hypocrisy and niceties, whereas Pinter’s text positively glories in the joys of hypocrisy. Roth’s narrator doesn’t want any truck with guilt or hang-ups. He’s having an affair and he doesn’t care who knows. Having said which, there’s a telling final section towards the end where the narrator’s wife finds his notebooks, which are, effectively the novel we have just read, and the novelist defends his honour, saying that the affair(s) postulated in the notebooks are purely fictional, they’re an exercise of the imagination. Which is then undercut by a subsequent brief passage where the narrator, having returned to New York, is contacted by his former lover. On the one hand, the author is indulging in metaphysical game-playing; on the other he seems to want to pull the rug from under the reader’s feet, and say, ‘in fact it was all true’. Or could this even be a dig at Pinter, who used his affair with Bakewell to create the content of his play, whilst never acknowledging, at least in public, the existence of the affair.
Which perhaps takes us to the nub and the issue with Deception, the novel: who the fuck cares about these well paid literary types hanging out in their Notting Hill parlours, finding a room for illicit sex in the afternoons, and then bickering with their wives; or sitting around the dinner table putting the world to rights. It’s a precious, navel-gazing world which only feathers the reader’s emotional or intellectual engagement. It may be a roman a clef, but unlike Betrayal, a play which somehow reaches for the essence of what it means to be in love and/or married, Deception feels strangely passionless. If you renounce the value of romantic love, its hypocrisy and its foolishness, there’s nothing at stake. Although Roth’s narrator says many times that he was in love with his mistress, it ends up feeling as though, as the narrator himself observes in a discussion with his wife, he was only ever in love with the idea of his mistress. When things break apart, there’s no sense of loss. Pinter’s text takes us to the heart of an issue: the way in which we define our notion of self through the act of sleeping with another; Roth’s text seems to suggest that in fact this act of sleeping with another is nothing more than a moveable feast, a dangerous liaison to while away those rainy London afternoons.