The Facts and Patrimony by Philip Roth (Shane's books 24 and 25, 2011)

These two books make up the other half of the Library of America volume collecting Roth's work between 1986 and 1991. While The Counterlife and Deception explored the boundary between fiction and fact from one side, these two books approach from the opposite direction. [amtap book:isbn=1598530305]

The Facts is Roth's autobiography and, despite its title, it's prefaced by a letter from the author to his character Nathan Zuckerman, asking for feedback. 'The Facts'? Yeah, nice try Roth.Roth takes us from his childhood up to the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, when he was in his mid-30s. The book covers his time at university, the start of his writing career and his failed first marriage. It ends with a brutal letter from Zuckerman that explains the book's flaws and criticises Roth's inability to turn his merciless author's gaze upon himself.

There are layers of metafictional meaning behind Zuckerman's criticism. Roth has often been criticised for mistreating those he knows by using them in his fiction. And he has used that criticism as further fuel for his fiction, particularly in the Zuckerman novels.

We're left with a number of questions: Is Roth pre-empting criticism by having Zuckerman demolish the book? Is Zuckerman right? Given that the book has been written for a fictional character, how much of it can we believe? Or is that the very question Roth wants us to ask, simply to throw us off the scent?

It doesn't matter how you answer those questions, or even whether you believe them to be relevant. That they are raised at all is enough.

For what it's worth, I think Zuckerman has a point. Roth does not treat his own life with the ruthlessness that he has brought to his characters. He is almost painfully honest about his relationship with his first wife and admits to feeling relieved when she died. However, he does not use her real name - though it is widely known - and Zuckerman criticises him for that too.

With the exception of the death of his wife, Roth's life was relatively unremarkable but he does his best with the material available. HIs writing is such a joy that it would be worth reading his thoughts on anything at all. I was disappointed when the book ended.

Patrimony is, it appears, an entirely factual account of the death of Roth's father from an inoperable brain tumour. Indeed, it's only the novel's subtitle - 'a true story' - that raises suspicions.

As you would expect, it's a very sad book but it's also warm, dignified and frequently funny. The highlight is a scene in which Roth's father brings a Holocaust survivor over to dinner so that Roth can take a look at his book and help to find a publisher.

Roth makes clear that he's uncomfortable about this in the first place but his discomfort turns to be bemusement when he finds that the book is not about the Holocaust but instead a pornographic account of the man's sexual exploits during the war.

As always, Roth's favourite themes - family, commitment and anti-Semitism form a significant part of this book, as they do in The Facts. The writing is exceptional throughout. Though The Facts is far from essential, I highly recommend Patrimony.