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Deception by Philip Roth

 

Overview: A famous writer, named Philip, and his mistress meet in a room without a bed. They talk, they play games with each other, they have sex, they tell lies. DECEPTION, Philip Roth's most poignant and provocative work since Portnoy's Complaint, explores adultery and the unmasking of illicit lovers in a novel that exposes the tenderness and uncertainty underlying all affairs of the heart.

 

Deception by Philip Roth Book Chapter One

 

‘I’LL WRITE THEM down. You begin.’

‘What’s it called?’

‘I don’t know. What do we call it?’

‘The Dreaming-About-Running-Away-Together-Questionnaire.’

‘The Lovers-Dreaming-About-Running-Away-Together-Questionnaire.’

‘The Middle-Aged-Lovers-Dreaming-About-Running-Away-Together-Questionnaire.’

‘You’re not middle-aged.’

‘I certainly am.’

‘You seem young to me.’

‘Yes? Well, that shall certainly have to come up in the questionnaire. Everything to be answered by both applicants.’

‘Begin.’

‘What’s the first thing that would get on your nerves about me?’

‘When you are at your worst, what is your worst?’

‘Are you really this lively? Do our energy levels correspond?’

‘Are you a well-balanced and charming extrovert, or are you a neurotic recluse?’

‘How long before you’d be attracted to another woman?’

‘Or man.’

‘You must never get older. Do you think the same about me? Do you think about this at all?’

‘How many men or women do you have to have at one time?’

‘How many children do you want to interfere with your life?’

‘How orderly are you?’

‘Are you entirely heterosexual?’

‘Do you have any specific idea of what interests me about you? Be precise.’

‘Do you tell lies? Have you lied to me already? Do you think lying is only normal, or are you against it?’

‘Would you expect to be told the truth if you demanded it?’

‘Would you demand the truth?’

‘Do you think it’s weak to be generous-minded?’

‘Do you care about being weak?’

‘Do you care about being strong?’

‘How much money can I spend without your resenting it? Would you let me have your Visa card, no questions asked? Would you let me have any power over your money at all?’

‘In what ways am I already a disappointment?’

‘What embarrasses you? Tell me. Do you even know?’

‘What are your real feelings about Jews?’

‘Are you going to die? Are you mentally and physically okay? Be specific.’

‘Would you prefer someone richer?’

‘How inept would you be if we were discovered? What would you say if someone came in that door? Who am I and why is it all right?’

‘What things don’t you tell me? Twenty-five. Any more?’

‘I can’t think of any.’

‘I look forward to your answers.’

‘And I to yours. I have one.’

‘Yes?’

‘Do you like what I wear?’

‘That’s straining.’

‘Not at all. The more trivial the defect the more anger it inspires. That’s my experience.’

‘Okay. Last question?’

‘I have it. I have it. The last question. Do you in any way, in any corner of your heart, still harbor the illusion that marriage is a love affair? If so, that can be the cause of a lot of trouble.’

‘My husband’s girlfriend gave him a present the other day. She’s very pretentious, a very jealous and ambitious kind of person. Everything has to be high drama for her. She gave him this record. I can’t remember, but it’s a very well known, very beautiful piece of music. Schubert – and all about the loss of the greatest passion in his life, the most interesting woman of the century, who was tall and thin – oh, it’s all related to that. All this is made very plain in the liner notes, how this is the greatest passion that could ever be conceived, the true marriage of true minds, and all this really high-flown stuff about the misery and ecstasy of being separated by cruel fate. It was so clearly a pretentious gift. He makes the mistake of being open about all these things, you see. He could simply have said that he bought it himself. But he told me that she had given it to him. And I don’t think he’d looked at the back. I was drunk one evening, and I’ve got this pink stuff that you underline with and it makes things stand out. And I underlined about seven phrases that just looked hilariously funny when you did that. Then I calmly withdrew to a dignified distance and handed him the cover of this record. Do you think that was awful of me?’

‘Why were you drunk?’

‘I wasn’t drunk. I’d had a lot of drinks.’

‘You have a lot to drink at night.’

‘Yeah.’

‘How much?’

‘Oh, I drink a huge amount. It depends. Some evenings I don’t drink anything. But if I were drinking, I could easily drink several doubles before dinner, and several afterwards, and wine in between. I wouldn’t even be drunk. I would just be kind of elevated.’

‘So you don’t get much reading done these days.’

‘No. Though I don’t drink by myself. There’s someone there when I drink. Though we don’t really stay together very much. Well, we have recently – but it’s not usual.’

‘It’s such a strange life you lead.’

‘Yes, it is strange. It’s a mistake. But there we are, that’s my life.’

‘How unhappy are you?’

‘What I find is that it goes in periods. One has periods of ghastliness. And then long periods of sort of quiet and love. There was a long time when it seemed that all these things were getting worse. And then there was a short time when they seemed to be resolving themselves. And now I think neither of us wishes to have too many confrontations. Because it achieves nothing. And it just makes it all the more difficult to live with each other.’

‘Do you still sleep together?’

‘I thought you were going to ask me that. I’m not going to answer that question. If you want to go somewhere in Europe, I know exactly where I want to go.’

‘You with me?’

‘Ummm. Amsterdam. I’ve never been there. And there’s a wonderful exhibition.’

‘You’re looking at the clock to see what time it is.’

‘People who drink too much often look at the clock before they have their first drink. Just in case.’

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, nothing. Two nannies, two children, and two cleaning women all squabbling, and the usual English damp. Then my daughter, since she’s been ill, has taken to waking me up at any time, three, four, five. What’s tiring is I’m responsible to all my responsibilities. I need a holiday. And I don’t think we can continue to have a sexual relationship. The day’s too short.’

‘Is that right? That’s too bad.’

‘No, I don’t think we can. Don’t you agree, actually? Last time we talked about it, wasn’t that the direction in which your own conversation was tending?’

‘Oh, I see. This is a pre-emptive strike. Okay. Whatever you want.’

Laughing. ‘Well, I think that’s best. I think that you put yourself very neatly when you said it was driving you nuts.’

‘What was driving me nuts?’

‘Well, all these sexual matters. You said you didn’t think you were very keen on just a romantic friendship.’

‘I see.’

‘That’s sort of your we’ll-let-that-ride expression.’

‘No, no, it’s not. It’s my I’m-still-listening expression.’

‘Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have simplified like that.’

‘Really? Oh, I’ll simplify it for you, if you want it simple.’

‘Don’t say nothing. I hate you to say nothing.’

‘It’s very strange to see you.’

‘Stranger not to, isn’t it?’

‘No, I usually don’t see you.’

‘You do look a bit different. What’s been happening to you?’

‘That makes me look so different? You tell me what the difference is and I’ll tell you what did it. Am I taller, shorter, fatter, wider?’

‘No, it’s very subtle.’

‘Something subtle? Shall I be serious? I missed you.’

‘I went to see a friend of ours who left her husband. She’s very clever, she’s very beautiful, and she’s very successful. And she’s extremely courageous and self-disciplined. And she’s got lots of money. And she looks terrible.’

‘How long has she been on her own?’

‘Two months.’

‘She’ll look worse.’

‘Not only does she earn this huge amount of money in an interesting job, but she had a lot of money, so that there are no problems of that sort.’

‘She have children?’

‘She has two children.’

‘A cautionary visit.’

‘Well, if she can’t do it, well . . . really. She’s just been terribly ill, she’s moved house, she’s just got divorced, and her children are kicking up from being wretched and . . . I couldn’t begin. I couldn’t begin.’

*

‘You don’t want him to give her up though, do you? You don’t want to say, “If you don’t give her up, I’m going to sleep in the other room. You can either fuck me or you can fuck her. Take your choice.”’

‘No. No. I think that she’s really an important part of his life, and it would not only be mad but selfish.’

‘Selfish on your part?’

‘Yes.’

‘Really? Is that your point of view? If it is, then you can marry me. That’s a lovely point of view – I’ve never run into it before. A woman saying, “It would be selfish for me to ask my husband to give up his girlfriend.”’

‘I think it would though.’

‘Usually people think it’s selfish of the man to want her and to have her, not selfish of the woman to ask him to give her up.’

‘A point of view that is reasonable and right doesn’t come naturally. That was my first response. But it is what I think . . . I can see that I’ve behaved very stupidly with my husband, but maybe it’s because I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. He has had to put up with years of me being terribly depressed and lonely. I don’t think it was entirely surprising – I was alone so much and he was away so much and working so hard. I didn’t have other affairs, because I always thought he was vulnerable and had to be protected.’

‘He doesn’t sound that vulnerable to me.’

‘So he’s safely in a hospital room. You think the tootsie’s over there?’

‘“Tootsie” is such a wonderful word.’

‘I thought you might like it. You’re getting your little vacation finally.’

‘Well, I think I’ve given him an unduly bad press. He has many, many qualities. But the truth of the matter is that I haven’t slept so well for a long time. I woke up this morning feeling absolutely normal.’

‘Did you listen to the record I gave you?’

‘No. I had to hide it.’

‘Why do you have to hide it?’

‘Because it would be unusual for me to buy a record. I don’t often do it.’

‘What are you going to do with it?’

‘Well, I’ll play it in the evening when I’m alone.’

‘What are you going to do if it’s found? Salt and pepper it and eat it?’

‘I did buy records, but I did get so upset for a while that – well, that’s history.’

‘What? Did you have fights about that too?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did you really?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s not necessary.’

‘No.’

‘You look lovely. That’s a nice outfit. Is it on inside out?’

‘No. I have lots of clothes with seams on the outside. You never noticed. It’s terribly smart. Suggests that you’re somewhat anarchic.’

‘Well, you look lovely but you sound awfully tired. And you’re getting skinny again. Don’t you take vitamins and all the rest of those things?’

‘Intermittently I do. It’s that I haven’t eaten for three days. I’m so busy.’

‘Too busy.’

‘Yeah. I’m sitting in this room trying to type, and this little one comes in and first of all she does a pee on the carpet. And then she goes out and she cries some more and then she comes in again. Then she shuffles several pages around, then she takes the telephone off the hook, and then she comes up to me and she does a crap all over my sofa. Then I have to go off to work and make sycophantic noises at my boss for eight hours.’

‘And the husband?’

‘It’s easier when I don’t see you. One makes an adjustment and places one’s distractions elsewhere – and just forgets, you know? You don’t get involved in this terrible comparing. I’ve wanted very much to explain to you what’s been going on in my head. But I feel that perhaps I’m abusing you, and I don’t want to do that. One thing that I want is to stop having to explain all that shit to you. I will if you ask me but I’d rather not talk about it.’

‘Talk about it. I like to know what’s going on in your head. I’m very fond of your head.’

‘I just had my mother for the weekend. And he just disappeared. I had my mother entirely on my own for the weekend. And I haven’t slept well for nights. And I think about you a great deal. And tomorrow I have to have lunch with my mother-in-law, which is a slightly grueling experience – she’s a woman who can really criticize. She can be so hellishly unpleasant that one tries to keep things out of her way. And the nanny is restive. They all hop around from one house to another, the nannies, comparing employers, and ours becomes very restive. And you know what a cervix is?’

‘I think so.’

‘Such a silly word, “cervix”. Well, I’ve got a lump on mine. I have to go have a test or something. And my husband says I’ve ruined his sex life. He says, “You’re so heavy, everything is so serious, awful, there’s no joy, no fun, no humor in anything” – and it’s true, I think. I think he exaggerates grossly, but it’s truish. I don’t enjoy sex at all. It’s all rather lonely and hard. But it’s like this, life, isn’t it?’

‘Why don’t you do your husband a favor and try to come?’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Do it. Just let yourself do it. It’s thought to be better than arguing.’

‘I get so angry with him.’

‘Don’t get angry. He’s your husband. He’s fucking you. Let him.’

‘You mean try harder.’

‘No. Yes. Just do it.’

‘Those things are not under one’s conscious control.’

‘Yes, they are. Just be a whore for half an hour. It won’t kill you.’

‘Whores don’t come. They certainly don’t want to.’

‘Play the whore. Don’t be so serious about it.’

‘That’s his problem – he’s so serious about it. He’s one of these people who think women should have multiple orgasms and everybody should come together. Well, this is all perfectly normal, and what happens among young people, because it’s so easy. But as soon as you’ve acquired a history and a few resentments – oh, there’s so much antagonism between us. And why is it that one just loses interest utterly in someone sexually?’

‘Why don’t you ask me why it snows?’

‘But it is a reason for leaving him, isn’t it?’

‘That isn’t the reason you’re leaving him, if you’re even leaving him.’

‘No. But if I come right down to it, that’s what lies underneath it all. He couldn’t bear my losing interest in him.’

‘How are you?’

‘Oh, busy and angry, as usual.’

‘You look tired.’

‘Well, it’s not surprising, is it? I’ve got mascara, I’m afraid, running down my face.’

‘What are you angry about?’

‘I had this terrible scene with my husband. Yesterday. Because it was Valentine’s Day and you have to have a scene. Somebody had said to him that he isn’t the right husband for me because I really like to be spoiled, and of course I got very indignant – but sometimes I wonder.’

‘Well, maybe because it was Valentine’s Day I woke up in the middle of the night and I had the terrific sensation of your hand on my cock. Now that I think about it, it might have been my hand. But it wasn’t – it was yours.’

‘It was no one’s – it was a dream.’

‘Yes – called “Be My Valentine”. How did I get so hooked on you?’

‘I think it’s that you spend all day in this room. Sitting in this room, you don’t have any new experience.’

‘I have you.’

‘I’m just the same as everything else.’

‘Oh no you’re not. You’re lovely.’

‘Really? Do you think so? I feel a bit ropey, actually. I feel a lot older.’

‘How long is it now?’

‘Us? About a year and a half. I usually don’t do anything for more than two years. I mean jobs and things. I don’t really know anything about you, you know? Oh, I know a bit about you. From reading your books. But not a lot. It’s difficult to know somebody in one room. We might as well be holed up in an attic like the Frank family.’

‘Well, that’s what we’re stuck with.’

‘I suppose. This is life.’

‘There is no other.’

‘Why don’t you give me a drink?’

‘You’re near tears, aren’t you?’

‘Am I? I feel so urgently the need for privacy. I’ve been longing to sleep alone for as long as I can remember. No, that’s an exaggeration. But at the end of the day, when I’m really tired and it’s another emotional battle . . . And not only that, but the distraction of somebody else sleeping beside me. We have a very big bed, but not big enough. It’s just so sad, isn’t it? I mean he has so many wonderful qualities – May I have that drink, please? I’m not terribly stable today. I find it absolutely intolerable that he should say to me, “I’ve given up so much for you and it’s not worth it.” It’s so painful. And he said that twice in the last couple of weeks. Why can’t it get better? We get on so well! And actually I do care for him. I’d miss him horribly if I weren’t there. There’s so much I like about him . . . Anyway, I shouldn’t go on with you like this.’

‘Why not?’

‘Oh, I don’t know what I want.’

‘What you want is not to be in this situation any longer.’

‘Is that what I want? Is that it?’

‘Do you think it would help to see a psychiatrist? Because what I still don’t know is what I want. If somebody said to me, “Look, your husband will stop fooling around, and he will treat you with great respect, and deference, and he’ll be utterly charming, but you won’t feel different sexually, you’re not going to feel any sexual interest, and you’re going to have to put up with –”’

‘Do you feel any interest in anyone?’

‘Now, or ever?’

‘Both.’

‘I used to really enjoy it.’

‘And now? You don’t want to make love to me, do you?’

‘I don’t want to make love to anybody. At all. I don’t know the answer to this. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me sexually in general. But there certainly is at the moment. I’ve even got to the stage where it actually hurts.’

‘The answer to your question about seeing a psychiatrist is yes.’

‘Somebody good is difficult to find.’

‘Are you going to do that on the sly, or openly? And if you do it openly, why are you going to say you’re doing it?’

‘The only reason I wouldn’t do it openly is because later it might emerge that I was unfit to be a mother. That I was neurotic and therefore it would be much better if the child were with her father.’

‘No court would hear it.’

‘But I don’t want to go to court – I just want things to be different.’

‘You know what I’m doing on Tuesday? I’m going to see a solicitor.’

‘About getting divorced?’

‘Well, not really about that. Just to find out what’s up. I’ll probably arrive here in a very heightened state.’

‘Good. It’ll be interesting.’

‘What happens when he asks you how you got that bruise on your thigh?’

‘He already did.’

‘Oh. And?’

‘I told the truth. I always tell the truth. That way you never get caught in a lie.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I said, “I got this bruise in a torrid embrace with an unemployed writer in a walk-up flat in Notting Hill.”’

‘And?’

‘It sounds silly and everybody laughs.’

‘And you maintain the illusion that you’re an honest woman.’

‘Absolutely.’

‘You’re trembling. Are you ill?’

‘I’m excited.’

‘Do I look horrible?’

‘We’ll pour some whiskey down you.’

‘If I start to go through this divorce business, I’m going to have to behave quite impeccably. But I don’t think I’m going to do it.’

‘Then don’t do it.’

‘I don’t know what my intentions are. It was rather a strain telling all these things to some lawyer. What I found offensive is that he had some very attractive young girl lawyer there as well. I nearly said she must go and then I thought we better not start off like that. I decided that I wasn’t going to go into any confessions or anything. But there are certain things you cannot avoid, like “Has your husband committed adultery?”’

‘What did you say?’

‘I said yes. He has for years. Well, if you put up with someone’s adultery for six months, you condone it. And it can no longer be a cause in itself. They were quite curious to know why I put up with it. So I said, forget that, it’s really this: he has this wonderful setup where he can do exactly what he likes, and I have discovered that this is a terribly unusual setup, and if I can’t get something like that going on my side, I think I might as well call it a day. And this girl was shocked that I was being so frivolous. But it’s very difficult to discuss these things. You don’t really want to talk to them about it.’

‘But you have to.’

‘You know, once upon a time when I lived in the country, and before I spent a lot of time in the city, I felt simple and I wished to be simple. But that dies if you struggle a lot. I used to be a lot of fun.’

‘I enjoy you now.’

‘I’m kind of grieving today over the fact that we don’t have any kind of sexual life. I mean, whatever sexual life we have is not what I want.’

‘You tell the lawyers?’

‘That? No, of course not. He’s very keen on sex, but from my point of view, the way it’s all worked out, there’s nothing in it.’

‘You told me. You endure it.’

‘Well, not even that anymore. I’ve decided to give it up.’

‘So that’s going to bring the end about even if the lawyers don’t.’

‘I know. But it just seemed too stupid. Funnily enough, oddly enough, I think there’s something to be said for . . . ’

‘Celibacy?’

‘I wasn’t going to say that, though I think that’s also true. It’s much better for working – I have a lot more ideas. And feel much more in control of myself. And have much more access to all the things I want to think about. And am not so terribly distracted as I was. What happens, I think, is that you sort of close down shop, sexually. You go into hibernation. I don’t know because I haven’t done it before. It’s not really natural to me. I used to be sexually quite arrogant because it was all so easy.’

‘Once upon a time.’

‘Yeah.’

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