by Judith Thurman
Last month, Paola Zanuttini, a journalist from La Repubblica, the progressive Roman newspaper, interviewed Philip Roth about his latest novel, “The Humbling,” which has recently been published in Italian. “We had a lively and intelligent conversation about my fiction,” Roth said. The Q. & A. ran on February 26th, as the cover story of Il Venerdì—La Repubblica’s Friday magazine—with a fierce-looking closeup portrait of Roth, and the title “Sex and Me.” Zanuttini focussed on the relationships of Roth’s aging protagonists with their much younger inamoratas, the feminist response to them, and his own marriages and romances. “Your descriptions of sex are ruthless,” she asserted. “Ruthless?” he countered. She backed down a little: “They describe things as they are, raw and naked.” “I am pleased by the notion that I can still be scandalous,” he said. “I thought I had lost that magic.”
The real scandal revealed by the interview, however, came at the end, when Zanuttini asked Roth why he was so “disappointed” with Barack Obama. She translated, aloud, remarks attributed to him in an article by a freelance journalist, Tommaso Debenedetti, that was published last November in Libero, a tabloid notably sympathetic to Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy (who is embroiled in his own sex scandals with much younger women). “It appears that you find him nasty, vacillating, and mired in the mechanics of power,” Zanuttini said. “But I have never said anything of the kind!” Roth objected. “It is completely contrary to what I think. Obama, in my opinion, is fantastic.” He had never heard of Debenedetti, or of Libero. The interview, with its bitter judgment of Obama’s banality, failure, and empty rhetoric about hope and change, was a complete fabrication.
The Italian blogosphere quickly and gleefully picked up the story. Libero’s editor grudgingly expressed embarrassment, and its Web site took down the interview. Debenedetti turned off his cell phone and dropped out of sight. (The only Facebook page bearing the writer’s name shows a bearded, curly-haired young hipster with a goofy expression.) Roth, however, was curious about him. “I went online to do some research,” he said. He discovered that Debenedetti had claimed to possess recordings of their “telephone conversation,” but, Roth said, “he couldn’t find the tapes.” An op-ed piece in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record, had praised the frankness of Roth’s critique of Obama, contrasting it to the pusillanimity of Italians in calling their own leader to account. “But what I was really looking for,” Roth continued, “were other interviews by Debenedetti, and I found one, with John Grisham, that was published in three newspapers”—Il Resto del Carlino and La Nazione, both conservative, and Il Giorno, which is centrist. “They contained the same sort of denunciations, which sounded implausible to me.” (“Last year’s enthusiasm is remote now,” Grisham allegedly told Debenedetti. “People are angry with Obama for having done little or nothing and having promised too much.”)
Roth asked his agent, Andrew Wylie, to contact Grisham’s agent, David Gernert, and, sure enough, the Grisham “interview” proved to be another hoax. Like Roth, Grisham took the trouble to double-check his press contacts, and found no record of Debenedetti. “I was more shocked than angered,” he wrote in an e-mail. Having read the text in translation, it wasn’t, he thought, “a bad piece of fiction.” As for Obama, both Grisham and his wife, Renée (a Hillary Clinton superdelegate), were, after the nomination, “on board, and still are.”
“You have to wonder what the guy was thinking,” Roth concluded. “The best explanation I can find is that this obscure freelancer had hit upon a way of selling articles by attributing anti-Obama sentiments to famous American writers. It was a good gimmick, and he probably had fun. But I can’t imagine what he’ll do now—surely his career is over.”
Although Roth and Grisham have never met, they joined forces through their agents and contacted an Italian lawyer, who felt that they had a good case. “I am exploring my possible remedies,” Grisham said, “with plans to file an action.” But Roth has decided not to sue. “It would take two years, and multiple trips to Italy,” he said. “It would distract me from my writing, and, worst of all, I would have to obsess about it.” Asked if he thought that Debenedetti was a would-be Moishe Pipik, the doppelgänger in Roth’s novel “Operation Shylock,” who impersonates the Philip Roth character, he said, “No, that was literature, this is merely life, and I certainly did a better job of imposturing.” ♦