A new book about Philip Roth shows that his achievement has been to wring so many great novels from his limited gifts
Pierpont’s book on Philip Roth (above) “isn’t a biography. And it isn’t criticism. It’s a 330-page New Yorker profile.” © Orjan F. Ellingvag
Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books
by Claudia Roth Pierpont (FSG, £17)
Some years ago—it was in the spring or summer of 2000—I happened to be in Philip Roth’s company when the conversation turned to the question of literary biography. James Atlas’s giant life of Saul Bellow was soon to be published, and it was well known that Bellow, after a period of gingerly cooperating with Atlas, had since turned against him. The ostensible reason was a single letter, from the young Bellow to his father, that Bellow did not want Atlas to quote. This dispute was the only surface crack in the deeper rift that so often divides biographer from subject.
Atlas, plunging remorselessly into the haunted wood of his subject’s long life, had talked