A new book about Philip Roth shows that his achievement has been to wring so many great novels from his limited giftsby / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 to many of Bellow’s adversaries—wives, lovers, and friends who had seen themselves stripped bare, de-limbed and then pasted back together as vivid grotesques in novels such as Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift. Some, seething for years, had become walking archives of bitter memories and grievances. Atlas, naturally, was all ears. Even before the book was published, the word had rippled out that it would be the vehicle of Bellow’s late-life embarrassment.
Roth did not say, back in 2000, whether he had read an advance copy of Atlas’s book. But he was well aware what his friend and hero Bellow thought, and he denounced the book and its author in colourful language. He went on to say that the literary biographer’s only legitimate business was to illuminate his subject’s work—to explain what it was the artist had tried to do so readers would understand his work better. All else was voyeurism and gossip. It was plain that this was the kind of biography Roth wanted of himself. He wanted a kind of reader’s guide.
Well, now he’s got it, or as close an approximation as he can reasonably expect. “I went up to him and blurted out that I thought he was one of the great American novelists of the 20th century,” Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Roth) says in the opening paragraph of Roth Unbound, recalling her introduction to him at a party in 2002. Thus sounded, the tremulous bluestocking tone never falters. Best known for her intelligent and graceful profiles in the New Yorker, Pierpont here affects the manner of the docent, as she briskly marches us through the Roth museum, stopping before each canvas to point out its marvels and (when need be) its blemishes and neatly slipping in helpful biographical details and useful cultural data. Who knew that Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, outsold the year’s other blockbuster, The Godfather? Or that Roth—among other “discoveries” strung together in a final chapter—is a devotee of the Coppola film, which he watches once a year, “mostly for ‘the Daumier faces’”? Devoid of argument and structure, Roth Unbound is, in its broadest conception, a catalogue of the enormous Roth oeuvre, 50 years of remarkable industry that began with the novella Goodbye Columbus (1959)—a period piece, but of the best kind, as The Catcher in the Rye, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Lucky Jim also are—and concluded in 2010 with another novella, the Camus-inflected Nemesis.
By the end—actually, well before the end—the reader is well-acquainted with Roth’s signature themes (Americanness, Jewishness, American-Jewishness) as well as with his preoccupations (sex, filial devotion and rebellion, Israel, the Second World War, more sex)—and has learned something about Roth’s life, most of the details furnished by Roth himself, in interviews with Pierpont.
Time and again, the definitive word belongs to Roth himself, recorded in the present tense, magazine-style:
“‘The first draft is really a floor under my feet,’ he says, addressing a recent class at Columbia… ‘What I want to do is get the story down and know what happens.’… ‘I don’t mean to be falsely naive,’ he tells me after the class: ‘By the third draft I have a good picture of what my concerns are.’ Still, it’s helpful and sometimes surprising to have these readers tell him ‘what the book is about.’”
On it goes, chapter after chapter—Roth, the serene master, imparting his craft-wisdom, no morsel too small to savour. This isn’t biography. And it isn’t criticism. It’s a 330-page New Yorker profile.
The suspicion grows that the controlling voice isn’t Pierpont’s, but Roth’s—or perhaps a hybrid of the two. Here is Roth in London in the 1980s, the period that yielded The Counterlife, that triumph of cat-and-mouse postmodernism. He was married to Claire Bloom, and there was trouble in paradise.
“Also adding to the intensity, he admits, was the fact that he was having an affair. As he describes it, the woman was 30 when he met her—Roth was not quite 50—unhappily married, and the mother of a small child. She was English, an Oxford graduate, and initially called to interview him for the BBC. She was also exceptionally eloquent; he seems to have been smitten as much by the felicities of her speech as by her looks. (It was through her, he says, that he learned about ‘upper-middle-class English life.’) Their relationship took place entirely within the narrow confines of his writing studio, except for a few walks on Hampstead Heath and a couple of ‘accidental’ meetings at concerts, occasions that they felt somehow gave them the licence to go out to dinner afterward. (‘It wasn’t exactly rational,’ he says with a shrug.) Is it any more rational to ask why the affair took place at all? Is it ever?”
Did Pierpont speak to the unnamed mistress? Did she try to? Her brief acknowledgments mention interviews with five “extremely generous friends of Philip Roth who shared their memories with me,” with no disclaimer about this particular incident. Fair enough (though one would have liked to hear from an enemy or two). But why are we confidently told what both lovers “felt”? Does the great novelist’s omniscience extend back 30 years into the mind of a mistress? Does he shrug for them both? Why mention this episode at all except to contrive a factitious atmosphere of biographical candour? Roth’s Mickey Sabbath, trapped in an equally deadening mise en scene, knew what to say: “This isn’t happening! This is a fairy tale! This is true depravity, this genteel shit!”
None of these evasions would matter if Roth Unbound brought us closer to his work. Alas, this Roth is not only bound, he is trussed in the coils of Pierpont’s infatuation. “One can’t laugh as much as Roth has laughed in his life without accumulating friends,” she writes. One has heard this tone before, from Selma Zuckerman, the mother of Roth’s alter-ego novelist, who, even as he becomes notorious for a novel about masturbation, glows with pride at her son’s fame and prestige.
Pierpont, the author of a fine collection of portraits of American women writers (including Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand), has surprisingly little to say about this emphatically male novelist, save for classroom sonorities: “As with all novelists, if more openly so, Roth’s books have a personal germ as well as an intellectual one,” or “Roth had always thrived on moral engagement, as a man and as a writer.” These formulas might be applied to any one of a hundred of Roth’s contemporaries. And they don’t help us understand his originality and distinction.
The uses to which Roth has put what he once called his “narrative mania” most resemble those of a writer whose biography could not be more dissimilar, William Faulkner, king of southern gothic. It comes as no surprise when Roth tells Pierpont that Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, with its 15 narrators, is “the best book of the first half of the 20th century in America.” Harold Bloom taught us long ago that writers don’t consciously choose their masters any more than they choose their parents; they are instead anxiously tethered to them. The affinities between Roth and Faulkner are unmistakable: the obsessive-hysterical return, in book after book, to the same cursed plot of acreage (Mississippi, Newark), the sentimental fixation on past American glories (the Civil War for Faulkner, the Roosevelt years for Roth), the violation of sexual and tribal taboo.
Above all, they share remarkable artistic intelligence. Among American moderns only Roth matches Faulkner in his ability to manipulate his material—from the ventriloquism of Portnoy’s Complaint (as screamingly funny today as when it was first published), through the postmodernist wizardry of his novels in the 1980s and then the hyper-realistic “American trilogy” (American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Human Stain). These novels bring out the best in Pierpont. Each, she writes, examines America’s “fantasy of purity,” as Roth has called it. Like Faulkner he knows how punitive that fantasy must be in a “radically impure society” haunted by its mongrel pedigrees and the suppressed history of contaminations: racial, ethnic, religious, creedal, sexual. Roth’s conquest of the novel in those years was widely seen as a harnessing of protean gifts. This was mistaken. One of the virtues of Pierpont’s book—in fact, its one really important contribution—is to make us see that Roth’s triumph is to have wrung so much from quite limited gifts. He patiently tells Pierpont he is not, in many respects, the equal of his peers and rivals, Bellow and Updike. Both surpassed him as realists because both were naturalists, keen observers and equally keen listeners. You hear America in them—its rhythms and tonalities. Whereas Roth really does seem, as he theorised in The Counterlife, “completely otherless and reabsorbed within—all the voices once again only mine ventriloquizing.” His dialogue—hilarious, anarchic, inventive—isn’t dialogue at all, but monologue, preachment, arias of argument, just as his expository prose, justly praised for its vernacular directness, insistently veers from over-precise journalese to hectoring bombast and induces claustrophobia. The moments of beauty, when they come, seem yanked up from the depths of his feverishly working mind, whereas in Bellow and Updike they seem snatched out of the air.
But this is really just to say that Roth’s fixations are private, rather than public. The effort he has put into universalising them has been extraordinary. Pierpont is right: it is one of the great achievements in the modern novel. She faithfully describes the many drafts and endless tinkering. But the sources of Roth’s vision remain out of reach for now. So do the unvarnished facts of his life.
Roth knows we’re owed a fuller account. A year ago, he agreed to let Blake Bailey, an accomplished biographer, tell the full story. To judge from Bailey’s previous books (on John Cheever and the novelist Richard Yates, to name two), he will do the James Atlas-like work of plundering the archive and combing through hotel registers and divorce papers. Roth is said to be cooperating, genially typing memos about his life and work. Bailey has said the book will take him eight to 10 years to complete, by which time Roth will be 90 or close to it. The result could surprise him. This has happened before. The punchline to his anger at Atlas can be found in the first sentences of Atlas’s book: “‘Why don’t you write a biography of Saul Bellow?’ The question was posed to me by Philip Roth.”