A new book about Philip Roth shows that his achievement has been to wring so many great novels from his limited giftsby Sam Tanenhaus / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…