In the autumn of 2012, Philip Roth told a French magazine that his latest book, Nemesis, would be his last. The storm of interest this created was surprising, given that he was 78. His creative spurt in his seventies (inexplicable, according to Roth: ‘my breakfast cereal stayed the same’) had given fans the illusion that, in the words of his fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, ‘one’s story is not a skin to be shed….You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life.’
Roth, however, has now shed the skin of fiction; he is ‘unbound’ because he is no longer ‘chained to his talent’. (In one interview, he extols the sheer joy of taking naps.) This, in turn, releases Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) to write Roth Unbound — ‘a critical evaluation of Philip Roth’, poised between literary criticism and biography.
This could have been the stuff of Roth’s nightmare afterlife: ‘is this what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae?’ In both interviews and fiction, he expresses a deep dislike both of jargon-ridden literary criticism and intrusive biographies. ‘The dirt-seeking snooping calling itself research is just about the lowest of literary rackets,’ says Zuckerman to a would-be biographer — though Roth characteristically gives the biographer a telling comeback: ‘And the savage snooping calling itself fiction?’
Pierpont, however, triumphs in a lucid, tender, illuminating study, beautifully poised between intimacy and detachment. This balancing act is partly down to her privileged status. Roth has talked to her over many years, let her ‘prowl through the files in his attic’, yet has ‘done all of this with the understanding that he would not read a single word in advance of publication’.
Not quite as liberating as the pledge never to read it; but obviously enough to free Pierpont to be candidly sharp in some of her judgments. An early work is a ‘sprawling…utterly headache-inducing farce’; Zuckerman Unbound is ‘undernourished’. Her forte, like that of Zuckerman or Roth, is to be a supremely good ‘listener’, to many voices. This means that she not only reports but actually sees the point of the adverse comments made by other critics, even when she thinks they do not show the full truth.
Pierpont is telling the story of Roth’s creative life: her focus is on his books. Yet, of course, his fiction is as ‘veined’ as a mature Stilton with ‘themes of his life’. It can be tempting to conflate Roth with his characters — particularly the fictional writer, Nathan Zuckerman: born, like Roth, into a Jewish middle-class family in Newark, a pupil at Weequahic High School and the author of a shocking novel, Carnovsky, whose impact has a striking resemblance to Roth’s paean to masturbation, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth achieved the notoriety attributed to Zuckerman: passing lorry drivers would apparently lean out to yell at him ‘Oy! Portnoy! Leave it alone!’
But the dangers of over-identification are obvious. Poor Hermione Lee once fell into the trap in an interview of challenging his claim to be merely an ‘impersonator’, and asking him about the ‘deaths of his parents’. Roth gives a long and courteous reply, and then ends, wonderfully dead-pan:
I suggest, by the way, that the best person to ask about the autobiographical relevance of the climactic death of the father in Zuckerman Unbound is my own father, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I’ll give you his phone number.
Pierpont deftly either links up or, where necessary, unzips the complicated relationship between Roth’s personal experiences and his often teasingly self-referential fiction. The prolonged literary fall-out of Roth’s first, disastrous marriage is excellently charted, while remaining beautifully aware that ‘the marriage had dimensions that no later judgment or attempt at psychosexual diagnosis can comprehend’.
Roth met his first wife when he was teaching in Chicago: Maggie Williams was the daughter of an alcoholic father, and a divorcée whose ex-husband had custody of her children. Bookish Roth felt that she put him in touch with reality, so that he could ‘capitalise the L in life’.
Maggie turned out however to be a spinner of fictions herself, an habitual liar. She trapped Roth into marrying her by not only claiming to be pregnant, but submitting a urine sample to the local pharmacy which tested positive. Roth offered to marry her if she had an abortion, for which he gave her the money. Three years later, groggy after a suicide attempt, she told him that she had bought the urine sample from a pregnant down-and-out, and lied about the abortion (though of course this confession too could have been a lie). Their toxic marriage provided the ‘poison’ for which literature was the ‘antidote’: Roth sardonically described Maggie as ‘the greatest creative-writing teacher of them all’. She appears in many fictional guises, as she works her way out of his system.
These portraits go some way towards explaining why Roth came to be accused of misogyny (though these novels are about one particular man’s hatred of one woman). The charge was, however, given violent impetus by the accusations of Roth’s second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, who, in the wake of a vituperative divorce, portrayed him as a man filled with a ‘deep and irrepressible rage’ toward women. Their relationship had lasted for 14 years before the marriage (I was intrigued to learn that Roth suggested Bloom should imitate Lady Antonia Fraser’s smile to play Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited); so one does wonder how irrepressible this rage was.
Pierpont resolutely avoids becoming sucked into the unedifying details of post-marital discord (she does not go into the allegation that Roth crazily attempted to fine Bloom $62 billion for breach of a pre-nuptial agreement). She also rightly avoids engaging with the extreme indignation of the feminist critics that she quotes. But her literary criticism in this area is for once a little too wary. She does not engage with the moments in which one does feel that Roth’s portrayal of sex is skewed.
In American Pastoral, for instance, there is one very peculiar scene. The hero, ‘Swede’ Levov, a sweet-natured conformist whose renegade daughter has become a terrorist, is inveigled into a meeting with a woman, Rita Cohen, who may or may not know the whereabouts of his missing child. When Levov turns up at the hotel, he finds the mysterious woman splayed upon a bed, demanding that he ‘step right up and take a whiff. The swamp. It sucks you in.’ Whose is the disgust? And why the attempt at seduction? She does not need any extra hold over Levov. The problem is that Rita Cohen is so slight a character that her actions are not so much mysterious as unconvincing.
But, as Pierpont perceptively points out, tenderness is just as important as rage in fuelling Roth’s fiction; and she is particularly good on Roth’s relationship with his father, Herman Roth, manifested in his treatment of elderly Jewish men in his fiction, which becomes increasingly compassionate. Even at his most satirical, Roth’s satire is most potent, she points out, when it ‘is channelled through, or obstructed by, some warmth or contending emotion’.
Such insights abound in this intelligent and highly readable study. Pierpont is excellent on Roth’s strengths — above all his ‘uncanny’ gift for ‘the first person intimate’:
Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joking, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work.
But it is just because she sees so clearly how easily these strengths can become weaknesses — the inwardness can become solipsistic, like the trapped thoughts of an insomniac, the conflicting voices can ‘clutter up every discernible argument’, the unstoppably voluble characters become too intrusively button-holing — that her praise is so convincing.