Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.00, 368pp.
The burden isn’t either/or, consciously choosing from possibilities equally difficult and regrettable—it’s and/and/and/and/and as well.
—Philip Roth, The Counterlife
1. And Yet
Philip Roth is one of the most renowned writers of our time. From his debut, Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award in 1960, and the explosion of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 to his haunting reimagining of Anne Frank’s story in The Ghost Writer ten years later and the series of masterworks starting in the mid-eighties—The Counterlife, Patrimony, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain—Roth has produced some of the greatest American literature of the modern era. And yet there has been no major critical work about him until now.
The above is taken from the inside flap of my copy of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s new book, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. It is, of course, advertising copy, written to sell more books, and not written by Pierpont. We have all gotten used to the inflation built into the language of the marketing department, and adjust accordingly. But the assumption in the blurb, staking a claim for the book as the remedy for a puzzling lack of critical attention to this most significant of American writers, make it difficult to read this book without bias, especially as it ironically highlighted, right from the start, a shortcoming of Pierpont’s approach to Roth’s life and career.
First, though, a word about the claim itself. Reasonable people can disagree about these things, but I’d say the first major critical work on Roth was written by Hermione Lee, and published in 1982. Although John McDaniel and Bernard Rodgers each published fine studies of Roth in the seventies, Lee’s slim volume, titled simply Philip Roth, was the first in which the author received the benefit of a critical intelligence nearly a match for his own. As Roth’s career lengthened, as his place in literary history became more secure, the scholarship surrounding him produced, more or less steadily, a healthy number of books about his fiction. Critical works that I would term “major,” that have themselves become canonical within Roth studies, include Mark Shechner’s Up Society’s Ass, Copper, Debra Shostak’s Philip Roth—Countertexts, Counterlives, Ross Posnock’s Philip Roth’s Rude Truth, and David Brauner’s Philip Roth, among others.
Pierpont notes in her introduction that she received a Ph.D. in art history “half a lifetime ago,” in which she spent hours “searching for a single line that might add a scrap of knowledge or a shade of meaning to beloved subjects that had already been thoroughly researched.” That the work of Philip Roth is itself a subject that has been thoroughly researched seems to have escaped her notice. If this is a study of Philip Roth’s literary career—a career that began more than fifty years ago—it is one that proceeds as if the subject is virgin territory. Over more than three hundred pages, I counted two references to Roth criticism, both in passing. “Not since Henry James, it seems to me,” Pierpont writes, “has an American novelist worked at such a sustained pitch of concentration and achievement, book after book after book.” This is fine as far as it goes, but it’s a comparison that critics have made over and over again since the publication of Roth’s so-called American Trilogy at the turn of the century. Throughout her book, Pierpont makes observations about Roth’s work that have been made before, without acknowledging the body of knowledge that precedes her. It is unavoidable and mostly benign that Pierpont notices things that other critics have noticed as well—Roth is far from an obscure author—but her insights would be strengthened if she gave her readers a sense of what has come before her.
Without enlisting critical support for her arguments, Pierpont relies on two authorities in making her case: her own (considerable) critical faculties, and the words of the only man who can set the record straight: Roth himself.
2. And As Well
Claudia Roth Pierpont and Philip Roth are not related, but they are close friends. This fact—their friendship—is not incidental to Pierpont’s book; it’s integral. The book opens with the story of how they met (at a party for Stanley Crouch), and the book is built upon a great number of conversations between Pierpont and Roth. Pierpont writes that the study was initially to be the length of an essay, but it “kept growing, for two reasons principally: Roth has written so many books; and he was willing to talk with me about them, at length.” Those conversations—clearly extensive and familiar—furnish the book with considerable biographical detail, and perhaps account for Pierpont’s lack of critical back-up.
It wasn’t until midway through the second chapter—fifteen pages that nimbly narrate Roth’s childhood and life before publication—that I realized I was reading a biography. You’ll forgive me for thinking otherwise before then. The marketing materials, again, are no help. “This is not a biography,” the blurb intones, “but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” Pierpont studiously avoids calling the work a biography, noting only that “biography is important to some periods [of Roth’s career] more than to others and is used primarily as illumination.” But a biography it is, albeit one written with a striking lack of research (more on that below).
Another reason why I may have been blindsided by the book’s genre is that Roth appointed a biographer only last year, with great fanfare, and his name is not Claudia Roth Pierpont. Blake Bailey, author of well-received biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, underwent “a lengthy vetting process” before gaining Roth’s blessing. Bailey soon signed a contract for the book, due in eight to ten years, with Norton. In a profile in the Times last fall, Roth noted that he “work[s] now for Blake Bailey.”
So if Philip Roth already has a high-profile authorized biographer, what is this book doing here, by all appearances a biography written with Roth’s full cooperation?
It is tempting to see Pierpont’s book, with its abundance of quotations from Roth, as yet more evidence of the author’s anxiety over a legacy that will be beyond his control. After a lifetime as a writer who sought to control nearly every aspect of his career, a lifetime devoted to finding the absolutely right way to tell a story, it must be extremely difficult to let go and allow the story of your life’s work to be told by others, particularly while you’re still around to set the record straight. There have been more than a few indications of this anxiety. There was his two and a half thousand word open letter to Wikipedia, to correct the assertion, in the site’s entry for The Human Stain, that the book was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” There was a recent letter to the editor at the Times, correcting Pankaj Mishra for mischaracterizing him as envying writers behind the Iron Curtain. And the notion of a biography seems particularly fraught for Roth, as indications are that he has been working overtime to have some say over the way Bailey writes about him: in that Times profile last fall, Roth noted that he had written “thousands of pages” of autobiographical prose for Bailey, enough to fill boxes that Bailey says he won’t get through for years. “If I die without leaving him anything,” Roth asked in another interview, “what will he start with?”
For the man who cannot imagine a biographer writing his life without his cooperation, a friend like Claudia Roth Pierpont must seem a godsend. A close friend, who happens to be an excellent writer, to whom you can tell the stories of your life as you’d like them to be known, and who you can trust to write them down without seeking confirmation or complication from other sources? What writer wouldn’t jump at such a chance? Yes, Pierpont writes that Roth spoke with her “with the understanding that he would read not a single word in advance of publication.” But there is nothing in here that Roth could object to; as I said, Pierpont is a close friend.
3. And Yet
The problem with most literary biographies is built into our modern conception of the biographer’s task. A serious biographer, when she sets out to write a life, must do research: interviews by the hundreds (with everyone—ex-girlfriends, high school classmates, editors, long-lost cousins); lengthy trips to the archives in search of the drafts that explain the budding young writer’s early interests; the obligatory visit to the subject’s childhood home. The inevitable product of all this legwork is that the biographer then feels she has to include much of this great material in the biography; where else will it go but into the book? Unfortunately, this leaves little room in the book for adequate attention to the art, which, by the way, is the very reason we are interested in reading literary biographies in the first place. We can see this in James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow, in which a tirelessly researched portrait of the author as a petty, distrustful, selfish, and oversensitive man blinds the biographer to the magic wrought on Bellow’s pages.
No one will call Pierpont’s book tirelessly researched. Aside from her extensive conversations with Roth, she undertook few further interviews in telling the story of his life. She notes that Roth “has let me prowl through the files in his attic in Connecticut,” but shows no evidence of having consulted the boxes and boxes of drafts and notes and ephemera housed at the Library of Congress. All biographical material seems entirely based on Roth’s say-so. But what the book lacks in constructing the historical record it makes up for by granting attention to the important stuff. This, it turns out, is a literary biography that gives sufficient time to the literary.
Near the end of her introduction, Pierpont quotes approvingly from an interview Roth gave in 1981, in which he defends his seemingly hermetic lifestyle: “Art is life too, you know. Solitude is life, meditation is life, pretending is life, supposition is life, contemplation is life, language is life.” Putting such a life into words is a task that most biographers evade, hiding instead in thickets of names and dates and “source material.” After all, as Roth noted earlier in that same interview, his “autobiography would consist almost entirely of chapters about me sitting alone in a room looking at a typewriter.” Pierpont meets this challenge by focusing relentlessly on the story of the fiction, the passage of Roth’s restless and provocative imagination as it pursues its quarry. She includes just enough biographical material to remind us that Roth did occasionally leave his typewriter, but not so much as to distract us from the central narrative of his life, the narrative of his narratives.
Best of all, she has Roth whispering in her ear all the while, providing a sort of running commentary to her insightful readings of his fiction. Roth has always been a terrific interview subject, and an interesting critic of his own work. Here, readers get the benefit of his explanations, anecdotes, and confidences. In certain chapters the experience is like reading his books with him in the room.
Pierpont’s readings of Roth’s fiction benefit in interesting ways from their friendship. For instance, she points out that Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s comic alter ego, begins his ten-book saga at the same age as Roth was when he first met Margaret Martinson Williams, the woman Roth would marry three years later, with disastrous consequences. At age twenty-three, Roth was just stepping into a trap (of his own design) that would debilitate him for a decade and a half; Zuckerman, whose life Roth was free to conjure on the page, would have a different trajectory.
It is this, Roth’s pagebound life, that Pierpont has devoted herself to illuminating, and I found myself won over by her approach as I read. Her readings of the individual works are always perceptive and generous—there’s a reason the book is more than three hundred pages long—but it is the long arc of Roth’s winding career that Pierpont excels at following. To take us from the ironic and exuberant near-juvenilia of 1959’s Goodbye, Columbus to 2009’s alternately bitter and elegiac Nemesis, doing justice to the various twists and turns along the way without veering off the road is no small feat. That she does so without exhaustive research to pin down every last detail of Roth’s life is a feature, not a bug. Any serious fan of Roth’s work will take great pleasure from this book, especially if she doesn’t come to the book with strict notions of what a biography or critical study should be.
Ultimately, the life sketched in these three hundred pages seems to me an accurate picture of the life that fills Roth’s thousands of pages, a life that may be the closest thing to Roth’s own as we’ll ever know.
David Gooblar is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth. He lives in Iowa City and runs the website Pedagogy Unbound.
 This announcement came eight years after a similar announcement naming Ross Miller as the official biographer, an arrangement that ended, reports the Times, “by mutual consent.”
 Ira Nadel, who is working on an unauthorized biography of Roth, reports in an unpublished essay that Roth was trying to take an active role in the marketing of his books as early as Goodbye, Columbus, suggesting not only the advertising copy (“Whoever knows New Jersey will have trouble putting down one of the most acclaimed books of the year—GOODBYE COLUMBUS, by Newarker, Philip Roth”) but even the placement of the proposed newspaper ads (Roth suggested that the ad appear outside of the book section, to attract female readers).
 This assertion, despite Roth’s protestations, is true—the rumor had been alleged by various sources since the book’s publication in 2001.
 Of course, when Roth did write his autobiography (1988’s The Facts), it was as sly and playful as you would expect from a man who had been fictionalizing his experience for his entire adult life.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Job by Joseph Roth For thirty years, English-language readers have been enjoying ever-increased access to Joseph Roth (1894-1939), a writer canonical in Europe. The Overlook Press kicked off a parade in the 1980s when it reprinted a whole shelf of translations completed during Roth's lifetime. Those editions have been steadily supplemented and, in a...
- What’s Next Isn’t the Point: Philip Roth in Age Since the deaths of Heller, Vonnegut, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, and Salinger, to mention no others, Roth’s status as the grand old man of American fiction has become almost indisputable. He is America’s Greatest Living Writer: a national monument and the country’s outstanding candidate for the Nobel Prize. In other words,...
- Cogito, Ergo Doom: Exit Ghost and the Rest of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Books Barrett Hathcock reviews the new, final Zuckerman novel and considers Philip Roth from the standpoint of all nine....
- Some of the Best Books Since 1990 A survey of bloggers, publishers, writers, and editors to start a discussion over what books have shaped literature since 1990....
- Reimagining Greek History: The Lost Books of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason When it comes to the elusive concept of authorship, there's no shortage of reference points. From Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence to Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence," the definition of authorship is both a polarizing and fascinating topic. In his debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey,...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by David Gooblar