Claudia Roth Pierpont, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has been close to Philip Roth, that giant of American letters, for a number of years, sitting on a judging panel with him and enjoying access to Roth’s inner circle to the extent that she became one of his prized first readers (Roth, she tells us, likes to change who he asks to read his first drafts according to the kind of book it is); she has also, in Roth Unbound, managed to fashion a book that is at once a first step on the road to the more serious critical biography that will come from Blake Bailey (whose Richard Yates bio we devoured some years ago) at some point in the near future and also offer a context to Roth’s work which, now that he has announced his retirement, can be viewed wholly from first to last.
Some of the story is, of course, relatively famous – most Roth readers will know that Portnoy’s Complaint established him as the bad boy of American novels for years, most Roth readers will be aware of the accusations of misogyny occasionally levelled at him, and it’s possible most Roth readers will have an idea of the general critical caste of his career (auspicious debut, Goodbye Columbus, slight sense of ambition not lived up to until Portnoy, an exhilarating period of hits – such as The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, The Counterlife – and misses – Letting Go, Our Gang, The Great American Novel – that help create an idea of Roth as someone interested in game-playing (see Operation Shylock), up until American Pastoral, and what everyone seems to almost universally agree is an unparalleled late period renaissance in which he wrote some of the best books of his career, and then – possibly – a slight falling off with a series of shorter books including Everyman, The Dying Animal, The Humbling and Nemesis). Along the way Roth asks important questions about what it is to be Jewish, what it is to be American, what it is to be a man, whilst at the same time reworking the stories of his life (his first marriage provides fruitful material whilst at the same time, seemingly, damaging him in some way; much later, battles with depression, back pain, Halcion addiction and betrayal – at the hands of Claire Bloom, whose memoir In the Doll’s House, Roth reacted to in I Married a Communist – fuel some of the most vibrant passages of his writing).
Where Pierpont’s strength comes to the fore is in making the more familiar elements of the story come to life, fleshing out with previously undisclosed details (such as the fact that the wild boy of American letters is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite nervy ‘in real life’).
‘Roth builds seriatim, book to book, offering up reversals and alternatives – counterbooks, counterprotagonists – and forging links in a continuing chain of thought.’
She has undoubtedly cut her teeth on years of writing articles and the book manages to maintain the feel of a great article throughout (which might sound like I’m damning with faint praise but quite the opposite – what could easily have been a dry academic text is as compelling as a thriller). Roth’s own playfulness regarding his autobiography – like Paul Auster, he has issued a number of works of nonfiction engaging with his own history and the history of his family (although unlike Auster it rarely feels unnecessary) – threads through Pierpont’s own writing, offering her opportunities to spar (and the sparring makes for thrilling reading – she isn’t afraid to say when she feels he is wrong, just as she isn’t afraid to take on his opponents and explain why they get elements of Roth’s books wrong too). Inevitably there are portions of the book that you read without entirely agreeing, books Pierpont rates or doesn’t rate that readers will take issue with (for example, Pierpont doesn’t rate Everyman or I Married a Communist as highly as the other books, and over-rates – in my view – the likes of Operation Shylock and Exit Ghost – although, again, to be fair to her, her passion for the latter in particular is such that it made this reviewer wonder whether maybe it deserves another go). At the same time, and again perhaps inevitably, because Pierpont – like Roth, apparently – has re-read everything again recently, her views on the books have a level quality that more common or garden readers such as you or I will not have (having read Roth’s books over a period of some years) so you may find yourself struck afresh by a detail that you have forgotten, or connections between books, that will have you scurrying back to the books themselves.
In the end that is the greatest gift of Roth Unbound. There are maybe half a dozen Roth books I have yet to read, some – such as the aforementioned Letting Go and The Great American Novel – I am probably right to drag my heels about, some – The Facts, My Life as a Man, Sabbath’s Theater (I know, I know, I’ve tried and failed to read that one about a half dozen times) – I should make more of an effort to get to. Like all of the best autobiographical works, it serves to refresh your enthusiasm for a great writer (and also distract once more from the apparent truth of the fact that there really will be no more new Philip Roth books).
Any Cop?: If you consider yourself a Philip Roth fan, there will be much here that will send the old cogs whirring; and if you’re anything like me you’ll be planning to re-read everything in order now that – gulp – we can.