JUST AS ONE GENERATION’S villain can be another’s hero, a major novelist can evolve over the years from reviled misogynist to honorary feminist. Such has been the case for Philip Roth, argues Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) in Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, her ode to a valorous soldier of literature.
Acrimony has followed Roth since the 1950s, from the moment he began to publish fiction. His early short stories, though critically acclaimed, outraged many Jewish readers who worried that Roth’s Jewish characters — in their pettiness, the lowness of their appetites, and the comedy of their foibles — were an invitation to anti-Semitism. “What is being done to silence this man?” a New York rabbi asked, with an eye to Roth’s sizeable non-Jewish audience.
A decade later, Roth unleashed Alexander Portnoy. The notorious hero of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) was Jewish, mother-obsessed, sex-crazed, and unhealthily interested in Gentile women. His neuroses may have been welcomed by anti-Semites, but it was Portnoy’s debased masculinity and not his Jewishness that appalled those who were most consequentially horrified.
In the 1970s, many feminists registered their disgust with Roth. They stayed on alert until the arrival of Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Sabbath’s Theater (1995) — lecherous, adulterous, obscene, and more obstreperously masculine than Alexander Portnoy. Yet, unlike Portnoy, Sabbath is self-confident in his obscenities, not tormented by guilt, and no glutton for moral self-punishment. He is a practitioner and propagandist of the unbridled male libido, and a character who implicated his creator in his own scandalous energies.
A staff writer at the New Yorker, Pierpont chronicles the scandals, the controversies, the vituperation, and the disgust in the manner of a scrupulous historian, though her underlying intention seems to be to transmute criticism into praise.
A latter-day Boswell, Pierpont is herself a character in Roth Unbound. She opens with the night she met Roth, in December 2002, at a jazz bar in lower Manhattan, an encounter she remembered even if Roth understandably did not. Two years later, Roth sent her a note at the New Yorker after she published a piece on the anthropologist Franz Boas, whose work was pertinent to Roth’s latest novel, The Plot Against America (2004). Thus began a correspondence. Having gotten to know the author, Pierpont eventually joined the inner circle of those who read and commented on Roth’s unfinished work. (At Roth’s Connecticut home with Roth and Mia Farrow, Pierpont felt “as though Daisy Buchanan were floating along beside us.”) Pierpont’s book concludes in 2010 with the two of them, now good friends, attending a chamber music concert and then walking out onto a midtown street.
Pierpont slips a phrase from the marriage vow into her description of their friendship: “I have talked to him long enough and through sufficiently different circumstances — in sickness and in health, literally — to hear changes of opinion.” Many of their conversations appear verbatim in the book, with Roth graciously responding to Pierpont’s literary and biographical queries. Behind Pierpont’s narrative is Roth’s ur-narrative, the charismatic author’s voice often more definitive than the voice ofhis critic and biographer.
Roth was never a recluse in the J.D. Salinger/Thomas Pynchon mold. Ever since the maelstrom provoked by Portnoy, however, he had been wary about publicizing his private life. Some 50 years later, the old wounds apparently having healed, he participated in a PBS American Masters program on his life and work, in which Pierpont also figures. It aired in time for Roth’s 80th birthday in the spring of 2013, and the literary scholar Blake Bailey is currently writing an authorized biography. Roth’s long and productive life, which served as the raw material for much of his fiction, is gradually coming into focus.
Many new details, insights, and revelations enrich Roth Unbound. Roth recalls listening to a Dodgers-Giants game on the radio in 1941 when it was interrupted by the news from Pearl Harbor. He was eight years old, and the moment and mood — even the child’s angle of vision — is recapitulated in the opening pages of American Pastoral (1997), one of Roth’s greatest novels. When he went to Pennsylvania, to attend Bucknell University, he was unable to study modern American literature. No courses were offered on this second-tier subject, and the aspiring American writer immersed himself in European literature instead. On another note, we learn that Roth briefly dated Jackie Kennedy in 1964, although he was “too intimidated” — and, he adds, he lacked the proper wardrobe — “to keep the relationship going.”
Pierpont documents Roth’s midlife travels, emphasizing their contributions to his imaginative development. When Roth voyaged to Prague in the 1970s, to see Kafka’s environs firsthand, he discovered the promise and dilemma of contemporary Czech literature. “The moral weight of Communist Prague” released Roth somewhat from the burdens of the private self, Pierpont contends, the subject Roth had taken to its manic extreme in Portnoy. Roth became a sponsor of the Writers from the Other Europe series, at Penguin Books, which showcased novels by Eastern European writers. Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera and other East Bloc writers led Roth to contemplate history and politics anew, and his introduction of these writers to an English-language audience is a triumph of literary transmission. Similarly, his time spent in Israel in the 1980s inspired Operation Shylock (1993), a phantasmagoric reckoning with 20th century Jewish history. Its mix of madcap humor, political melodrama, and historical tragedy left most reviewers cold, a disappointment that moved Roth toward depression in the 1990s.
But adversity, critical and otherwise, played more than just a destructive role for Roth. His literature reflects a lifelong struggle to be ungoverned by the wishes, the expectations, and the fears of others. After a happy boyhood in Newark’s vibrant Jewish neighborhoods, he found himself in conflict with the Jewish-American community that constituted his first audience. If American Jews were asking him to write paeans to Jewish goodness, a literary brief for assimilation and against anti-Semitism, Roth refused to comply. He would write short stories that depicted American Jews with the same blunt honesty practiced by his storytelling father, Herman. Likewise, if the mores of the 1950s mandated a certain style of restraint, Roth would break new literary ground. He was not the sexual outlaw Henry Miller had been in the 1930s, nor a radical theorist of the sexual imagination as Normal Mailer was in the 1950s. It was less the fringe that fascinated Roth than the sexual predicaments of conventional people — in particular of good Jewish boys and girls. Brenda Patimkin, in Goodbye, Columbus (1959) is no renegade or adventurer. She is a Radcliffe undergraduate, a daughter of Jewish Newark, and a young woman of sexual appetite. Alexander Portnoy, who dreams of being an outlaw, is a man with a law degree and a high-minded job in the New York City Mayor’s office, a moralist against his will.
Letting go and refusing to let go was Roth’s great theme, as well as his inner conflict as a writer. From the beginning, he was a paragon of writerly self-discipline. Goodbye, Columbus was meticulously executed, a study of class in the tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Roth’s next novel, Letting Go (1962), veered even further in the direction of self-control. It is Roth’s tribute to Henry James, with only a few touches of the satiric humor that would mark the mature writer’s style. These touches provide, in Pierpont’s witty phrase, “a glimpse of the Meister waiting to emerge from behind the Master.” Set in the Midwest, with a female protagonist, When She Was Good (1967) tested the range of Roth’s talent and not at all his willingness to shock a Jewish or a non-Jewish audience. It is a bleak, quiet book.
Strangely, while writing When She Was Good, Roth was at work on Portnoy, the revolutionary novel that capped off a revolutionary decade. Pierpont, trying to explain the book’s tremendous resonance, celebrates Portnoy as a declaration of independence from all that was repressed, proper or pious in American life prior to 1969. She unites Portnoy with “the great national project of liberation,” not from George III, in this case, but from the spiritual limits of the form within the national culture and imagination. Roth’s reputation is still indelibly tied to Portnoy, not just as author to novel but as author to protagonist. For many, Roth is, was, and remains Portnoy.
After Portnoy, Roth faced the task of liberating himself from his enduringly iconic act of liberation. Pierpont quotes no less a personage than Barack Obama, awarding Roth a National Medal of the Arts, on the never-ending import of Portnoy: “How many young people have learned to think by reading the exploits of Portnoy and his complaints,” the President asked in 2010. In the 1970s, Roth had no wish to write sequels to Portnoy. He was disoriented, too old to be a wunderkind, and still some distance from the self-assured virtuoso. Pierpont identifies Roth’s first full-blown masterpiece as The Counterlife (1986). Its narrative inventiveness, its wide range of prose styles, and its utter originality laid the foundation for the resulting rush of magnificent novels from Operation Shylock to The Human Stain (2000), a decade of creativity unmatched in the history of American literature. Roth’s triumph over every kind of adversity is a tale Pierpont savors telling, and tells extremely well.
As straight up biography, Roth Unbound is a strange and truncated book. Perhaps it would have been better for Pierpont to have written a critical appreciation and to have left the surgical rigors of biographical inquiry to others. The biographical portraits in Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World (2001), Pierpont’s superb collection of literary critical essays, probe and prod, pushing far beneath the surface of things. In Roth Unbound, Pierpont seems at times to be afraid of her material. When nervous, she retreats into bland formulations or unmediated citations by Roth about Roth. Pierpont writes with least enjoyment on Roth’s two marriages.
Roth wed Maggie Williams in 1959, a troubled union that lasted until Williams’ death in 1968. Though Pierpont attempts to convey multiple points of view, her passages on Williams basically paraphrase Roth’s memoir, The Facts (1988). Pierpont writes of Williams’s “quest to bleed him [Roth] dry” through divorce proceedings, a biographer entirely in the mood of her subject. On Roth’s second marriage, to the actress Claire Bloom, Pierpont falls into lazy prose. “It seemed that he loved her [when they married],” Pierpont writes; “they were imaginatively well matched, and he wanted the marriage to work.” Of an affair which Roth called irrational, Pierpont wonders whether it is “any more rational to ask why the affair took place at all? Is it ever?” Better silence on such private matters than a biography bashful about being a biography.
More significantly, the biographer’s ample archive — or Pierpont’s access, as one would say of a Washington journalist, were Roth a politician — occasionally gets in the way of Pierpont’s literary criticism. Pierpont emphasizes the creative imperatives of Roth’s fiction, the forthright invention at the heart of the literary venture. The author’s fictional voice is not to be confused with the author’s true voice; no one-to-one relationship exists between an author and his characters, and other one-to-one relationships between fiction and biography must be suspect as well.
Yet Pierpont, who seems to know better, cannot resist outing the real people behind the novels. In Letting Go, Gabe Wallach is Roth and Paul Herz Roth’s friend Theodore Solataroff. Karen Oakes, in My Life As a Man, is an ex-girlfriend of Roth’s. Roth used his brother Sandy’s “relationship with their mother as a model for Portnoy,” Pierpont informs us in one passage, and in another she states the more plausible thesis that the “Portnoys were not [Philip Roth’s] parents.” Claire Bloom appears in Zuckerman Unbound (1981), an English lover of Roth’s appears in The Counterlife, a friend of Roth’s appears in Deception (1990), a Connecticut neighbor appears in Sabbath’s Theater, a childhood hero of Roth’s appears in I Married a Communist (1998), a woman who works in an electrical supply store in New England appears in The Human Stain, an ex-girlfriend appears in Everyman (2006), etc. These equations are taken to the point of absurdity with The Dying Animal (2001), influenced, Pierpont tells us, by Roth’s loss of a girlfriend: “That is [Philip Roth’s] suffering on the page; it’s fair to say, too, that those are her breasts.” These real-life precedents are all somewhat dubious, and even if they are true to Roth’s biography, they tell us nothing worthwhile about the literature.
Perhaps burdened by joining a biography to a critical study, Pierpont rushes through much of the literature. Repeatedly, she intones the allusiveness of Roth’s fiction, an intricate layering of reference to writers, literary modes and literary precedents. The two most common references are to Kafka and Chekhov, and after them come Henry James, Saul Bellow, Robert Musil and many others. Pierpont obviously has the acumen to follow up on her literary connections and associations, which amount to an atlas of modern literature. She apparently felt she had not the space to follow up, however, and her literary references function mostly as knowing gestures. The reader is left with the job of filling in the evocative blanks.
The foreshortened biography and the hurry to do justice to Roth’s massive catalogue of books are the small weaknesses of a big book, an ambitious book and in many ways a beautiful book. If Pierpont is at times a suspect biographer, she is the ideal reader of Roth’s chameleonic language. She follows Roth, among and within his books, as he modulates from the highest pitch of literary complexity to sharp colloquial formulations, from the Miltonic to the New Jersey vernacular and back again. Pierpont’s critical evaluations of The Ghost Writer (1979) — a spare, wintry novella — and Sabbath’s Theater — a volcanic excursus on the pain of death and the pained pleasures of sex — are the best ever written on these two masterpieces. Pierpont writes that Sabbath’s Theater “gives the deepest experiences we have — dying, remembering, holding on to each other — the startling impact of first knowledge, first incredulous awareness,” a perfect assessment of the novel’s mysterious force. Pierpont’s phrase describing The Dying Animal, “an after-dinner digestif made of bitter herbs,” telegraphically captures the flavor of this difficult, astringent novel. It also explains its appearance after the three course meal of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. In such sentences a great writer comes to life in the judgments of a great critic.
Pierpont deviates from earlier commentators, who tended to put Judaism or Jewishness at the center of Roth’s fiction. Pierpont does so only with Portnoy and Operation Shylock, novels that unfurl variations on the theme of Jewish identity. A Jewish man, Roth does not label himself a Jewish writer. As soon as he could, Roth left the Jewish quadrant of Newark where he had grown up — the same quadrant he would immortalize in his fiction. Yet to write about Jewish Newark is not to generate fiction with recognizably Jewish meanings, whatever these might be. In Roth Unbound, Pierpont offers a startling citation from Roth concerning his Eastern European Jewish heritage: “ʽWe don’t know how far back we go. If we, too, knew where we came from and how far back we went and who the people were, we, too, would be interested, as Jews. But we stop, we stop, and the witnesses to our past were destroyed.’” Roth listened to his grandparents and his parents speak Yiddish, and even tried for a few weeks to teach himself the ancestral language, but for whatever reason it was not to be his. Older than Roth, Saul Bellow grew up speaking Yiddish, a language that he never lost. Yiddish gave Bellow an access to cultural origins, to the Old World of Ashkenazic Jewry, that Roth did not have. Roth was destined to be an American writer.
Pierpont also deviates from just about everyone who has ever written on Roth on the subject of feminism. First, she retraces the extensive feminist case against Roth. Roth the man has been accused of hating women, and when Claire Bloom published her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), with its unflattering portrait of Roth, it furnished evidence for the jury. Bloom’s memoir negatively shaped public perceptions of Roth: somehow after its publication it was up to him to disprove the allegation of misogyny. Then there is the claim that his literature is misogynist in spirit, which arose less from Portnoy than from My Life As a Man, Pierpont believes — “the start of Roth’s big trouble with women, in the literary sense.” The preponderance of masculine protagonists enslaved to masculine appetites, masculine resentments, masculine anger, and masculine stupidity is the problem, as is the tendency of Roth’s female characters to be objects of masculine desire and the cause of suffering in the lives of masculine protagonists. By the 1990s, with women’s studies on the rise and gender a guiding preoccupation of academic literary criticism, Roth was a rich target for feminist scorn.
Pierpont aims to set the record straight. Returning to My Life As a Man, she finds “the author’s underlying arguments [in this novel]… far from inimical to women, or to feminism.” The underlying arguments militate against the solipsism and anger of the novel’s male protagonist. Likewise, Drenka Balich of Sabbath’s Theater, a novel whose male protagonist relishes his hatred of academic feminists, is, in Pierpont’s view, a vehicle of feminist fortitude, a conventional woman and mother who makes an unconventional claim on her sexual freedom. To know her is to know her soulfulness and her unpunished purchase on pleasure: “she enlarges the sense of possibility,” Pierpont writes, “and that’s what heroines are for.” Pierpont’s defense of Roth extends from writer to man — in the proposition that Roth, in his personal life, has been a supporter of women’s rights and powers. Feminist or otherwise, the underlying arguments of Roth’s novels may be less apparent than Pierpont implies. The novels may not have underlying arguments at all, but Pierpont’s rethinking of gender and Roth is shrewd, provocative, and long overdue.
The carnal femininity of Drenka Balich and the hysterical masculinity of Alexander Portnoy are modest subjects compared to the comic language of Portnoy and the baroque language of Sabbath’s Theater. In Roth Unbound, Pierpont adds something new to our understanding of Roth’s language and literary art — its connection to music. What the eye is to Updike the ear is to Roth, whose genius for dialogue has long been acknowledged. In his own criticism, Roth pays great heed to voice, a quality less ethereal than style, and in nonfiction books — Reading Myself and Others (1976) and Shop Talk (2001), for example — he has used interviews to get down the voices of other writers, employing his “true” voice in self-interviews. Pierpont hears the parallel art of music in the cadence of Roth’s fiction. In 1955, while living in Washington, DC, Roth fell in love with chamber music, and in this simple detail biography and critical study organically fuse. Pierpont draws a lovely point from the “inscrutably musical” tonalities of The Ghost Writer, with its “formal, almost musical structure: four sections in which the themes intertwine as tightly as in a chamber quartet.” Deception suggested a Bach fugue to Updike, Pierpont reminds us, contrapuntal in its crisscrossing lines of dialogue. The final hundred pages of American Pastoral conjure “a Mozartean ensemble,” combining and recombining characters into duos, trios and quartets, its emotional gravitas in (Mozartean) proximity to farce. Mozart and Bach are unexpected and fascinating fellow travelers in the creative processes of Philip Roth.
Pierpont ends her book with a series of aphorisms and epigrammatic sentences, a technique reminiscent of another European fellow traveler of Roth’s, Friedrich Nietzsche. In the final pages of Roth Unbound, the elderly Roth has come to be an American Zarathustra, a sage living at some bucolic remove, alone and at ease with the melancholy that is wisdom. Pierpont’s Roth is most acutely Nietzschean in his atheism. “It shouldn’t come as any surprise by now that the most famous Jewish writer of our time is a devoted pagan,” Pierpont observes. The rabbis who were so infuriated by Roth’s early stories and by Goodbye, Columbus may have been on to something. Perhaps their overheated response to this budding Spinoza from Newark was not as foolish as it must have seemed at the time. The philosophical core of Roth’s fiction, as Pierpont reads it, is a refutation of religion. The colorful rebuke of postwar Jewish pieties shaded into the grayness of Nemesis (2010), Roth’s final novel, in which “a latter-day Greek hero” is brought low by bad luck, the victim of an absent God left to endure the enveloping emptiness. The novel’s vision is hard, more stoic than rationalist, and the atheism behind it is palpable; a book that instructs its readers in the impossibility of a Judeo-Christian God.
Yet Roth is properly a writer of fiction, and not a philosopher. In Roth’s fiction, the Nietzschean generation is his own. Born in the 1930s, they are the ones who broke free from the standard religious claims, who lessened the tyranny of family that had been their childhood inheritance, who laid claim to their erotic liberty — furtively in the 1950s and fulsomely in the 1960s. They dared to think and live for themselves, as Mickey Sabbath does with such comic abandon, an Old Testament prophet without faith, thinking his way out from suicide though still beholden to the abyss. Nietzschean this may all be, if philosophized, but the heroes of Roth’s fiction are not the Nietzschean younger generation, not the army of sons to which Roth so vividly belongs. They are the parents born at the turn of the century, the children of immigrants who had accepted and internalized the standard religious claims about virtue and justice, without quite believing in them as their religiously devout parents had. In particular, the heroes are the fathers — Herman Roth of Patrimony, Roth’s 1991 memoir, no less than the fictional fathers — who knew everything about self-discipline and very little about liberation, whose lives were work and family, work and family, work and family, and whose sense of right and wrong was no less severe than Queen Victoria’s. Contradictory perhaps, the celebration of these puritanical, driven, narrow-minded fathers from the pen of a modern writer, and philosophically muddled when aligned with the author’s love of independence and freedom, although such contradiction is hardly bad for a novelist. It was this very contradiction that let Roth be the writer that he was, the mercurial chronicler of lives and counterlives, facts and counterfacts, narratives and counter narratives. The father’s will to self-discipline and the son’s will to self-fulfillment are the two poles between which Roth has walked his literary tightrope, struggling to keep his balance and to find the life-giving tension required for his magical and irreducible art.