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Philip Roth: ‘The Full Arc’?

Bob Peterson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Philip Roth at the Yaddo artists’ retreat, December 1968

The work of Philip Roth, if we are to believe him, has been completed. He has retired from the business of novel-writing; there will be no more alter egos, no more splitting or doubling. As Dr. Spielvogel, in the punch line to Portnoy’s Complaint, asks: “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

This fixity was the “precondition” for the New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, which could only have been written “with the full arc of Roth’s work completed.” She believes, then, that there is an arc to the work, and that we can only now—now that it terminates—trace that arc properly. This might read as introductory biographical boilerplate, but in Roth’s case it makes a real claim. Roth’s work resists easy explanation; few other writers have had careers in which, for example, a rather traditional realist novel like American Pastoral (1997) follows immediately upon one full of obscene fulminations like Sabbath’s Theater (1995). Other critics have defended the coherence of Roth’s work without reference to all of the books—Ross Posnock in Philip Roth’s Rude Truth (2006) wrote with critical insight about all but the few final volumes—but Pierpont takes this completeness as an invitation to say something definitive.

This advances an argument with Roth himself. In his 1984 interview with The Paris Review, Roth resisted linear metaphors to describe his career: “It’s all one book you write anyway. At night you dream six dreams. But are they six dreams? One dream prefigures or anticipates the next, or somehow concludes what hasn’t yet even been fully dreamed.” A critic might well respond that to dream dreams and to interpret them are two different things. But the second precondition of Pierpont’s book, beyond completeness, was access to the dreamer. Now that he no longer spends most days in a remote Connecticut hideout writing novels, he at last has the time to kibitz. Pierpont’s book has emerged from some eight years of informal friendly conversation with Roth. His presence accounts for what she calls the book’s “hybrid form.”

By this she means that her book is neither a “conventional biography” with “names and dates” nor a sober critical study. For the former we’ll have to wait for the volume Blake Bailey is preparing. Pierpont discusses Roth’s first wife and a few of his longtime girlfriends, but she mostly keeps his secrets to herself. On the relationship of Roth’s life to the story of the suicide at the center of The Humbling (2009), for example, she writes that

while it’s true that Roth did have a torrid affair in these years with a forty-year-old former lesbian, he survived it perfectly well, and they are friends today. It’s also true that he began to think about having a child and consulted a doctor about genetic feasibility—but this was a little later, and with a different lover.

The book’s tone on these matters is withholding. Pierpont is protective of her friend and his privacy.

It’s not straight criticism either. Pierpont proceeds chronologically, as an arc requires. There’s a chapter for each book or two, along with background information, and she is unabashed in her admiration. Her treatment of The Dying Animal (2001) is characteristic. She begins by remarking that, at age sixty-seven, one might expect a novelist to slow down; Roth, however, “expanded his range and power as he aged.” Roth’s last challenge had been to learn how to write such “big, complicated books” as The Counterlife, and with The Dying Animal he wanted to “do something lean and direct.” He asked Saul Bellow, with whom he’d by then become close, for advice, but Bellow only laughed.

The Dying Animal is a sexually explicit book—Roth “has lost none of his desire to shock”—but Pierpont explains the sex as metaphorical. It’s not about the act itself but about “the ways we find to accommodate its disruptive power—and, indeed, about personal freedom.” Pierpont catalogs the negative reviews, most of which dilated on the misogyny of Roth’s antihero, David Kepesh, now resurrected for a coda to an earlier pair of books. These critics of this “blunt and unbeguiling” novel had a point, Pierpont thinks, but they make the classic mistake of Roth criticism: the identification of his views with those of his characters. “But it’s one thing to say that Kepesh is limited or unlikable and another to say that he’s unreal, or doesn’t represent something real.”

Roth himself doesn’t come down one way or another. As Pierpont puts it, “The upshot seems to be that marriage is one form of hell, but the post-revolutionary sexual situation can be another.” It’s a cogent reading of the book. Pierpont is ultimately more interested, however, in how the books point back to the life. She closes the chapter with an aperçu from Roth. Does he believe in a happy marriage? “Yes, and some people play the violin like Isaac Stern. But it’s rare.”

Pierpont’s hybrid form results from her attempt to couple the completeness of the works—though she ultimately predicts he’ll write novels again—and her access to the man behind them. Completeness is necessarily a matter of how each book fits in with all the other books; it allows her to map their trajectory. Access is a matter of how each book fits with the life of the writer; it allows her to correct the record—to defend Roth against accusations of misogyny and anti-Semitism, and protect him from how badly he’s been read—by distinguishing between Roth’s characters and their creator. This reconciliation of art and life makes for a difficult project, especially because Roth insists he’s been boring. “The uneventfulness of my biography would make Beckett’s The Unnameable read like Dickens.” It is precisely such uneventfulness, he thinks, that has made room for the eventfulness of the books.

Pierpont twice refers to a line of Flaubert’s that Roth admires: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” She initially claims that her solution to the problem will be to follow Roth in distinguishing not between art and life but between written and unwritten lives. What Roth seems to mean is that the written life is accountable within a formal system—the practice of writing novels—the way the unwritten life, with its inconsistency and disorder, is not. A few sentences later Pierpont reverses herself, redrawing once more the problem-filled distinction. “This book, then, is about the life of Philip Roth’s art and, inevitably, the art of his life.” It’s a lot of pressure to put on both.

It is this idea of “the art of his life,” beyond details of Roth’s indiscretions, around which Pierpont’s protectiveness gathers. Her “hybrid form” promises that the work and the life might be seamlessly integrated; she writes as if the greatness of this artist depended on that very unity. It’s easy to understand why Pierpont might feel this way. We might believe, for example, that Nabokov’s jewel-box novels were the fruits of a disciplined life. The reaction to J. Michael Lennon’s recent biography of Norman Mailer has been that the energy Mailer put into his extraordinary life might otherwise have gone into his uneven books.

About Roth one hopes otherwise. His best work has tremendous vitality, a vitality we can only suspect spills over from the life, and spills back into it. Since the 1993 breakup of his second marriage, to the actress Claire Bloom, Roth has cultivated the image of the woodsy recluse. It’s an image Pierpont remains invested in—she praises the “unrelenting work ethic” that tethers Roth to his desk each morning and most evenings—but one she seeks to complicate. In his cameo appearances as himself, Roth comes across as more of a character from the work than an authority on the life. He cuts a folksy, avuncular, self-deprecating figure of hail-fellow-well-met Yiddishkeit.

It is important to Pierpont that we understand that this ultimate self- satisfaction has been hard-won. When we first meet Pierpont’s Roth, he’s living in the East Village, awaiting the 1959 publication in The New Yorker of the story “Defender of the Faith,” in which a Jewish combat hero must decide how to treat a coreligionist draftee who petitions for special favors. Pierpont glosses the story in a few sentences about conflicting loyalties. The surface drama, which she concentrates on, is between loyalty to tribe and loyalty to nation, but the more profound issue is between alternate interpretations of loyalty to tribe: Nathan Marx, the sergeant, clearly believes that the Jewishly loyal thing to do is to treat his charge as he does the other conscripts.

Roth himself considered it a faithful story—faithful to the difficult negotiations of dual allegiance to which American Jews brought great effort. He was thus “blindsided” by the accusations of “informing”—that is, airing run-of-the-mill Jewish venality before a wide mixed audience—leveled at him by some furious rabbis. The chapter closes with Roth at a now-famous 1962 symposium at Yeshiva University. The moderator’s first question established the evening’s hectoring tone: “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?”

In Pierpont’s book, a beleaguered Roth is “barely able to respond coherently.” In David Remnick’s 2000 New Yorker profile of Roth, the scene is somewhat different: “Over and over, Roth answered, ‘But we live in the opposite of Nazi Germany!’ And he got nowhere.” In Pierpont’s dramaturgy a weak Roth tries to collect himself with new resolve: “In the safety of the Stage Delicatessen, over a pastrami sandwich, he vowed, ‘I’ll never write about Jews again.’” He basically avoided Jews for the next two books, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967). Pierpont’s pattern has taken shape: there’s enough about a book to provide a setting for a decisive moment in the life, and then enough of the consequences for the life to watch it feed back into the work.

As Roth’s fame grows—with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) he becomes a household name—it becomes easier for Pierpont to convince us that Roth has led a life so noteworthy as to be commensurable with his imaginative production. We get, in turn, a lot of Roth’s melodramatic relations with women. His marriage to the troubled Maggie Williams—the story that became My Life as a Man (1974)—“may have been the most painfully destructive and lastingly influential literary marriage since Scott and Zelda.” We get Roth on a date with Jackie Kennedy—“Do you want to come upstairs? Oh, of course you do”—which, much later, went straight into Zuckerman Unbound. When Roth lives part-time in London with Bloom in the 1980s, there’s Roth in a tumult over Israeli politics with Harold Pinter; Alfred Brendel, seated nearby, worries they might fall on his hands.

Pierpont’s effort to give us a more complicated, flashier Roth makes for a diverting read. But it also derives from the work itself, which has long been preoccupied with questions of fame. How does fame change how one understands loyalty and betrayal? A Jewish writer who wanted to be understood as more than merely a Jewish writer had, prior to Roth, two options: not to write about Jews at all, or, like Bellow, to write about Jews and get famous—to show that by burrowing into particularism one might discover a counterintuitive route to universality; this was an attempt to show that clannishness need not destroy broader affiliations, and can even shore them up.

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