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…

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