Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books

Clau­dia Roth Pierpont
  • Review
By – December 19, 2013

Clau­dia Roth Pier­pont, when intro­duced to Philip Roth about a decade ago, blurt­ed out” her admi­ra­tion for his books. After some wari­ness, he came to trust her to read drafts of his final short fic­tions. Soon they talked about how he had com­posed his ear­li­er books. In Roth Unbound, which omits schol­ar­ly cita­tions or bib­li­og­ra­phy, it is this friend­ship and trust that Pier­pont invokes to pro­vide the required authen­tic­i­ty. The result: some valu­able insights for the gen­er­al read­er and some sur­pris­es for Roth scholars. 

The first sur­prise is that Roth used pre­lim­i­nary read­ers. That Roth, so defi­ant of pub­lic cen­sure, sought pri­vate crit­i­cism of his drafts and indeed revised them in response seems out of char­ac­ter. Not only were some of these read­ers women, so were — and are — some of his clos­est friends. Any­one still insist­ing on his misog­y­ny may balk at the even hand­ed­ness of his attach­ments and detach­ments: Roth dropped friend­ships with men — Harold Pin­ter for vir­u­lent anti-Amer­i­can­ism; John Updike for dou­ble­think on the Roth-Claire Bloom split — as eas­i­ly as he dropped friend­ships with women. 

It is Roth’s lived life, pul­sat­ing through­out his writ­ten works, that Pier­pont deft­ly unbinds. Toward the end of her book she says, almost as an aside, that If this book were a con­ven­tion­al biog­ra­phy, there would be names and dates; that will come along with time.” Ouch! Roth’s des­ig­nat­ed biog­ra­ph­er may feel his toes just tram­pled on, but for read­ers who have fol­lowed the Zuck­er­mans, the Kepish­es, the moishe pipiks, ” the Roths’, the Philips’ — the alter-egos and the alter-ids — Pierpont’s ren­der­ings of the lived life are enrich­ing. She recounts Roth’s com­mit­ment to heart-felt caus­es — such as PEN and his Writ­ers from the Oth­er Europe for which, at much per­son­al expense, he smug­gled out the works of east­ern Euro­peans unknown in the West until Czech revo­ca­tion of his pass­port made fur­ther smug­glings impos­si­ble — and the trav­el-com­pan­ion lovers whom Roth would work into Zuckerman’s and Kepish’s Prague adventures. 

What most yoked togeth­er Roth’s lived and writ­ten lives was his first, deceit-induced mar­riage to Mag­gie Williams. It left him mis­trust­ing the per­ma­nence of the very insti­tu­tion, unwill­ing to be bound by it again. He aban­doned oth­er spir­it­ed and deeply loved women on that thresh­old, cer­tain that every­thing would now go down­hill. Meet­ing some in lat­er life, he saw old women rec­og­niz­able only in their facial expres­sions. Had he mar­ried them, Roth mused, he would have fooled around and it would have end­ed in divorce. Although he found Claire Bloom well read and intel­lec­tu­al­ly vibrant, the pre-nup and breakup were pre­dictable. In nov­el after nov­el, Roth explores the sad loss of fam­i­ly life; in par­ent­ing, how­ev­er, Roth’s acu­tal self suc­ceed­ed beyond our guess­ing. Years after Maggie’s death, her grown son by a pre­vi­ous mar­riage cred­it­ed Philip with hav­ing saved his child­hood and pos­si­bly his life. As for Maggie’s effect on Roth, he mut­ters, at dif­fer­ent times, that he owed her his life-sub­ject and that he didn’t owe her shit!” But she moved him to cre­ate coun­ter­selves whose flaws their author under­scored long before chid­ing reviewers.

For Pier­pont, the height of Roth’s pub­lish­ing curve was Sabbath’s The­ater, and the per­fect love was Dren­ka, its artist of infi­deli­ty and unstint­ing desire. Bas­ing her on a woman who lived on, not felled by can­cer, Roth drew its heart­break from bed­side vig­ils with oth­er real loves. Pier­pont sees the lat­er Roth’s unremit­ting focus on decline and death as of a piece with his phys­i­cal real­i­ty. Over­all, her crit­i­cal judg­ments are compelling.

Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

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