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.