Over the course of 51 years and 31 books, Philip Roth has awed, amused and ticked off many readers.
Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) presents a smart anatomy of his rich corpus in “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books.” It mixes literary criticism and biographical details with inside information and comments drawn from Pierpont’s conversations with the novelist, who has retired from writing.
Her analysis and insights reflect a deep admiration for much of Roth’s work, yet she comfortably registers disappointment when the master falls short.
Born in 1933, Roth published his first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” in 1959, winning the National Book Award.
Within months he would enter what Pierpont describes as “the most painfully destructive and lastingly influential literary marriage since Scott and Zelda.” The long novel “Letting Go” (1962) and “When She Was Good” (1967) emerged during these years of wedded unbliss and costly divorce before his ex-wife, Maggie Williams, died in a car crash in 1968. The critical and commercial receptions for both were poor.
In 1969 Life magazine announced “a major event in American culture.” “Portnoy’s Complaint” saved Roth’s bacon, beating “The Godfather” for the year’s No. 1 bestseller. One month Roth was $8,000 in debt; the next he received a publisher’s check for $250,000.
Pierpont includes a fun excursion through the history of the Jewish mother that cites Freud, the Fugs and Nichols and May, inter alia. Success sent Roth fleeing fame and into a trio of so-so efforts.
Like many, my Roth exposure dates from the book and movie version of “Goodbye, Columbus.” I added the “Zuckerman Bound” tetralogy (1979-85) that starts with “The Ghost Writer” after going overseas in 1984 to work for 15 years, during which English books and pleasure-reading time were equally scarce.
While I’ve read a few more Roths since repatriating, I have a lot of catching up to do, for which Pierpont has been a helpful spur. I recently read “The Breast” (1972), whose metamorphosis of a literature professor named David Kepesh from man to mammary gland seemed like a perfect fit for a writer who helped birth the Jewish mother. Alas, it’s labored, though short.
“My Life as a Man” (1974), Roth’s long-sought bad-marriage catharsis, was a “particularly dismal flop,” and it earned him the “misogynist” label that stuck for years. “The Professor of Desire” (1977) reflected a newfound interest in East Europe and its writers. Pierpont deems the book “encouraging,” but “for all his fame and evident talent ... Roth’s literary future was at best uncertain.”
Two years later he published “The Ghost Writer,” in which a young author named Nathan Zuckerman (who resembles Roth -- as so many of his protagonists do) seeks validation on a visit to an older novelist. The novella explores art, paternity and history in what Pierpont, comparing it to “The Great Gatsby,” calls “one of our literature’s rare, inevitably brief, inscrutably musical, and nearly perfect books.”
I found it a joy to reread, and perhaps it marks the real start of the writer who would become a Nobel Prize contender, whom Harold Bloom would anoint as “our foremost novelist since Faulkner.”
The book was influenced, Pierpont suggests, by English actress Claire Bloom, “with whom Roth was sharing his life” when he began the book. They married in 1990 and divorced three years later. For their 16 years together he produced 10 books, but many may remember the couple best for the written blows they exchanged in her memoir, “Leaving a Doll’s House” (1996), and his fictional response, “I Married a Communist” (1998).
Pierpont spends a lot of time on “The Counterlife” (1986) -- “a masterwork of craft and wit” -- right after delivering a truly daunting plot summary I won’t try to encapsulate. It shall be my next Roth, along with “Sabbath’s Theater,” which she calls “a masterpiece of 20th-century American literature.”
In a few years, I hope, Blake Bailey will deliver his authorized biography of Roth, and I’ll need to be done with all the books to give the life, the work, the man their due. In the meantime, maybe Pierpont’s publisher can ship a few copies of her book over to the Nobel Prize judges in Oslo. Like chicken soup, it can’t hurt.
“Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (353 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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