Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books
By Claudia Roth Pierpont
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages, $27
Now that Philip Roth has quit (or “quit,” depending on the degree to which you find his retirement announcement believable) writing, the oeuvre assessments have begun. One of the first is Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “Roth Unbound.” Subtitled “A Writer and His Books,” it has the rather lofty mission of examining “Roth’s development as a writer, considering his themes, his thoughts, and his language.” And, because Roth’s work often tends towards the autobiographical, it dips, of necessity, into “the life that has so often served the work.”
Middle name aside, Pierpont is not, as she is quick to note, related to her “celebrated subject,” but they do share nearly a decade of friendship, which began when Roth sent Pierpont a letter and some clippings after a story she wrote about the anthropologist Franz Boas ran in The New Yorker where Pierpont works as a writer. Soon, she became one of Roth’s readers, a trusted friend from whom he solicited opinions on his writing before publication. (Another such friend and reader is Judith Thurman, so perhaps Roth has a thing about ladies who write for The New Yorker.)
They spent time together, talking about Roth’s work. Though Pierpont had nothing particular in mind project-wise, she meticulously “tried to keep track of everything he said.” That task was pleasant enough: “Roth,” Pierpont assures the reader in her introduction, “is a brilliant talker… he’s as funny as you might think from his books,” and she realized, from the start of their acquaintance, what “an extraordinary privilege” it was to talk to Philip Roth about Philip Roth.
The book that resulted from these conversations is half-compelling, half-frustrating. Pierpont flaunts her access to Roth and his papers, liberally leavening her appraisals of the novels with a “Roth tells me now” or a “Roth’s notes reveal” or some variation thereof. But she is also careful to avoid the appearance of seeming too close, often giving the impression of taking a critical view of some of the work.
She breaks no real new ground here: In so far as “Roth Unbound” is an examination of Roth’s themes, it will hardly strike anyone who has so much as heard about, let alone read Roth that he is interested in Jewishness, in how Jewishness intersects with, blends into and sticks out of Americaness, in history, histories and counter histories. Nor is anyone who would be likely to read a book about Roth’s work unlikely to know at least some of his early history: the time he spent in Newark and Weequahic and the scandal of his early (and his later) work. Pierpont’s oft-repeated point that Roth’s novels are an alchemy of fact and imagination, personal history poured into the blender of “what if?” is neither particularly shocking nor especially enlightening, though.