5 May, 2014Issue 25.1FictionLiteratureThe ArtsWriters

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Not Letting Go

Andrew Dean

Claudia Roth Pierpont
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
368 pages
ISBN 978-0374280512

Philip Roth, like his father in Patrimony (1991), loves nothing more than hocking critics, reviewers, and readers. The greatest moment of the author’s long and distinguished hocking career is surely the “Open Letter to Wikipedia”, which he published in The New Yorker in 2012, describing his attempt to correct the mistaken assertion that the long-serving editor of The New York Times, Anatole Broyard, was the real-life inspiration for one of his characters. Roth writes that the person he instructed to fix the mistake

was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—”but we require secondary sources.”

That was not the end of it. Later that year, Bliss Broyard, Anatole’s daughter, had a Facebook comment republished in Salon, in which she argued that the author might not be able to assign the origins or motivations of his writing (Anatole’s life may have influenced the author after all) and that we, as readers, have the power to make our own readings (we may follow our own interpretations, irrespective of what the author says about it). It is unreasonable, she wrote, for Roth “to dictate what conclusions other people draw about his characters.”

Philip Roth is now saying more than ever about his books. A series of recent interviews and discussions in a number of publications, ranging from major print newspapers to the online project, “Web of Stories”, were followed earlier this month by a lengthy interview with The New York Times. It seems hard to believe today that Martin Vasnik introduced his 2005 interview with Roth in The Guardian by noting that “Philip Roth rarely gives interviews.” Since the author’s retirement from fiction in late 2012, it has been difficult to keep up with the pace of new reminiscences, reflections, and conversations.

All of which brings me to Claudia Roth Pierpont—no relation of the novelist—and her new book, Roth Unbound. Arising out of Pierpont’s friendship with Philip Roth, the book draws on years of conversations to examine Roth’s “development as a writer” and “his themes, his thoughts, and his language.” It is a work of biographical criticism organized chronologically around his books, which seeks to explicate each novel in light of the insight which Pierpont has gained through her acquaintance with their author. It resembles Susannah Clapp’s With Chatwin (1997), in which Clapp considers the life and character of the British travel writer Bruce Chatwin alongside his novels from her vantage point as his editor. Pierpont was not Roth’s editor, but after first meeting him in 2002 they became friends—Pierpont eventually joined the circle of readers whom Roth entrusts with giving honest feedback on his works prior to their publication. Part criticism, part biography, part personal reminiscence, Roth Unbound clearly draws from this close relationship and fits comfortably with her long-time career as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

The result is very mixed. The book has its strengths, in particular its insight into areas of Roth’s life that have largely gone unreported. In her chapter on The Prague Orgy (1985), for example, we learn of the considerable energy and money that Roth committed to assisting Czech writers during the 1970s and 80s; elsewhere, we hear of Roth’s remarkably uncomplicated sense of regret for his public falling out with John Updike. A strength too is her excavation of the various personal experiences that have fed into his writing, a process which he described in a 2012 interview The New York Times, as “bounc[ing] up and down on the diving board” of life before diving into the “water of fiction.” Pierpont demonstrates throughout how much Roth draws upon his own life for his writing, fulfilling the sense one gets when reading his books that looking closely at his life—especially in the case of the Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator in nine of his books, who grows old and famous alongside his author—would help to account for the way that he constructs, updates, extends, and contradicts the imaginative worlds that he builds with such care and at such length. Yet having found these biographical resonances, Pierpont seems uncertain about what to do with them and, in the end, our reading of the novels is not seriously assisted by the proliferation of biographical detail. At its worst, the search through the past becomes a kind of mania, displacing other ways of thinking about the creative process. She may observe the water of fiction and the diving board of life, but she fails to capture him mid-leap.

Pierpont’s struggle to picture Roth writing is not helped by her disdain for more theoretically informed approaches to his work. In part, this seems to be a response to the various critical bruisings which he has received over the years, spanning from the outrage of Jewish-American intellectuals to the opprobrium of a number of feminist critics. Yet she does herself a disservice when she ignores the ascendency of literary theory in the 1980s and the influence this had upon writers of the period. She writes woefully of The Counterlife, Roth’s most carefully layered novel and his most explicitly theoretical, proprietorially saving it from postmodernism when she attributes its power to Roth’s skill as a “fervent realist.” Yet as Adam Mars-Jones notes in his review of Roth Unbound in the London Review of Books, “it’s hard to find a definition of postmodernism [that The Counterlife] doesn’t fit.” Recuperating Roth from theory is a meaningless and dated task, one made all the more difficult by Roth’s immersion within literary movements which themselves have been broadly informed by literary theory, and to the ultimate detriment of her account of his fiction.

The primary benefit is insight into the aspects of his life which have not previously been accessed, or at least not at such length or in such detail. This is not a minor achievement, of course, and readers and critics who are eager to find the man behind the fictions of My Life as a Man (the violence is not based on life, we discover) and Sabbath’s Theatre (Philip Roth is no Mickey Sabbath) will certainly welcome the work. But the result is that the book never quite gains enough distance from Roth. I cannot help but agree with Tim Adams in his review in The Guardian where he writes of the sense that Roth is constantly at Pierpont’s shoulder: Roth can be found in hiding between pairs of parentheses in the book, a ghostly voice that returns throughout to comment upon Pierpont’s account, to corroborate or thicken it in some way. This closeness comes at the expense of other voices who may contest his version of history. Claire Bloom and Margaret Williams in particular may have something to say about their treatment: Williams is irredeemable, while Bloom is not fully in command of herself, given to overstatement. This is not to say that the book is necessarily wrong, but simply that it leaves the distinct impression that we are listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Despite Pierpont proclaiming that she has kept the author “resolutely out of mind” when writing her book, he would find little to quibble with here, the biographer-critic never having detached herself sufficiently from her subject.

Biographers of living subjects are constantly faced with the problem of distance, and Pierpont is not the first to struggle to write an authorized work. Both the biographical genre and the literary marketplace demand access to the innermost moments of the subject’s life while, at the same time, the subject determines what to reveal and what to keep secret. Their life is theirs for the telling and they are left holding all the cards. The subject chooses the biographer after long deliberation and is unlikely to select someone they imagine will portray them in a negative light. Excluding Pierpont, Roth is already onto his second biographer, Blake Bailey, having dispensed with his first, Ross Miller, in 2009. Some writers are remarkably open, of course: Patrick French’s authorized biography of V. S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is (2008), for example, is a masterpiece of the genre. Roth Unbound is not, however, as the biographer melts into her subject, only to find that she loses herself in the process.

Andrew Dean is reading for a D.Phil in English at New College, Oxford.