How did it happen that Philip Roth, the one-time bad boy of American Jewish literature, is now, at the age of 80, the Great Man of Jewish Letters? It’s not a Kafkaesque transformation (though Kafka’s influence can be seen throughout Roth’s work). It’s more like a counterlife narrative from one of Roth’s own novels (one of which he did title “The Counterlife,” after all). And in “Roth Unbound: A Writer And His Books” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), literary critic Claudia Roth Pierpont tells us how it came about.
Her book is an engrossing travelogue-like chronicle that journeys through the literary landscapes and biographical backdrops of Roth’s 31 books. One by one and decade by decade, she deftly sketches in some of the real-life inspirations from Roth’s biography and provides frequently acute critical insights and assessments of each work’s literary worth and impact.
Still, why read about Roth rather than read Roth’s work itself? What makes her book about Roth possible, Pierpont emphasizes, is the fact that Roth’s work is now complete. Upon turning 80 earlier this year, he announced his retirement from writing fiction, which means that she — and we — can now view the full trajectory of Roth’s career over the course of more than 50 highly productive years. Moreover, even though he is no longer writing novels, Roth remains actively engaged in conserving his literary legacy. He has authorized writer Blake Bailey to be his official biographer. And he has cooperated with Pierpont (they are long-time friends, though not related despite her middle name), speaking with her at length and allowing her access to his papers. Their conversations, quoted liberally throughout the book, make for lively reading, and also yield tantalizing tidbits about Roth’s personal life.
Pierpont does not focus in particular on Roth’s Jewishness, but she does not have to. It is part of the literary fingerprint that appears throughout his work, often in conjunction with the Weequahic neighborhood in Newark, N.J., where he grew up. And yet, Pierpont discloses, Roth once swore, “I’ll never write about Jews again!” The outburst had come in 1962, after his appearance at a symposium at Yeshiva University, where the moderator’s opening gambit was, “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?”
The stories in question had appeared in Roth’s 1959 fiction debut, “Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories.” His irreverent depictions of American Jews grappling with the dilemmas of assimilation had won him literary acclaim in the form of the prestigious National Book Award, as well as the label of self-hating Jew. Stung by the accusation, Roth kept his vow by keeping Jews off-limits for his next two works, the dullest books he ever wrote. (They are “Letting Go” and “When She Was Good,” and unless you’re a Roth die-hard, you may not have even heard of them.)
So pause a moment to consider what masterworks we would have missed out on (including “The Ghost Writer,” “The Counterlife,” “Patrimony,” “Operation Shylock,” “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America” and his “Nemesis” quartet of short novels) if he hadn’t gone back on his promise. With his sexually explicit comic novel about a guilt-ridden Jewish bachelor kvetching to his Jewish psychoanalyst about his Jewish family and his lusty encounters with mostly non-Jewish women, he went back on it with gusto. Notorious, hilarious, embarrassing, shocking and subversive for its time, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969, is not Roth’s best book, but it made his career.
And not just because it brought him fame, fortune and infamy. Once again, any number of Jewish critics assailed him, among them the noted scholar Gershom Scholem, who opined in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Roth’s novel was “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.” From Roth’s point of view, however, he was asserting his freedom as a writer, and his subject was sexual freedom — a topic that perfectly fit the rebellious spirit of the 1960s. The book also marked Roth’s own rebellion, writes Pierpont, against “the constraints of good-Jewish-boyism” and the bonds of literary propriety.
But Roth had yet to come to grips in his work with what it means to be a Jewish man. Two experiences propelled Roth to artistic maturity over the next decade. In 1972, he made his first trip to Prague, home of his literary hero Kafka but also a country where the communist regime suppressed the political — and literary — expression of writers such as Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima, whose works until then were little known, if published at all. The reason their works are renown today is thanks to Roth, who from 1974 until 1989 edited the 17-volume “Writers from Other Europe Series,” which also introduced American readers to the works of Danilo Kis from Yugoslavia, Polish writer Bruno Schulz and Hungarian author Gyorgy Konrad, among others. Roth’s moral and artistic commitment to, and achievement in, bringing attention to these authors, often at personal risk to himself in the course of his European travels, is a too often unsung aspect of his career.
The second event, in 1975, was meeting and beginning his long-term relationship with the British actress Claire Bloom. “Love had given him another world,” Pierpont writes. Regardless of the ugliness of their break-up 19 years later, a new tenderness and a deeper appreciation of the bonds that hold people together — as opposed to merely constraining them — can be seen entering Roth’s work starting with “The Ghost Writer,” which appeared in 1979.
Here, too, with the first of the three novels and a novella-length epilogue that comprise “Zuckerman Bound,” Roth began his account of the life story of Nathan Zuckerman, a Newark-born Jewish-American novelist whose dual obsessions with sex and with Jews catapult him to fame and infamy. Sound familiar? Also like Roth, Zuckerman focuses on dilemmas having to do with betrayal, loyalty, and the push-pull of remaining within and going beyond social boundaries.
Under the influence of the often-surreal writers of Eastern Europe, Roth seems to have grown even more adept at playing with multiple identities, masks and fictional alter egos. No, Zuckerman was not Roth; then again, in two later novels — “Operation Shylock” (1993) and “The Plot Against America” (2004) — readers couldn’t be quite be sure if the character named “Philip Roth” was Roth, either.
“A Roth hero without a moral problem is inconceivable,” Pierpont writes, and Roth’s characters from the 1990s onward grapple with loss, physical infirmity, the imminence of death, a world ruled by historical chance and a faith they cannot hold onto. Those themes dominate his remarkable full-length novels, starting with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” (1997), continue in “The Human Stain” (2000), and “The Plot Against America” (2004), and then in the series of short novels that concluded, in 2010, with Nemesis. (Pierpont would add to this triumphant list “Sabbath’s Theater” from 1995, her personal favorite for its “deliberately abrasive and insanely funny” confrontation with outrageous, even repellent characters; as with “Portnoy,” however, other readers consider it just outrageous or repellent.)
Throughout “Roth Unbound,” Pierpont is generous in her glowing appreciation of Roth as author and friend, non-judgmental in discussing some of Roth’s more prominent sexual affairs, a seeming spokesperson for Roth in her defense of his treatment of women. One could have wished for more critical distance, both more questioning of and more willingness to disagree with Roth himself. But her subject is not personal scandal. It is the brilliance of a writer whose supple prose, comedic verve and willingness to engage with the full spectrum of life’s contradictions seduce us all.
Diane Cole, author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges,” is a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El, where she will be teaching a class on Philip Roth this winter.