Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont review

David Sexton
·5-min read
 (AP Photo/Douglas Healey)
(AP Photo/Douglas Healey)

Last year Philip Roth, now aged 80, told an interviewer for Le Monde that he had completely stopped writing fiction since publishing Nemesis in 2010.

“A 50-year struggle is quite enough. I don’t wish to be a slave any longer to the stringent exigencies of literature. I’ve overthrown my master and I’m free to breathe.” Instead, he had been rereading his own books to see if the effort had been worthwhile, and writing archival material to help the biographer he has decided upon — Blake Bailey, the author of a huge and brilliant book on John Cheever. “I work for him, I’m his employee,” Roth said. “I do his spadework — unpaid.”

That biography, whenever it will be published, promises to be fascinating. In the meantime, here’s Roth Unbound, not quite a biography but nonetheless a chronological study of his writing career, with some startling biographical disclosures en route, which Roth has also supported. Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation), a New Yorker staffer who has previously published a collection of essays on women writers, met Roth at a party in 2002 but he didn’t remember it. Two years later, he wrote to her commenting on an article she’d written on another subject; they met for coffee and became friends, to the extent that she became one of the trusted pre-publication readers of his work.

After realising that he had retired from fiction and the “full arc” of his work was complete, she began this study, profiting from many conversations with him and access to his files. “To put it simply, he had the time to talk about his work because he wasn’t doing it any more,” she says. “And it was exciting for him to look back on a lifetime’s production that even he had not yet had time to sum up…” So, “although he has done all this with the understanding that he would not read a single word in advance of publication”, this book can be understood to be in some ways yet another of Roth’s games with authorship and identity.

Roth Pierpont certainly is not afraid to judge Roth’s work. None of the three books he published in the early Seventies after Portnoy’s Complaint did his reputation much good, she says — whereas The Ghostwriter of 1979 is “one of our literature’s rare, inevitably brief, inscrutably musical, and nearly perfect books”. She greatly values “energy” in writing and this leads her perhaps to undervalue his late work. She is unimpressed by the bleak masterpiece Everyman (2006), for example, commenting that “these final novels would have been filled out very differently at an earlier time in Roth’s career” — differently but perhaps not better?

Inevitably, it is Roth’s own contributions via Roth Pierpont that make the book most rewarding. The disclosure that he once briefly dated Jackie Kennedy — “when he finally kissed her, it was like kissing the face on a billboard” — has made the news, but no less amusing is the authoritative statement that he proposed marriage to the woman who was the model for Consuela in The Dying Animal. “She was in her mid-twenties and nearly six feet tall and she took his breath away. He was in his late sixties (‘or maybe I was ninety,’ he throws in).”

Many affairs are casually mentioned in passing, when they affect the work, of course. Roth Pierpont asked him if he believed in “long-term love, otherwise known as a happy marriage… ‘Yes,’ he replies to my question, ‘and some people play the violin like Isaac Stern. But it’s rare’.”

There’s even some new Roth smut. Actual sex being out of the question when he was a schoolboy, “for a while, he says, he was smitten with a cardboard toilet paper roll, its inside smeared with Vaseline”. Thanks, Philip! “He sent a copy of Indignation [2008] to the woman he credits with ‘the only blowjob performed at Bucknell [the university he attended] between 1950 and 1954… More than half a century later, she replied with a gracious letter about her knee operation and her granddaughter…” A Roth novel, right there.

And he does talk revealingly about the work too, with a directness to put the literary critics to shame. “It began because I was looking for a place to be buried,” he says of Sabbath’s Theater, quite simply. As for the complex structure of The Counterlife: “I wrote one section and then I thought, ‘What if the opposite happened?’. I generally spend a lot of time in the ‘what if’ stage.”

Roth Pierpont ends with some touching vignettes. They were discussing age, vulnerability and impotence in his late works, she says, when suddenly Roth got up and started to act out the stunned and bloodied Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, beaten to a pulp by Sugar Ray Robinson. “He’s now staggering towards me, proudly wheezing out the words — Roth does an excellent De Niro — ‘You never got me down, Ray. You hear me? You see? You never got me down, Ray, you never got me down’.”

Give him the Nobel now.

Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont (Cape, £25)

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