Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, by Claudia Roth Pierpoint, Jonathan Cape, RRP£25/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27, 368 pages
Philip Roth, the last of the Great American Novelists, was born in 1933 in New Jersey. His parents, Herman and Bess Roth, were “Americans from day one”, Roth recalled, yet they retained something of their forebears’ Polish-Galician and Russian- Jewish identity. Philip and his older brother, Sandy, were provided with Hebrew instruction and went to synagogue for the most important festivals. Roth as an adult may have regarded his Jewishness as an “irrelevance”, yet he was unavoidably shaped by it, and by the experience of being Jewish in America. His scabrous novel of sexual yearning and death, Sabbath’s Theater (1995), is suffused with a memory of the pogroms and derision inflicted on Jews in the Russian Pale in the 19th century.
In Roth Unbound, a smoothly readable hybrid of biography and criticism, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) considers Roth’s awkward relationship with the American Jewish establishment. His first book of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, brought accusations of Jewish self-hatred and even anti-Semitism. “What is being done to silence this man?” a New York rabbi demanded to know of the 26-year-old New Jersey author. Roth’s third and most famous early novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), told of the sexually repressed Alexander Portnoy and the recreational use he makes of (among other things) raw liver. “When had so much dirty Jewish laundry ever been displayed before so many Gentiles?” Pierpont asks. Roth was now not merely famous, but notorious.
A “moral pugilist”, as Pierpoint describes him, Roth has long courted controversy; in a writing career spanning more than 50 years he has been arraigned on charges of misogyny, sexism and plain bad taste. Yet, says Pierpont, in the flesh Roth is a delight: “He’s as funny as you might think from his books, but he makes people around him feel funny, too – he may be the easiest laugher I’ve ever met.”
Pierpont, a New Yorker staff writer, met Roth at a Manhattan jazz club in 2002, and they became friends. Her appraisal is the first of its kind to defend Roth in any depth. Roth’s fiction, Pierpont points out, contains an “immense variety” of female characters who are no better and no worse than his male characters. Besides, she suggests, a novelist who writes about men who think so often about having sex cannot possibly “hate” women.
Twice married, Roth has no children of his own. After his 17-year relationship with the English actor Claire Bloom ended, she published Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), which levelled accusations of heartlessness, adultery, unprincipled self-seeking and other Portnoyan shortcomings. Roth was “stunned” by this public attack, Pierpont says. Bloom had seen Roth through his literary attainments of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he wrote the gleefully subversive Zuckerman trilogy and The Counterlife (1986), a Great American Novel by any standards. Pierpont blames neither Roth nor Bloom for the breakdown of their relationship. But she says that Bloom’s comments about the marriage gained Roth more public attention than his “own achievement”. John Updike was not alone in seeing Bloom’s book as a “Judas biography.”
Pierpont provides a useful synopsis of Roth’s 31 books and their biographical circumstances. The novelist’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, was first introduced as a protagonist in The Ghost Writer (1979), which Pierpont considers a “nearly perfect” novel. Nineteen years later Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for his meditation on the American psyche, American Pastoral.
From the late 1950s to the present, says Pierpont, Roth has remained faithful to the theme of America and the vagaries of American Jewish life. Not exclusively, though: his novel Operation Shylock (1993), set partly in Israel, pays anguished if comic tribute to the Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, whom Roth had long admired.
Roth met Levi in the spring of 1986. If Levi was unprepared for Roth’s engagingly gentle presence, Roth found Levi surprisingly sociable. (“With some people you just unlock,” Roth recalled.) As they said goodbye outside the Italian Cultural Institute in London, Levi told Roth: “You know, this has all come too late.” The encounter nevertheless proved to be one the most important in 20th-century literature. Roth afterwards interviewed Levi for the New York Times and helped to consolidate Levi’s reputation across the Atlantic. Accompanied by Bloom, Roth had called on Levi in September 1986 at the paint and varnish factory outside Turin where he had worked as an industrial chemist. The staff were warned not to mention Portnoy’s Complaint, as Roth was apparently no longer so fond of his “masturbation novel”.
Seven months later, Levi was dead. The effect on Roth of Levi’s suicide in 1987 was “staggering”, Roth told Pierpont, adding: “It hit me like the assassinations of the sixties.” Although Roth had cultivated friendships with other European writers, notably Ivan Klíma and Milan Kundera, his friendship with Levi, Pierpoint says, had gone “remarkably deep”.
Pierpont’s book, though respectful, is not entirely adoring. Roth’s ode to baseball, The Great American Novel (1973), is “headache-inducing”, while his satire of the Nixon administration, Our Gang (1971), is “overwrought”. As an old-fashioned critical biography, Roth Unbound has much new to say about the novelist’s life and work.
Roth’s last novel, Nemesis, published in 2010, is part of an extraordinary late flourishing of austere, stripped-down fictions (Exit Ghost, Indignation) concerned with death and the indignities of ageing. It is very likely to be Roth’s final novel; he no longer has the strength “to keep pulling something out of nothing”, as he puts it, and prefers these days to read books instead of write them. At the age of 80, Roth remains as a profound and commanding presence in American literature; it is time the Swedish Academy recognised his particular genius.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Biography’ (Vintage)