My aim when writing a review is not so much to say what I thought of a book – though, that too – as to give people enough information to decide if they might want to read it. With Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, I can guide you easily. If you are a fan of Roth and a serial consumer of his work – as I am – then you should read it and will probably like it. If you dislike Roth’s books, have no interest in them or have read just one or two, then it is likely to be of little use or interest to you.
Roth Unbound is a biography not of a man but of his body of work. The author is no relation to Roth (“Did I use to be married to you?!” he asked her once), but has known him for a decade with increasing closeness: she is now, or was until he retired, one of the people to whom he showed unfinished drafts of new novels, for thoughts and advice. (“The first time he asked me to read a manuscript, I said, ‘I’d be honored.’ He said, ‘Don’t be honored, or you’ll be no use to me.'”) She is, clearly, not an impartial source, but that is part of the book’s point. It gives us thoughts on the work directly from conversations with Roth. Where we might read a viewpoint on Roth or his books and wonder, “What would Roth say to that?”, Pierpont can ask him, and usually does. The quality and reliability of those answers is another matter.
Pierpont claims that she has nonetheless “kept [Roth] resolutely out of mind” when it comes to her critical analysis of his books, and this seems to be true: she is far from enthusiastic about some of his work. Two aspects struck me here. First, in the first twenty years of Roth’s career, she seems to regard only two books – his 1959 debut Goodbye, Columbus and his 1969 breakthrough Portnoy’s Complaint – as truly essential. I admit I felt some relief in seeing her dispatch early work after early work – so many books I now don’t have to read! – as “overlong and laborious” (Letting Go, 1962), “harsh and plain” (When She Was Good, 1967), “overextended and strained” (Our Gang, 1971), “overwrought” (The Breast, 1972), “a giddy mess” (The Great American Novel, 1973), “part-brilliant, part-strangled” (My Life as a Man, 1974) and (for the most part) “rehashed and formulaic” (The Professor of Desire, 1977). She seems also to damn with faint praise the trio of slim novels with which Roth has ended his career – Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis: they are, she says, “so simplified that they are […] ideal for the kind of elucidation that takes place in schools – or, today, in reading groups.” On the other hand, Pierpont rejects the conventional view that Roth’s renaissance as a writer began in 1997 with American Pastoral (some would extend it back one book to 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater). Instead, she argues that it was with 1979’s The Ghost Writer – the first of the four books in the Zuckerman Bound series – that Roth’s run of greatness really began. As longtime readers of this blog will know, I agree – 1983’s The Anatomy Lesson in particular is often overlooked as one of Roth’s very best books.
When discussing the books – at least the ones she considers most significant – Pierpont goes into such detail that in a few cases I had to avert my eyes, specifically for those books which I haven’t read but still intend to (such as Operation Shylock or The Human Stain). As well as characters, synopsis and critical commentary, she reports on the reception to the books on publication, and the elements of Roth’s life that fed into them. What interested me here was the news that it was not with Portnoy’s Complaint that Roth rose to notoriety, but his first book, the novella and stories in Goodbye, Columbus, published at the age of 26. “What is being done to silence this man?” asked one New York rabbi, who went on to accuse Roth of retrospectively contributing to the Holocaust, by creating a “conception of the Jews as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our lifetime.” His sin, according to Roth, was to disclose to the wider public that “the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority.” Portnoy’s Complaint, ten years later, become even more famous, and rightly so. I read it for the first time recently and what struck me was not just the sexual frankness – Alexander Portnoy was wanking into his family’s food three decades before American Pie – but the voice, fully formed and recognisable to any Roth reader: ebullient, comic, energetic. The book was not only “a major event in American culture” (Life magazine), but a massive popular success, selling 210,000 copies in its first ten weeks and topping the list of bestselling novels for the year, ahead of commercial juggernauts like Mario Puzo, Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann.
Publication of a successful book by Roth has rarely come without controversy – as the details above indicate – and it’s not hard to see why. He is no stranger to taking revenge through his work. The ridiculous Milton Appel in Zuckerman Unbound was based on critic Irving Howe, who had incurred Roth’s wrath by disliking Portnoy’s Complaint after praising earlier work. In response to this John Updike, less fiery in prose and in person, reflected that at the age of 50, “a writer should have settled his old scores.” He didn’t take heed: a decade later, in his sixties, he included in Sabbath’s Theater swipes at Japanese characters (“little flat-faced imperialist bastards”) as a riposte to New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s dismissal of Operation Shylock. Most notoriously, Roth took revenge on his ex-wife Claire Bloom for publication of her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House – which featured much criticism of his behaviour during their marriage – by making Bloom and her daughter the models for two “caricatured demons” in his 1998 novel I Married a Communist. (Pierpont notes, mildly, “Certainly, Roth meant to get his own back.” That is one way of putting it.) This leads to the larger question of Roth’s portrayal of women in his books. The ugly word misogynist follows him, wagging its tail. In response to such accusations, Roth smiles and shrugs: “he considers himself a man who loves women.” This reminded me of the joke about the man accused of misogyny who responds, “But how could I hate women? I’ve been married to five of them!” (Roth, to be clear, has not been married five times, just twice, though I did lose count of the number of references in the book to relationships with women decades younger than him.) He would however acknowledge one highly negative experience with a woman in his life: his first wife, Maggie Williamson, whom he married at 25. What is interesting about it is that Roth paints – and Pierpont seems to accept – the picture of a great trauma done to him by Maggie, when she faked a pregnancy and abortion. But for me the most revealing part was that, after being lied to by Maggie about her pregnancy – she even, he says, faked a urine sample – Roth agreed to marry her on condition that she had an abortion “right away”, and gave her $300 for the procedure. Presuming Roth’s account is entirely true (Maggie is dead), this – and it is my turn to put it mildly – is not the stuff to deflect accusations of misogyny. He struggled with the experience of this relationship and tried to put something of it into his fiction, succeeding on some level with the novel My Life as a Man. That is not to accept the popular misconception that Roth writes about his own life: as he puts it, referring to the multiple realities in The Counterlife, he had to kill Zuckerman “just to make people stop saying that I write only about my own experience.”
Roth Unbound is full of incidental delights, titbits I never expected, such as the discovery that he is left-handed (as a fellow sufferer, I am contractually obliged at this point to add, “like all the best people”), or that he briefly dated Jackie Kennedy in 1964. We get the lowdown on his relations with the ‘other two’ of his era, Updike and Bellow. (Bellow admired some of his work but was not interested in pursuing friendship. He had cordial relations with Updike until the latter reviewed Claire Bloom’s memoir in a way that Roth disapproved of; they never spoke again.) We learn too that Nixon – whose “screwy, dazzling lies” were the inspiration for the satire Our Gang – discussed how to deal with the threat Roth represented. It was all on those unhelpful tapes:
NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage … I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us…
Also fascinating to me were the details of Roth’s involvement with Czech writers, which gave rise to his Writers from the Other Europe series for Penguin Books from 1974 to 1989, bringing back to anglophone attention such writers as Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz and Bohumil Hrabal. He also arranged for other US writers including Cheever, Styron and Updike to send funds to Czech writers, struggling under their regime. More interesting still is the influence these writers had on Roth’s own fiction – “the richness of the screwball strain” in some European writing, he calls it – in enabling him to break out of “American realism” and get to the reflexive masterpieces of his 1980s Zuckerman books, culminating in halls of mirrors like The Counterlife and Operation Shylock. Aside from this, The Counterlife “changed everything” for other reasons: previously comfortable at 200-odd page length, here was a book which was not only his most complex but also one of his longest. “It was an aesthetic discovery,” he tells Pierpont, “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” He maintained the stamina of writing at length through the more linear, but even more highly praised, books of the 1990s topped by Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, both of which he enjoyed writing immensely (“the freest experience of my life,” he says of Sabbath).
We learn, then, a good deal about what went into the books. About the writing process itself there is not so much, though that might be because Roth gave us as much of that as we need to know in the voice of E.I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer:
I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.
We do learn – it seems to follow from the above – that Roth is not a fast writer. “Many days I was delighted to accept one page after six hours of work.” (That past tense! He meant it! He’s done!) The extraordinary productive run of the early-to-late 1990s – five fat novels in seven years – can only have come from sitting in a room all day and turning sentences around. He doesn’t plot his books in advance. “The first draft is really a floor under my feet. The book comes to life in the rewriting.” There is also insight into the composition of Roth’s final novel, Nemesis, which took thirteen drafts to get right. “This only happens,” Roth tells Pierpont, “when you’re not getting it.” In his own words, he hadn’t the strength anymore “to keep pulling something out of nothing.” A year earlier, when he completed Indignation, he was having trouble getting something new going, and Pierpont asked him “How long can you go without working on a book?” “Psychologically, about two hours,” Roth replied. Yet, he has come to feel “free” now that he has stopped writing novels, and one of the secondary pleasures of Roth Unbound is not how it makes me want to return to his books, but how it makes me want to read the books he is now re-reading, his lifelong loves. There is Thomas Mann’s Mario the Magician (“If he were dying and were allowed to read just one book, it would be Mario“), Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (“the best book of the first half of the twentieth century in America”), Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (“A nearly perfect book – no, a perfect book”). Pierpont herself is not slow in recommending other authors: on the strength of her likening it to The Great Gatbsy and The Ghost Writer as “one of our literature’s rare, inevitably brief, inscrutably musical, and nearly perfect books”, I bought Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. A good book which tells us about very good books, and recommends great books: what more could a reader ask for?