January 17, 2014
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont – Review
Who inspired Philip Roth’s characters? This new study claims to reveal many secrets.
Philip Roth, at age 40, published the essay “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’ or, Looking at Kafka”, which appropriates its title from the short story “A Hunger Artist”, and fantasises that the genius of Prague didn’t die at age 40, but instead was cured of tuberculosis, and lived on to witness the Nazi regime. His response was to give up literature and flee to America, where he took a job teaching in a shabby Hebrew school in Newark, New Jersey.
Among his students was a young “Philip Roth”, who nicknamed this strange, halitotic hermit “Dr Kishka”, Yiddish for “guts”. The Ghost Writer, published six years after this piece in 1979, is the first of Roth’s novels narrated by his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In it, Zuckerman imagines that Anne Frank survived Bergen-Belsen only to have to hide from the celebrity of her diary in a clapboard farmhouse in the Berkshires, where she changed her name to Amy Bellette and served as an amanuensis to a famous Jewish-American novelist. Roth’s Kafka spends his post-literary existence drilling children in the alef bet; Roth’s Frank spends hers imparting to the work of her employer and lover the authenticating imprimaturs of Holocaust trauma and European Kultur.
Kafka, in his lifetime, published two books; Frank, in hers, published none; Roth debuted with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and announced his retirement 25 novels later with Nemesis in 2010. According to Claudia Roth Pierpont, he has been enjoying his dotage “discussing books and politics and a thousand other things”, entertaining her with “memories, observations, opinions, thoughts, second thoughts, jokes, stories, even songs”.
Pierpont assures us that though she is not related to Roth, she has produced this study of his fiction with his collaboration. It is no surprise that her book is a useful resource for plot summary, then, but it is shocking that the new secrets it claims to offer are only shopworn trivia that even my parents – not academics, just Jews from Jersey – already know: the stock in trade of Saturday synagogue book clubs, and the Sunday New York Times. In The Ghost Writer, the novelist EI Lonoff, who shelters the ostensible Anne Frank, was based on Bernard Malamud; the novelist Felix Abravanel, who is too egotistical to adopt Zuckerman as a literary son and so dispatches him to Lonoff, was based on Saul Bellow – neither were grateful, but both were flattered, I’m sure.
Pierpont mentions that a Zuckerman first appeared in My Life As a Man, as a character in two stories by Peter Tarnopol, another Rothian double, who happens to share a psychiatrist, Dr Spielvogel, with Alexander Portnoy.
Yet another Roth redux, the public radio intellectual and lit professor David Kepesh, changes into a six-foot-tall, 155-pound breast in The Breast; in The Professor of Desire he ventures to Prague and hallucinates a whore who, for $10, will narrate the sex acts she performed on Kafka, and for another $5 will let Kepesh inspect her octogenarian vagina himself. Pierpont tags these books as reactions to The Metamorphosis, but also to Roth’s sojourns behind the iron curtain, which themselves were merely bids to escape his reputation after the release of Portnoy’s Complaint, that classic of filial suffering and fervent wanking: Roth’s “Portnoy readers – even the ones who loved the book, or maybe especially those – viewed him as ‘a walking prick’. When they came up to him in the street, that’s what they saw, it seemed to him, that’s whom they were congratulating.”
The problem with this is not how one congratulates a prick – by wanking it, perhaps – but rather the quotation marks: it is not clear, when it comes to “a walking prick”, who exactly is talking. This vagary plagues every page of Roth Unbound, regardless of attributive punctuation, to the point where Pierpont’s criticism references Roth’s “non-fiction books” as if they were gospels, and assimilates their opinions too. These supposedly impeachable sources are The Facts, which purports to be an autobiography discussed in letters between Zuckerman and Roth; and Patrimony, a memoir of Roth’s father’s death, written in the midst of his decline.
Then there are the miscellanies: Shop-Talk, and Reading Myself and Others. The former collects conversations Roth conducted with the likes of Primo Levi and Milan Kundera, in which he proposes interpretations of their works and they, of course, agree. The latter is a Maileresque orgy of vanity featuring interviews of Roth by George Plimpton and Joyce Carol Oates; an essay about writing Portnoy, in which Roth excerpts a speech he delivered to an Anti-Defamation League symposium; an essay on the novelist-critic divide, the bulk of which is given over to a letter Roth wrote but never posted to critic Diana Trilling, dissenting from her review of Portnoy; a self-interview Roth did for Partisan Review that refers to an essay he wrote about himself for Commentary; not to forget his own review of a Broadway play adapted from his earliest stories.
Now that Roth’s retirement has given him the opportunity to pursue his legacy full-time, it is telling that he hasn’t proceeded in the manner of Henry James, who dedicated his final stretch to assembling his corpus into the New York Edition, rephrasing whole sentences, if not just rearranging the commas he had strewn them with half a century previously. It is as if Roth doesn’t think it makes much difference that Our Gang, his humourless Nixon pastiche, and The Great American Novel, his fussy and precious baseball picaresque, are still available as they were written. Or maybe, after more than four decades in analysis, he has resigned himself to their flaws, or even thinks they are perfect and deserve to be shelved alongside his best: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral.
But then Roth’s tendency has never been to withhold, rather to explain, or revise by explanation, and it is ironic that the same technique that unifies his oeuvre has the opposite effect on its criticism: to Pierpont, Letting Go is about the influence of James, Thomas Wolfe, the stultifying 50s, and “not letting go”; When She Was Good is about the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, the stultifying 50s, and Roth’s first wife Margaret Martinson, who faked a pregnancy, faked an abortion, took Roth’s money in a divorce and promptly killed herself (though Pierpont insists that her fullest character portrayal is as Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man).
Roth’s second wife Claire Bloom is Eve in I Married a Communist and, wait for it, Claire in Deception; while the female actor in Zuckerman Unbound is a monster made of Bloom, Edna O’Brien, and Jackie O, whom Roth once dated (kissing her was like “kissing a billboard”). Establishing biographical correspondences is a pleasant way to wait out the clock, but it will never pass for serious criticism. Still, with each of Pierpont’s chapters centred on a certain book, pure fun salaciousness just isn’t feasible. The result is that Roth’s life between publications is mostly ignored, and the most obvious lacuna is the fact that in 2012 Roth authorised an official biography, to be written by Blake Bailey, whose prior subjects – John Cheever and Richard Yates – had been too dead to refuse the honour, or meddle.
This suggests that Roth Unbound might be even more than its breathless publicity promises; indeed, it might be Roth’s most virtuoso stunt. Imagine Roth approaching his 80th birthday laden with awards and honorary degrees, globally translated, universally read, his talent having triumphed over every adversity: mental breakdown, heart ailment, rabbinic orthodoxy, feminism. As an artist who has always thrived on transgression, he must have discerned his mortality in the sense that there was no opposition left for him to outlast. Once again, he would have to invent one, a persecution not romantic or erotic this time, but ultimate enough to flirt with the posthumous, and so he granted access to a biographer, and pretended to retire.
Predictably, the oppressive prospect of having a stranger narrate his life invigorated Roth, and had him reasserting the pre-eminence of his work, by ghostwriting a study of it. The slackness of the prose, then, must be attributed not to Roth’s senescence, but to the demands of writing under an assumed identity. Unable to bear not receiving credit for this feat, and for having concluded his career in the voice of a sympathetic female, Roth chose a pseudonym – “Claudia Roth Pierpont” – just foolish enough to betray the truth. Roth, it seems, is back, and once again he is begging to be punished.