Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont – review

Claudia Roth Pierpont's apparently authorised biography buys into the great writer's self-image

It has always been tempting to think of Philip Roth as a confessional writer – as honest to his reader as Alexander Portnoy on the psychiatrist's couch: "You want to hear everything? Okay, I'm telling everything." Roth himself has always preferred the German notion of maskenfreiheit to describe his fiction: "the freedom conferred by masks", using narrators to implement the novelist's get-out clause, that any resemblance his writing may have to his "true self" is entirely coincidental.

One of the challenges of writing about Roth's work and life, therefore, lies in finding where those masks might begin and end, and what, if anything, is revealed by their removal. Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation, though you imagine Roth might have been amused by a namesake biographer) works diligently and subtly at such revelation, and succeeds in at least showing you the locations of the joins.

This biography appears to have been authorised by Roth, now 80 and officially retired from writing novels. It leans on an intimate reading of the published work, rather than on interview or private correspondence. Roth Pierpont, a staff writer at the New Yorker, mentions from time to time discussions she has had with Roth, a friend for a decade, about different periods of his life, and his intentions in his writing, but beyond that you also have the continuous sense of his presence at her shoulder, persuasively prompting her to accuracy and nuance.

Roth has always used his gifts of language, his subversive comedy, his dazzling intelligence, in part to propagandise his own life choices – his absolute fidelity to his art above all else, his restless and priapic creativity – and his biographer does not seem to want to damage those 50 years of profoundly self-conscious polemic. She seeks out few other voices to corroborate or confront Roth's versions of the past. She doesn't, for example, quite dismiss Claire Bloom's devastating chapters about her subject in her memoir of their marriage, Leaving a Doll's House, but she does not dwell too closely on them. Though Roth always reserved the right to explore any shared intimacy, Bloom's disturbing descriptions of Roth as a "game-playing Machiavellian" are seen through the author's eyes as a betrayal. "He thought of bringing a lawsuit" against Bloom, Roth Pierpont notes, though over what aspect of the characterisation she does not say.

In this way his biographer tacitly buys into Roth's understanding of himself; that the brilliance and dedication of the work justifies any failings in the life. The author's abiding fear, throughout this book and his own writing, Roth Pierpont argues, has been of "entrapment" in anything other than his own imagination and desire. Roth has long liked to quote the poet Cseslaw Milosz's adage that "when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished", though he might add wives and lovers to that definition.

The pattern of destruction and creation began early. Having fought for freedom from his parents, in particular from his domineering and much loved father, Herman, and subsequently from the inherited strictures of his Jewishness (magnificently, by writing Portnoy's Complaint), Roth had found himself married at 25 to Maggie Williams, who worked in an office job at the University of Chicago, where Roth had studied for an MA. Roth had pursued the blond former waitress for two years believing her to embody the "real America" he did not feel part of. She apparently tricked him into marriage with claims that she was pregnant, claims he alleges she backed up with a sample of urine bought from an expectant mother in a homeless shelter. The marriage – agreed to only after Roth insisted on an (unnecessary) abortion – was spectacularly volatile. Williams had, he tells Roth Pierpont, "taken my strength, my promise, my industry". She was also, he later conceded, his "greatest creative writing teacher", the "psychopath", he tells himself, "through whose agency you achieved the freedom from being a pleasing, analytic, lovingly manipulative good boy, who would never have been much of a writer".

In his subsequent life Roth clearly equated such freedom – to be honest and perhaps to be cruel – with his great explosions of creativity. Portnoy was completed in the months after Maggie died in a car crash, finally liberating him from her demands. After he had written himself into something of a self-referential corner, his next great advance coincided with anger and depression and mortal fears he left behind with Bloom – expressed in the triumphant howl of Sabbath's Theater in 1995, and the extraordinary trilogy of novels beginning with American Pastoral that were the major fictional achievement of the last years of the 20th century.

There is, necessarily, a valedictory tone to this book, since the great eloquent frenzy of Roth's last two decades, a most remarkable rage against the dying of the light, seems to have ended. In its sense of emotion recollected in tranquillity it captures the seductive humanity of Roth the writer and man, and not far from the surface, still just enough of what his whoring hero Mickey Sabbath called "preposterone", that obscenely generative spark that has brought his words to such vivid life.


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont – review
Who inspired Philip Roth's characters? Joshua Cohen on a new study that claims to reveal many secrets

Joshua Cohen

17, Jan, 2014 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘I did the best I could with what I had…’: writers on the Philip Roth they knew
A daring explorer of ego is remembered by Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman

Robert McCrum, David Hare and Hannah Beckerman

27, May, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Nemesis by Philip Roth – review
Philip Roth's perfectly judged tale of a polio outbreak in 1940s Newark marks a wonderful return to form, writes William Skidelsky

William Skidelsky

17, Sep, 2011 @10:30 PM

Article image
Nemesis by Philip Roth | Book review

This tale of a polio outbreak in wartime New Jersey is vintage Philip Roth, says Edward Docx

Edward Docx

02, Oct, 2010 @11:04 PM

Article image
Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey review – definitive life of a literary great in thrall to his libido
From the troubled marriages to the breakthroughs that led to Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral… a beautifully written book by Roth’s chosen biographer

Tim Adams

28, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Bye-bye ... Philip Roth talks of fame, sex and growing old in last interview
Great US novelist insists he is quitting public life as he reflects on his many literary identities

Robert McCrum

17, May, 2014 @9:52 PM

The wrath of Roth

Review: I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

03, Oct, 1998 @3:55 PM

Article image
The Scientists: A Family Romance - review
How did Marco Roth's father contract HIV? The young author had to know, hence this compelling memoir, writes Tim Adams

Tim Adams

14, Jan, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 86 – Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)
This wickedly funny novel about a young Jewish American’s obsession with masturbation caused outrage on publication, but remains his most dazzling work

Robert McCrum

11, May, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
The story of my lives: Philip Roth on why his next book will be his last
As he celebrates his 75th birthday, novelist Philip Roth talks to Robert McCrum about losing friends, living alone and why the next book will be his last

Robert McCrum

20, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM