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.

Contributor

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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