Getting Roth Wrong, But That’s the Point: The Great Man’s ‘Reader in Chief’ Walks Through the Career of Literature’s Favorite Retiree

Philip Roth.  (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)
Philip Roth. (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

There’s a passage early in American Pastoral where Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s most durable alter ego, turns his inability to predict the shocking course of his childhood idol’s life into a universal lament about the limits of perception: “[Y]ou never fail to get them wrong,” he muses. “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.”

Struggling through the stultifying, toothless, inappropriately titled documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked on PBS last year, it was hard not to imagine that Mr. Roth had slyly encouraged his unmaskers to get him wrong. The fawning filmmakers lingered on shots of the Great Man composing his work, checked in with some old neighborhood pals and an odd assortment of talking heads and asked Roth no question that he hadn’t already tackled and twisted into a richly ambiguous quandary in one of his novels. The film reeked of good taste and politesse, suggesting that its good Jewish boy of a subject, the one with the bemused twinkle in his eye, would never dare misbehave. In other words, just give him the Nobel already.

The ache of not being understood is central to Mr. Roth’s half-century-long complaint, a feeling he has often compensated for by trying to get out ahead of the game. He is American literature’s laureate of frenzied solipsisms and obsessive inventor of counterlives, dropping false confessions and ambiguous deceptions in his wake; Mr. Roth has engineered his existence so that any attempt to get his story straight is a fool’s errand. (The documentary felt like another of his cleverly arranged metafictional jokes.) His 1988 “novelist’s autobiography,” The Facts, ends with an appended rebuttal, written in the form of a letter from Zuckerman, who admonishes his creator for turning in such a dry and discreet personal reflection. “My guess is that you’ve written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are,” Zuckerman tells him. “Don’t publish,” he concludes.

And so the only halfway relevant question to ask of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books is: Why bother? She knows the score: “Although Roth has the reputation of a confessional writer,” she writes, “no one is more aware of the importance, for literary freedom, of self-disguise.”

Roth Unbound offers neither a rigorous academic study—Ross Posnock’s Philip Roth’s Rude Truth is one stimulating recent example—nor a complete biography—though Blake Bailey’s long-awaited life of the author is currently being composed with Mr. Roth’s blessing—but something like an authorized companion to the now seemingly complete oeuvre of Rothiana. A New Yorker staff writer and cultural critic, Ms. Pierpont has earned a role as Mr. Roth’s unofficial reader in chief and at some point became one of the handful of trusted friends whom the author let critique his work in manuscript form. In Roth Unbound, the judicious, even-tempered Ms. Pierpont marches chronologically through a full critical retrospective of Mr. Roth’s body of work, accompanying her sage, inquisitive close-readings with memories, observations and reconsiderations from the writer. So she gives us 10 pages on the “blunt and unbeguiling” ladies’-man lament The Dying Animal, then, pushing aside any pretense of critical distance, asks the author directly whether he believes in the possibility of a happy marriage. (“Yes … and some people play the violin like Isaac Stern.”) I can’t help but see Ms. Pierpont rereading these novels while sitting in Mr. Roth’s Upper West Side living room, calling questions down the hall over the sound of the Yankees radio broadcast to where the retired author collects his laundry. Or maybe it’s the other way around, with Roth regularly stepping in to Ms. Pierpont’s private library to peek over her shoulder and correct the record. Either way, there’s a palpable symbiosis—and some gossip, too. The fact that Roth apparently dated Jackie Kennedy pales in comparison to the Seinfeldian revelation that he met another girlfriend in line for Schindler’s List.

So, yes, Mr. Roth and Ms. Pierpont seem like pals. Even at her most sharply critical, she never seems exactly impartial, and, perhaps oddly, this is both her book’s greatest strength and its raison d’etre. Ms. Pierpont’s implicit point is that no major contemporary author has been subjected to (and in many ways buoyed by) such sustained suspicion—from Jews, feminists, arbiters of sociopolitical responsibility and the defenders of various faiths. “What is being done to stop this man?” asks a rabbi in Chapter One’s very first sentence, and variations on the question echo through Roth’s career. The value of Roth Unbound’s collection of fan’s notes is Ms. Pierpont’s sophisticated demonstration of what it means to be a sympathetic reader, to abjure suspicion in favor of a critical embrace, to render her subject unbound as in unrestrained, even if such an approach risks once again getting Mr. Roth wrong. We should all be so lucky to earn such a generous advocate. If Ms. Pierpont didn’t already exist, it wouldn’t be out of character for Mr. Roth to invent her.

Because not all Roth novels are created equal, Ms. Pierpont’s reckoning is sometimes compromised by its encyclopedic exhaustiveness. While I appreciate her trudging through When She Was Good, My Life As a Man and The Great American Novel so I don’t have to, I wasn’t surprised that the book kicks into high gear once Mr. Roth begins his run of middle-period masterworks, from The Ghost Writer (“a novel so seamless that it appears to have been conceived and poured out whole”) through Sabbath’s Theater (“shocks us into feelings that pieties could not induce”) to The Human Stain (“its ominous control, its buried tragedy, its tensile energy and mature power and the creative joy that spills out in the writing”). She characterizes Mr. Roth as a novelist of the ecstatic voice—brazen and berserk and contradictory, unable to countenance an open stand. “I don’t write about my convictions,” he tells her. “I write about the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.”

If this axiom has made Mr. Roth difficult to pin down politically, his status as an inveterate sexist, if not “a walking prick,” has been harder to shake. As part of her sympathetic reading, Ms. Pierpont labors to defend Mr. Roth against the ire of feminists and doesn’t always do her subject favors. “He considers himself a man who loves women, and he counts many women among his close and lifelong friends,” she writes. On this issue, Mr. Roth’s foot is never far from his mouth. His description of his troubled first wife, Maggie—who he believes faked a pregnancy to force him into an unhappy marriage—as “the greatest creative writing teacher of them all” is more than a little gauche, and after elaborating upon the gifts of countless literary lions, he pointedly derides “the failed experiment of Virginia Woolf” for her work’s lack of “the gravity of experience.” Ms. Pierpont’s forgiveness sometimes borders on dismissal, as with her firm rebuke of the Roth-as-misogynist camp for misreading him. “He championed the social and sexual freedom of women no less than he did that of men,” she argues. “Indeed, in his scheme of things, the freedom of men depended on women also being free. Surely that was clear if one read his books with an open mind, unimpeded by contemporary cant.”

This is a rare (and unhelpful) statement of conviction in an otherwise refreshingly searching and interrogative book, one that seems properly unsettled about every question save that of Roth’s genius. I finished Roth Unbound grateful for the experience but hope that Ms. Pierpont might spare some sympathy for more suspicious minds, even if she senses that they are, quite frankly, wrong. As Mr. Roth continues, in American Pastoral, a great novel whose depiction of 1960s political radicalism is nevertheless far from spot-on: “It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

Getting Roth Wrong, But That’s the Point: The Great Man’s ‘Reader in Chief’ Walks Through the Career of Literature’s Favorite Retiree