‘You’ll have to wait for the biography’, Philip Roth joshed Mark Lawson on BBC television a few years back whenever he was asked a probing question. Since Blake Bailey is the best part of a decade or so away from finishing his authorised life of Roth, the wait goes on. But here to fill the gap left by the last great American novelist’s 2012 retirement is Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, a trim but far from trifling overview of his life and work from the pen of New Yorker staffer Claudia Roth Pierpont.
Don’t let the name fool you. Roth Pierpont (Pierpont from now on) is no relation to Roth proper and her book is far from being a hagiography. (That said, the two writers are friends. Indeed, in her introduction Pierpont tells us that they were once at a dinner party when they were asked about their shared moniker. At which point Philip turned to Claudia with what she calls ‘a look of mild horror and wary recognition’ and asked her whether they used to be married.) Though you won’t find chapter and verse on every woman Roth has been involved with down the years, you will find chapter or verse on many of them – sufficiently detailed chapters or verses for you to draw your own conclusions about the misogyny with which critics have so frequently charged him.
But before the shrews, Pierpont reminds us, it was the Jews who were at Roth’s throat. ‘What is being done to silence this man?’, she quotes ‘a prominent New York rabbi’ in the first sentence of Roth Unbound. ‘Medieval Jews’, the rabbi went on, ‘would have known what to do with him’. Roth’s crime? To have published a story about what Pierpont calls a ‘weaselly, lying, 19-year-old Jewish soldier’ in the pages of the New Yorker. Important as landing a spot on those pages undoubtedly was for Roth (hitherto he had been published in rather smaller-scale outlets like the Paris Review and Commentary), it was more important still for the incensed rabbi. As far as he was concerned, the New Yorker was no better venue for Jewish writing than the ‘Pork and Shellfish Gazette’. The New Yorker had, after all, a largely WASP audience. By writing about Jewish mores in its Gentile precincts, Roth was effectively ‘informing’ on his own people. So how could he expect a fair hearing from them? Had he published his story ‘in Hebrew – in an Israeli magazine or newspaper’, the rabbi wrote, it ‘would have been judged exclusively from a literary point of view’. As things stood, the story could be judged on tribal terms only.
Ten years on, things got worse. Writing in Haaretz, Gershom Scholem called Roth’s third novel ‘the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying’. Like Pierpont, I don’t agree, but there’s no denying that Portnoy’s Complaint was the book everyone was reading. Four decades and 20-odd more novels on, this story of its young Jewish hero’s unswerving devotion to masturbation (on a light-bulb, in his sister’s brassiere, by means of a piece of liver that he subsequently wipes clean and restores to the family refrigerator) is still Roth’s most famous work. Prior to its publication, in February 1969, Roth had been just another writer in debt (to the tune of $8,000). A few months later, truck drivers were leaning out of their cabs and shouting ‘Oy! Portnoy! Leave it alone!’, Jacqueline Valley of the Dolls Susann was saying that while she’d like to meet Roth, she sure as hell wouldn’t want to shake his hand, and Roth was cashing a publisher’s cheque for a cool quarter of a million bucks. Ever since, he has been as famous as any novelist in our culture can be.
One of the reasons for Pierpont’s book is her uncontestable claim that Roth’s fame has got in the way of his achievement as a writer. Roth once called Portnoy ‘a novel in the guise of a confession’ that was taken for ‘a confession in the guise of a novel’. He could make similar gripes about the way so many of the books that followed Portnoy have been received. But who could deny his collusion in that process? If it’s true that all fiction is camouflaged autobiography then Roth is the novelist who has always done least to camouflage the camouflage. As Pierpont makes plain, when something happens in Roth’s life it soon enough finds its way to happening again in one of his novels.