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Roth Unbound | Claudia Roth Pierpont

What lies behind the mask?

An early scene in Woody Allen’s scabrous, corrosively comic 1997 film Deconstructing Harry shows one of writer Harry Block’s ex-girlfriends—the sister of one of his ex-wives; Block having an affair with one sister while married to the other is typical of his relationships with women in the film—stumbling drunkenly out of a taxi and tearing into his apartment with the fury of a thunder squall. She has a gun. “How could you write that book?" she asks, “Are you so selfish, you’re so self-engrossed that you couldn’t give a shit who you destroy? You told our whole story. All the details, you gave me away to my sister." Block scrambles, wheedles, dissembles, “Hey, it was loosely based on us." Her response is crisp, final. “Don’t bullshit me, motherfucker."

Block, critics speculated, appeared to be based loosely on Philip Roth, whose magnificently profane, indecorous novels were read more or less as confessionals. So indistinct was the line between Roth’s life and his fiction that Hermione Lee, interviewing Roth in The Paris Review in 1984, conflates the deaths of parents in “the last two Zuckerman novels" (Nathan Zuckerman, like David Kepesh or Peter Tarnopol, being a Roth stand-in, arguably the most famous Roth stand-in) with the deaths of Roth’s own parents. It is up to Roth to remind Lee, an academic, biographer and critic of considerable standing, that novelists “are frequently as interested in what hasn’t happened to them as in what has". Besides, Roth adds, “the best person to ask about the autobiographical relevance of the climactic death of the father in Zuckerman Unbound is my own father, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I’ll give you his phone number."

Allen’s conceit in Deconstructing Harry, his big idea, is to give the “real life" of his author Harry Block as much weight as the life of the characters Block creates in his head. By the end of the film, the world in Block’s head is much more present, more real to him than his real life in which he has successfully alienated everyone, ruined every relationship. Roth is fond of quoting the Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz’s observation that when “a writer is born into a family, the family is finished"; it is that “splinter of ice in the heart" that Graham Greene said writers needed, the necessary cold-bloodedness to turn people, their emotions and their tragedies, into material.

Roth Unbound: Jonathan Cape, 334 pages, Rs899
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Roth Unbound: Jonathan Cape, 334 pages, Rs899

Pierpont, a well-regarded staff writer at the The New Yorker magazine, was introduced to Roth in 2002 at the birthday party of a mutual friend. She was a fan and, in the embarrassing way familiar to fans everywhere, when confronted by her hero she was reduced to stutter and gush. Two years later, Roth wrote admiringly to Pierpont about an article she had written in The New Yorker; it was the beginning of a friendship and Roth began to send his work in manuscript form to Pierpont for suggestions and criticism.

By then, Roth was already a grand old man of American literature, perhaps the only one still relevant. Saul Bellow, 18 years older than Roth and a significant influence, would die in 2005 at the age of 89, a last, spare novel completed in 2000. John Updike, Roth’s closest contemporary (in age and output), had slowed down, his best novels behind him and one still to come, Terrorist, a travesty of his talent. Updike died in 2009. A late-career blossoming, four major novels in six years after the age of 60, had carried Roth to the peaks of Parnassus, a writer accorded classic status in his own lifetime. Long before his retirement in November 2012, he had ascended to “greatest living American novelist" status, the subject of puzzled, even angry op-eds at the annual failure of the Swedish Academy to award him the Nobel that would be the fitting, frankly obvious culmination to his career. “Not since Henry James," as Pierpont writes, “has an American novelist worked at such a sustained pitch of concentration and achievement, book after book after book."

Roth Unbound is the first attempt to come to terms with the entirety of Roth’s work and life. An authorized biography by Blake Bailey, biographer of such stalwarts of American literature as John Cheever and Richard Yates, is anticipated but might take a decade to complete. Pierpont’s study does not purport to be a comprehensive account of either the life or the work, instead it’s an attempt—like an extended magazine profile—to draw connections between the details of the life of the writer, the middle-class Jewish boyhood (the all-American dreams of baseball and blondes), the complicated entanglements and responsibilities of adult life, and the details of the writer’s imagination.

Roth has lived (is still living) a long, full life. But, unlike writers of an earlier generation, he has lived his life in the comforts of a rich, powerful, post World War II US. His wars have been domestic: difficult marriages, cruel behaviour, that sort of thing. Surely, what’s of greater interest than the gossipy details is how the artist makes the material of his life into art, what he chooses to leave in, what he distorts, what he jettisons, how he remakes the world. In other words, Pierpont would perhaps have been better served by her own reading, safe from her collaboration with Roth.

Caught between a biography and literary criticism, she doesn’t fully employ the tools of either, neither delving deeply enough into his life nor into his books, most of which are analysed acutely but without any arresting or original critical insight. Indeed, while Pierpont is critical of Roth’s books, writing off almost entirely the first 20 years of his career, her praise and her opinions hew so closely to his own analysis of his books that the reader sometimes wonders if Roth is using Pierpont as a mouthpiece, a way to anticipate and preempt, as he does in his novels, critical opinion.

But Roth doesn’t need Pierpont to defend him. All the defence is in the novels. As is all the excoriation. Roth’s is an adversarial style, each book founded on tension with the previous book, on a writer’s love and contempt. Discord is Roth’s fuel and the problem with Pierpont’s mostly engaging study is that it’s just too damned agreeable. Maskenfreiheit, the German term for the freeing effects of masks, is integral to reading Roth, to understanding a fundamental aim of any art—that is to show through lies essential, universal truths. If we must look behind the masks worn by an author, will we find the author, or will we find ourselves?

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