- - Monday, January 27, 2014

ROTH UNBOUND: A WRITER AND HIS BOOKS
Claudia Roth Pierpont
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27, 353 pages

By Martin Rubin

Perhaps best described as a biographical study of Philip Roth, this book contains much information and many valuable insights into his life and works. It also raises several troubling issues about tackling such a project when the writer is still very much alive.

Claudia Roth Pierpont is no relation to her famous subject, but if you know anything about him, it is an easy surmise that the coincident name added an extra measure of piquancy to this enterprise. An equally safe bet is that he will find much to chuckle and to purr over – and very little to chagrin – in its pages.

A staff writer at “The New Yorker,” Ms. Pierpont met Mr. Roth a decade or so ago at a party and soon found herself drawn into a kind of magic circle with which, like many famous writers, he surrounds himself. Soon she was enjoying “the easy camaraderie that Mr. Roth has inspired through roughly eight years of discussing books and politics and a thousand other things.”

When he included her in those whose opinion he sought about books he had written but not yet published, she tells us she replied “I’d be honored.” All credit to him for replying “Don’t be honored, or you’ll be no good to me.” It is perfectly believable that Roth the dedicated artist was really seeking honest critiquing, not facile praise. But you also feel from reading this book that when it comes to his life, he has a more complex agenda. So when Ms. Pierpont writes “This book, then, is about the life of Philip Roth’s art and, inevitably, the art of his life,” that last phrase is especially telling.

Mr. Roth has never written a full autobiography and there is a sense in these pages that he is doing so with a kind of ventriloquist legerdemain. He gets to say what he wants, just how he wants, and no more. Ms. Pierpont can be critical about aspects of his art, although for the most part she is admiring. However, understandably, it is more difficult to press him on what he says about his actual life. After all it is his, and the context of their cozy relationship allows him to assert possession of it with a validation that outright memoir cannot so easily acquire. There is an uncomfortable sense at times that Mr. Roth has co-opted Ms. Pierpont:

Roth’s heroine [in his novel “The Counterlife”] was based on his secret English lover at the time, although for understandable reasons, he claimed that she was based on a lover from the years before he met [his second wife, actress Claire] Bloom, the American but Oxford educated writer Janet Hobhouse.”

A friend might find “understandable” the reason for keeping the name of this secret lover from his wife or swallow Roth’s version of the lady’s reaction to his fictional portrait, but a diligent biographical critic might not And aye, there’s the rub encapsulating this book’s essentially problematic nature.

Ms. Pierpont is quite correct in firmly refuting the facile notion that much of Mr.  Roth’s fiction is directly autobiographical and also in showing which parts do in fact reflect his life. On his politics, she is less reliable, partly because she seems too much in the self-referential hothouse of his surface identification as an “FDR baby and lifelong Democrat.”

Anyone who has read his books knows how strong this identification is. Yet who can read “American Pastoral” without realizing that, like so many neoconservatives who were once dyed-in-the-wool liberals, a disillusioned Mr. Roth feels, as Wordsworth so marvelously put it, “Whither has fled the visionary gleam/Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

Ms. Pierpont pays lavish tribute to Mr. Roth’s generosity in giving her access to his files and talking to her at length. Also for agreeing to this without vetting her book before publication. Rather credulously, she attributes this to his being “beyond caring very much what people say anymore. For another, he knows better than anyone that freedom is as essential to writing as to life.” I would propose another reason: He knew that he had chosen well. Whatever else he is, Mr. Roth is no fool and, in all the hours they spent together, he had ample time to take the measure of his Boswell and to realize that he was quite safe.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.