ROTH UNBOUND: A Writer and His Books. By Claudia Roth Pierpont. Farrar Straus Giroux. 353 pages. $27.
Looking out a farmhouse window in "The Ghost Writer," Philip Roth's alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman thinks, "I could see the bare limbs of big, dark maple trees and fields of driven snow. Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one's concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling. I looked around and I thought, This is how I will live." And so he has.
It's fair to say that Claudia Roth Pierpont's study, "Roth Unbound," would not exist if Roth hadn't retired after publishing "Nemesis" in 2010. Pierpont and Roth began corresponding and meeting in 2002. Eventually, he started showing drafts of his new work to her. Once he put aside his vocation, "He had the time to talk about his work because he wasn't doing it anymore." Although Roth had a heavy hand in guiding Pierpont's work, he put no restrictions on it and didn't ask to read a draft before publication.
Pierpont has written a smart and sophisticated book that takes full advantage of her strengths.
She's a fan of Roth the writer and Roth the person, as if the two could be separated. But she's not an idolator. Pierpont has in her grasp an appreciation of the whole body of his work, 31 books, and a clear sense of the high and not-as-high marks in the Roth canon. She is also, refreshingly straightforward about her personal preferences. Although critics often consider Roth's American Trilogy ("I Married a Communist," "American Pastoral," "The Human Stain") to be the capstone of his career, Pierpont favors "the more unruly and ecstatic earlier books."
Many readers will want to rush out and re-read (or read) "The Ghost Writer," say, or "Sabbath's Theater," after finishing "Roth Unbound." Pierpont is able to capture, often in a single sentence, the flavor of each of Roth's books and to situate them within the span of a career. "The Ghost Writer," for instance, is "one of literature's rare, inevitably brief, inscrutably musical, nearly perfect books." It showcases Roth's writerly virtues (his intimate address, his genius with vocal mimicry) and his thematic obsessions (counterlives, masks and disguises, the convergence of art and life, Jewishness).
Pierpont finds that, from the beginning of his career to the end, Roth has been drawn to the person in trouble, what he calls "the assailable man." As Roth's alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman recognizes, "The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy, that is every man's tragedy."
Against the ambushes of history and time, what weapons does the Roth hero have? Fiction, and the imagination that spawns it, is a place of endless possibility in Philip Roth's writing. The mind can do anything: resurrect the dead - Anne Frank in "The Ghost Writer," Roth's own parents in "The Plot Against America" - and embellish or distort the humdrum facts of life.
Repeatedly, Pierpont has to insist that Roth is not Zuckerman or Kapesh or even "Philip Roth," all recurring characters whose lives track their author's in obvious ways.
Roth nudges us to question some of our assumptions about the relative values of truth and fiction. He is a comic novelist making serious fun out of the tension between life and art. As he told an interviewer in 1984: "Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the drama of my life is my life."
On the page, Roth is a pirate and a provocateur. "Roth Unbound" introduces us to the man off the page, a charming, funny friend who, at 80, has taken an interest in curating his own legacy. Roth is cooperating with Blake Bailey on a full-scale biography. In the meantime, we have Claudia Roth Pierpont's lovely, personal introduction to a modern maestro.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.