New book offers an appreciation of Roth’s life, work

New book offers an appreciation of Roth’s life, work

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Before Philip Roth formally announced that he had given up writing as he approached his 80th birthday last year, he was increasingly referred to as “The Greatest Living Novelist.” When Roth began his career in his 20s with the publication of “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959, and his aggressive, sexual manifesto “Portnoy’s Complaint” a decade later, he was just as often called an “enfant terrible” of American Jewish literature, or even worse, a “self-hating Jew.”  In “Roth Unbound” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $27), Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Philip Roth), has published a superb overview of the highlights of her subject’s life, from his wildly controversial early stages, through his repeatedly autobiographical novels, up to and including his more recent works, which were more focused on issues of mortality.

Pierpont, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has been close friends with Roth for nearly a decade. Roth offered her extensive access to his own feelings about his professional and career highs and lows and direct insight into his conflicted feelings about being a “Jewish American writer,” and events in his life which are directly reflected in his novels. Pierpont’s book is not a traditional biography; it is an affectionate and comprehensive compendium of  information about Roth’s published works.

In 1969, Roth skyrocketed into American popular culture with the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” a wildly ribald story of Alexander Portnoy, a young, altruistic Jewish boy from Newark who is forthright to an unprecedented extent about his sexual escapades. These included self-pleasuring with a variety of creative objects to his “conquests” of several women.

Roth suddenly found himself confronted with accusations of being a “self-hating Jew” for depicting middle class Jews, like the Potemkins in “Goodbye, Columbus,” as vulgar, loud, spoiled and focused on making money.

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Throughout his long writing career, Roth has been dogged by repeated questions as to the boundaries between his fictional characters — Neil Klugman, Alexander Portnoy, David Kepesh, and Nathan Zuckerman and himself. Pierpont notes that Roth sheds considerable light on this issue not only in the fiction of his middle period, but in two frankly autobiographical books: “The Fact’s:  A Novelist’s Autobiography” (1988) and “Patrimony:  A True Story” (l991).   Pierpont calls “The Facts” a “rather dry autobiography,” but cites it as a valuable, direct source from Roth about what is “factual” and what is “fictional” in his novels.

“Patrimony” is a movingly written account of Roth serving as a caregiver for his beloved widowed father, Herman Roth.  Pierpont describes the book as “earnest, straightforward, and unsparingly emotional. No fancy writing, no formal games.  He is the level, unadorned voice familiar from the earlier sections of ‘The Facts’ — Roth without a mask.”  Alexander Portnoy’s fictional parents in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the castrating mother, Sophie Portnoy and the one-dimensional Jack Portnoy, bear no resemblance to Herman and Bess Finkel Roth, both of whom the author adored and respected.

The tremendous commercial success of “Portnoy’s Complaint” brought Roth not only fame, but also criticism from reviewers and members of the Jewish Establishment who said that Roth’s unflattering depictions of Jews played right into the hands of anti-Semites.  He was a “member of the tribe” shaming the tribe by his harsh satire which many of his younger readers of his generation found hysterically funny while their elders either blushed or shook their heads in disgust.

Pierpont recalls a particularly painful evening Roth spent as a guest panelist at Yeshiva University in 1962, where he was berated by an extremely hostile audience.  Later, while eating a pastrami sandwich, Roth swears he would “never again write about Jews.”  Fortunately for his readers, that proved to be a hollow threat.  The majority of Roth’s published works not only focused on Jewish characters but on Jewish issues, such as just how far should Jewish writers go in airing the “dirty linen” (and undergarments) of his own people?

Pierpont is also successful in drawing Roth out about his two ill-fated marriages: the first to Margaret Martinson Williams Roth, whom he married in 1959, a marriage which was extremely stormy and acrimonious until Margaret was killed in a car crash in 1968, and the second to the British actress Claire Bloom, which started promisingly but which ended in divorce.

Pierpont quotes extensively from an interview of David Williams, the son of Margaret Martinson Williams Roth, who was interviewed by this writer in 1975.  She writes, “Approached by a reporter who had figured out his relationship to the famous writer, Williams (who resided in St. Louis at the time) agreeably submitted to a number of questions.” 

“Roth Unbound” is an indispensable source of solid information about Roth. While Alexander Portnoy found his sessions with his psychiatrist to be worthless, the real-life Roth finds a trusting soulmate in whom he can confide in Pierpont.  She has given her readers unprecedented insights into the mind of an American Jewish author who has deservedly won every major literary prize other than the Nobel Prize in Literature, for which he has been short-listed for years.