"What is being done to silence this man?"
At the risk of stealing the great first line from Claudia Roth Pierpont's immensely likable, generous and engrossing new critical biography of Philip Roth, “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books,” that quotation — culled from a rabbi's letter to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in 1959 complaining about Roth and one of his short stories — could have served as the title of her book. Or as the title of nearly every chapter. Or perhaps, eventually, as Roth's epitaph.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
That's not to imply that Roth's literary story is one of censorship, or relentless, unappreciated hardship. Far from it: As Pierpont (a New Yorker staff writer, and no relation to Roth himself) states plainly, "'Portnoy's Complaint' made Roth a rich man." A '60s landmark, it became the best-selling novel of 1969 (ahead of "The Godfather").
Nevertheless, with relative consistency across six decades, the intensity of outrage lobbed at Roth would have silenced or slowed down all but the most assured writers. Among the sources of that outrage were his depiction of Jews; his treatment of women; his lashing out at his wives in angry, loosely veiled fiction (1998's "I Married a Communist"); and his daunting originality.
Even Roth was shaken by accusations of Jewish self-hatred following the 1959 publication of his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus." It contained the short story "Defender," about loyalties among a group of Jewish soldiers at an army camp at the end of World War II, and "The Conversion of the Jews," about a Jewish boy who threatens to leap from a synagogue rooftop unless passersby on the street below convert to Catholicism. Roth himself once declared, while eating pastrami at New York's Stage Delicatessen, "I'll never write about Jews again."
That didn't take.
Neither did those hopes of silence. Or even sporadic output. Indeed, Pierpont writes, not since Henry James "has an American novelist worked at such a sustained pitch of concentration and achievement." Her book is a rousing argument and cementing of Roth's canonization, written under uncommon conditions: Namely, Roth is not dead, and up until a few years ago, fresh novels continued to arrive with metronomic regularity. In fact, Pierpont has an advantage with Roth that critical biographers of most artists, living or dead, can rarely claim: The quality of Roth's work — right up until he announced his retirement in the fall of 2012, after 31 novels, short story collections, memoirs and books of literary miscellanea — rarely diminished.
Roth had creative and commercial valleys. But he did not experience the denouement that his contemporaries and inspirations have faced. At 80, he has lived long enough to be the last man standing, last of the great post-World War II American novelists. He has watched Philip Roth-themed bus tours spring up in his hometown of Newark, N.J. Rarely a chatty, interview-friendly figure, he has sat for a recent career-spanning (unsatisfying) PBS episode of "American Masters." He is even cooperating with biographer Blake Bailey on a more traditional (upcoming) biography.
Pierpont sat with Roth, too. Many times. The book opens with their meeting at a birthday party and how Pierpont eventually became one of a handful of people that Roth would send his manuscripts to before publishing new work. Knowing this, you can't help but read "Roth Unbound" with the feeling that Roth is being proactive about his legacy; he is concerned with how he will be remembered and is getting out ahead of his legend. If "Roth Unbound" is undermined at all, it is by the knowledge of this friendship; it's hard not to notice how cleanly she steers around the details of the most famous accusation thrown at Roth: misogynist.
On the other hand, Roth tells Pierpont that he will not read "Roth Unbound" until its publication; and for her part, Pierpont never lapses into uncritical fandom. She defends Roth (a bit weakly) as "misread by some contemporary feminists" for the same reasons that he was misread earlier by some Jews (depictions of flawed characters). But she also points out, particularly concerning the critical accusations that "Communist" was more vendetta than novel, that he should not always be so surprised. It reads like thin literary revenge.
She is particularly good on the ever-shifting line that exists between a novelist and the mining of a long life: "The casually unliterary, first-person naturalness of Roth's voice led many readers to imagine that Portnoy's story was (Roth's) own, despite his avowal that this naturalness was a hard-won technical achievement."
But mostly Pierpont is simply a good reader, a thoughtful tour guide, placing Roth's life alongside his development as a writer but noting "the facts, as Roth has explained time after time, exist to be eviscerated by the imagination." She takes us through Roth's early moral realism into his flailing for direction in the '70s, to his creative eruption that started roughly with the self-lacerating "Counterlife" (1986) and ran through the intellectual knottiness of "Sabbath's Theater" (1995) and "American Pastoral" (1997). She even leaves the door open on the remarkable, bluntly summarizing short novels that Roth wrote between 2006 and 2010 (beginning with "Everyman," ending with "Nemesis"), each about death, none unanimously, unfairly praised.
You do finish wondering how Roth feels about being continually passed over for a Nobel Prize — you assume he knows, as does anyone with a memory, that he remains a polarizing hot potato. But you do not finish asking why he stopped writing: About Bellow, whose work grew stale as he grew older and whose opening to "The Adventures of Augie March" ("I am an American, Chicago born ...") gave Roth the confidence to claim ethnicity as fact, not obligation, Roth said: "It's hard to write a book at 84." Which is good advice, and disingenuous: As "Roth Unbound" conveys, there is a thrill at reading a great writer at the top of his game, and though Roth had bombs, we'll never really get the chance to know what a decline looked like.
Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features reporter.
"Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books"
By Claudia Roth Pierpont, 353 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27Copyright © 2015, RedEye