“Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” by Claudia Roth Pierpont (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $27)
Usually, a book about a writer’s body of work comes after that writer has died. But soon after the publication of his novel “Nemesis” in 2009, Philip Roth announced that he was done writing fiction.
A couple of years later, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) began an essay on Roth that kept growing, she writes in her introduction, “for two reasons principally: Roth has written so many books; and he was willing to talk with me about them, at length.”
This book, which she calls “an examination of Roth’s development as a writer, considering his themes, his thoughts and his language,” is the result.
Anyone interested in contemporary literature, and particularly those interested in Roth’s work, will find this book greatly rewarding, even if they don’t agree with all that Pierpont says.
Roth is one of the most renowned writers of his generation (he was born in 1933). His books have won two National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award three times and the inaugural Franz Kafka Prize, among others. “Not since Henry James,” writes Pierpont, “has an American novelist worked at such a sustained pitch of concentration and achievement, book after book after book.”
In all, he’s written 31 books, including three nonfiction works, and Pierpont discusses them all, one by one. Often she devotes a chapter to a book.
“Roth Unbound” is not a biography, though it includes much information about Roth’s life, especially how events in his life are reflected in or have influenced his fiction.
Pierpont is a critic but also a fan. And late in Roth’s career she became one of the several readers to whom he showed his work for feedback before publication. Parts of this book involve her defending Roth against charges of misogyny. Roth tells her he loves women but has had bad experiences with particular women. He also has had numerous affairs and multiple marriages.
Roth has had other critics as well. In his early years as a writer, he faced attacks for being anti-Semitic. Roth is Jewish, and many of his characters are Jewish.
Despite her general praise for Roth’s work, Pierpont also includes her own critique. In discussing Roth’s 1977 novel “The Professor of Desire,” she writes that the title character’s “marriage to a femme fatale with a mysterious Hong Kong past is simply silly.”
She also includes many critical insights that help us appreciate Roth’s artistry. For example, she notes that “The Ghost Writer” has “a formal, almost musical structure: four sections in which the themes intertwine as tightly as in a chamber quartet.”
The book is also a treasure trove for writers wanting to learn more about what makes good writing. Roth says that “the problem for most seriously ambitious writers” is, “how do you drive the wedge of consciousness into experience?” He explains further: “Fiction invents consciousness”—not that we don’t all have a consciousness but that “in books it exists in developed language.”
In another chapter, Roth talks about the importance of nuance in fiction. He says: “Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction.”
One of Roth’s contemporaries that he greatly admired yet fell out of contact with was John Updike. Pierpont has a nice comparison of these two great writers. “As writers, their greatest virtues seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear.” Updike, she writes, “was a painter in words,” while Roth “is the master of voices.” And they are united, she writes, “in having spent a lifetime possessed by America.”
Reading “Roth Unbound” is an enjoyable experience that not only helps me better understand the half-dozen books by Roth I’ve read but inspires me to read more of his work. He truly is one of our greatest writers.