He may have announced his retirement from writing last year, but Philip Roth has hardly vanished from the public eye; in fact, he has been more willing than ever to take part in such examinations of his life and work as a PBS American Masters episode and the forthcoming authorized biography by Blake Bailey. But New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound might be the most interesting example for those who want to better understand Roth the writer, rather than Roth the public figure or Roth the person. Although Pierpont (who’s no relation to Roth) does examine Roth’s life, this biographical work is all in service of helping readers better understand his body of work, one whose balance of quality and prolificacy over the course of half a century remains unparalleled.
Flavorwire spoke with Pierpont over the phone about Roth’s writing, the public perception of him, and her subject’s willingness to let people know more about Philip Roth.
Flavorwire: You write in the introduction to Roth Unbound that the book was originally supposed to be a collection of American subjects. Could you elaborate on how it became a book just about Philip Roth?
Claudia Roth Pierpont: I have written a number of pieces in The New Yorker, and when I looked back at them, I realized they had accumulated around American myths, in a way, starting with Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gershwin and the Chrysler Building and Hepburn and Brando. I hadn’t quite realized it was happening, and at a certain point, I did realize it was happening, I guess, and I began to request more of those subjects, and Philip Roth was going to be the last figure in the book. And I thought it made a really interesting subject, if you will, to go from Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who were the first two subjects in the book, and to conclude the book with a piece on James Baldwin, which I’ve already written for The New Yorker, and a piece on Roth. I also had written the review of one of his books for The New Yorker, but because it was going to be the final piece, I thought it should be a bigger statement piece, just a larger piece. And since I had become acquainted with him, I asked him if he would speak with me, and I could therefore use his voice in this piece, and it would be a bigger piece. I had done a previous collection about women writers, and the final piece was about Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt it was a larger piece, the finale, than the other pieces in the book, and that’s what I hoped this would be. But he had recently retired. He had the time to give me, which he never would’ve had if he were writing a novel, and he’d written 31 books, so the more we talked, the larger the manuscript grew, and finally, I got in touch with the publisher and said, “You know, I have about 200 pages. Do you think that’s a little long for the final chapter?” And he said, “Yes, it’s a little long for the final chapter. I think maybe you have a book here.” So it just grew, and it wasn’t expected. At a certain point, it just seemed right. This is what it’s going to be, and I knew what a lucky break I had in terms of timing that he was able to talk with me that much, and I thought, “Just for the sake of history and the sake of everything, you should take advantage of this. Don’t pass this up. He’s willing to talk to you. Keep taking notes and keep coming back.”
I don’t mean to pigeonhole him, but I was introduced to Roth at an early age by a family member who said to me, “This is the most important Jewish writer.” How important is Roth to postwar American Jewish culture?
Well, first of all, I think he’s gone way beyond Jewish culture. You know, he’s a huge writer in France — probably as big in France as he is here. I don’t think it has very much to do with the Jews anymore, but in terms of American postwar Jewish culture, I’d say he’s traveled a huge distance. He was a kind of a pariah at the start, but as you know, people were afraid of what he wrote early on. There were all these rabbis denouncing him. He was shocked by it. I think it was an era — well, the era has the changed. The feelings of people have changed. People learned. American Jews were more afraid, and understandably so, and there was a feeling that we have to be exemplary, that Jewish characters should be exemplary, and he was wheeling on that and showing aspects of Jewish people that weren’t meant to be shown. He showed a Jewish adulterer, for example, and he got in a lot of trouble for that. But writers don’t work that way. They don’t take the official tack. They write about real human beings or they’d be worthless. They write about real feelings, and I think as Jews became more comfortably assimilated as Americans — there were early reactions to Portnoy over this. “This is not the way we want to be seen. We’re frightened. What will they think of us?” It was a very big question — not universally, of course not, but among a lot of vocal people early on, and he went through a lot. He tried to explain himself often, but that’s completely changed. He’s not in that position in America anymore.
It seems to me there are so many different immigrant cultures in America now. It’s really become a mosaic. Jews are now celebrating Roth everywhere — they’re so happy he’s one of theirs. They’re proud of him as one of theirs. He’s getting awards from the Jewish Ecological Seminary, from different places. It has to do not with a change in what he’s written, but with a change in people’s comfort level, I think.
I caught some of that increased goodwill towards Roth among Jews, growing up, but I also heard people say he’s a misogynist. Did you find yourself having to defend Roth at any point?
A little bit. It’s interesting that you ask these questions in sequence, the first about the Jewish reaction in the ‘50s, the second about these charges of misogyny, which I think are false, frankly. I didn’t intend to write about this in a big way. I had a list of subjects and [misogyny] wasn’t on it when I started, but I began to feel such a huge divide between what I was reading and this kind of feminist criticism of his work, and I think, in some way, those charges are founded on the same reading by an ideological light that some Jews in the ’50s, those who had problems with his work, were reading him by.
When the sensitivities are heightened, when the struggle for a kind of sole citizenship seems to be on the line, there’s a feeling that every Jewish character then or every woman character now should be presented in a very positive light as a kind of propaganda, if you will, for the subject as a human being. Don’t let them see we have the same flaws as everybody else.
And he writes about women the same way he writes about men, with this kind of intense scrutiny, this refusal of idealization, and this knocking force. He has all kinds of female characters in his work, and none of them are more bad or good than the men. They’re looked at exactly the same way, and again, I think the audience will change, and people will see that in his work. I don’t believe for a moment that he’s a misogynist in his work, no.
I always thought the men were the worst people in his books.
Yeah! Often the women are the ones with practical, good sense.
There’s obviously this kind of sensitivity [about] the way the men are presented, so again, it’s a matter of audience perception, I think, rather than what’s on the page, and if you look at this change in the Jewish perception of Roth, I think you’ll get an idea of what I believe the change is.
Roth also participated in American Masters and the Blake Bailey biography, and I find that so fascinating, because I can’t think of any other author who tied up his career as neatly as Philip Roth did. What do you think that says about him, that he’s so comfortable letting others in to discuss and pick at his work?
Well, I think he knows it’s inevitable, given his position, and the kind of attention his books have always received. And they say he stopped writing — if he were still writing, I don’t think he would’ve seen this documentary or half of the stuff he’s seen in my book. He knew that a biography would have to come, so Blake is a perfect person to have chosen. But a writer of his stature, I don’t see it as unnatural or surprising, to tell you the truth.
Your book and the PBS special didn’t seem rushed. They were very researched, and it seems he helped out with them.
Yeah, he did. Well, he’s there. He has the time, he has the interest. It is fascinating that he’s decided to retire. Others haven’t; Bellow finished that last novel at 84. Updike was writing poetry to the very end. I think — now this is my supposition, rather than something direct from his mouth, but at a certain point, he decided that if he couldn’t do it exactly the way he wanted to anymore, he didn’t feel he had those capacities as he neared 80, as he says of Bellow.
At a certain point, you can’t hold everything in your head anymore, and his work is very complex, all these crossing voices and multiple plots, and that’s the mindset, and I think he just felt, “If I can’t do it to my own satisfaction anymore, why should I keep doing it?” I mean, he’s done more — not more than Updike, but more novels than Bellow. He’s done enough, you know?
Updike wrote to the end. There’s an interview (I did not interview him, it was an interview I used in the book), he used to work six days a week. He would take Sunday off for church, but now he’s not doing that anymore. He’s working seven days a week. In his upper 70s, because there was so much more he wanted to do and wanted to say. And Roth kind of went in the other direction: He has a lot of friends, he has this country house. He really loves life, and I think a lot of these years have been spent in a room, writing, and it was good, in a way, to get out of that room, and just see the way more ordinary people lived and to enjoy his life, his friends, the countryside. He loves all that, so I mean, he’s just enjoying that right now, I think. He’s a different person.
One of the things I liked the most about Roth Unbound is that I think people have this idea that if they’ve read one book by an author they’ve read them all — which is obviously not true with Philip Roth. You discuss his time in Eastern Europe, which had a profound impact on his work, and you explore his different stages as a writer, which I think is so crucial. The book dances between criticism and biography. How important was that kind of balance to you?
That’s the way I’ve always tried to work. I’m not a biographer, but I think biography can illuminate the work with many figures, and what I like to do when I work — and with Roth it became even more obvious and more crucial that there are points in his life where what is going on really is essential to the work, and there are points where it’s not essential, where it’s more internal, and you can just deal with the book more closely. I think the subjects, for me, determine the mix, and again, I wasn’t setting out, ever, to write a full draft biography. I’m not inclined that way. It wasn’t my job. I wanted to work on the books and let them draw me where they drew me in terms of how much — obviously, early on, you need to talk a lot about the life, you need to set it all up. You need to explain how he began, how he wrote these early stories, how he reacted in shock to the kind of outrage that broke out, so I think I used biography where I feel it’s helpful or illuminating to the work, and beyond that, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m not a biographer in that sense.
By the way, I really like your point about how different all his books are, and that it’s really false to think you know what he’s about if you’ve read one book.
Roth also has a very interesting view of people, and it shines through, the way he writes about them.
This wonderful thing he does — he comes at [it] really slowly in The American Trilogy. He does it in many places. He’ll go a long way from telling you what a character is about.
For example, and then there are times when he’ll start out saying “I was wrong,” and he’ll take it all off in a completely other direction, and he’s made a point over and over again about how wrong we are about other people, and I think this is a big part of what he teaches us. He can explore a person from every different angle and leave you with the choice as to what you feel is absolutely right or wrong about a book. It’s amazing. American Pastoral, for example: people draw different conclusions in the book, depending on which character they believe. The brother Jerry yells the loudest, so a lot of people think he’s the one telling the truth.
Do you have a favorite Philip Roth book, if you had to pick just one?
Can I pick two or three?
Yes. You can pick two, how’s that?
I’ve read them all. No — I’ve read most of them. I think I went through the whole cycle three times while writing this. I come back again and again to The Ghost Writer, to The Counterlife, to Sabbath’s Theater. Those are three that really haunt me, especially — although American Pastoral, but it depends.
Also, when you love a writer, you love one or two or maybe three, and the rest of the books you love because you already love those books, so they’re interesting because they’re by that writer. But for him to have so many books that people will put forward as the best, as their favorite, that’s an extraordinary fact of his career, I think.