Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont: no country for old men

Philip Roth held his head high while Updike, Mailer and Pynchon nodded. So why is his legacy at risk?

Exit Roth: the writer at home in New York in 2010, two years before he announced his retirement. Photo: Chris Maluszynski/Moment/Redux.
Roth Unbound: a Writer and His Books
Claudia Roth Pierpont
Jonathan Cape, £25, 359pp
 
My relationship with Philip Roth has been shorter than most of his readers’ but probably more intense. For much of my childhood, I learned about American literature through American cinema. Stephen King was a name I knew. Those of John Updike and Philip Roth I must have glimpsed around the house, vertically on shelves, horizontally in piles, though I had no reason to connect them or even distinguish them from other consumers of domestic space, such as P G Wodehouse or C G Jung, whose Memories, Dreams, Reflections sounded somewhat woolly.

Roth didn’t come meaningfully to my attention until just over a decade ago, when I found my parents watching a documentary about the modern novel, in which Hari Kunzru discussed a scene in Zuckerman Unbound where Roth’s alter ego, the parasitic novelist Nathan, is berated by his  dying father. A few days later, I took from the shelves a Roth hardback, I Married a Communist, which occupied me for a period of illness I didn’t want to end. From there,  I moved straight on to The Human Stain, the next and final instalment in Roth’s Amer­ican Trilogy, which, though only completed in 2000, was already being hailed as a historic achievement, a run of novels to compare to Updike’s Rabbit quartet and even Proust.

I soon learned that Roth had in recent years produced an abundance of books themselves abundant in ideas and evocation – and he wasn’t (quite) finished yet. The Plot Against America, the first novel Roth produced after I discovered him – and my 2004 Christmas present – displayed no loss of appetite. Later, a new Roth novel became a  virtually annual highlight of my existence as a reviewer. With the exception of a final, and regrettable, visit to Zuckerman (Exit Ghost), the books from this period were spare, acrid and slightly creepy: Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and finally Nemesis. (Roth announced his retirement – “To tell you the truth, I’m done” – in 2012, at the age of 79.) In retrospect, he labelled them “Nemeses: Short Novels” – the title under which they were reprinted last year by the Library of America, completing a nine-volume set containing 27 novels and novellas, five  stories, a pair of memoirs and a screenplay.

During Roth’s last years as a writer, it seemed that everyone had something to say about his work, and the verdict tended to be worshipful. What vision! What vitality! Give him the Nobel this instant! The words “late Roth” were dropping from people’s lips as easily as “chav”, “post-9/11” and “credit default swaps”.

In 2007, when that last term was still obscure, the New Yorker critic James Wood wrote that “late Roth” resembled “late monopoly capitalism” in showing no sign of frailty – in contrast to some of Roth’s colleagues. It was seen as a case of one American writer holding his head high while all around others were letting theirs drop. Since retiring Rabbit in 1990 – this consensus said – Updike had been running on empty; Mailer was in hibernation (working, it emerged, on the Hitler novel sequence he died before completing); Pynchon was as usual nowhere to be seen or heard; DeLillo, post-Underworld, seemed to be fiddling with side projects, obstinately refusing, unlike Roth, to settle on a late style. Other writers born in the interwar period such as Joyce Carol Oates, E L Doctorow, and Toni Morrison were written off, their relevance pegged to distant decades. Until Cormac McCarthy broke a seven-year silence in 2005, Roth was the only American writer old enough to be considered “major” whose new work was seen as burnishing rather than tarnishing his name. Both McCarthy and Roth took titles from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”: No Country for Old Men and The Dying Animal, invoking the greatest precedent of vibrant late work.

One of the unwitting subjects of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s shrewd critical biography of Roth is that hindsight can spoil a view. While Roth was publishing his books at a clip, it seemed as if he had the gifts for masterpieces partly because he displayed two qualities we associate with genius: prodigiousness and longevity. Here – readers could reassure themselves – was a writer whose fame and popularity defied his own gloomy prophecies about the reading public, a writer who was only becoming more ambitious and tenacious with age, a writer who took on big subjects and defeated them, a writer who had reversed the minimalist turn in American literature and restored the long sentence to its rightful prominence. But as the context of appreciation fades away, so does the intensity. Late Roth now stands as a minor cultural moment, a brainy Britpop. It reflected our desire to be a part of something, to enrich a chorus, to ride a wave – and while the practising Roth was the beneficiary of this logic, Roth the literary-historical figure may yet become its victim.

Pierpont also offers some intentional insights about the role of retrospective clarity in the work itself. Roth Unbound is a rare example of the book about a writer – Patrick French’s biography of V S Naipaul was another – in which the subject has granted the author interviews and access to archival material without demanding power of veto or even requesting to read the manuscript. So, Pierpont was able to map the story of Roth the novelist on to the story of Roth the individual as told by letters, documents and recent remarks. Adducing factors for the changes that occurred in his writing, she alights on his marriage to the English actress Claire Bloom, the long-term effects of psychotherapy and “the passage of time”.

The last of these helped Roth turn his own childhood in the 1940s and 1950s into historical fiction but it also allowed him to heal some wounds, in particular those left by a painful early marriage that  he struggled for years to fictionalise. In a recent essay on Roth’s friendships and rivalries, Pierpont quoted him saying that he and Updike were both “kangaroo-like” in their energy – but in reality they were more like the tortoise and the hare (or maybe rabbit). Updike proceeded with journalistic speed, evoking sex acts barely completed, writing historical novels about yesterday’s headlines. Roth’s metabolism was in every way slower. It took him longer to translate his experience into subject matter, longer to absorb the times he had lived through and, as a result, longer to find his footing as a novelist.

In her introduction, Pierpont argues that Roth reached a pitch of achievement “book after book after book”; but as we read on, book after book after book is pronounced “uneasy” or “wearying” or “overwrought”. Sizing up his career after its first 20 years, when Goodbye, Columbus (1959) had been his only prize-winner and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) his only hit (albeit a storming one), she plumps for understatement: “it was not a sterling record”. Though Pierpont doesn’t come out and say it, part of the reason Roth’s later books occasioned such rapture was not because they showed a great writer stepping up a gear but because after decades of disappointment and bafflement, greatness finally emerged. The Counterlife (1986), which uses postmodern form to explore humanist questions about identity and fate, was for many the novel that marked this point of relief. For others it came later, with the terrifying erotic farce Sabbath’s Theater (1995).

Those are Pierpont’s favourites among Roth’s books (mine too). She also claims perfection for a much earlier novel, The Ghost Writer (1979), though she doesn’t much care for the books that followed – and in any case, for a writer who won the National Book Award days after turning 27, that still amounts to a significant non-fulfilment of promise. Talent might be a slow  patience, as Flaubert advised Maupassant, but Roth took things a little far.

Biographer and subject look harshly on roughly the same books, so Pierpont has a well-informed accomplice when it comes to asking what went wrong, why a writer at once talented and clear-thinking perpetrated work of pseudo-Jamesian languour at one extreme (the rich but interminable Letting Go; the noble failure When She Was Good) and larky absurdism at the other (Our Gang; The Great American Novel). More fruitful – but a dead end nevertheless – was Roth’s devotion to novels about novelists. While Updike used his series about the Jewish writer Henry Bech as a way of peri­od­­ically diffusing a head of steam, Roth’s Zuckerman novels colonised his attention for much of the 1970s and 1980s. As Pierpont and Roth agree, Zuckerman only became useful when stripped of hero status and deployed as a narrating onlooker, a conduit for other men’s stories – the role he played, to varying degrees, in The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, and the American Trilogy.

When Roth Unbound reaches the late 1980s and 1990s, things start to perk up. Struggle turns to triumph. Starting with The Counterlife, Roth learned, as he put it, “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free” but also how to confront bigger themes – Israel, prejudice, death. No more poky comedies about the writer’s lot. But after writing Sabbath’s Theater (“the freest experience of my life”), in which he tried to speak the “unspeakable”, he developed new vices – new ways to trap himself. The novels in the venerated American Trilogy, though marked by an intelligence that chugs along with awesome fluency, derive much of their appeal from conceptual tidiness, the laborious stage-managing of detail.

Seymour “Swede” Levov, in American Pastoral (1997), the first book of the Trilogy, is destroyed by precisely the things that made him great. Coleman Silk, the “Jewish” professor accused of racism in The Human Stain (2000), is in fact a light-skinned black man. (In the real “hate speech” case that inspired Roth, the irony had been milder – the professor was an expert on segregation.)

But the biggest trap of all was chauvinism – not the old problem, Roth’s dim view of women, but a newer one, his dewy-eyed view of home. The former charge lost him readers, the latter may cost him the Nobel Prize. Pierpont says that one of Roth’s breakthroughs was his rediscovery of America, but reading the books now, the products can seem kitsch. The opening section of American Pastoral, “Paradise Remembered”, recalls the days after the Japanese surrender, “the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American his­tory”; and The Human Stain ends by evoking “a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.” Substitute the word with “the United States” and the effect is pure bathos.

It might seem mere calculation that late Roth depends so heavily on a word that other writers, from Donne through Jefferson to Bellow, have done the hard work of investing with meaning. But “America” is what he means. Whereas Updike composed a series of national portraits no less flattering for being warts-and-all, Roth erects an ideal country (open, pluralist) against which to compare the flawed reality (bigoted, populist, sanctimonious).

In The Dying Animal (2001), the narrator tells the story of a 17th-century fur-trading settlement known as Merry Mount, whose inhabitants practised miscegenation and worshipped at a maypole, to the outrage of the Puritans in nearby Plymouth and Salem. Drawing on these events for a short story, Nathaniel Hawthorne had spied an elemental struggle: an “empire” torn between “jollity” and “gloom”. For Roth, writing a century-and-a-half later, the forces were the same. It is a struggle whose sky-high stakes he never doubts. But posterity may not share his assumptions.

As long as Roth remains principally the author of the rhapsodic-elegiac American Trilogy rather than the “unruly and ecstatic books” that Pierpont prefers, he is in danger of becoming little more than an artefact  by which to date American supremacy, a writer who emerged in the 1950s, floundered in the 1970s, peaked in the 1990s, and retired in 2012.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer.