ROTH UNBOUND explores the literary life of one of America’s greatest 20th-century writers, Philip Roth. Author Claudia Roth Pierpont combines personal history with textual analysis to create a complex narrative that exists somewhere between the genres of biography and artistic exposition. She embraces the thin line between the artist and the individual, though, with Roth in particular, one could argue that the two personas are one and the same.
Pierpont is careful with her biographical disclosures. She reveals only what she deems relevant to the interpretation of Roth’s books. She attaches just enough muscle to bone so that the book feels animated and moves along at an engaging pace, yet refrains from piling on the gossipy fat of a tell-all biography. Pierpont illustrates how Roth relies heavily on his own experiences for the content and characters of his novels. However, she is also adamant that his books stand alone as works of fiction in their own right, still meaningful even when divorced from their author.
"Author Claudia Roth Pierpont combines personal history with textual analysis to create a complex narrative that exists somewhere between the genres of biography and artistic exposition.... Pierpont gives us a well-balanced, intimate look at the great American writer."
The author methodically moves through each of Roth’s books, from GOODBYE COLUMBUS to NEMESIS, providing analysis, historical context, and a fascinating account of what it means to be a literary figure in modern America. A meticulous and confident writer, Pierpont is deeply sympathetic to her subject. Roth submitted to interviews for this book, and she interweaves his retrospective commentary into her record of his works. She is especially gifted at responding to criticisms of Roth’s work. Instead of lambasting them, she winks at the reader, often bringing a refreshing levity to criticism that has been worn thin by overuse: “[Roth] is still unlikely to linger over a landscape… You didn’t think you were going to get a whole sentence about the luminous moon, did you?”
Pierpont does not defend him or lob a counterattack, wisely spending her energies constructing a contextual framework around Roth’s books and planting each in its particular time and place. With I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, a novel that was generally viewed as a scathing response to the memoir of Roth’s ex-wife, Claire Bloom, Pierpont pragmatically points out that “there is a long if not quite noble tradition of literary revenge, from D. H. Lawrence’s malevolent portrait of Ottoline Morrell in WOMEN IN LOVE…to a fair number of pages of the collected works of Mary McCarthy.” One is not sure if she is referring here to Roth or to Bloom, and the implication is that both are to blame. This sort of scaffolding pays off. By the end of the book, Roth appears softened, while his work comes into sharp focus as a truly indispensable part of the American literary cannon.
In ROTH UNBOUND, Pierpont gives us a well-balanced, intimate look at the great American writer. The irony, of course, is that in doing so, she has revealed herself to be the type of intelligent, even-minded and competently ambitious woman whom Roth could never seem to get right in his fiction. Roth himself should take note: this type of irony is ripe for a story. A savvy female biographer giving an author a new coat of paint? Sounds like a perfect ending for the Nathan Zuckerman saga if ever I heard one.
Reviewed by Shelby Wardlaw on November 8, 2013