'Roth Unbound' gauges novelist's enduring appeal and flaws

"Roth Unbound" by Claudia Roth Pierpont; Farrar, Straus and Giroux (353 pages, $27)

If you've been tempted to dismiss Philip Roth as a misogynist, a self-hating Jew or simply an old white male dinosaur, Claudia Roth Pierpont's "Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books" makes a strong argument for giving the novelist another chance.

At a minimum, Pierpont's lucid book, intelligent but not academic, makes the case that "The Ghost Writer," "Sabbath's Theater" and "American Pastoral" are compelling works of fiction worth reading today. She also finds much of merit in Roth's other novels, even when she calmly notes their weaknesses.

"Roth Unbound" is Pierpont's close reading of Roth's body of work, enhanced by conversations with the novelist and access to his papers and notes, though he did not read her book before publication.

It is not a biography per se, though it includes many biographical details and some revelations. It's a sympathetic book — Pierpont is his friend — but not a hagiographic one.

Throughout his writing career, Roth (born in 1933) has faced the accusations mentioned in my opening sentence, beginning almost immediately with the Jewish question.

In his early story "Defender of the Faith" (1959), which Roth calls "the first good thing I ever wrote," a Jewish draftee repeatedly seeks favors from a Jewish sergeant, a combat veteran returned home to train new soldiers. The draftee builds up to the big ask — avoiding the front lines — but the conscientious sergeant ultimately denies him.

"It was the depiction of the weaselly, lying, 19-year-old Jewish soldier that caused the stir," Pierpont writes. "Medieval Jews would have known what to do with (Roth)," an angry New York rabbi complained. Roth would come to realize that this story and many of his other works hit Jewish nerves because they revealed, in his words, "that the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority."

As for the misogynist charge, Roth can be hard on fictional female characters, but both he and Pierpont would tell you, he's hard on men, too: Would you want to live the lives that Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh lived?

Pierpont sees the root of much Roth-as-woman-hating discussion in the memoir by his ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, which accuses the novelist of a "deep and irrepressible rage" toward women. Pierpont points out that many reviewers of Bloom's book quickly accepted her point of view as fact, rather than as one point of view on a marriage between complex individuals that ended badly.

Roth, "when attacked, prefers to goad rather than retreat: to make mischief, to get adrenaline flowing," Pierpont writes.

He certainly doesn't lack for chutzpah, imagining alternative lives for both Franz Kafka and Anne Frank in his fiction.

Comparing Roth with his literary peer, John Updike, she sees their biggest difference in their organs of fictional perception: Updike an eye man, "a painter in words"; Roth "the master of voices: the arguments, the joking, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work."

Pierpont reminds us of Roth's key role in bringing dissident writers from communist Eastern Europe to American readers: multiple trips to Prague, arranging financial support for European writers, and spearheading the Writers from the Other Europe series that published works by Milan Kundera, Danilo Kis, Tadeusz Borowski and Bruno Schulz in English.

The novelist can be described casually as one of the great American Jewish writers.

Pierpont argues convincingly the American side of that equation was as important, if not more important, to Roth, an FDR baby and lifelong Democrat. In "The Plot Against America," his alternate-history novel about an anti-Semite U.S. administration, someone suggests that the Jewish patriarch based on Roth's own father move his family to Canada for safety's sake. The man replies with vigor, "This is our country!"


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