Go Figure: Musings from the Mind of Rob Wilstein
Here is a book for all novelists, Philip Roth fan or not, (full disclosure, I’m a fan) for its insightful and instructive inside look at the working process of this acclaimed author.
Philip Roth, the Jewish-American Newark born and bred literary giant of half the twentieth century and part of our current one, is the subject of the brilliantly executed book, Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, by the New Yorker writer and critic Claudia Roth Pierpont, no relation. More accurately, Roth’s writing is the subject of the book, as it is not and doesn’t aim to be a biography of Roth. In clear and methodical writing Pierpont takes the reader through nearly every one of Roth’s thirty-one books published between 1959 (Goodbye, Columbus) and 2010 (Nemesis). Recently, Roth, now eighty years old, has announced his retirement from writing novels, citing age and the difficulties of sustaining a long piece. When asked last year if he thinks he will ever write another novel, he answered, “God, I hope not.”
Despite the Jewishness (rightfully) associated with Roth’s writing, it is the adjective ‘American’ that Pierpont presents as most apt to describe the author. Roth himself identifies first as an American writer and through his work he has chronicled key moments in the social, political, and personal upheavals of the last century. He credits one of his own literary idols, the novelist Saul Bellow, with an opening line he considers one of the best. In The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow begins, “I am an American, Chicago born…” Although Roth gained his reputation, along with gaining the wrath of much of the New York Jewish rabbinical contingent, with his insanely riotous fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, he firmly cemented it with his later work, particularly the three books referred to as his American trilogy, American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). In these three powerful novels, Roth takes on the violence of revolutionary ideals of the sixties, America’s fascination with political gossip and witch hunts, and one man’s battle with identity and prejudice, living with secrets and lies, eventually being brought down by his own deceptions.
Between 2006 and 2010, Roth produced four novellas, each of which deals with aging, loss, chance misfortune, and death. These works, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis (his last book), bring to bear Roth’s lifelong assertion that “we are helpless before history, aging, other people, our endless getting of everything wrong: the unknowable future.” Pierpont writes that “Roth says today that a reasonable overarching title for (this) series of books would be Blindsided: An American Trilogy.” This despite the fact that there are four books.
Part of the fascination for novelists reading Roth Unbound lies in the unraveling of Roth’s literary influences and contemporary rivals. Pierpont writes of his “twin idols, Kafka and Bellow” as well as writers as diverse in time and temperament as Thomas Mann and Celine, Chekhov and Hemingway. He sparred with contemporaries or near-contemporaries like Mailer and Malamud, and had a particularly strong rivalry with John Updike. The two novelists emerged at virtually the same time, Roth publishing Goodbye, Columbus the same year as Updike’s first novel, Poorhouse Fair. “A decade later,” Pierpont writes, “they had profitably scandalized the country with Couples and Portnoy’s Complaint.” Roth was a great admirer of Updike, despite their rivalry, and he has said, referring to trends in writing and post-modernism, “John Barth was a very nice man, but give me John Updike.” And Pierpont writes of Roth and Updike, “They were mutual admirers, thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse…in which Roth would have to be Picasso—-the energy, the slashing power—and Updike would be Matisse, the color, the sensuality.”
Roth is portrayed as a meticulous and dedicated craftsmen, often pouring years into each book, standing at his writing desk (because of a debilitating back condition) writing and rewriting and paying close attention to craft. Of rewriting, he says, “the first draft is really a floor under my feet…what I want to do is get the story down and know what happens…the book really comes to life in the rewriting.” On point of view, Pierpont says that it “is among the most crucial aspects of Roth’s writing… ‘I found the right people’ is a reason he often gives for a book’s particular power.” On the writer as an artist, Roth says, “the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify…(but) to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction.”
The joy in reading Roth Unbound for the Roth fan is in revisiting the author’s novels and their protagonists. To hear Alexander Portnoy try to explain the insanity of his parents to his psychotherapist. To meet again Mickey Sabbath, the out-of-control retired puppeteer in his misery over lost lust. To recall Roth’s stand-ins, Nathan Zuckerman and Peter Tarnopol. And David Kepesh, who suffered the misfortune, or perhaps not, of waking up one morning to discover that he had metamorphosed into a giant breast. Swede Levov, the hero of American Pastoral, one of Roth’s most benignly painted characters, whose perfect, all-American life is shaken by his daughter’s descent into the world of Weathermen revolutionaries. Maureen Tarnopol, Roth’s stand-in for Maggie, his first wife and the cause of years of misery, in My Life as a Man, the book it took Roth so long to write because of its emotional toll. Imperfect characters all, to understate it, complex men and women invented by Roth not out of whole cloth, but from the richness of his life, the familial characters, his observations of the human condition and its tragic comedy.
For all the praise Pierpont heaps on Roth’s work, she is careful to point out the less successful novels as well. The ambitious and youthful Letting Go (1962), his first full-length novel, is described by Pierpont as “overlong” and “laborious”. Roth, looking back, says, “I felt I had to put everything in, I was writing a big, American novel.” Our Gang, published in 1971, is a satire of Richard Nixon and his gang that may have been overreaching, and which Pierpont calls an “unruly novel.” In The Humbling, one of Roth’s late novellas, Simon Axler is an actor who has lost his powers. He can no longer perform on the stage. The book received “harsh reviews,” according to Pierpont, and it is a sparse and demoralizing account of a man at the end of his creative life.
Philip Roth, the titan of American fiction, may also have been sensing he was nearing the end of his creative powers, although Pierpont points out that in his ‘retirement’ Roth spends his days writing notes to colleagues and friends, rereading the books that have meant the most to him and championing emerging writers. About his late writing, when he felt restricted to getting down the essence of things, he says, “You can get very good at getting by on what you get by on.”