"If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life,” George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence.” To read Philip Roth has been to hear your own heart beat; for over 50 years he has been the irrepressible roar inside our own heads. With the announcement in 2012 of his retirement, I fear the death of the roar that lies on the other side of Roth’s silence.
Roth has received almost every literary award imaginable: a Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards, three PEN/Faulkner awards, and a National Medal of the Arts (from two different presidents). Although Roth has not won the Nobel Prize, it’s safe to say that he has won it in the hearts and minds of his readers, if not yet from the finicky clique in Stockholm. And he is one of the only writers to have had his work anthologized by the Library of America while he is still living.
In 2006, the New York Times Book Review asked literary scholars, writers, and critics to name “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” The book that received the most votes was Beloved by Toni Morrison; but the author who received the most votes was Philip Roth—although the votes for his work were split amongst an astounding seven different novels.
Such objective metrics confirm what, for many, has long been a subjective reality: Philip Roth is the Beethoven of modern American literature. In my view, at least, there is Roth and then there is everybody else. Yes, we enjoy the brilliant Mozartean concertos of John Updike, but nothing quite does it like the Beethovian reverie of Roth. Nowhere else do we find the ferocious passion and pathos, the unfiltered bathos and manic wit, the unsparing humor and surprising compassion, and the relentless, propulsive, vitalistic force of life as we find it in Roth’s fiction. His may not be the literary art of, say, Thomas Mann, but it feels animated as if by the life-force itself. If we read (as Harold Bloom has written) “in search of more life,” when we arrive at Roth, we have found it.
I use the classical music analogy deliberately, for no one who has read Philip Roth can forget the use to which he puts classical music, from Amy’s virtuosic performance of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in The Ghost Writer and Dawn’s Chopin polonaise recital in American Pastoral to Yefim Bronfman’s resounding rendition of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto and the poignant performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony in The Human Stain. Roth knows his classical music, and a palpable love of it saturates his novels to such an extent that it is hard to believe that Roth grew up without hearing any of it in his house. This is but one of several fascinating aperçus found in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s informative and insightful study.
The publication of Roth Unbound coincided with Roth’s announcement of his retirement, as well as his 80th birthday, lending the book the aura of a Festschrift. But it is not an academic tome. Pierpont (no relation to Roth) is a New Yorker writer with a doctorate in art history but a journalist by trade; and though the book is filled with astute observations, it is not a work of literary criticism per se. Those seeking an academic study of Roth are advised to turn to the journal Philip Roth Studies or to works like Steven Milowitz’s Philip Roth Considered (2000). Nor is Roth Unbound the definitive biography. Nevertheless, it is an impressive and comprehensive overview of Roth’s life and work that sets a high standard for Roth’s authorized biographer, Blake Bailey.
Roth Unbound will delight devotees seeking to deepen their appreciation of the novels and will serve as a gateway into the world of Roth for those who have yet to enter that exhilarating, infectious domain. Contrary to his protestations in the Zuckerman novels, Roth is never dull; still, Pierpont enlivens her subject through judicious use of editorials, reviews, television clips, literary criticism, and interviews with the author himself.