"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.
Prior to 1969, Roth was regarded as an up-and-coming talent: He had written several different types of novels in several different voices, but he had yet to achieve a major breakthrough. With the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth found his voice. Portnoy’s intimate, confessional first-person style was almost more shocking than its substance. Pierpont compares its seemingly natural yet technically complex literary style to Marlon Brando’s superficially natural yet technically complex acting style. But a more apt artistic analogy might be to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps or Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
Finally out of debt and an unhappy marriage, Roth bought new clothes and a new East Side apartment, entered into a new relationship, and took a trip to Europe. “I was dizzy,” Roth is quoted as saying, “dizzy with success and freedom and money.”
Unlike most of the other “provocative” novels of the era, Portnoy has not only survived but “shows signs of becoming a classic rather than a relic.” Yet, interestingly, and despite the enduring popularity and eminence that Portnoy continues to bestow upon its author, Roth is only mildly sanguine about what the novel has meant for his legacy. He also believes that its most important scene—a brief episode in which Alex Portnoy’s Uncle Hymie concocts a cruel ruse to separate Alex from the shiksa cheerleader he has fallen in love with—“was almost entirely overlooked and has nothing to do with masturbation.” That subject, in fact, is Portnoy’s great red herring; it is not a novel about onanism but about Roth’s idée fixe: fathers and mothers and sons, and Jewish identity.
Here, almost no detail of Roth’s life goes unnoticed; nor does Pierpont neglect to critique Roth’s lesser works: The Great American Novel (1973) is called a “headache-inducing farce” and a “giddy mess.” Pierpont also disabuses readers of some of the unfounded speculations that have adhered to Roth over the years. He was not the promiscuous “sexual madman” that many Portnoy readers had assumed him to be. Roth’s parents were not the caricatures that were Portnoy’s parents: His mother was far from stereotypical, and many of his novels convey a deep affection, and occasional outpouring of longing, for his parents. He did, though, have a difficult relationship with his father, and the need to escape from his father’s influence may partially account for the theme of self-creation that permeates his work.
Some would argue that Roth’s greatest novel is The Counterlife (1986, the book that “changed everything” for him, says Roth); others vouch for The Ghost Writer (1979, a “nearly perfect” work, in Pierpont’s opinion); still others choose American Pastoral (1997). For the record, I believe it is The Human Stain (2000). Of course, taste can be arbitrary, and critical opinions are ineluctably subjective. Yet for all those who deem American Pastoral Roth’s magnum opus, there are those (like me) who cannot connect to Merry and Swede Levov but who can connect to the characters—even, yes, Delphine—of The Human Stain. Detractors criticize Delphine as an unbelievable character who downgrades the novel’s literary merit, but their belief that she is a caricature is misbegotten. Real-life Delphines do exist, and the fact that Roth’s work encompasses multitudes—multitudes of opinions and multitudes of characters—is a continuing testament to his richness and diversity.
“The struggle with writing is over,” Roth told the New York Times last year, “and it gives me much strength.” His readers, meanwhile, can draw strength from the knowledge of the 31 compositions we continue to plumb. Our struggle to understand Philip Roth is just beginning.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and rabbinical student in New York.