Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 6, 2014

Claudia Roth Pierpont, _Roth Unbound: A Man and his Books_

NOT A BIOGRAPHY, Pierpont emphasizes--a full-dress, authorized one is apparently in the works by someone else--but "an examination of Roth's development as a writer, considering his themes, his thoughts, and his language." Sounds like a work of literary criticism, then, or literary criticism circa 1957, but as one reads one finds that Roth Unbound is not really literary criticism, either. What it is, I would say, is a New Yorker profile, one from the expansive William Shawn days when a New Yorker article might be spread over several consecutive issues and then appear as a book.

And a New Yorker profile of Philip Roth, let me immediately go on to say, is an excellent thing to have.  For one thing, Pierpont is a master of the form, as her previous book Passionate Minds amply demonstrates. For another thing, New Yorker profiles are a cultural institution in themselves, sometimes capable of becoming a definitive portrait: Wolcott Gibbs on Henry Luce, Lillian Ross on Hemingway, Truman Capote on Marlon Brando (the May Believer had a good article by Anne Helen Petersen that discussed Capote on Brando).

This is not one of those classic New Yorker takedowns, though.  Pierpont is respectful, almost reverential, throughout, which is fine by me. Much more importantly, she is perceptive, intelligent, and knowledgeable, her prose lucid and graceful. This will certainly do for anyone interested in Roth's life until the definitive doorstop comes out--and it may do for even longer than that, since definitive doorstops occasionally turn out to be unreadable.

What I would really like to see, though, is Roth criticism that just leaves the biographical dimension alone. I would like to have something like Hugh Kenner on Joyce, Gerard Genette on Proust, criticism that took the various links to the life for granted, that did not see finding the links as sufficient explanation for the power of the fiction, that instead got down in the paragraphs and asked, what is this fiction doing that makes it so distinct from the other fictions of its era? That's what we need. Not another reading of I Married a Communist as payback for Claire Bloom. Perhaps it is, but at the same time, that is the least interesting thing about it. What about its portrait of the American left? What about its narratological structure? What about Zuckerman's perspective?  And does Eve Frame come off looking all that bad even, really?

There is a good article on Roth by Loren Glass in a recent PMLA (!), about how celebrity and authorship played out in the Zuckerman novels--but it was still basically a biographical approach, though of a sophisticated and (I will concede) illuminating kind.  What I want is a rigorous reading of The Anatomy Lesson that does not even mention Irving Howe, of The Human Stain that does not even mention Anatole Broyard. Leave it to the biographers to tell me who Elstir, or Bergotte, or Buck Mulligan, or Coleman Silk was. What I want to know from you, literary analyst, is how Coleman Silk becomes as real to me as my neighbors.

Anyway--hats off, Claudia Roth Pierpont.  A terrific profile. And how about a shout out for Charlotte Strick?  What a great cover! That curlicued, somehow playfully libidinous font that graced every Roth cover from Portnoy's Complaint to Reading Myself and Others, a photo of Roth at, I would guess, forty, seeming to address you head-on but actually, once you look at the face, looking down at you from a commanding height.

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