A new biography by Claudia Roth Pierpont
|Philip Roth. Photo: Francois Reumont|
The curse of the novelist is the question ‘Is it autobiographical?’ Is writing down of the events of one’s own life considered to be more authentic than the exercise of the imagination? Philip Roth must have been plagued more than any other writer with this dumbest of demands. For he writes out of his native Newark, sends his characters to his own high school, makes novelists his narrators, and calls one of his characters Philip Roth. After his second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, wrote a tell-all memoir of their marriage, he wrote an answering novel, in which an actress writes a memoir of her failed marriage to a radio star.
Sooner or later there will be a biography. James Atlas has already crawled all over Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz and we are bound to hear the laments of Roth’s many ex-girlfriends and perhaps the children of his first wife, as well as friends and editors. Yet a new book, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, by Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation, literary Roths are legion – Joseph, Henry, Philip) binds the books to the man not by mining them for nuggets of autobiographical information but by talking to Roth himself about what he put into them, by which she doesn’t mean the facts, but the territory of imagination and self that creates fiction.
Pierpont met Roth in 2002. A couple of years later she received a letter from him responding to a New Yorker article she had written. Roth, it turns out, has a habit of writing to the authors of writing he admires. This impulse led fortuitously to a series of meetings and eventually the idea for a book which began after he had completed Nemesis and announced his retirement. It has grown out of conversations with him and research in his personal files in the attic of his Connecticut house. Unlike a biographer, she has not interviewed other sources. Like a critic, she has made her own judgements about the work. What emerges is his charm – he has certainly charmed her. “He loves to listen: he’s as funny as you might think from his books, but he makes the people around him feel funny too – he may be the easiest laugher I’ve ever met.” [Read More]
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