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Philip Roth, Bound and Unbound: An Interview with Claudia Roth Pierpont

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In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes /
How do you measure, a year in the life?-- Jonathan Larson

I was so blue after helping to plan, and ultimately attending Mr. Roth's 80th birthday party last year in Newark, New Jersey, that on March 20, 2013 I adopted a rescue boxer puppy from Northeastern Boxer Rescue. It seemed that nothing in my extended future would be able to top the event of Philip Roth's 80th, so I took into my home from a kennel one of the most difficult puppy breeds known to man. We named the puppy Ajax, which is somewhat ironic, given that he was scrawny and uncoordinated, making living with him all the more difficult. As it happened, with all of his needs and misdeeds, however, Ajax distracted me from what I had internalized to the core: That Philip Roth is retired from writing novels, that his commemorative birthday is done, that he is now free to recede into his personal life as he likes. He owes nothing, anymore, to me or to you.

Without published novels, galas, interviews, awards dinners: how do you measure a year in the life? The question has been on my mind this week, as this Wednesday marks Philip Roth's 81st birthday. The question comes to me from Jonathan Larson, whose lyric is from the hit musical Rent, itself a text deeply aware of loss in the modern age. Something tells me that Mr. Roth would not appreciate my juxtaposition of his life with those portrayed in Rent. Nonetheless, as I look back in the last year of Roth's life, I wonder how he might have measured it -- if he had any interest in measuring it at all.

As it happens, just because one stops publishing novels does not mean that the interviews, galas, and awards dinners will stop. Roth's interview with Daniel Sandstrom that appeared in the March 16, 2014 New York Times book review is evidence of that. Not only does this interview prove that Philip Roth remains, at least partially, in the public eye; it also proves that he continues to write in the form of flawlessly constructed answers to carefully rendered questions. In response to Sandstrom's question about Roth's retirement, Roth says: "Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. [...] Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka's famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death."

Here and throughout this interview, Roth is at his writerly best. Even though Roth has retired from writing fiction, he has not retired from writing full stop. He still has the magic: the sentence cadence, the fluidity, the prosody, that voice. But that is not to say we still don't miss the fiction.

Further, the appearance last fall of Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books served to incite even greater enthusiasm for Roth's published works and to inspire a retrospective reading of his canon to date. I had known Pierpont's previous work, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. It is like her recent Roth book in that the former seeks to depict "lives in which success is hard-won, retreat and even breakdown are common, love is difficult, [....] lives in which all that is ever certain is that books and plays and poems are being written" (xiii). For Roth, too, success was hard won, love was difficult. One certainty we, as his reading public once shared, is that he was writing novels. But now there appears to be a new certainty in his life: freedom; "the struggle with writing is over," as he told Charles McGrath.

For Pierpont, Roth Unbound looks back to Roth's writing life. It "is fundamentally an examination of Roth's development as a writer, considering his themes, his thoughts, and his language. By necessity, it covers an enormous span" (5). Here, too, showing how Roth's friendship affected her and her work, Pierpont writes: "But Roth's retirement is also a precondition for the somewhat hybrid form this book has taken, because of his own considerable contributions to its pages: memories, observations, opinions, thoughts and second thoughts, jokes, stories, even songs. To put it simply, he had the time to talk about his work because he wasn't doing it anymore. And it was exciting to look back on a lifetime's production that even he himself had not yet time to sum up" (5-6).

That production over the course of a lifetime had a cost -- sweating over sentences, isolation, time and more time. Roth represents himself to Pierpont as not unlike E.I. Lonoff, in The Ghost Writer, who spent so many days turning sentences around (122).

But after Nemesis, after a career spanning over fifty years, Pierpont tells us: "He was afraid he would become depressed, would suffer from the lack of occupation, would be unable to cope with life without the daily application of his energies to the written page. But none of these things happened. He was utterly surprised to find that he felt free" (324).

As Pierpont's October 7, 2013 essay for The New Yorker reveals, one of the freedoms he seemed sure to pursue would be to spend time with friends. It is significant that her New Yorker essay takes up, in particular, the subject of Roth and his friends: Milan Kundera, Veronica Geng, Saul Bellow, John Updike. As Pierpont surmises: "One can't laugh as much as Roth has laughed in his life without accumulating friends" (31).

Just as Pierpont's book takes up Roth's powerful friendship (in both senses--the emotional power of the friendship, the social power of the friends) with Veronica Geng in the chapter entitled "Ghosts" (280-93), the New Yorker piece turns its attention there as well, revealing that Veronica Geng an editor at The New Yorker in the late 1970s, had become an early reader and champion of Roth's 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer. As a result, The New Yorker published The Ghost Writer in full, over two installments in the summer of 1979 (30). Pierpont reveals here that Geng's illness is reflected through the dying Amy Bellette in Roth's much later novel, Exit Ghost--explaining how, in his personal life, Roth cared for Geng during her illness and hospitalization, ultimately by providing her with company and helping to cover her medical costs. Just as Geng was an early supporter of Roth's introduction of Nathan Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer, Roth would pay homage to Geng in his last Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost. However, Pierpont is careful to make clear here: "They were never lovers, Roth emphasizes, but they came to love each other" (34).

How does one measure a year in the life? Larson's answer is similar to Roth's as reported by Pierpont's work: "How about love?"

Even Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman struggles to balance his love for writing with his desire to find love for something outside of himself. This becomes clear very early on in Exit Ghost when he adopts, for a brief time, some kittens. As Zuckerman recalls: "He'd brought the cats on a Thursday. I kept them through Sunday. During that time I did virtually no work on my book. Instead I spent my time throwing the cats their toys or stroking them, together or in turn in my lap, or just sitting and looking at them eating, or playing, or grooming themselves, or sleeping. [....] When I awoke in the morning the first thing I did was rush to the door to see them. There they would be, just beside the door, waiting for me to open it."

Although Nathan Zuckerman has to give up his rescue pets because they are, as all tend to be, a distraction, maybe perhaps now Mr. Roth has time to rescue kittens. We know he has time for friends. It seems Roth has this coming to him. It has been, I imagine, quite a year in the life. And we wish him many more.

In the meantime, I leave you with a conversation I shared with Claudia Pierpont following the appearance of her recent book. I am struck by the ways in which Pierpont's responses to my questions have anticipated a new future for Roth, even as she looks back to the past -- not only to Roth's past but also to their shared past of discussing the topics in her book. If nothing else, these responses have a vested interest in how one might measure a year in the life.

Although I am very fond of your eloquent chapters discussing Roth's individual works, one of my favorite parts of Roth Unbound is the last section: "Afterthoughts, Memories, and Discoveries." Both you and Mr. Roth are presented so charmingly in these lovely and seemingly random encounters. It occurs to me though that you must have had to grapple nearly daily with decisions about what to include ultimately and what material to leave out. How did you make these kinds of choices?

To my mind, all of these little stories have some bearing on his writing -- although I wanted these final stories to garnish the book, so to speak, with a sense of what it's like to be in his company, that's the reason I chose these particular ones. The opening Brando-as-Antony story is partly just a link from the end of the previous chapter, but it also says something about his uncanny abilities as a mimic, his memory for voices, and his natural instincts as a performer. His own reflections on his early work, or on Maggie's influence, or on why people may go into literature... and on through the final story about musical countervoices: informal and breezy as these stories are, they were chosen to shed some final light on both the man and the work.

What was it like working so closely with Philip Roth on the book, especially those moments when he revealed personal connections that would help illuminate our reading of his fiction? Were you ever worried about "getting people wrong" -- something Nathan Zuckerman says is inevitable in American Pastoral? How do you avoid sometimes slow-moving, writerly paralysis that comes with the fear of getting people wrong in order to produce such an eloquent, effective book on Roth--knowing particularly that Roth, as a collaborator in the project, will read it in the end?

Working on the book with Philip Roth was a tremendous pleasure. He was generous, funny, and (as far as I know) quite open. I asked questions, I listened, and we sometimes had long discussions about the books. But I really did keep him out of mind when it came to putting all the material together and to writing the book. I had to pretend to myself that he would never read it: this seemed to me the only possible way to write the book I wanted to write. In my twenty years of journalism, this is the way I have always worked. In fact, there has only rarely been even a possibility that my previous subjects would read anything I wrote, so this approach seemed quite natural to me. As for getting people "wrong," that's always a risk and, as you know, is one of Roth's great subjects. In the introduction, I raise the issue that he occasionally expressed different thoughts on a subject at different times. And when this happened, I let the reader know: for example, in the anecdote in the last section about Maggie's influence on his writing, or in his reference to a couple of his books -- "Sabbath's Theater," "American Pastoral" -- as an "outpouring," even while he talks about how very hard he worked on a daily basis to get the results he got.

Despite the fact that you address the "hybrid form of the book" and clarify at the end of the introduction that it "is about the life of Philip Roth's art, and inevitably, the art of his life," why do you think that Roth Unbound is sometimes confused as a biography? What would you say to those readers? How might contemporary readers generally distinguish a book about the art of life, on the one hand, and the hybrid form you describe in the book's introduction?

The book is about both the work and the life because they are so tightly intertwined -- this is true of any artist's life and work, of course, but especially so in Roth's case. I hope that readers will come away from the book with as full an understanding of the man as of the work. Throughout, there are many, many points where biography bears tellingly on the books. There are even some chapters -- the Prague chapter, for example -- that are primarily biographical, in part because so little was known about this fascinating period in his life, but also because of the immense effect the widening of his experience in these years had on the work to come. It's a careful but somewhat intuitive balance that I tried to strike in different ways from chapter to chapter, depending on what seemed right for the period and the book under discussion. But it is always the work that is my primary subject: it's the "illumination" of this great body of work that I'm always heading for and hoping for. As for the term "hybrid": I don't know of any standard biographies (or literary studies, for that matter) that include as much of the subject's voice as I was (luckily!) able to include in Roth Unbound. Being able to preserve his thoughts on so many of his books, on his process, on the people in his life -- this seemed to me not only a privilege but something of a historical responsibility, once I realized that it was going to be possible.

Thank you, Claudia Roth Pierpont. And to you, Mr. Philip Roth: We wish you the very happiest of birthdays and many more to come.

This post has been modified since its original publication.