It is now a year since Philip Roth, officially, told the world he was going to stop writing about it, telling Le Monde in somewhat cryptic fashion that ‘I don’t wish to be a slave any longer to the stringent exigencies of literature.’ This puts biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation although once, when the possibility was raised at a public function, Roth turned around mock-forgetful and asked: ‘Were we married?’) in a privileged position: she could view the man’s career as a single arc. And what a weird arc it was. He began with a couple of generation-defining knockouts (Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint) and ended with a string of phenomenal American novels: Sabbath’s Theater, I Married A Communist, American Pastoral. But Roth was sixty when Sabbath was unleashed onto the bookshelves. Before that, entire decades were wasted on trivia, self-reference and National Lampoon style satire. As Martin Amis writes: ‘it could be argued that with one thing or another Roth took about 15 years to settle into his voice… the early career was wildly eccentric — a mysterious and fascinating flail.’
Yet once that voice had come, you could listen to it all night. Man, that relentless, hip, raging prose, line upon line, para upon para, building, shouting, that arguing, despairing, explanatory voice, so lyrical, yet carries a relentless affinity to the material, and hits the reader’s consciousness like a wall of solid flame. Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is from a passage in Sabbath’s Theater where the libidinous revenant has picked up an attractive young German hitchhiker. Sabbath’s car stereo is playing the Benny Goodman band and the old puppeteer talks his new friend through it:
This is what’s called a foot mover. Keeps your feet movin’…. Here that guitar back there? Notice how that rhythm section is driving them on?… Basie. Very lean piano playing… Here that guitar there? Carryin’ this thing… That’s black music. You’re hearin’ black music now… Now you’re going to hear a riff. That’s James…. Underneath all this is that steady rhythm section carrying this whole thing… Freddy Green on guitar… James. Always have the feeling he’s tearing that instrument apart – you can hear it tear… This figure they’re just dreaming up – watch them build it now… They’re workin’ their way into the ride-out. Here it comes. They’re all tuned into each other… They’re off. They’re off…
It’s prose as music, and Roth’s first influence was that great American prose singer, Thomas Wolfe. O ghost, come back again.
Sabbath is Roth with all the restraints thrown off. He’s a depraved belligerent pile-up of a man, without the tortured idealism of Alexander Portnoy or the taciturn observance of Nathan Zuckerman. Even the late Norman Geras, a longtime Roth fan, was appalled by the novel: although he liked the scenes where ‘its anti-hero, Mickey Sabbath, returns to the Jersey neighbourhood of his childhood and youth – visits the graves of his family, talks to an old cousin he happens upon there is vintage Roth in these pages: the intricate, irreplaceable specificities of a time recalled, which he does so well’ to get to this ‘one has to make one’s way through pages and pages of the sexual life of Sabbath and his various sexual partners; vis-à-vis one of whom in particular, Drenka Balich, he engages in every imaginable type of sexual experiment, including masturbating over her grave after she dies of cancer.’ I hate to disagree with a great man so recently gone from this world, but I think Norm was wrong on this account: it’s Roth’s fidelity to the physical that gives the book its form, and distinguishes him as a writer. As Roth Pierpont says: ‘Let the sexual in. Let the body in.’ And so most of Roth’s heroes, most more cerebral and high-minded than Sabbath, have these physical preoccupations: even Nathan Zuckerman, at the end of his life and after eleven years of solitude in the Berkshire forests, makes an ass of himself over a woman forty years his junior. Of course, sex is never just about sex. It’s also about life, death, power, and desire, even if that’s just the desire for desire. As Zuckerman says: ‘How can one say, ‘No, this isn’t a part of life,’ since it always is? The contaminant of sex, the redeeming corruption that de-idealises the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.’
Roth in his career was criticised by feminist writers, and also by Jewish community groups (a New York rabbi demanded ‘What is being done to silence this man?’ in a 1959 letter to the ADL) for his uncompromising depiction of American Jewish life in his native Newark. The feminist critique had weight. Many of his characters’ rants come off again as sophomoric and National Lampoon style. I don’t believe he is a misogynist, certainly his female characters are as believable and complex as the males, but there is an Iron John anti-matriarchal element there, and an exasperation with difficult women. And yet in Roth nothing is ever unchallenged. Even Mickey Sabbath doesn’t get to have everything his own way. His old friend Norman Cowan, a man everything Sabbath is not, rages at the puppeteer: ‘Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism. To be out with that belly of yours, championing pornography and flying the flag of your prick. What a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath. The discredited male polemic’s last gasp. Even as the bloodiest of all centuries comes to an end, you’re out working day and night to create an erotic scandal. You fucking relic, Mickey!’
For Roth, the backlash from the synagogue was easier to understand, fourteen years after the Holocaust and at a time where the Nazi genocide barely registered on the American consciousness (Amis again: ‘News of the killings emerged in May/June 1942: a verified report with a figure of 700,000 already dead. The Boston Globe gave the story the three-column headline ‘Mass Murders of Jews in Poland Pass 700,000 Mark,’ and tucked it away at the foot of Page 12.’) Roth also was hardly unaware of anti-Semitism in its American and British forms, and in its bierkeller and bistro varieties. What Roth fought for was the freedom to define himself, like Portnoy, not as a Jew but as a human being: to leave the prison-house of monocultural identity and into the carnival of American experience. Many of his books seem dated because fewer and fewer people define themselves by their religion or ethnicity. What he was against was the destructive fantasy of purity. Amis writes: ‘fiction insists on freedom: indeed, fiction is freedom, and freedom is indivisible.’ Roth was a multiculturalist before multiculturalism and history has proved him right.
Roth Pierpont’s book is a biography of the counterlife, the creative life. As he says: ‘Art is life, too, you know. Solitude is life, meditation is life, pretending is life, supposition is life, contemplation is life, language is life.’ And now, Roth in his eighties sits in his cottage in the woods of Connecticut, and ‘somehow, pages are piling up… there are notes, thoughts, corrections… He’s written a wonderful account of the American writers who shaped his youth – it’s about them, not about him – but he’s done it just for the pleasure of doing it. He can’t stop writing, can’t stop turning life into words.’ Roth sums up his career with a De Niro impression: ‘You never got me down, Ray. You hear me? You see? You never got me down’ but perhaps a line from the Godfather is more appropriate: ‘I tried to get out… but they pulled me back in.’