Roth Unbound A Writer and His Books

Claudia Roth Pierpont

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




368 Pages


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Philip Roth is one of the most renowned writers of our time. From his debut, Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award in 1960, and the explosion of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 to his haunting reimagining of Anne Frank’s story in The Ghost Writer ten years later and the series of masterworks starting in the mid-eighties—The Counterlife, Patrimony, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain—Roth has produced some of the great American literature of the modern era. And yet there has been no major critical work about him until now.

Here, at last, is the story of Roth’s creative life. Roth Unbound is not a biography—though it contains a wealth of previously undisclosed biographical details and unpublished material—but something ultimately more rewarding: the exploration of a great writer through his art.

Claudia Roth Pierpont, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has known Roth for nearly a decade. Her carefully researched and gracefully written account is filled with remarks from Roth himself, drawn from their ongoing conversations. Here are insights and anecdotes that will change the way many readers perceive this most controversial and galvanizing writer: a young and unhappily married Roth struggling to write; a wildly successful Roth, after the uproar over Portnoy, working to help writers from Eastern Europe and to get their books known in the West; Roth responding to the early, Jewish—and the later, feminist—attacks on his work. Here are Roth’s family, his inspirations, his critics, the full range of his fiction, and his friendships with such figures as Saul Bellow and John Updike. Here is Roth at work and at play.

Roth Unbound is a major achievement—a highly readable story that helps us make sense of one of the most vital literary careers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Praise for Roth Unbound

“Something of a cubist yet seamless portrait—not a standard biography, but a deep immersion in Roth from all angles, even the unexpected ones, using every technique available, in order to know his thoughts, his history, the books, his world, and the times in which he lives. This is a remarkable achievement in literary criticism.”—Jimmy So, The Daily Beast

“[Roth Unbound is] a thorough, intensive, elegant reflection on Roth’s career.”—Carly Cody, The New Republic

“Her book is sprinkled with tantalizing glimpses of the man, whom she describes as ‘a brilliant talker . . . as funny as you might think from his books,’ and of his life . . . [But] Roth Unbound is mainly about the books . . . This makes for a dazzling . . . journey . . . Despite her personal tie and obvious admiration, Pierpont doesn’t mince words in her literary criticism, and her book is better for it . . . Roth Unbound brings heightened understanding to the extraordinary scope and risk-taking brilliance of Roth’s work, and makes a compelling case for its enduring importance.”—Heller McAplin, NPR

“In this instructive study of the maestro’s life and work, Claudia Roth Pierpont joins the chorus of adoring critics who have acknowledged the indispensability of his voice in chronicling this nation’s exceptional bizarreness . . . A boon of the relationship [between Roth and Pierpont] is that he opened up to her; despite his semi-reclusiveness, he gave her access to his papers and answered questions with candor and characteristic wit.” —Ariel Gonzlaez, The Miami Herald

“[Pierpont is] fully immersed in Roth’s 31 books, even-tempered, extraordinarily readable, large-hearted, untethered to critical fashion and ‘humane’ . . . about Roth’s work she is generally superb . . . she hits her critical stride just as Roth enters his astonishing middle-late period, the years that give us Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral and The Human Stain, one stunning, surprising classic after another. Her discussions of these books, long meditations that are as illuminating about the rhythms of Roth’s prose as they are about his magisterial presentation of postwar American experience as well as narrative form, feel like a grand appreciative celebration of high literary accomplishment.”—Cornel Bonca, Salon

“[Pierpont] brings . . . precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word . . . She’s particularly good on describing his technique . . . There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts—his fiction—I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.”—Hannah Gerson, The Millions

“Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) presents a smart anatomy of his rich corpus in Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. It mixes literary criticism and biographical details with inside information and comments drawn from Pierpont’s conversations with the novelist . . . Her analysis and insights reflect a deep admiration for much of Roth’s work, yet she comfortably registers disappointment when the master falls short.”—Jeffery Burke, Businessweek

“[Pierpont] provides a sympathetic account of [Roth’s] oeuvre, filled with supple, attentive readings: Particularly lovely is her observation that a Henry James volume Zuckerman stands on in an early book becomes a thesaurus he uses to prop himself up during sex in a later one.”—Marc Tracy, Women’s Wear Daily

“[A] refreshingly searching and interrogative book, one that seems properly unsettled about every question save that of Roth’s genius.”—Akiva Gottlieb, The New York Observer

“Pierpont is an attentive reader of Roth’s work: that she is a fan and an advocate is, at moments, a tremendous asset. And she is downright eloquent about those books she most ardently admires: Her chapter on Sabbath’s Theater, which extols Roth’s use of language in the creation of Mickey Sabbath and his lover Drenka, is a kind of meta-exegesis, in which her own language rises to the heights she is describing in Roth.”—Yevgeniya Traps, Forward

In the Press

Claudia Roth Pierpont's 'Roth Unbound' -
Claudia Roth Pierpont's look at Philip Roth's career is an authorized critical biography of the old school.

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Read an Excerpt

Defenders of the Faith
“What is being done to silence this man?” The question, posed by a prominent New York rabbi in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1959, conveyed the tone of a demand and continued with the hint of a solution: “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” The figure condemned to bloody justice was a little-known writer of short stories named Philip Roth, aged twenty-six. In Roth’s retellings of his first public battle, he tends to recall himself as even younger, as though trying
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  • Claudia Roth Pierpont

  • Claudia Roth Pierpont is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has written about the arts for more than twenty years. The subjects of her articles have ranged from James Baldwin to Katharine Hepburn, from Machiavelli to Mae West. A collection of Pierpont’s essays on women writers, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, was published in 2000 and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Pierpont has been the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library. She has a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art history from New York University. She lives in New York City.