In the Egosphere

Adam Mars-Jones

  • BuyRoth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont
    Cape, 353 pp, £25.00, January, ISBN 978 0 224 09903 5

Claudia Roth Pierpont met Philip Roth at a birthday party in 2002. She was a fan, but managed not to alienate him with clumsy enthusiasm. A couple of years later he sent her a photocopy of a newspaper article he thought she might be interested in. They met for coffee and became more relaxed with each other. Later he recruited her as a member of the small rotating committee of friends, an editorial micro-minyan, to whom he sent drafts of his books. Roth Unbound has his blessing but wasn’t vetted by him, and Pierpont feels free to criticise his work, his behaviour (on special occasions) and once, even, his knowledge of Yiddish: ‘“Meshugeh” versus “meshugeneh”: there are very few people left in the world who can calibrate the difference, and Roth is not among them.’ She doesn’t offer her own guide to correct usage.

Her independence is necessarily approximate, an effort of will, and in the introduction she strikes an ominously protective and even proprietorial note, though one that rarely resurfaces in the body of the book. She refers, for instance, to the ‘wholly unexpected outrage’ aroused in some Jewish circles by the magazine publication of Roth’s early short stories (reprinted as part of Goodbye, Columbus, 1959). If the adversarial role was forced on Philip Roth then it has to be said that he has made it his own. Was parochial hostility to someone showing Jews in a bad light really any more unexpected than winning the National Book Award for a first book? With Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin in his corner – ‘four tigers’, as he describes them, of American Jewish literature – it might have been possible to ignore the fringe of pious malcontents, but appeasement has never gained ground in Roth’s personal style.

In her introduction Pierpont says she has known Roth ‘in sickness and in health, literally’, a phrase whose wedding-vow echoes she seems not to notice. On the same page, she points out that

despite my middle name, I am not related to my famous subject. Once, it’s true, when we were both at dinner with a group of friends, someone asked about a possible familial connection, and Roth turned to me with a look of mild horror and wary recognition: ‘Did I use to be married to you?!’ Fortunately, a moment of reflection proved that this was not the case.

This may turn out to be Philip Roth’s least favourite passage in the book (if and when he reads it), with its proof that Pierpont, however much she admires the humour he sets down on his pages, can’t notate it herself. Nothing more certainly sours a marriage, above all a marriage of minds, than treading on a spouse’s joke.

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, and has characterised his childhood as that of ‘an all-American boy’. It’s not the obvious way to describe the experience of someone who lived in an almost wholly Jewish enclave of his city, attended Hebrew school three afternoons a week and had grandmothers who spoke only Yiddish – but then this is a psychological category rather than a demographic one. The contradictions of belonging to two groups, in fact to two exceptionalisms (God’s chosen people and, by some reckonings, his country), were not felt as contradictions.

Roth followed Goodbye, Columbus with a premature bid for greatness. Letting Go, published in 1962, was an overcontrolled (and very long) exercise in indirection and earnestness, Jamesian in ambition and unlikely to cause any controversy. It hadn’t yet been published when Roth was given a hostile reception at a symposium organised by Yeshiva University in New York. The topic was ‘The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction’, and the idea seemed to be, if he didn’t already have such a crisis, to lay one on for him. The first question he was asked was: ‘Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?’ In Roth’s autobiography, The Facts, published in 1988, this is presented as a formative event in his relationship to Jewishness and to his writing.

He was mildly suspicious of the set-up, since the title of the symposium seemed to locate any struggle in writers’ minds, but he didn’t want to be seen to shy away from debate, and he was interested in the other speakers. This was naive – he had already been denounced by at least one rabbi. He could have sniffed the wind and caught the pungent whiff of a kangaroo court. There might have been places where Pietro di Donato, author of Christ in Concrete, would be grilled in fine detail about his depiction of Italian immigrants. There were certainly places where Ralph Ellison would be called out for Invisible Man’s representation of the Negro and for his views on the race question. But at Yeshiva University Philip Roth was always going to be the main dish. By accepting a Jewish university’s invitation, di Donato and Ellison were agreeing to nothing beyond a general willingness to discuss their work and modern society, but Roth was also implicitly accepting that he had responsibilities towards his community.

Even if the hostile questioning lasted half an hour, as Roth calculates in The Facts, it doesn’t rank as one of the great writerly ordeals. The profound effect it had seems to combine a rejection of the forces that held him to account and a rejection of the elements of his personality that led him to expect anything different. There’s a particular scalding character to regret attaching not to bad behaviour but to high hopes and a pure heart: attending a symposium thinking he was among friends, or approaching a woman wanting only the best for her. Roth’s idealism didn’t exactly disappear, but it was certainly transformed, not poisoned but pickled, perhaps, by the bitter juices of experience.

The immediate effect of the Yeshiva confrontation according to The Facts was that Roth resolved never to write about Jews again. Of course he did, but from that point on he took pleasure in defying any party line. With a little effort you could make this sound like a triumph for the welcoming committee at Yeshiva. He had to abandon his assumption that the best way to be 100 per cent American was to be 100 per cent Jewish, and the other way around.

Pierpont draws attention to the five-year interval between Letting Go and its successor, the largest gap in a generally productive career. If these were difficult years then being barracked at a symposium was hardly Roth’s overriding problem. Letting Go had contained a sympathetic portrait of a damaged but vital woman, under the name of Martha. Lucy Nelson, the central figure of his next novel, When She Was Good (1967), is just as damaged but also perversely destructive of herself and others, no longer a valiant survivor. She freezes to death on a winter’s night, having driven away anyone who might care for her. Both characters were refractions of Maggie, the woman Roth married in 1959 after she had claimed to be pregnant.

He agreed to marry her on condition that she have an immediate abortion, and she took three hundred dollars from him to cover the cost of the procedure. She returned from her ordeal close to collapse, blaming him for every humiliating detail of the experience. She had kept her side of the bargain and he kept his by marrying her. Later she claimed she had never been pregnant. How was that possible? He had seen the results of her urine test at the pharmacist’s. True, but she had bought a urine sample from a down-and-out pregnant woman she had seen in a park, and used that. On the day of the ‘abortion’ she had gone to the movies, watching Susan Hayward emote in I Want to Live several times in a row before returning home to give her own impersonation of suffering humanity.

Lucy’s husband in When She Was Good is less innocent than Roth seems to have been: he starts an affair before he understands the truth about the woman he has married. Pierpont attributes this to Roth as a novelist being more interested in exploring dark psychology and bad behaviour, which makes good sense, but the recasting of reality has the added advantage of making him seem less weak, less of a patsy. But When She Was Good hardly seems to have worked as an exorcism of Margaret Roth. He had intended to include the buying-a-urine-sample episode in that book, but couldn’t make it work, and so saved it for Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man (1974). Maggie herself died in 1968, but there was still plenty of rage left by the time of The Facts, twenty years later, where her name is changed to Josie. He describes taking a cab to the morgue after she died in a car accident in Central Park, when he was required to identify the body. When he came to pay the fare, the driver said, ‘Got the good news early, huh?’, which made him realise that he must have been whistling.

Martha, Lucy, Maureen, Josie … Margaret Martinson Roth née Williams made quite an impact. In The Facts, Roth comes close to saying that the idealistic values instilled in him by his parents delivered him up to Maggie’s manipulations; or rather, he does say so, but then (this being the structural trick of the book) he enlists his character Nathan Zuckerman to play devil’s advocate and make the opposite case. Zuckerman’s argument is that Maggie was the best creative-writing teacher anyone could have, and someone who forced him to stop taking people at face value.

To neutralise Maggie’s destructive impact, ‘to stitch back together the confidence shredded to bits in my marriage’, as he puts it in The Facts, Roth undertook ‘intense psychoanalysis’, acknowledging that the process gave him a model for ‘reckless narrative disclosure’ of a sort very far removed from Henry James. He doesn’t go into detail in The Facts, but Roth Unbound provides some disconcerting background information about the talking cure as it worked in this particular case.

His analyst was Hans Kleinschmidt, an émigré German Jew who fled the Nazis, finished his medical training in Italy and went to Jerusalem in 1939, reaching the US in 1946. Roth started seeing him in the autumn of 1962, and had several appointments a week, although he had to travel to New York from Princeton for the purpose and needed to borrow money to pay for his sessions. He leaned on his analyst fairly heavily when he made the decision to leave Maggie. He didn’t enjoy the heavy-duty Freudian categories Kleinschmidt favoured, such as the phallic mother, and lost a certain amount of confidence in him when the symptoms of a physical crisis (appendicitis), which came on at the launch party for a friend’s novel – William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner – were interpreted as somatic manifestations of envy. But although there were gaps in his treatment, he went on seeing Kleinschmidt for five years.

Then, in 1967, he discovered that Kleinschmidt had used material from their sessions in an article for the American Imago, a psychoanalytic journal. His age had been revised upwards by a decade, putting him in his early forties, and he was lightly disguised as ‘a successful Southern playwright in his early forties [who] illustrates the interplay of narcissism and aggression’, but his marital difficulties, and some significant anecdotes from his childhood, were immediately recognisable. As a betrayal of trust this is betrayal de luxe. Roth’s intimate conflicts were rehearsed in a publication cofounded by Freud himself, with a motto from Aeschylus, untranslated, about the value of suffering, and in the ‘Genius, Psychopathology and Creativity’ issue. Pierpont paints a rather harrowing picture of the effects on Roth: ‘There he was, psychically naked, in his psychiatrist’s baleful view.’ From this distance, however, the article provides valuable evidence of Kleinschmidt’s uncoercive approach.

It would be surprising if psychiatric practice from 1967 coincided with modern ideas: plenty of gay men were still going to their analysts to be told that their impulses were intrinsically disordered (it was in 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its classifications of mental illness). But Kleinschmidt’s account of Roth’s inner life seems unflinching rather than baleful: ‘His rebellion was sexualised, leading to compulsive masturbation which provided an outlet for a myriad of hostile fantasies. These same masturbatory fantasies he both acted out and channelled into his writing. It is worth noting that the sexual acting out of a polymorphous nature occurred simultaneously with his creative writing.’ No talk of sublimation here. More important, Kleinschmidt doesn’t squash down artistic productions into mere manifestations of inner conflicts. He reprints a passage from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’, and understands perfectly clearly that a poem can be both a regressive phenomenon in psychological terms and a feat of artistic integration. Roth was ‘furious’ when he read the article. How furious? He ‘thought of ending the analysis entirely’. In other words, nothing changed. That’s not normally the way fury takes Philip Roth.

It seems likely that Kleinschmidt, even in the offending article, was giving Roth general permission to explore his rage, to stop wearing himself out trying to resolve conflicts but to exaggerate them instead. Its title, ‘The Angry Act: The Role of Aggression in Creativity’, sounds stern, but the case histories it describes are those of Kandinsky, Thomas Mann and Giacometti. If those are the angry actors, where’s the harm in joining their gang? As the article explains, ‘whether attempts at channelling aggression are successful or not depends largely on the ability of the ego to tolerate aggression.’ The goal is no longer an adjustment based on compromise but an improved ability to survive internal contradiction.

In his conversations with Pierpont, Roth imitated the heavy German accent Kleinschmidt shared with Dr Spielvogel, the analyst in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), who has hardly more than a line at the very end of the book – ‘Now vee may perhaps to begin.’ Perhaps Kleinschmidt deserves to be rescued from caricature. Analysts, whose stock-in-trade is ambivalence, must expect, with rare exceptions (Nikolai Dahl receiving the dedication of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto), to be paid off in the same coin. A half-decade later, in My Life as a Man, the outrage is still fresh: the refracted narrator has been traduced by his analyst (Spielvogel again), this time in the guise of ‘a successful Italian-American poet in his forties’ – though he should know better, a poet and a novelist having about as much in common as ‘a jockey and a diesel driver’ – who experienced anxiety states over his ambivalence about leaving his wife. In this looking-glass world the article, published in the American Forum for Psychoanalytic Studies, is called ‘Creativity: The Narcissism of the Artist’, though if Kleinschmidt had been allowed to join a fight that was getting on very well without him he might have pointed out that this doesn’t have a lot in common with his title either. Goethe and Baudelaire, meanwhile, have taken the place of Kandinsky and Mann, in what could be seen as upwardly mobile cultural paraphrase. The article is summarised as ‘Mr Tarnopol is considered by Dr Spielvogel to be among the nation’s top young narcissists in the arts.’ There are plenty of people who hold grudges, but with Roth it seems more than a casual component of his personality, almost a core skill.

*

Portnoy’s Complaint is a book that is somehow protected by its own indefensibility. It’s so obviously going all-out to cause offence that offence seems ruled out as a reaction. (It’s rather satisfying that the most un-PC book imaginable, though written before political correctness was a trend, should have PC as its initials.) There are certainly things in it that might not reach print nowadays. Random House would think twice about publishing a book with a riff of comic fantasy about a woman’s suicide note being found ‘in a bottle stuffed up her snatch’, or in which the hero fails to rape an Israeli woman, not because she struggles free (‘what a battle she gave me, this big farm cunt!’) but because he can’t get an erection in her country. The case against the book and the case in its defence are similar. The case against: these dreams are unbearably ugly. The case in defence: these dreams are unbearably ugly, and this is someone who doesn’t know how to wake himself up and start living.

An aspect of the book that was lost when it passed into folk memory is that its hero is hypersocialised as well as hypersexualised. In professional adult life Alex Portnoy is civic almost to excess, assistant commissioner for the City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity. He’s a superego and an id trying to get along without much in the way of an ego.

The extremism of the performance is still startling. It’s easy to imagine Philip Roth watching American Pie on its first release in 1999 – specifically the moment when an aroused Jason Biggs heaves himself on top of an apple pie his mother has left to cool – and wondering, ‘This is gross-out comedy? This is transgression? Wasn’t I doing something a whole lot more full-on in Nixon’s first term?’ Yes, he was. It’s also easy to imagine Lenny Bruce watching from the realm of the dead and thinking rather sourly that comedy is all about timing. How is it that one foul-mouthed raging sex-obsessed Jew uses bad words on stage, gets refused entry to the UK as an undesirable alien in 1963, is found guilty of obscenity in New York in 1964, while another foul-mouthed raging sex-obsessed Jew uses bad words in a book, and suddenly in 1969 it is described in the Washington Post as ‘the most important book of my generation’?

Portnoy’s Complaint has a passage about the stand-up comedy that is so obviously one of the sources of the book’s vitality: ‘That’s who the black humorists are – of course! – the Henny Youngmans and the Milton Berles breaking them up down there in the Fontainebleau, and with what! Stories of murder and mutilation! “Help,” cries the woman running along the sand at Miami Beach, “Help, my son the doctor is drowning!”’ Lenny Bruce’s material is much closer to Portnoy’s Complaint than Youngman’s or Berle’s, reason enough not to mention his name in the novel. But it’s odd that Roth Unbound invokes him only as a cultural marker (people ‘who were as conversant with Lenny Bruce and the Fugs as with Freud and Kafka’), not as an influence. It seems highly likely that Roth and Bruce crossed paths; they certainly had friends in common – William Styron was one of those who appeared in Bruce’s defence at the obscenity trial.

Time pardons the renegade. In 2003 Lenny Bruce received a posthumous pardon for his conviction from George Pataki, then governor of New York. And in 2005 the Library of America started publishing Roth’s work in a uniform edition. It wasn’t the first time a living author’s work had been honoured in this way: Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow went before him. But being received into the canon is normally a Moses deal. You may be able to see it in the distance, but you don’t get to go there yourself. All the more surprising in Roth’s case, since he is known for his rough handling of the tablets of the law. There’s something very odd about finding Portnoy’s Complaint in a volume of the Library of America, a series that is kept permanently in print. It’s like learning that a vintage inflatable sex doll has been bought by the British Museum. The problem is not that the institution is debased by acquiring such a thing but rather that the artefact loses its meaning when stripped of disreputability.

Roth himself seems to have lost sight of the powerful negative charge that has made his best-known book last, to judge by his remarks to Pierpont:

To Roth, the most important scene – ‘the pumping heart of the book’ – was almost entirely overlooked and has nothing to do with masturbation. It is a seemingly peripheral scene that involves Alex’s Uncle Hymie getting rid of the shiksa cheerleader his son adores … Roth’s point was the insularity and brutality of Jewish family life in those years: the whole-life demands, the mortal ruin that repaid transgression.

It’s odd for an experienced novelist to be so misguided about the anatomy of his own work, placing the pumping heart of the book round the back of an elbow. And if that was really the book he wanted to write, it needn’t have had much resemblance to Portnoy’s Complaint. He could have darkened the tonality of Goodbye, Columbus without marking a decisive break, or even have gone further back, to Theodore Dreiser.

Pierpont groups the book with Updike’s Couples (1968) and Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), but as a combined breakthrough and millstone it belongs with Catch-22 (1961) and Slaughterhouse Five (1969). Joseph Heller didn’t publish another novel until 1974, while Vonnegut kept to his established rhythm, producing one every two or three years. Roth stepped up the pace, with Our Gang appearing in 1971, followed in successive years by The Breast, The Great American Novel and My Life as a Man, but seemed to lose his way just the same. Our Gang was a satire on Nixon, which when his presidency unravelled in its second term left Roth in a peculiar position, both vindicated and utterly outclassed by reality, something that he tried to turn to account in two prefaces to opportunistic editions of the paperback. The 1973 preface to the Watergate Edition admitted that the book’s ‘bender of cynicism and paranoia’ was something only a psychiatrist could explain (‘I think I will break into the office of one at midnight, and ask for help’). The 1974 preface to the Pre-Impeachment Edition made out that his publishers suspected him of his own ‘“cover-up” of the president’s dirty mouth’ for failing to anticipate the inexpressive profanity revealed on the White House tapes.

One of the high points of Roth Unbound is the extract from the tapes (recorded on 3 November 1971) in which Nixon considers his anti-Roth strategy:

NIXON: Roth of course is a Jew.

HALDEMAN: Oh yes … he’s brilliant in a sick way.

NIXON: Oh, I know –

HALDEMAN: Everything he’s written has been sick …

NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage … I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us. I mean you hear a singer even as brilliant as Richard Tucker and he’s a Jew.

HALDEMAN: Is he?

NIXON: He’s pushy …

HALDEMAN: There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews sure aren’t.

The Breast was a grotesque fable out of Kafka or Gogol; more disconcertingly, The Great American Novel was a baseball epic stuffed with literary allusions. As Pierpont sees it, only with The Ghost Writer in 1979 did Roth manage to move on from Portnoy’s Complaint, as if the book had cast a shadow in which nothing was able to grow. She calls it ‘the full success that had seemed out of Roth’s reach for so long … one of our literature’s rare, inevitably brief, inscrutably musical and nearly perfect books’, belonging not only with Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House but with The Great Gatsby.

*

The template is again Jamesian, but the reference point is his 1893 story ‘The Middle Years’ rather than a novel. In December 1956 a young writer called Nathan Zuckerman pays a visit to his literary hero, E.I. Lonoff, who lives 1200 feet up a mountain in a two-hundred-year-old house with his well-born New England wife. The style has been flattened, without necessarily reaching a starched elegance: ‘However, since everybody else of renown I mentioned at the party also seemed slightly amusing to those in the know, I had been sceptical about their satiric description of the famous rural recluse.’ Verbal flourishes like the formulas ‘Levantine Valentino’ and ‘ageing geisha’, which appear on the same page, don’t compensate for a lack of momentum. It doesn’t seem logically necessary that an author would become more like James by seeming less like Roth. It’s odd that Roth should consider his own vitality (so often close to vitalism, the worship of energy for its own sake) an optional element of his writing.

Zuckerman first appeared in My Life as a Man, but as the creation of another writer, Peter Tarnopol, rather than Roth. This is really a new start for him. Zuckerman is at a crossroads, having written stories based on his New Jersey Jewish background that have caused offence within the family. (There are many points of correspondence between Zuckerman and his creator, but this is not one of them: the opposition Roth met was not on the home front.) He has also broken up with a girlfriend. Lonoff seems to represent a life entirely made over to the demands of art, though his wife, Hope, has paid at least as high a price.

Lonoff is a version of Bernard Malamud, and there is another Jewish writer in the book, Felix Abravanel, who is a distillation of Bellow with a dash of Mailer. Pierpont rightly acclaims as ‘one of the most beautifully Jamesian phrases in this James-haunted book’ the description of Abravanel’s charm as being ‘like a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect’. She doesn’t quote the next sentences, which mar the exquisiteness of the effect by imposing comedy-routine rhythms and exaggerations: ‘You couldn’t even find the drawbridge. He was like California itself – to get there you had to take the plane.’ Roth chafes against the restrictions he has imposed on himself, and only with reluctance lowers onto this sputtering comedy riff the bell jar of a borrowed literary aesthetic.

Despite the focus on reclusion and self-sacrifice, the book becomes close to overexcited when the subject is sociable, magnetic, preposterous Abravanel. It isn’t easy for a caricaturist to master watercolour. Why should he try? The techniques are hardly complementary. When Abravanel is the subject, not only is he larger than life, but Lonoff himself swells in the act of describing him:

I admire the man, actually. I admire what he puts his nervous system through. I admire his passion for the front-row seat. Beautiful wives, beautiful mistresses, alimony the size of the national debt, polar expeditions, war-front reportage, famous friends, famous enemies, breakdowns, public lectures, five-hundred-page novels every third year, and still, as you said before, time and energy left over for all that self-absorption. The gigantic types in the books have to be that big to give him something to think about to rival himself. Like him? No. But impressed, oh yes. Absolutely. It’s no picnic up there in the egosphere. I don’t know when the man sleeps, or if he has ever slept, aside from those few minutes when he had that drink with me.

The exuberant antagonism of the speech sends gusts of turbulence through the supposed stillness of the setting. Spare oxygen – the unbreathed air on which Jamesian effects depend – is sucked right out of the book. To a confrontational temperament, even on best behaviour, as Philip Roth is in The Ghost Writer, a one-sided confrontation is better than no confrontation at all.

Zuckerman is invited to stay the night and agrees, flattered by Lonoff’s attentiveness. Lonoff tells him that he has something much more important than a style: a voice, and not only that but a voice that starts behind his knees and reaches over his head. Zuckerman was also intrigued by the presence earlier in the day of an attractive woman called Amy Bellette, currently staying in the house to organise Lonoff’s manuscripts. He wants to know more, and it makes sense for him to be on the premises when Amy returns for the night. Lonoff leaves him at about nine o’clock, planning a session of concentrated reading.

Left alone, Nathan broods on his injuries. He writes half a dozen letters to his father, tearing them all up unfinished. He masturbates. He reads the Henry James story ‘The Middle Years’ twice in succession, prompted by the quotation from it pinned to the bulletin board in Lonoff’s study, starting with the words: ‘We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have.’ Towards midnight Amy returns. He climbs onto Lonoff’s desk so as to be able to hear the conversation taking place above his head and, standing on the volume of James’s stories he has been reading so as to get some vital extra elevation, overhears some sort of conflicted intimacy between middle-aged Lonoff and young Amy. He has a moment’s qualm about using the Master as a stepping-stone: ‘Ah, the unreckoned consequences, the unaccountable uses of art! … James would understand.’ Best not to put money on that.

In fact the tone has already shifted decisively away from the Jamesian. Zuckerman’s father, unhappy about the story ‘Higher Education’, has sent it to a family acquaintance, Judge Wapter, someone he thinks Nathan will accept as a higher authority. The first Nathan knows about this is when he receives a letter from the judge. It contains a passage of pompous and entirely artificial broad-mindedness: ‘The Norwegian playwright and Nobel Prize winner, Henrik Ibsen, was forced into exile because his countrymen failed to understand the profound truth of his great dramas.’ Accompanying the letter is a list of ten questions, compiled by the judge with the help of his wife. They ask him to give this list ‘just one hour’ of his time. In a postscript the judge recommends the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Question 1 is: ‘If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, would you have written such a story?’ Question 6 is: ‘What set of aesthetic values makes you think that the cheap is more valid than the noble and the slimy is more truthful than the sublime?’ This is the sort of cheap trick that gets school debating teams disqualified. The issue doesn’t go away just because you’ve surrounded it with easy targets, lined up for satirical sniping. Those at Yeshiva University’s minority-writers symposium who pressed Philip Roth to answer question 1 were nothing like smug judges blandly assuming that the Broadway stage was a satisfactory setting for the educational representation of genocide.

Pierpont quotes a 1971 article of Roth’s, written for the New York Times, in which he acknowledged that it would have been ‘asking the impossible’ of many Jews to expect them to react to his early stories without anger and fear, ‘only five thousand days after Buchenwald and Auschwitz’. By 1979 and The Ghost Writer, the possibility of honest disagreement has been revoked retrospectively, and the protest is contemptibly conformist. His choices under these circumstances don’t bear out Pierpont’s thesis that he darkens his own character in fictional versions of real-life predicaments. Here he darkens his opponents instead, and prevents any tension from building.

Two-thirds of the way through the book Roth shifts the emphasis abruptly to Amy Bellette and her history, breaking with the chosen restrictions of time and place – Nathan Zuckerman’s overnight visit to Lonoff in December 1956 – and with first-person narration. Amy is Anne Frank, who didn’t die in the camps. She had been in a coma for weeks, and was moved by the British authorities to an army field hospital. She spent three years with foster families in England, then moved to America to study at Athene College, where Lonoff was on the staff. It was years before she learned (from a newspaper article) that her father had survived. Then she had to decide whether to make herself known to the world, dislodging ‘Anne Frank’ and everything the name had come to mean in favour of another mere survivor.

The themes of the earlier part of the book were Art and Life, those capacious rubrics, and their respective demands. This tends to be a hollow discussion. If you’re reading a book in the first place, it’s obvious that Art hasn’t altogether lost out to Life, and as a writer it’s perfectly possible to be an exhibitionistic hermit. Confrontational recluse is a role that Roth has played for quite a few years of his career. You could say that Nathan Zuckerman took his stand on this question the moment he used a book of James’s stories as an aid to eavesdropping. (Roth can’t resist mixing a little symbolic trampling underfoot with the homage, being someone for whom, as Portnoy says of himself, ‘infraction seems to hold… a certain fascination.’) With the Amy Bellette/Anne Frank material the terms are still Art and Life, but they’re differently aligned. The question now is whether the person has any rights over the symbol she has become. If her diary was known to be the work of a living writer,

it would never be more than what it was: a young teenager’s diary of her trying years in hiding during the German occupation of Holland, something boys and girls can read in bed at night along with the adventures of the Swiss Family Robinson. But dead she had something more to offer than amusement for ages 10-15; dead she had written, without meaning to or trying to, a book with the force of a masterpiece to make people finally see.

One crucial realisation would be just how trivial the Frank family’s Jewishness was. ‘Once a year the Franks sang a harmless Chanukah song, said some Hebrew words, lighted some candles, exchanged some presents – a ceremony lasting about ten minutes – and that was all it took to make them the enemy.’ When a sympathetic-seeming teacher in England asked Amy/Anne, ‘Why is it that for centuries people have hated you Jews?’ she could only protest: ‘Don’t ask me that! Ask the madmen who hate us!’ In that sense anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews.

If there’s a faint suggestion of sacrilege in treading on a book then there’s plenty in playing reality games with a sanctified symbol. Resuscitation is fatal to a martyr. As the book goes on Roth retreats from his fantasy of an Anne Frank come back to life not once but twice. First he floats the possibility that Bellette’s identification with Frank is a delusion – that’s what Lonoff thinks when he takes her in. Then he reveals that the whole Amy/Anne strand, the richest material in the book, was made up by Nathan Zuckerman that December night, after he collapsed on Lonoff’s daybed, ‘from the sheer physical effort that had gone into my acrobatic eavesdropping’. This does something to restore the Aristotelian unities, since the whole third section, ‘Femme Fatale’, took place in Nathan’s head. But at the very least it means that the secondary subject of the composition has got out of hand, and it wreaks havoc with its formal structure. ‘It was only a manuscript’ and ‘It was only a thought-experiment’ hardly rank higher, in terms of the joy they bring to the reader, than ‘It was only a dream.’ (‘Thought-experiment’ seems more accurate because those thirty dense pages, expressed in the third person, packed with research and argumentation, were in theory not written down, however little they resemble unarticulated speech.) The integrity of the frame is restored in one way, broken all over again in another.

The Lonoff plot is finished off conscientiously with an inconclusive showdown, in which Lonoff’s wife tries to leave him, refusing to let their marriage be an alibi for his insistence on denying himself, not taking advantage of Amy’s availability. But it’s the Zuckerman/Wapter plot that really engages the author, though Wapter, as distinct from his preposterous letter, is given only a cameo appearance. Nathan despises the judge and his arguments, doesn’t recognise his authority, won’t even reply to his letter (it is this that upsets Nathan’s father, the rudeness). Yet by lying on Lonoff’s daybed and fantasising about the survival of Anne Frank he certainly gives the judge’s questions more than the ‘just one hour’ of attention he asked for. Nathan may not have gone to see the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank, but he has imagined Anne Frank going to see it.

Anne Frank’s history shows that anti-Semitism needs nothing to feed on. Trying to placate it by good behaviour is a waste of time. That’s why Nathan’s fictional account of her survival is the ‘unchallengeable answer’ to the Wapters’ questionnaire. He proposes to give it to them, though he realises they will see it as a desecration ‘even more vile’ than the story of his they have read. He has refuted their arguments without ever engaging with them, and without acknowledging their right to press him for an answer. He has the last word without consenting to dialogue.

All this makes The Ghost Writer seem to have nothing in common with Pierpont’s description of it as ‘a novel so seamless that it appears to have been conceived and poured out whole’. The question of why Roth would think a Jamesian exercise artistically rewarding remains mysterious. The writers he has admired most consistently – James, Kafka, Chekhov and Flaubert – were self-suppressors either by instinct or effort. Roth’s writing has regularly been powered by rage and disgust; he remarked in a 1984 Paris Review interview that it was difficult for him to set fiction in England, despite the amount of time he had spent there, because ‘I don’t hate anything here.’ (In due course English anti-Semitism supplied the lack.) Rage and disgust in James and Chekhov are unguessable, unguessable too in Kafka because they seem to have been directed mainly inward. Only Flaubert enjoyed an easy access to these states of mind outside his writing life, but he scolded Louise Colet (in a letter that Roth quotes in My Life as a Man) for a poem in which personal emotion distorted her judgment: ‘You have turned art into an outlet for passion, a kind of chamberpot to catch an outflow. It smells bad; it smells of hate!’ Roth’s love of these writers seems to be based on the attraction of opposites – to borrow a favourite prefix, a counteraffinity. What could be gained by seeking to imitate them? Temperamentally he’s all for the hammer blow rather than the scrupulous fleck of paint. It’s as if Rodin had apprenticed himself to Gwen John, and that isn’t at all how their story played out.

After The Ghost Writer Zuckerman became Roth’s stand-in of choice, in Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, the three books being republished in 1985 as the trilogy Zuckerman Bound, with The Prague Orgy as an epilogue. In My Life as a Man Roth puts a strong case for the exploitation of autobiographical material into the mouth of Peter Tarnopol:

His self is to many a novelist what his own physiognomy is to a painter of portraits: the closest subject at hand demanding scrutiny, a problem for his art to solve – given the enormous obstacles to truthfulness, the artistic problem. He is not simply looking in the mirror because he is transfixed by what he sees. Rather, the artist’s success depends as much as anything on his powers of detachment, on denarcissising himself. That’s where the excitement comes in. That hard conscious work that makes it art!

That’s the theory. In practice the Nathan Zuckerman of The Ghost Writer is the incarnation of a Philip Roth who was spared being ensnared by Maggie. Yet by the time of Zuckerman Unbound Zuckerman has written Carnovsky, his own looking-glass-world version of Portnoy’s Complaint. So Maggie was a derailment but Portnoy’s Complaint was destiny itself. In fact it’s hard to see how Roth would have made his breakthrough without the deadlock that made it necessary. The superego overdose that led him to take on responsibility out of all proportion to his desires and obligations required a rebound of equal intensity. With psychoanalytic support he disavowed the respectable impulses that had been played on so deftly. Having his alter ego reach the same point without the influence of succubus or shrink reasserts the primacy of talent over circumstance, just what his experience of Maggie led him to disbelieve.

*

The theme of paths not taken, of escapes and circlings back, is relentlessly developed in the 1986 Zuckerman novel, The Counterlife. There’s more than one Zuckerman, to start with, since the narrative starts with Henry, Nathan’s dentist brother, deciding on heart surgery. During a routine check-up he was found to be suffering from advanced arterial obstruction, and has been impotent for a year thanks to the medication prescribed to control his hypertension. (The medical condition corresponds to a diagnosis Roth was given in 1982, though he opted for a less effective drug so as to avoid that baleful side-effect.) Henry dies during the operation, but also survives, though he is slow to recover emotionally. There’s no science-fiction-style splitting, just the quiet supersession of one fate by another. This Henry goes to Israel for the benefits of the climate, but once there reconnects violently with the Jewish roots that never meant much to him in the past. He joins a community of settlers on the West Bank with a charismatic but alarming leader. Nathan visits him at the urging of Henry’s wife, Carol, hoping to persuade him to return to the States (stirring faint echoes of The Ambassadors), though his own exasperated interest is strong in the spectacle of a dependable, even stolid brother shedding his dentist skin to stand revealed as a zealot. The characters shed their skins in other ways too. The timeline of the book mutates again later, so that Nathan is the one with the heart problem, faced with the same choice between continued impotence and a risky operation, with similarly indeterminate outcomes. The logic gates of narrative have been rehung, so that either/or processing gives way to both/and.

Pierpont admits that in summary the book sounds ‘coyly postmodern’ but feels that it consolidates its own reality. ‘It’s a testament to the power of words on the page,’ she argues, ‘to our eager susceptibility as readers, and to Roth’s skills not as a postmodernist but as a fervent realist that our emotions are engaged even when the fiction is tauntingly exposed.’ The book isn’t coy, but it’s hard to find a definition of postmodernism it doesn’t fit. The experience of reading The Counterlife is reminiscent of one of those old-fashioned maths exam questions in which a bath is being both filled and emptied. The taps of Roth’s intensity are full on, both the hot and the cold, but the plug has been pulled from the genre in which he works. In terms of killing reader engagement there’s nothing to touch a provisional funeral like Henry’s, a funeral that offers no guarantee of a lasting corpse. If you can’t trust death, what can you trust?

Roth dismisses the vogue for postmodernism in conversation with Pierpont, saying: ‘John Barth was a very nice man, but give me John Updike.’ He sees The Counterlife as teaching him about scale: ‘It was an aesthetic discovery, how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.’ He values the moral engagement of Primo Levi over the playfulness of Calvino, but in The Counterlife he seems to split the difference. There’s irony in a formula from the book like ‘there really is no eluding one’s fate’ but it’s necessarily of a very flat kind, with fate’s negotiable status as the major premise of the fiction. If, as Pierpont suggests, ‘Israel was the moral and historical subject that Roth had been looking for,’ then it’s understandable that he would want to produce something as far as possible from Bellow’s 1976 ‘personal account’, To Jerusalem and Back, and also from earlier efforts of his own: the chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint set in Israel now makes him ‘squirm’.

Since the time of Letting Go he had done without an outline, trusting the writing to solve problems as it went along. What this method produces in The Counterlife is a gridlock of voices. Only if drama is defined as the grinding together of opposites, each intensified to the highest pitch, does Roth count as an accomplished dramatist. In his handling of the Israel material he seems to be saying to the reader: here’s a knot of competing extremisms – you sort it out. The pattern latent in the action of The Ghost Writer, where Nathan wants to have the last word without consenting to dialogue, becomes part of the relationship between Roth and his readers. Then the storyline refracts again.

Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship. Art is always a one-way sharing: I can be privy to Dante’s mind but he is impervious to mine. Readerly freedom operates within constraints, and abrupt changes of convention paralyse it. If it was crass on some readers’ part to have confused the narrator of Portnoy’s Complaint with its author, what is the correct readerly response to the lengthy passage in The Counterlife in which Nathan Zuckerman’s young editor gives a eulogy at his funeral analysing the dead man’s succès de scandale? (‘It’s still diabolically funny, but what was new to me was a sense of how sad the book is, and emotionally exhausting.’) Numbness perhaps. Later it turns out that Zuckerman himself wrote the eulogy for the editor to deliver. Meta-numbness.

Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed a chronic mistrust of rugs. The action of The Counterlife shifts to Gloucestershire and London in its final section, moving towards the revelation of anti-Semitism as the hidden mainspring of British life. This is a devastating indictment of a whole culture, but one written in disappearing ink. The incidents of Jew-hating or Jew-baiting are relativised in advance by being discussed from outside the text:

Because he had been brought up as he was, ringed round by all that Jewish paranoia, there was something in him that twisted everything. It seemed to me that he was my sister – he was the one who thought of ‘the other’ as the other in that derogatory sense. He’d put all his feelings, actually, onto her – his Jewish feelings about Christian women turned into a Christian woman’s feelings about a Jewish man. I thought that the great verbal violence, that ‘hymn of hate’ he ascribed to Sarah, was in him.

On this occasion the rug is pulled away before anyone can have a chance to step onto it.

Near the end of the book there’s a final incantatory manifesto for its method:

The burden isn’t either/or, consciously choosing from possibilities equally difficult and regrettable – it’s and/and/and/and/and as well. Life is and: the accidental and the immutable, the elusive and the graspable, the bizarre and the predictable, the actual and the potential, all the multiplying realities, entangled, overlapping, colliding, conjoined – plus the multiplying illusions!

Stirring oratory, but it doesn’t explain how the yoking together of extreme positions and a cryptic indeterminacy would produce either a sophisticated model of the world or a satisfying experience of reading.

*

In his next novel, Deception (1990), written almost entirely in dialogue, Roth went further still with the self-referential games. The dominant voice in the book is Philip Roth, a writer who has friends bearing the same names as friends of the actual Philip Roth (Aharon Appelfeld, for instance) and has created a character called Nathan Zuckerman. In one section this Philip Roth’s wife interrogates him about infidelity on the basis of a notebook she has found. She’s half-convinced that he’s simply making things up for fictional purposes, but pleads with him just the same to replace the name Philip with the name Nathan so that in the event of its eventual publication readers won’t be confused. He refuses, saying: ‘I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.’

Roth and Claire Bloom weren’t actually married at this point but were a supremely well-known couple. According to her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, Roth had kept uncharacteristically quiet about the book on which he was working, though she knew its title. When Deception was finished he waited three weeks before inviting her to read it. He went to his writing studio, leaving her with the manuscript. She arrived at a chapter about ‘his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife, who, as described, is nothing better than an ever-spouting of tears constantly bemoaning the fact that his other women are so young. She is an actress by profession and … her name is Claire.’ She was still shaking with rage when he came home, much earlier than usual, bringing an extravagant gift, a gold ring in the shape of a snake with an emerald head bought from Bulgari on Fifth Avenue. She told him he must remove her name from the book. He tried to argue that it added to ‘the richness of the texture’. She said she would go as far as legal action to have her name removed. ‘For once confronted by my opposition, Philip agreed to remove it from the novel. Then I accepted his guilt offering. I wear it to this day.’

If Bloom happens to read Roth Unbound she may be pleasantly surprised to find herself civilly referred to by her ex-husband (who married her in 1990 and divorced her in 1994). She’s unlikely to enjoy the account given of the day she read Deception. The latent drama isn’t on the scale of Maggie Roth’s outing to the movies, but it has its own little sting of humiliation. Pierpont regards the buying of the extravagant present as sensible, if not an elementary precaution, ‘just in case Bloom reacted the way that any woman in the situation would react’. So her reaction was entirely predictable, it’s just that the great novelist needed help to head it off. He phoned his friend Judith Thurman, who had read Deception and had already advised him against using the name Claire. What should he do? ‘Meet me on 57th Street with a credit card,’ she said. Tiffany was their first stop, before Bulgari came up trumps.

So the present that was received as an intimate atonement was brokered by an intermediary, someone outside the marriage who had read the offending book before she did. Bloom may lose a little of her affection for the ring, may even find herself finding a sinister sparkle in this passage from The Counterlife, written before things started to go wrong between them: ‘The bracelet is perfect, so perfect that it’s hard to believe it was your own idea. If a man does something very appropriate it’s usually not.’

Roth inserts into Deception a scene in which ‘Philip’ is arraigned for literary misogyny. He defends himself against the prosecutor’s charges, and ends up pleasuring her (‘Help, help, he’s exploiting me, he’s degrading me, he’s defaming me, he’s attempting with this grotesque display of phallic –’). Pierpont is severe about this episode, even a bit po-faced (‘Kid stuff’), since in a novel composed of voices this could as easily be a game of sexual role-playing as a misfiring and rather paranoid satire. She’s much less judgmental about his casual sexism in conversations she passes on. Defending The Breast, in which the hero is transformed into one, he says: ‘It was like Henry Higgins. Why can’t a woman be more like a man? But in reverse.’ Hardly. A woman only equals a breast if a man is a prick. Reminiscing about long and intellectually stimulating discussions in the 1970s with Milan Kundera, for which Kundera’s wife, Vera, acted as translator, he says: ‘By the time it was over Vera looked like she’d had sex with both of us.’ Why is it that the woman on whose linguistic skills the men’s discussion depends is reduced to a shared sexual object? It would be easy to excuse this as being par for the course from someone born in 1933, though to judge by the sketch of the genteel elderly anti-Semite in The Counterlife Roth doesn’t go in for chronological alibis, and would rather be individually condemned than benefit from a generational amnesty. It’s lovely that Roth is ‘besotted’ with the eight-year-old twins of a former girlfriend, and that he should marvel at the confidence of the girl particularly, speculating that it may be the result of growing up ‘with feminism so fully established’, but he can hardly claim to have helped the process on, or even to have cheered from the sidelines.

The self-referential games carry on in Operation Shylock (1993), where a narrator called Philip Roth, whose wife is called Claire, discovers that someone is impersonating him. Roth seemed to be insisting on the confusion he once deplored, goading the reader into the facile identifications he claims to find so maddening. If he didn’t feel subject to the law of diminishing returns by this time, his readership certainly did. When the house always wins, punters begin to drift away from the tables – though in this strangely constituted game a loss for the reader is also a loss for the writer, while a jackpot makes everyone feel rich.

*

I can testify to having given up on Philip Roth more than once. I was around 15 when Portnoy’s Complaint was published, and far too uneasy about the fact of masturbation to be tempted by fiction on the subject. In the early 1970s, though, I was in Compendium bookshop on Camden High Street, which specialised in poetry and imported Americana, when a paperback fell from a high shelf and landed at my feet. It was The Breast. I opened it and read the words ‘half-heartedly tried to pitch herself under a lorry in Camden High Street’. Clearly this was a book that wanted to be read. I bought it. I didn’t like it. When the New Yorker published The Ghost Writer in two parts, I read most of the first part. I reviewed The Facts in a newspaper, baffled but respectful, and Deception (more baffled, less respectful) for The Late Show on BBC Two. It was just the beginning of ambulant presentation, a style I was too poorly co-ordinated to carry off with conviction. In what was either an inventive response to the book or a piece of insulting staleness, we hired actors with a resemblance to Roth and Bloom to deliver lines. I would pop up every now and then in the crook of an elbow to insert my comments. I’m grateful it was only an elbow.

In 1995 the New Yorker published the opening passage of Sabbath’s Theater. It immediately seemed very different. Roth has rarely been (or tried to be) a seductive writer, or else his seduction technique is to pummel his readers into submission, and the opening sentence was unseductive in spades: ‘Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.’ That’s the ultimatum delivered in tears by Drenka Balich, 52, to Mickey Sabbath, 64, who has been her lover for 13 years. It’s a novelty in Roth’s fiction to have a woman who is neither young nor new to her partner dictating terms, viewed as a sexual subject as much as an object but not reduced to that dimension. In fact it was her tenderness to her policeman son that hooked me in the New Yorker extract, her habit when sleepless of monitoring signals on his frequency, snapping out of a doze whenever she heard his code number, 415B.

The clash of registers represented by ‘forswear’ and ‘fucking’ starts just one word into the book. It’s a manufactured, stylised clash, actually, since Drenka’s English isn’t perfect (she’s Croatian) and ‘forswear’ would hardly be her natural word-choice. But then Philip Roth is a strongly rhetorical writer, a highbrow demagogue if that’s a possible thing to be. He does with the long sentence, and the long book, the opposite of what James does. There’s no holding of meanings in suspension but a building of relentless pressure.

No writer-figure presides over Sabbath’s Theater. The fog of self-reference has lifted, and the view is clear. The discovery of how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free, seems to belong to this book rather than The Counterlife. Over the long series of previous books, living was all the research that Roth needed to do, but now he has needed to find things out (the title character, for instance, was once well known as a puppeteer), and he seems to have acquired a taste for it.

Sabbath’s Theater is also the most powerful exposition of Roth’s ideas about sex. Desire in the book (and not only for the hero) is in its essence a solvent, only occasionally and almost accidentally a glue. Disgrace isn’t a piece of bad luck, a calculated risk, but close to being the whole point, not part of the territory but the territory itself. By a sleight of rhetorical reasoning the amorality of the sexual impulse, exactly what inspired such prodigies of overcompensation in Alex Portnoy, becomes its redeeming virtue. The amorality of sex is moralised, turned into a chastening function. Sex, when we try to live responsibly and rationally, proves us foolish. Desire in its lack of accountability holds us to account for our illusions of being more than flesh.

Roth was entitled to quite a sabbatical after the triumph of Sabbath’s Theater, but American Pastoral was published only two years later. The Library of America edition pairs Sabbath’s Theater with the hectic, centrifugal Operation Shylock, and groups American Pastoral with I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) as the ‘American trilogy’, which makes sense given that Nathan Zuckerman narrates all three, but muffles the astonishing contrast between the two novels. American Pastoral is as anguished a defence of traditional values, of fitting in and getting by, as Sabbath’s Theater is a vitriolic attack on them.

At a party you would hesitate to introduce the author of one book to the author of the other for fear of a fistfight. Their intensity is identical, their polarity opposite. It’s like the situation in John Maddison Morton’s 1840s comedy Box and Cox, where a wily landlady lets the same rooms to two tenants, one working at night, the other by day, so as to double the rent, except that the shared accommodation here is a brain and possibly a writing desk. Pierpont sees Roth as building ‘seriatim, book to book, offering up reversals and alternatives – counterbooks, counterprotagonists – and forging links in a continuing chain of thought’. To me this is the exact opposite of the way he works. No writer was ever less of a dialectician. Any sort of resolution is against his temperament, possibly even his principles. His instinct is to reinforce both sides in a given conflict. An arms race is only a dialectic if mutually assured destruction counts as a synthesis.

It shouldn’t take away the achievement of this pair of books, which are above all feats of construction, to point out that as Roth has transformed himself as a writer, becoming enormously more skilled in the creation of powerful effects, he has retreated from the internal conflict staged in his breakthrough book. In Portnoy’s Complaint the antagonistic impulses shared a nervous system, in The Counterlife they were divided between two brothers, and now they are developed in separate books.

The material about the composition of American Pastoral is the most rewarding part of Pierpont’s book. The central situation, about a young woman blowing up a building in protest against the Vietnam War, was something he had sketched in the early 1970s and hadn’t previously been able to develop to his satisfaction beyond fifty or sixty pages. Roth himself was against the war, while Updike, defending Lyndon Johnson and his ‘pitiful ineffective war machine’, was some sort of hawk, perhaps one with soft grey feathers. In his memoir Self-Consciousness, published in 1989, Updike quotes a slogan of the underground group the Weathermen, something he carried around in his wallet for years: ‘We are against everything that’s good and decent in honky America. We will loot, burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmares.’ Merry Levov in American Pastoral puts the same lines up on the wall of her room. Updike goes on to point out that according to some religious systems ‘merely to be alive is to kill’. For this reason strict Jains wear masks ‘to avoid inhaling insects’. Merry for the same reason, in distorted repentance for murder, makes a mask from the foot of an old stocking.

This wasn’t active borrowing on Roth’s part, just standard literary osmosis between rivals. It shouldn’t be surprising, just because Roth works at seeming so self-sufficient and impervious, that a blown-in seed should germinate beneath the conscious soil. Another part of the book’s history shows a more unexpected side to him. Following his habit of showing a book in progress to a shifting group of friends, he accepted the suggestion from one of them (Judith Thurman, previously his consultant on the price tag and carat weight of a harmonious household) that a scene of happy marital lovemaking be added to American Pastoral, as a way of intensifying the later pain of breakdown. Such a scene is a rarity, perhaps even a singularity, in Roth’s work.

While the committee of friends was making its recommendations, it would have been good if one of them had advised a softening of Seymour ‘the Swede’ Levov’s climactic confrontation with Merry in her sordid Jain penance. Overall Roth’s practice of going too far, and then going further, has served him well. Already in The Counterlife he had Henry express digestively (the ne plus ultra of rage and disgust) his horror at coming across a manuscript of Nathan’s that cannibalises his life: ‘Something putrid was stinging his nostrils and it was Henry who was leaning over and violently beginning to retch, Henry vomiting as though he had broken the primal taboo and eaten human flesh.’ Much too much. Now in American Pastoral Levov goes further, loading his vomit with words, or his words with vomit: ‘A spasm of gastric secretions and undigested food started up the intestinal piping and, in a bitter, acidic stream, surged sickeningly onto his tongue, and when he cried out, “Who are you?” it was spewed with his words onto her face.’ Much too much too much. The ne plus ultra and then some, a hammer blow perilously close to the thumb, more likely to break the spell of the fiction than to clinch it.

Thurman’s intervention (which required the writing of new material, after all) was presumably not a one-off. It’s true that to judge him by his public persona Roth is about as approachable as an electric fence, but of course the high-voltage deterrent is there for a reason – and Updike’s evenly maintained affability didn’t actually mean that he kept open house. Pierpont maintains that ‘one can’t laugh as much as Roth has laughed in his life without accumulating friends,’ which isn’t persuasive (it assumes that all friends are worth having and that all laughter is genial). But in the chronology of the Library of America edition, compiled with his assistance, friendships are listed, life events being what they are.

Updike forfeited Roth’s goodwill by mentioning Leaving a Doll’s House in passing in a piece about literary biography for the New York Review of Books: ‘Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unravelled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalisation, adulterous, callously selfish and financially vindictive.’ Roth wrote to the magazine suggesting that ‘alleges’ rather than ‘shows’ would have been correct, and when Updike made out that the difference in meaning was insubstantial, stopped speaking to him. Asked by Pierpont if he regretted not having resumed contact before Updike’s death, he replied simply: ‘Yes.’ Self-justification is a baroque aria with many a da capo section, and sometimes it has seemed that Roth would never run out of breath. Regret can be a single syllable.

Bloom’s memoir was damaging not because it portrayed him as devious and manipulative, though it did, but because it portrayed him as weak. The character of the actress Eve Frame in I Married a Communist was assumed to be his revenge, but the postwar setting blurred the particulars and no real bile would be detectable for the reader who didn’t know. In life Bloom’s daughter, Anna, was a cause of much conflict, but in the novel Eve’s daughter, Sylphid, has at least one lively scene. In The Human Stain Roth is similarly careful to give even characters he would be expected to despise a little charity parcel of empathy.

*

Since then Roth has written mainly short books, enough of them that the Library of America edition had to publish an extra volume, the ninth. Pierpont moderately admires them, and isn’t quite committed to the supreme status of the trilogy (with which Sabbath’s Theater, however asymmetrically, belongs), saving her real enthusiasm for the ‘unruly and ecstatic’ earlier books. It’s very noticeable that when he discusses shorter forms Roth doesn’t modify his literary priorities. In a video interview online he compares writing in a short form with ‘fighting with one hand tied behind your back’, but the challenge is still: ‘How do you get a knockout punch?’ Does The Great Gatsby deliver a knockout punch? Does Flaubert’s A Simple Heart? Does Metamorphosis, even? The epigraph for Roth Unbound quotes Kafka (from a letter to Oskar Pollak) by way of Nathan Zuckerman, but doesn’t seem to misrepresent Roth’s literary aims: ‘I believe that we should read only those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?’ There’s not a lot of similarity between the blows to the head administered by Kafka and by Roth.

One late novel that attempted a return to epic scale was The Plot against America, published in 2004. The basis of the book was the fairly standard idea of the counterfactual story, with a family corresponding to Roth’s own (and given their names) threatened when Charles Lindbergh the aviation hero, charismatic, isolationist and anti-Semitic, runs against Roosevelt in 1940 and wins the presidency. The novel sets out to show, in Pierpont’s words, ‘the ordinary worst coming out in ordinary people when their lowest instincts have been sanctioned’, but the development of the situation lacks the relentlessness that made the big books of the previous ten years so formidable. It’s as if the idea of America turning against its Jews couldn’t get a real imaginative grip on someone who had always thought of himself as 100 per cent both American and Jewish. Pierpont acknowledges that ‘the deliverance is disconcertingly abrupt and seems almost careless’. The novel’s dénouement fizzles rather than explodes, though fizzling is the least likely outcome in any book by Roth. A dystopian fantasy about an affliction of the body politic concentrates more, in its last sections, on the artificial leg (and worse, the stump) of Alvin, the fictional cousin of ‘Philip Roth’ – and symbolism isn’t Roth’s strongest suit. He doesn’t usually trust it to administer the knockout blow.

If The Plot against America shows some loss of vigour, and her conversations with Roth indicate a certain personal mellowing, Pierpont is anxious to disclaim any accompanying rightward drift in his ideology. ‘It would be utterly mistaken to say that his politics had become in any way conservative,’ she writes, in a sentence riven by the doubts it refuses to entertain. It’s true that the title of The Plot against America is borrowed, not original to Roth, but it still carries the implication that there is an intrinsic America whose enemies are external, though America with Lindbergh in charge would be no less American for that. Pierpont subscribes to the same comforting illusion when she refers to history returning to ‘its proper course’ at the end of the novel.

It seems silly to pretend that the Philip Roth who installed a large American flag in the full-wall window of his New York apartment after the attacks on the World Trade Center is continuous with the Philip Roth who wrote ‘Cambodia: A Modest Proposal’ for Look magazine in 1970, recommending the dropping of shoes, vaccines, bags of rice and refrigerators on the population in preference to bombs. Nathan Zuckerman in Exit Ghost (2007) may say, of American democracy, ‘It’s a flexible instrument that we’ve inherited,’ going on to celebrate ‘how much punishment we can take’, but if Roth had thought that in 1971 he wouldn’t have written Our Gang. It was dumb luck that Nixon was caught trying to rig an election he would have won anyway, and dumb luck isn’t supposed to be one of the American constitution’s checks and balances.

Even allowing for some overcast days, Philip Roth’s writing life since Sabbath’s Theater represents an extraordinary Indian summer of creativity, balancing the long strange stretch, becalmed in mid-career, when he tried to deform his raging talent into subtlety.