Monday, March 31, 2014

Claudia Roth-Pierpont at GW

By Rachel Davidson
Claudia Roth-Pierpont
Image from: The New Yorker

Recently, The George Washington University program in Judaic Studies and the Department of English welcomed Roth Unbound author Claudia Roth-Pierpont as the fourth speaker for Professor Faye Moskowitz’ class, Jewish Lit Live. In an afternoon discussion for the JLL class and an evening reading open to the public, Roth-Pierpont (the name Roth is pure coincidence) discussed her new book, as well as two of Roth’s early works, Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. While Roth-Pierpont spent hundreds of hours in conversation with Roth, Roth ultimately had no say in the content of Roth Unbound and was not allowed to read it until its final publication.  Hearing Roth-Pierpont elaborate on the ways in which Philip Roth has been misunderstood by the Jewish and feminist communities was a valuable experience for anyone with interests in America’s dynamic social culture or the intentions of an author. 
Philip Roth’s writing is still relevant because of his unique voice, but Roth-Pierpont emphasized that Roth’s authorial voice should not be mistaken as his opinion.  She challenged us to forget what Roth the author is saying, and focus instead on what his characters are saying.  Roth-Pierpont described Roth’s capacity to build stories situated in the unique struggles of their times and how these complicated themes were often misinterpreted.  After the release of Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth was branded as a misogynist by many feminist critics and as an anti-Semite by many Jews.  As a self-identifying feminist herself, Roth-Pierpont found these accusations laughable and noted that Roth’s male characters are just as, if not more so, troubled than his female characters.  Roth did not invent the over-bearing, Jewish Mother trope, yet many Jews felt that it was dangerous to reveal the less than pleasant realities of Jewish families post World-War Two. In a story like “Eli The Fanatic”, Roth presents a situation in which assimilated Jews are more threatened by an orthodox Yeshivah than the gentile population, nodding to the latent insecurities concerning modernity present within the Jewish community.  These insecurities were reflected back onto Roth, and the misogynist and anti-Semite labels stuck.
            One label that Roth would not deny would be that of “Nixon-Hater”. In his 1971 political satire, Our Gang, Roth follows the story of Trick E. Dixon, a character who eventually runs his campaign in Hell. When Richard Nixon got word of this novel, he said, “’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’ to which his chief of staff adds, ‘There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews aren’t.’”[1] As this incredible exchange shows, Roth had established himself enough as a writer to be brought up in a conversation in the oval office as a threatening figure. Roth-Pierpont cited this as a moment where truth was stranger than fiction, but also a moment that further complicates Roth’s status as a Jewish writer.
            Roth-Pierpont suggested that anyone who takes the time to actually read Roth’s work would find a wide breadth of male and female, and Jewish and non-Jewish characters that make it impossible to make any overreaching argument about Roth’s personal opinions. She suggests that many early readers completely missed the tenderness of a character like Alex Portnoy because they were so fixated on his occasionally overwhelming sexuality. She revealed that Portnoy’s Complaint is the only book Roth occasionally regrets writing, but only because a topic as frivolous as masturbation overshadowed much of his later work.  While some early readers treated Portnoy’s Complaint how modern readers treat 50 Shades of Gray, Roth-Pierpont suggests that the book is really about fighting to break free from what society says you should be.           
At the age of 81, Roth has officially retired from his career as an author. When Roth-Pierpont was asked, “why now?” she explained that after a lifetime of writing character’s lives, Roth wanted to live his own life.  Describing Roth as an ultimately optimistic and life-affirming man, it seems fitting that days spent writing in isolation would not be the ideal way to spend time.  These insights into Roth’s life made for a though-provoking afternoon and evening, and definitely sparked my own interest in Roth’s extensive works.

[1] Kirsch, Adam. “Philip Roth: Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Biography is Fan Fiction.” The New Republic. January 8, 2014. Web. March 24, 2014.


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