When Claudia Roth Pierpont met Philip Roth (no relation) at a party in a Manhattan jazz club in 2002, he was nearly seventy and had already published more than twenty books. Pierpont had the one book out, Passionate Minds (2000), a collection of essays on an unlikely bunch of literary women. Why she would choose Philip Roth, who she herself describes as a ‘major foil’ for contemporary feminists, as her new subject is explained as happening almost by accident: a plan that developed out of the ‘extraordinary privilege’ of getting to know him over eight years—‘in sickness and in health’—and from being enlisted as one of his readers because there was still plenty of chutzpah to come from the ageing provocateur before he announced his retirement in 2012.

Friendship is an important idea to keep in mind when reading this book about ‘the life of Philip’s Roth art, and, inevitably, the art of his life.’ Pierpont weighs the influence on Roth of the ups and downs of his friendships with other writers, Saul Bellow in particular, as she tries—sometimes a bit too hard—to make a coherent story out of the development of his literary voice. Right from his first published stories in Goodbye, Columbus, at the age of twenty-six, Roth found himself in need of friends. ‘What is to be done to silence this man?’ a prominent rabbi wanted to know. A battle had begun for the meaning of being ‘a Jew in America’, a battle around the ideas of moral responsibility and anti-Semitism and ‘the fantasy of purity’ which would be carried through all of Roth’s work, reaching its first outrageous expression with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969.

Riding the last wave of the sexual revolution, the ‘obscene zest’ which powers the unrepentant voice of Alexander Portnoy as he tries to ‘tell it all’ and make sense of his sexual history to his shrink, from the masturbatory frenzy of his Jewish adolescence through the compulsive hunt for ever more American pie—‘What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds – as though through fucking I will discover America,’—to the impotence which afflicts him as soon as he sets foot in the homeland of Israel, made Roth a celebrity and a disgrace in equal measure. The maniacal monologue was a scream for freedom on every level—from nation, parents, and artistic taste. Pierpont writes: ‘The premise of a marathon, book-length psychiatric session, following years of his own psychiatric sessions, was what finally allowed him, in his mid thirties, to let go.’

This letting go was a stylistic revolution for Roth, allowing him to ‘blow the lid off’ all manner of influence on him, ‘every gentle, Gentile characteristic… associated with the great American plains of Literature.’ Pierpont has also kept us well versed on the personal background to this breakthrough, the source and the cost for the release of this devilish antic voice: the ending of his ‘Grand Guignol marriage’ to his first wife Maggie; the years of psychoanalysis in the hope of escaping the good Jewish son’s need for ‘pleasing others’; and then Maggie’s death. Of course Portnoy’s Complaint was read as autobiography. ‘A novel in the guise of a confession,’ Roth says, ‘was received and judged by any number of readers as a confession in the guise of a novel.’

But Roth had hit upon a theme. Five years later, he returns to the subject of his marriage in My Life as a Man (1974). Pierpont may not have given enough attention to the importance of this novel. It is one of the few occasions where she is mildly critical of Roth, describing the book as ‘part-brilliant, part-strangled’. Dealing with the struggle of a writer, Peter Tarnopol, to come to terms with a disastrous marriage—and write about it in ‘autobiographical’ and ‘fictional’ terms—the novel quickly dissolves any difference between fact and obsessive make-believe. It is Roth’s first serious escapade into the confessional (writing-as-therapy) mode, and a playful and very painful meditation on the relationship between art and life. There is no escape route signposted by the end, no catharsis, only the awful chance of doing it all over again: ‘Oh, my God, I thought—now you!’

My Life as a Man also marks the appearance of Nathan Zuckerman who is Tarnopol’s own fictional protagonist, a fictional writer who will become Roth’s stand-in central player in many of his best known ‘historical’ novels and who can still be found chasing tail in the quartet of short novels with which Roth (perhaps) ended his career. Roth had discovered maskenfreiheit, the freedom conferred by the mask. The shadow, the alter ego, the true self, double or counter-self, call it what you want—from here on in the mystery of identity haunts the heart of every story, as book after book explores the meta-fictional relationship between the self who puts its name on the books and the cryptic other self who actually does the writing.

Take this example of the relationship between art and life from around the time of Deception, a novel of disembodied voices published in 1990: Roth is living with the actress Claire Bloom in London, and also having an affair, and meantime he is writing a book about an author called Philip who is living with a jealous and ‘remarkably uninteresting actress’ called Claire while having an affair with an unnamed married woman. Bloom was fit to be tied when Roth handed her the manuscript to read. She demanded he change the name Claire to something else. Roth took three weeks to agree, Pierpont tells us.

This is one of the spots in Pierpont’s study where her friendship with her subject comes clearly into view. It’s fair to say she more or less buys into Roth’s account of his marriage and break-up with Claire Bloom, as with most of his relationships, trying to remain impartial but always coming down on his side, staying loyal, knowing when to be critical and when not to dig too deep, just like we do with our friends. This may be no bad thing for the reader, however, because it keeps a story moving along which otherwise might have got bogged down in vendettas. The friendship between these two, this familiar trust, charms the book with an authenticity the traditional biography usually conceals. Bear in mind, Roth gave his blessing to her book, on ‘the understanding he would not read a single word before publication.’

‘The freest experience of my life,’ is how Roth describes writing Sabbath’s Theatre (1995), and it shows. Mickey Sabbath is a return to the unbridled energy of Portnoy but the writing is much richer and sensuous, more engorged, and at points lush with biblical grandeur. It is the simple story of Mickey Sabbath, dirty old man, ex-sailor, arthritic ex-puppeteer and lately ex-teacher after an incident of tape-recorder phone sex with a young student. And it is also the story of his extra-marital affair with the wanton Drenka who owns a nearby hotel and his subsequent spiral into erotic delirium after her sudden death from cancer. Roth tells Pierpont he had Henry Miller in mind as he follows Mickey on his journey into disgrace after outrageous disgrace. The desire to hit the bottom is the whole point, getting caught and revelling in the disgrace is what may lie behind all that we do. But no matter how bad it gets, no matter if he’s caught masturbating on his beloved’s grave by the woman’s state- trooper son, Mickey clings to desire and to life itself:

Yes, yes, yes, he felt uncontrollable tenderness for his own shit-filled life. And a laughable hunger for more. More defeat! More disappointment! More deceit! More loneliness! More arthritis! More missionaries! God willing, more cunt! More disastrous entanglement in everything.

Sabbath’s Theatre is a guilt-free affirmation of sexual experiment and transgression as an existential defiance of death. Pleasure is our victory over decay. Desire makes fools of us and all our loud moral obligations. This is, of course, the Libertine’s credo: true ethical freedom begins with sexual freedom. That it is doomed to failure is only a sign of its authenticity. The voice of Mickey Sabbath joins a chorus of sexual freedom-seeking adventurers going back through Henry Miller to Casanova.

It wouldn’t have surprised anybody if Roth had taken a long rest here. But, like with Portnoy’s Complaint, the writing unlocked something in Roth, an energy which helped propel his work onto a new and more expansive level. In quick succession came the trilogy of ‘big’ novels: American Pastoral (1997), I Married A Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). These might be described as historical novels, elegies for the death of the American Dream perhaps, and are classic realist in the sense that they chart the growth (or fall) of the individual against a background of broader social change. Pierpont is particularly good at digging in to the origins of these books. American Pastoral grew out of some notes Roth made in the 1970s about the ‘purity’ of the rage of many young women in the anti-Vietnam movement. He returned again and again to these notes but couldn’t manage to ‘ignite’ the story of the revolutionary girl until he began to wonder what it would be like to be her father, a ‘good’ man and citizen. But then how to write about a ‘very nice, simple, stoical guy?’ This was Roth’s challenge to himself. Again, it was one of his counter-selves, Nathan Zuckerman, who would lead the ‘adventure in narration’ and do ‘the making-up’ of Swede Levov.

From wild Mickey to nice guy Swede, this constant reversing of formal and thematic concerns is Roth’s main strategy as a writer, forging links in an endless chain of thought within books and across the books, layering voice on contradictory voice. It is what makes Roth so difficult to pin down, and his ‘real’ attitude to, say, the Jewish occupation of Palestinian land. What he seems to say in one book may be laughed at in the next. Nevertheless he was awarded one of the highest honours for a living author, the publication of his complete works by the Library of America. The funny thing was he had still a lot more wailing at the wall to get off his chest.

Inspired yet again by Bellow and parables like The Plaque by Albert Camus, as Roth tells Pierpont, he turned to a shorter and leaner form. In Exit Ghost (2007) right up to his last book, Nemesis (2010), he eschews the sweeping panorama of history for a close and stifling erotic space. The aging libertine, his sexual potency on the wane, afflicted by disease, his few friends dead, charts his latest obsession, groping for one last grateful ejaculation to end the tragic-comic ‘romance of manhood’. Kepesh in The Dying Animal:

‘only when you fuck… are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself… Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don’t forget death. Don’t ever forget it. Yes. Sex too is limited… but tell me what power is greater?’

Love might be an answer but Roth leaves that to the reader. Eros or Agape? Look around at the world and you decide. Can you really believe love is supreme when you learn what the idiot wind of history can do to a person? What is the point of listening to the shrinks who say you are the unconscious moulder of your own fate when the army are warming their arses over the fires of your culture. Are the questions generated by a man’s life answered sufficiently by his death?

And now with the ‘actual’ announcement of his retirement, we have the chance to ask, what’s so important about Philip Roth, what makes him a major American novelist, especially when so many attack him for narcissism and misogyny? The answer is all in the mix—where else? There are the characters, of course, the creation of complex sinuous conscious life on the page which is driven by a love of the twists and turns and courage of the human voice. In this sense, Roth can be read in the tradition of Faulkner, Wolfe, Updike, and Bellow, American writers who make vibrant prose out of the noise of the people. In another sense, however, Roth can be approached as a writer influenced by a more European literary legacy.

His playfulness with the authorial self, for example, instead of being treated as coldly postmodern, a product of American academia, might be seen as an attempt to explore the ideas he encountered on his many trips to Prague and Europe. The absurdist tradition, for example, is a recurring presence in his work (The Breast, 1972) as is his fascination with Kafka. Roth has stated that he puts himself on trial by implicating himself in his own fiction. The road to the castle is as treacherous as the road to the self, if either of them really exists outside of our own fantasies. Desire is used not just to shock but, like in Kundera’s work, it is celebrated as a force which fragments and dissolves the self—and occasionally, briefly, holds everything together. Perhaps the importance of Roth, the mocking dissembler, is what he brings together, what he puts at stake in his fiction, and the moral questions he asks of the reader. Paul Auster, in his recent book, The Art of Hunger, also refers to this decision to implicate himself in his own fiction even if he might run a mile from an idea as dangerous as Mickey Sabbath.

And yet despite everything Mickey Sabbath loved Drencka Balich. Pierpont suggests that in his creation of the character of Drenka, the ‘unashamedly polyamorous’ old-fashioned loving mother, a heroine who is ‘a worthy descendant of the great adulteresses of European literature,’ Roth has given his best response to his feminist critics. The last words should go to the marvellously impure Drenka on her deathbed: ‘You are my America,’ she tells the heartbroken Mickey, ‘Yes, you are, my wicked boy.’

This is a portrait of Philip Roth by a friend and a book for readers who are already friends of Roth’s work. Reading Roth reminds us to demand something from the contemporary novel, ‘the thump of truth’—otherwise why bother?