Philip Roth: The Biography By Blake Bailey

The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan.

Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master and of the postwar literary scene.

Bailey shows how Roth emerged from a lower-middle-class Jewish milieu to achieve the heights of literary fame, how his career was nearly derailed by his catastrophic first marriage, and how he championed the work of dissident novelists behind the Iron Curtain. Bailey examines Roth’s rivalrous friendships with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and William Styron, and reveals the truths of his florid love life, culminating in his almost-twenty-year relationship with actress Claire Bloom, who pilloried Roth in her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll's House. Tracing Roth’s path from realism to farce to metafiction to the tragic masterpieces of the American Trilogy, Bailey explores Roth’s engagement with nearly every aspect of postwar American culture. Philip Roth: The Biography

There’s an inevitability to this biography.

As a Roth scholar, or Roth-adjacent scholar, I felt compelled to read it. And, as I read, I felt Blake Bailey must have felt compelled to write it. After all, how could he have passed up the opportunity once it came: to have arguably the most controversial writer of the 1960-2010 era agree to participate in an authorized biography?

What’s more, I figure Roth must have felt compelled to take part in it himself. As someone who famously avoided getting pinned down on the particulars of his own life – preferring to explore a range of fictions around his experience – he must finally have conceded to the obvious: with so many people wondering about what “really happened,” there would be both intellectual curiosity and the urge for gossip. Such a book would be – as this is – one of the literary events of its seasons.

And that’s to say nothing of his now well-documented impulse to grind his axe; much of this feels like Roth pulling the strings of the project as a posthumous response to Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House memoir. Bailey seems to push against that somewhat, but it’s telling that he doesn’t seem to have tried to speak with Bloom or with a Bloom loyalist like Francine du Plessix Grey. I get the impression Roth forbade it – as he indeed pulled his one-time friend Ross Miller from the project when Miller got the revolutionary idea that it was his book to write rather than Roth’s – which must have been one more burden for Bailey.

I feel the weight of that series of necessity as I read this. Above all, it’s heavy. Even as an audiobook, it weighs a lot – more than 30 hours. I have to hand it to Bailey, he has done the legwork. He’s tracked down high school classmates who figure as potential inspirations for one or another character from the novels. He’s read (in their entirety, it seems) Roth’s college humor magazine columns. And he’s wrung out as many tiny possibly consequential details of Roth’s parents, wives, and late life friends.

I admit there’s something impressive and, maybe, necessary in all that. I wish I’d had the chance to be friends with Roth, and I flatter myself that I’d have been a solid friend of a season. Roth famously circulated his younger friends, growing close to them and then gradually pulling away. I fit the demographic – Jewish, literary (in my way), and curious about a variety of things he appreciated too (baseball, Jewish gangsters) – and I expect it would have been striking to know him.

But, in the end, Bailey faces an insurmountable challenge. He is trying to turn “the facts” of Roth’s life into literature, and that puts him into competition with Roth himself. I don’t care how good Bailey is, and at times he seems pretty good, but he can’t make Newark or Jewish summer camp or life with a movie star wife come alive with any of the success of Portnoy, Nemesis, or I Married a Communist.

Every detail we get seems to suggest the possibility that it influenced something Roth would write. The trouble is, a careful reader of Roth – at least my own careful reading of him – recognizes that it’s never about the detail seen straightforward but rather, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the one seen slant. If you’ve read Patrimony, you know at some level that Roth thrived when he exaggerated or distorted “the truth.”

There may not be another contemporary writer who has more scrupulously explored the ironic boundary between what actually happened and how we narrate it. At the most obvious level, the novels that feature a protagonist named Philip Roth, such as Operation Shylock, are clearly less autobiographical than many of the ones that feature Nathan Zuckerman.

At a philosophical level, though, Roth strikes me as exploring Henry James’s admonition to strive to be someone on whom nothing is lost. Everything he writes is, in part, an interrogation of what it means to write, of what it means to transform, to blur experience into art. Bailey is compelled to do the opposite, to distill the original experience from the art, and it’s nowhere near as much fun.

One reason to love Roth is that he makes literature that matters. When you read his work, whether the early short stories or the late-life dying-animal short novels, you recognize an ethical imagination. He manages to boil down the challenges of life, to render them as heightened truths. He gives us characters who seem real – with “seeming” carrying more truthfulness than the messier reality of real life can generate – with the result that their challenges are real, more real than the challenges of the actual people who inspired them.

I sometimes tell my students that we study literature because the best fiction gives us the chance to dissect life in a way analogous to bio lab. Just as we can’t cut into living creatures to see how they work and so settle for dead and pickled ones, we can’t freeze living humans and sort out their emotional and ethical complications. As a result, fiction – at least powerful fiction of Roth’s sort – makes that work possible. It’s the irony at the heart of what I do: imagination can often be more compelling than reality.

To be fair, Bailey gets at that point with a striking anecdote. He claims that Arthur Gefen, who first told Roth the story of a boy who threatened to jump off of his synagogue roof, went on to become a literature professor at Minnesota. While there, Gefen would tell his own version of the story and then assign “Conversion of the Jews,” asking which was better. He said the students invariably preferred the literary version to the historical one.

Bailey, then, finds himself in the position of Gefen, giving us “the facts” from an author who’s already given us The Facts.

I have to admit that few of the broad strokes are new to me here. We get the awful experience of Roth’s disastrous first marriage, the extended she-said/he-said of his second, and the late-life pleasure of the American master somewhat at peace at last with his fame.

There are plenty of lesser known issues, though. We get names for many of his sexual conquests, Playboy’s Miss May 1956 (apparently a writer in her own right), Jackie Kennedy, Mia Farrow, and a host of intelligent seeming Mrs. Roth hopefuls who clung to him for months or sometimes years.

The whole of it is often dreary, though. I was glad to get the information, but it finally saddened me to get so much of it. At the worst here, knowing more of the background of Sabbath’s Theater turns me off. And I resent that since it’s probably my favorite Roth novel of all.

One disturbing element comes in his near affair with his step-daughter Helen. Bailey is coy in reporting it, painting Helen Miller as the aggressor, but the near impropriety is disturbing. The Roth that Bailey paints was attracted to young Helen, noting her “leotard-clad legs” and acknowledging that she was “blooming” as her mother became less and less appealing to him. In similar but later fashion, Roth purportedly propositioned Bloom’s daughter’s best friend, Felicity, in the home he shared with Bloom. (Bloom charges him with this in Leaving a Doll House; here, Roth owns up to it as a joke that misfired, something that the, to-his-mind, manic Bloom exaggerated into gossip and theater.)

I imagine I’d have forgotten those anecdotes if not for the uncomfortable parallel they suggest to the Woody and Soon-Yi Allen relationship. That’s another leading Jewish light of the generation who, in the midst of a disastrously unraveling marriage to a non-Jewish woman, found himself attracted to a step-daughter who could confirm her mother’s “crazy” status. What’s more, each man also found himself deeply and publicly at odds with his ex-wife’s daughter – Allen with Dylan Farrow and Roth with Anna Steiger.) I’m not sure what to make of that, but there it is. Arguably the two most famous popular culture Jews of the era caught in the same melodrama.

Roth’s life is, in many ways a tawdry one, which makes the accomplishment of his art all the more impressive. Bailey does a fairly good job of showing how Roth distilled an ethical sensibility from the various messes of that life. He falls short, though, in showing how – beyond that ethical vision – Roth recognized a fundamental comedy as well. Roth is a very good writer because he does ask us to contemplate what it means to be decent in the bewildering contemporary world. Roth is a great writer, though, because he makes us laugh at the same time he makes us think. That’s the greater forest that gets lost among the many, many trees that Bailey lays out in this necessary but not always welcome biography.
Biography, Memoir On Tuesday morning, I was a quarter of the way through this biography, contemplating Bailey's take on Roth's first marriage. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. But I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth's behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth's excesses than his wife's. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I was beginning to actively dread the Claire Bloom section.

Then this news broke. This, of course, casts an entirely different light on Bailey's portrayal of Roth's wife and, in fact, all the women in the other biographies. I find myself in the perverse position of wishing to reread and reevaluate all of them, and yet also not wanting to read another word by him.

Should this book be read? I think it should, though not right now, and perhaps I will even finish it myself one day. Roth was, despite his many faults, an important writer of the twentieth century, and Bailey had access to sources that no one may ever see again, or at least not for a very long time. But it can never again be thought of as definitive, and I think it should be read with an eye toward what we are willing to forgive of men we consider geniuses, and how we determine who these geniuses are in the first place. Because it seems to be the case that the gatekeepers who anoint our brilliant writers are often themselves men who treat women very badly indeed. It is just possible that this clouds their judgment when they consider misogynists who happen to construct sentences well. Biography, Memoir I was saddened and angered when Norton decided not to promote this fine work of non fiction. Due to some claims that Mr. Bailey was sexually inappropriate with two women from his past, his work is now verboten. I am an extreme liberal but the idea of cancelling a person's work due to their past misdeeds would eliminate a great deal of literature from any canon of fiction or non fiction.

Bailey presents Roth as a whole, a gestalt, a HUMAN who has faults and generosities. He was a man of his times and a person who is often very unlikeable but who was a literary genius. If you are reading for salacious content, you will be disappointed. If you are reading to gain insights into the person and into his work you will be gratified.

Bailey has been criticized for being too condoning of Roth and his exploits with women. He addresses that near the end and refers to all the women authors, lovers, friends, and critics who say otherwise. This is a fine piece of work and I hope it wins the Pulitzer for biography --all ALLEGATIONS aside. Read it for what it is: a biography of a flawed human (who amongst us is not?). Read it for what it is: an excellent biography of a literary giant. Biography, Memoir Dadas as necessidades amplamente diferentes das suas diferentes identidades, o relacionamento de Roth com o mundo tinha necessariamente de ser incompleto, quando não era positivamente desastroso. Biography, Memoir **NB: I haven't finished the book yet. This is not a review. This is a reckoning with Roth, Bailey, and a divided fan-dom.**

While Philip Roth is one of my favourite writers, I'm well aware that his real-life treatment and occasional fictional depictions of women make him very problematic to 21st-century thinking. That difficulty would have been enough to wrestle with--does his unfiltered and unapologetic phallocentric viewpoint really need to be considered at a time when we (i.e. straight white males) are *finally* realizing the importance of those minority voices that have been marginalized and suppressed during our long tenure as society's dominant power? Shouldn't we spend our time learning from those whose perspectives we'd never experience, particularly in light of the injustice those groups have suffered at the hands of people who look exactly like us?

For that reason, my huge enthusiasm for Roth's work feels out of place and almost (but not quite) inappropriate these days. I was long looking forward to reading this book, glad I finally am, but all too sure that my interest leaves me outside of the forefront of today's empathetic progressive movements (i.e. all versions of woke-ness). And that's a shame, because I feel that those movements are, in general, totally correct about the injustice inherent in modern Western society.

And now, there's friggin' Blake Bailey to deal with. The allegations against him are terribly serious, and given the first-person reports from his accusers, I'm inclined to believe that they are--ALL of them--true. So now I'm reading a sympathetic biography of a self-absorbed, selfish, controlling, and excellent artist, written by an alleged rapist. If I believe that a survivor's voice absolutely MUST be heard, and that abusers deserve unmitigated condemnation, why wouldn't I shun this book?

The fact is that my fandom goes too deep. I came to Philip Roth at time in my life of despair and rage at my failures, and Roth's rounded depictions of masculinity in crisis, self-absorbed men who do the obviously wrong thing actually resonated with me. That says whatever it will about me, unfortunately, but the warts-and-all portraits of men of intellect who keep fucking up (after all, hurt people hurt people) are, to me, brilliant.

So now, I've bought this book, thereby giving money and support to Bailey. All I can think to do now, to rebalance the moral scales that my modern-age guilt about supporting this man are tipping, is a) continue to read books written by historically marginalized voices, and b) to make a donation to a charity supporting the survivors of sexual abuse.

Happy reading, all, and may we each reconcile our own personal struggles with the love of brilliant art created by morally reprehensible artists. Biography, Memoir

Philip Roth generated more outrage than any American writer since Henry Miller. The mere mention of his name triggers a multi-channel set of associations: Roth the joker, Roth the sex-fiend; Roth the celebrated, Roth the walking ego. Neither judge nor jury, Blake Bailey’s biography presents Roth the writer in all his unvarnished glory.

Unusually the ‘early life’ section doesn’t tempt you to skip ahead with a cry of ‘get famous already!’ on your lips. Roth’s ancestors were East-European Jews, their homes harassed by the Tsars and emptied by the Nazis. ‘Pole, Yid and Hound – each to the same faith bound’ was a message nailed to trees wherever Poles, Jews and dogs had been hanged. Jewish neighbourhoods were routinely ransacked and burned. The Tsar’s adviser outlined his chilling plan for purging the Jews: ‘One-third conversion, one-third emigration, and one-third starvation.’

Once safe in the New World, the family tree bore cruel fruit. His Father’s side suffered from heart disease; his Mother’s relatives suffered from a genetic oddity – the appendix formed and settled abnormally close to the lower intestine. As a result, their appendixes would burst and remain undetectable even a week later. Death from peritonitis was common. Roth inherited and nearly died of both.

Young Roth had a happy childhood in Newark, New Jersey, and was known and liked as the class clown. Although never the top of the class, he warmed to books. His favourite authors had a fierce regional loyalty – Sherwood Anderson (especially Winesburg, Ohio), William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe.

As Roth’s interest in reading grew, so did his other favourite pastime – masturbation. After a failed pass at a local girl, Roth recalled being ‘bent over like a cripple’, limping behind a cluster of bushes to relieve the unbearable urge. The triumph of his young life was sneaking inside a cinema with a group of friends to watch Hedy Lamarr sylph naked through the woods. ‘This is it,’ they cheered. Later in life Roth listed his three great passions as ‘fucking, writing and reading.’

Soldiering was not one of Roth’s passions. Called up in the middle of college, he was swiftly invalided out and spent the next six months bound to a painful back brace. Fortunately, Roth put the experience to good use in an early short story ‘The Defender of The Faith.’ The day the story appeared in The New Yorker – after netting Roth a cheque for $2,200 – Roth spent the day reading his story over and over in blissful triumph, whether strolling through the park or sitting on the toilet.

Soon the story was grouped with other early efforts in Roth’s debut book Goodbye, Columbus and published to acclaim. The day before his 27th birthday, Roth became the youngest author to win the National Book Award. The book caused outrage. Angry letters promptly dropped through the letterbox. By portraying American Jewish life without piety or sentimentality, Roth had placed himself beyond the pale. After asking about the complaints he had been receiving, Roth was shown a letter from the President of the Rabbinical Council of America. ‘What is being done to silence this man?’ the letter demanded. ‘Medieval Jews would have known what do with him.’

It took two more novels – both relative duds – before the lesson sunk in. It was not the lesson his detractors meant. To go forward Roth would need to be himself. It was no good, he realised, trying to play the part of the neighbourhood's nicest boy. From now on he would ‘let the repellent in.’ An unfinished play from the time was titled ‘The Taming of the Id.’ Roth’s id would be tamed no longer.

The result was his early masterpiece, Portnoy’s Complaint(‘The funniest book about sex ever written’, Tony Tanner.) The novel was to wanking what Moby Dick was to whaling. The novel caused a scandal, outraged middle America, and promptly sold 400,000 copies in hardback. The book was banned in several countries. In Australia, copies were confiscated. Roth was reviled and rich. The success and backlash forever split his life into two halves – before Portnoy, and after. At times he came to regret ever writing the novel. Yet it was Roth’s first breakthrough, capturing a large audience, and freeing his imagination as never before.

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Roth’s output became stranger. One of his novels featured a professor that transforms into a 155 pound breast. (‘Why a big brainless bag of dumb, desirable tissue, acted upon instead of acting, unguarded, immobile, hanging, there, as a breast simply hangs and is there?’) The novels also became more self-centred. Through the first of many alter-egos, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth explored and sent up the writing life, including himself. Roth would produce 4 novels with Zuckerman as the main character. In retrospect, the books from here onwards read like a series of status updates.

Readers know, of course, not to confuse writers and their characters. As Roth reminded us, our selves are bundled inside each other like Russian Dolls. This strikes many, then as now, as wilfully misleading. When She Was Good contains a scabrous portrait of Roth’s first wife, who died tragically in a car crash. On her death Roth simply said, ‘You’re dead and I didn’t have to do it.’ Readers require few detective skills to spot thinly disguised – and merciless – portraits of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow in his work, two authors that did much to further Roth’s budding career. Even a Father on his deathbed was fair game. Few sons have written about their terminally ill father, as Roth did in Patrimony, walking to the toilet, failing to reach the bowl in time, and ‘exploding’ over the tiled floor. When Roth’s second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, published her memoir of their marriage, Roth acted as he though he’d been mugged in the street. Roth took revenge on her in his next novel, portraying her as a mentally unstable anti-Semite.

Bailey is fair to both sides, and does not deny that Roth may deserve the charge most frequently levelled against his work – rampant misogyny. ‘You used to be able to sleep with the girls [his students] in the old days,’ Roth leers to Saul Bellow. ‘And now of course it’s impossible.’ In Sabbath’s Theatre, the main character considers leaving an annual college prize of $500 for any female student who’s ‘fucked more male faculty members than any other.’ Another character refers to himself, with scant irony, as ‘an aesthetician of fucking.’ This is hardly the character’s fault - with all the logic of the bar-room bore, he insists ‘man wouldn’t have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn’t venture off to get fucked. It’s sex that disorders our normally ordered lives.’ You can perhaps see why Roth meant when he told his biographer ‘I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.’

He does – and rounded. Bailey presents Roth’s charity simply and without additional comment, balancing the meanness with the goodness. When a friend and editor was diagnosed with a ‘grapefruit-sized’ brain tumour, Roth paid $5,000 for her medical care, hiring the best nurses. Roth helped to obtain Visas for a family fleeing the civil war in Brazzaville. When a Visa was refused for the eldest daughter, he personally contacted then-President Clinton on her behalf. Two months later the family was reunited, and Roth personally paid the girls’ tuition. The next year they made their high school honour roll. Selves within selves.

It was in the 1990s that Roth’s fiction reached its full maturity. The American Trilogy – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain – restored his critical reputation and enjoyed his healthiest sales in years, netting virtually all of America’s major book awards between them. Critics soon took to calling the books ‘The Swedish Trilogy’ – the works that would finally net him the Nobel Prize. Outraged defenders wrote open letters year after year demanding to know why Roth hadn’t won it. Near the end of his life, he would visit New York’s Museum of Natural History and pass the pillar commemorating all the previous American winners. ‘This is actually quite ugly, isn’t it?’ a friend said. ‘Yes’, Roth replied. ‘And it’s getting uglier by the year.’

Philip Roth is Bailey’s fourth literary biography, following Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Charles Jackson. Two books about failures, two about successes. Bailey's steely eye turns each facet of Roth’s personality under the light and captures each reflected spark of genius and each sharp corner. Roth was a giant of the 20th century novel and this is a biography worthy of his mettle - whether the reader has had an earful of enemas by the end or not. Biography, Memoir

At the end of a long and acclaimed career, Philip Roth instructed his biographer that “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me, just make me interesting.” Bailey’s account of Roth’s life is thoroughly and intimately detailed—if you want to know who Roth was reading, where he was living, or who he was sleeping with at various points, then this book will tell you. But does that in itself make him interesting?

Biography doesn’t necessarily have to psychoanalyze its subject to be worthwhile. And there are serious drawbacks to assuming, as some postmodern critics do, that the life story of the actual human beings who create works of art are utterly irrelevant. Living people write books, and they’re not only stenographers or social constructs. It can be very rewarding to explore the reasons why an artist is drawn to certain subjects, themes, or characters. Bailey’s just-the-facts approach to Roth’s life limits our ability to explore what really made Roth tick as a writer, which is disappointing. Bailey’s scrupulously researched information merely hints at Roth’s deeper motivations and avoids taking the reader very far into Roth’s inner life.

Roth was by no means the only 20th Century novelist who deliberately and pretty openly drew from his personal life for his fiction, but in many ways his life story can be found exactly where Roth engaged with it the most productively, in his writing. At one point in The Counterlife, his acclaimed 1986 novel, Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman muses that “what people envy in the novelist aren’t the things that the novelists think are so enviable but the performing selves that the author indulges, the slipping irresponsibility in and out of his skin...what’s envied is the gift for theatrical self-transformation, the way they are able to loosen and make ambiguous their connection to a real life through the imposition of talent.”

Roth consistently followed this advice, writing dozens of books, many of which were rooted in his fairly ordinary life growing up in Jewish family in 50’s era middle-class Newark. It was appropriate that the house he grew up in eventually received a commemorative plaque, even if Roth warily hoped that he’d win the Nobel Prize every year. Roth had an impressive and inspiring capacity for work, which is not always an easy thing for writers to do, especially when an old Army injury gave him relentless back pain that was exacerbated by spending years at the desk. He sometimes chided himself when he sat down every morning, remembering that his competition had already been at it for a couple of hours.

Outside of the writing room, Roth was less disciplined. We read of some tempestuous affairs, including some very ill-advised marriages—deciding to marry because of a faked pregnancy doesn’t auger well-- but generally it seems like Roth was more focused on getting his work done than conspicuously making the scene, a la Mailer or Capote. Bailey shows that Roth was always acutely aware of the critical responses to his work and was sometimes rather petty about it. However much he tried to stay above the fray, he constantly worried over how his books were going to be received. It’s an understandable anxiety—Roth started writing at a time when novelists were more culturally central, and the reading public was larger, so critical reputations were everything.

After winning the National Book Award for Goodbye Columbus in 1959 at 27, Roth didn’t play it safe or rest on his laurels. He consistently took moral and aesthetic risks with his art, and that kept him relevant. Flaubert argued that an artist must be orderly and mild-mannered in life in order to be violent and original in their work. In some ways, Roth’s extensive romantic life, which included a nightcap with Jackie Kennedy and a fling with Ava Gardner, is an example of a time when writers (generally, it should be said, straight white males) had real social cachet.

Publishing Portnoy’s Complaint, especially during the tumultuous year of 1969, made him a household name, in part because of the exasperated way its titular hero obsessed over the forbidden fruit of the blond, All-American shiksas, and ranted and wanked his way through a guilt-ridden, self-conscious, hyperverbal monologue reminiscent of a standup routine by Lenny Bruce or Richard Lewis. It takes a fearless comic sense for a character proclaim: “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off!” It wasn’t the first or last time that one of Roth’s characters caused a stir-- some of Roth’s literary peers were outraged at Portnoy’s pyrotechnics, and one creepily wondered aloud about “what is being done about this man?”

The public lined up to buy the notorious new novel and it made Roth rich and infamous. He tired quickly of people shouting “Portnoy!” at him when he walked down the street. Jaqueline Susanne, not exactly a doyen of highbrow prose herself, once wittily remarked that Roth was probably a great writer, but if she met him she wouldn’t want to shake his hand. Bailey reveals that Roth never let a chance for a good feud go to waste and Zukerman rants in The Anatomy Lesson about the controversy swirling around his novel Carnovsky, which is obviously a chance for Roth to settle some scores, fictionally speaking, about whose hand is really worth shaking.

For me, Portnoy and the so-called “American trilogy” of the ‘90s is Roth’s most lasting work. Even if Bailey can indicate who the real people were behind the characters in I Married A Communist, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain it doesn’t necessarily explain what makes those books important. The art outperforms the real-life inspirations. Each book in the trilogy provides a nuanced exploration of the different social, political, and psychological currents that defined the second half of the 20th Century. Roth digs as far into what one character calls “the real American crazy shit” as any of his peers.

Race, sex, American identity, Jewish identity, the Red Scare, the rise of Political Correctness are all addressed with the vividness of place, comic sense of irony, and keen eye for character that is the novelists’ forte. It’s what fiction can do better than other forms of art. Swede Levov, the hero of his High School for his athletic prowess and a paragon of all-American decency gets blindsided by the radicalization of his daughter Merry. Coleman Silk makes an offhand comment while teaching a class and reaps the whirlwind of censorious PC culture. Ira “Iron Rinn” Ringold loses his public credibility after being outed for a closet Red by his vengeful wife, who had some overlaps with Claire Bloom, who wrote an angry account of her unhappy marriage to Roth. Bailey clarifies in some cases where real life ended and fiction began-- Roth’s doting mother was nothing like Portnoy’s outrageously overbearing mom, for one example, and the sordid desires of Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater weren’t Roth’s.

There is a telling moment when Roth takes his typewriter to get fixed and discovers that the key most worn down was the letter “I.” This doesn’t necessarily peg Roth as a neurotically self-centered freak, even if plenty of his most interesting characters certainly were. Given how many characters and situations Roth produced, reading his autobiography doesn’t attempt to answer the intriguing question of what the constant use of that pronoun really meant to him. Was he slipping in and out of his real skin in order to get to something true about himself through his characters or were Portnoy, Mickey Sabbath, The Swede, Iron Rinn, and all the others autonomous products of his fertile imagination?

For an interested reader, which is precisely who this kind of biography is intended for, the questions naturally arise: did Roth see any or all of himself in these manic, often transgressive characters? How does that change the way we read them? These questions aren’t fully or memorably addressed in Bailey’s voluminous account of Roth’s actual life, which is a weakness in such an authoritative treatment of a major American writer. In terms of the request Roth made of him, Bailey might have failed. The Philip Roth that is presented in Bailey’s account isn’t quite as interesting as the “Philip Roth” that often appears in the books he wrote, whether he was self-consciously presenting himself as “Philip Roth” or not. But then again, maybe the book unintentionally does fulfill that wish, by leading us back to the writing for answers. Which, for Roth, always seemed to be what mattered most.
Biography, Memoir Given the recent news about the sexual allegations against Biographer Blake Bailey....
I’ve chosen not to review this book. Biography, Memoir Philip Roth, who died in 2018 at age 85, was an important, prolific writer and a complicated man. Blake Bailey’s massive 900-page biography does him and his impressive body of work – some 31 books – justice. With a few caveats.

Indirectly, it also sheds light on the challenges of writing about a man who a) became a celebrity (and hence a much commented-upon figure) after an early bestseller (1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint); b) frequently inserted alter egos named Philip Roth into his work; c) liked controlling his own narrative, going so far as to hire a friend to write his biography and then, later, fire him; and d) had a complex relationship with women.

This last point is especially important, because I must address the elephant in the room. Earlier this year, just after the book’s publication, a story came out alleging that author Bailey, while a beloved Grade Eight teacher, had groomed students and later raped one of them as an adult. Bailey has denied the allegations, but the story – which has encouraged more women to come forward – caused him to lose his agent and his publisher, who promptly stopped printing of the book. (I borrowed a library copy.)

If any of the allegations are true, and I’m inclined here to sympathize with the women, how objective would – and could – Bailey be about his subject’s own treatment of women? Roth candidly admits to his extramarital affairs and, as he grew older, his attraction to younger women. And then there’s the matter of his antagonistic relationship with his second wife, Claire Bloom’s, daughter, Anna, and one instance of alleged inappropriate behaviour with Anna’s childhood friend.

Before reading the book, I had little knowledge about any of this. Bailey had to vet the book with Roth’s literary executors, and neither Bloom nor her daughter Anna agreed to be interviewed, although, according to Bailey, they were “cordial and often forthcoming via email.” But could he have dug deeper, or been more critical, of Roth’s attitudes towards women when his own have been questionable? Perhaps.

What’s interesting is that many of Roth’s lovers stayed friends; one of his literary executors is, in fact, a former girlfriend. Much of Roth’s fiction was filtered through real-life experience. His early marriage to Maggie Martinson, who lied about being pregnant to force Roth to marry her (she used urine from a pregnant woman she spotted in Washington Square for her pregnancy test), greatly affected his entire life. And his second marriage, to actor Bloom, when both of them were middle-aged and famous, was equally fraught. Bailey doesn’t connect the dots, but Bloom’s 1996 memoir sullied Roth’s reputation for a time and caused him to retreat into solitude, perhaps fuelling his remarkable late-career output that included I Married A Communist (which contains a portrait of a Bloom-like older actress), set during the McCarthy era, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America.

Roth would be the first to admit that he was often attracted to damaged, broken women, and with some lovers – the woman who inspired the character of Faunia in The Human Stain, for instance – he played Higgins to their Eliza. He convinced some girlfriends to go back to school; late in life, he paid for college courses for his cook. Although he never had children of his own, he cared for many, including the damaged children of his first wife, who both admitted that Roth essentially saved their lives.

Normally, I wouldn’t be so concerned with an artist’s life. But Roth’s major works – from his award-winning first book, Goodbye, Columbus, through Portnoy, The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife and his ambitious American trilogy – seem linked to episodes or people in his life. An injury during basic training in the army left him with a lifetime of often crippling back pain; he’d also inherited heart problems and had life-saving cardiac surgeries that showed up, transformed, in novels like The Counterlife.

I’ve read seven Roth books – I consider American Pastoral and The Counterlife to be masterpieces – and this biography has made me want to seek out a few more. Bailey gives a solid account of his major themes and his maturation as a writer. I’m also curious to read some of the books Roth edited in the Writers From The Other Europe series, which he launched in the 70s and early 80s to bring lesser-known Eastern European writers to the attention of English readers.

There are also accounts of his friendships with colleagues like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (the two major Jewish-American writers who came before him), his friend and sometime rival John Updike, his nemesis Norman Mailer, lifelong friend Ted Solotaroff, and others. I had no idea novelist Alison Lurie and biographer Judith Thurman were in his close circle; and two of his best male friends, Joel Conarroe and David Plante, were gay. The story of Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, his favourite editor, who ended up dying of cancer, is touching. (Here and elsewhere there are examples of Roth’s enormous generosity towards his friends.)

What gives the book emotional heft is its symmetry. After introducing readers to Roth’s ancestors and his family, along with a good history of the New Jersey neighbourhood he grew up in, Bailey sketches portraits of Roth’s earliest friends, many of whom would stay close. Near the end of his life, having buried many friends, Roth, living alone and facing mortality, starts seeking out some people he lost touch with. It’s poignant to see him so open and so vulnerable.

Based on this book, I don’t think Roth was a misogynist – a word frequently used about his work. I became less of a Claire Bloom fan after reading the material about her (I have a feeling her memoir ruined any chances Roth had of winning the Nobel Prize). But as with any he said/she said situations, who will ever know the entire truth?

In the end, I think we have to trust the truth in the art itself. And it’s there in all its nuanced, layered complexity, in 31 books of ambition and varying quality, for generations of old and new readers to keep discovering. Biography, Memoir Roth chiese espressamente al suo biografo di non riabilitarlo, ma di renderlo solo interessante. Entrambe le richieste, a mio parere, sono state ampiamente soddisfatte. Si tratta di uno scritto equilibrato, che non incensa il personaggio solo per via della reputazione acquisita, ma nemmeno lo precipita nei gironi infernali. Non pone troppo l'accento sull'aspetto puramente biografico e privato, ma nemmeno si concentra solo sui tecnicismi della scrittura di Roth. Ne emerge una figura di uomo, con pregi, difetti, debolezze e un'infinità di contraddizioni, a ricordarci che, oltre la patina di un grande artista, vive pur sempre un uomo come tanti, che ha solo ricevuto, dal destino, il dono di saper leggere e interpretare la complessità della Vita attraverso la propria. Biography, Memoir

Blake Bailey ó 3 read