“Biography gives a new dimension and terror to dying,” Philip Roth (1933–2018) once remarked, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde. It was a terror he spent most of the second half of his life brooding about; he was always fiercely protective of his public image, which took plenty of hits over the years. The question of biography became urgent in 1996 on the publication of Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House. In this memoir, Bloom—the second Mrs. Roth—savaged her ex-husband, recounting in grisly detail episodes of emotional cruelty and narcissism and revealing his tendency to serial adultery, specifically an affair with a close neighbor and friend, whom she dubbed “Erda,” that continued throughout the two decades of Roth and Bloom’s partnership. Beside himself with rage, Roth stewed about how he might set the record straight without having to look undignified and defensive by responding in the first person. He decided that his friend Ross Miller, a writer with whom he frequently discussed the progress of his own novels, should become his biographer and should get to work as soon as possible. Miller worried about the blatant conflict of interest—the two men were very close—but Roth mowed him down, giving detailed instructions on how Miller should proceed and micromanaging the whole thing, as was his wont when it came to his public persona. Among his other “suggestions,” Roth said that Miller should avoid mentioning the Erda affair altogether and discuss sex in a more philosophical and general manner; he also, Roth said, should write a discrete essay, preceding the main body of the biography, about the philosophical meaning of sex in Roth’s life.
The proposal Miller eventually turned in horrified Roth: if possible, it gave sex too much meaning in its subject’s life, “as though he were writing my biography for serialization in Hustler magazine”; the effort, Roth said, could be summed up as “The Story of My Penis.” The biography project went on hold for seven years, but the problem continued to nag at Roth. What if he died suddenly—after all, he suffered from heart trouble—and some random fool got the gig? What if that biographer accepted all of Claire’s accusations? His experience with James Atlas and Saul Bellow had not exactly been encouraging: in the 1990s he had urged Atlas, at that time an acolyte of Roth’s, to take on Bellow’s biography and had persuaded Bellow that Atlas would be an excellent choice, but over the years in which Atlas labored on the biography he became increasingly disenchanted with Bellow. His distaste for his eminent subject was evident throughout the final product, Bellow: A Biography (2000). Roth was horrified for Bellow and could see the implications for himself; he, like Bellow, was not universally beloved, and an unsympathetic biographer could do infinite damage. So in 2004 he put Ross Miller back to work.
Why Miller again, after the dreadful first attempt? It’s not even as though Miller was a writer he particularly admired. One suspects it was all about control: the relationship between the two men was unequal, and Roth probably thought he could mandate the contents of the book. Lisa Halliday (who later wrote a novel based on her affair with Roth, Asymmetry, 2018) was at that time working for Roth’s agent, Andrew Wylie, and she remembered smelling trouble: “I just thought, There’s only so much you can control.” Yes—especially since Miller did not see the friendship between the two men as being as unequal as it was; indeed, he liked to describe himself as Roth’s editor and even co-author. “You have a great heavyweight fighter,” he bragged, “and they need a trainer, or a great pianist and they need a coach.”
No first-rate biographer would allow Roth the level of control he craved.
With certain ideas of his own worthiness, then, Miller must have been galled by Roth’s determination to direct the project. His response was the classic passive-aggressive tactic: he simply stopped doing anything. Roth directed him to Newark to interview elderly friends and family members before they gave up the ghost, but they tended to pop off before Miller got around to contacting them. When Barbara Epstein of The New York Review of Books was dying of cancer, Roth urged Miller to interview her, but again Miller dragged his heels, probably because he felt he was being used to serve Roth’s own score-settling agenda: “He sends me twenty questions to ask her, and they’re all questions that make him look good.” Miller stalled; Epstein got fed up waiting and changed her mind about the interview; three months later she was dead. Miller spent only a half hour with Roth’s beloved brother, Sandy, a lapse that is incomprehensible unless he was self-sabotaging, trying to get fired—as he eventually did. When Miller made his final exit from the project he returned four boxes of research to Roth. Roth listened to Miller’s interviews, then paused every five minutes to respond in writing to what he called “the errors and lies recorded in those five minutes before proceeding to listen to the next five minutes,” finally amassing hundreds of pages of commentary.
And that wasn’t all. He nipped in the bud a potential biography by Ira Nadel, to be published by Oxford University Press, because Nadel had made comments about Roth’s ways with women that angered him; he instructed friends and associates not to speak to Nadel and withheld permission to quote from his works (Nadel’s revenge appeared last month, with the publication of Philip Roth: A Counterlife by oup). Instead, Roth penned a further 295-page rebuttal of Bloom’s memoir called “Notes for My Biographer.” Houghton agreed to publish this screed despite potentially defamatory material. Roth hired a law firm and was quite looking forward to collecting witnesses and documentation, but his friends, in a body, pleaded with him not to publish. Two of them used exactly the same phrase to describe the tone of the manuscript—“relentless self-justification.” Another remarked on the obsessiveness of it all. “Don’t do it,” she insisted. In the end, he gave in and decided “to use the manuscript in the sense implied by the title.”
Which brings us to Blake Bailey, the biographer whom Roth, finally, in a fit of sanity, selected. No first-rate biographer would allow Roth the level of control he craved, but it would be worse, after all, to have a second-rate one. Bailey is a highly respected biographer, and he had a further qualification that must have been quite meaningful to Roth: he had taken John Cheever, a subject even more problematic and less sympathetic than Roth, and imbued him, in Cheever: A Life (2009), with a dignity and humanity that surprised many readers. Without in any way sweetening the man, Bailey somehow made Cheever a moving character; he redeemed him. Also, Bailey’s prose is smooth and clear, entirely free of lit-crit mumbo jumbo—a quality that must have greatly appealed to Roth, with his unerring nose for the pretentious. (“ ‘Existential’ is a bullshit word to be avoided at all costs,” he once griped.) Roth interviewed Bailey for the job in 2012 and, once the deal was made, gave—according to Bailey—“honorable and absolute” cooperation. Not that he quite gave up his attempts at control. As Bailey writes in the Acknowledgments to Philip Roth: The Biography (I love “The”—Bailey obviously plans for this to be the biography for at least a couple of decades to come, and no doubt it will),
He gave me almost every particle of pertinent information, no matter how intimate, and let me make of it what I would (after telling me, often exhaustively, what I ought to make of it). Someday I may write at length about our interesting collaboration; suffice it to say, for now, that he was a person toward whom it was hard not to feel tenderly. He was all but incapable of dissembling his human essence.
All too human, yes—hence Roth’s sympathy for Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal: he has his alter-ego Zuckerman declare in The Human Stain that he dreamt “of a mammoth banner, draped Dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend a human being lives here.”
“What is being done to silence this man?” the rabbi asked. “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”
Roth’s extreme defensiveness can seem overweening, but there is good reason for it, dating back to his beginnings as a fiction writer in the 1950s. His earliest stories were a trifle too “sensitive,” and the older Roth would have preferred to forget them: “I make Truman Capote look like a longshoreman,” he had commented ruefully at the time. Then, with his discovery of Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day and Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, Roth saw a whole new way of writing about his particular world. “[Y]ou can write about the Jewish poor, you can write about the Jewish inarticulate, you can describe things near at hand, like a grocery store. . . . And that had a terrific impact on me.” Another revelation was that it was not necessary to cast Jews either as victims or as heroes. Leon Uris’s Exodus (1958) was the Jewish book of the moment; the twenty-five-year-old Roth found its portrayal of the Jew as a “patriotic warrior” so silly that it was “not even worth disputing.” As his readers have discovered over the course of his career, Roth had tremendous affection for the hard-working lower-middle-class Jews of his natal Newark, but he also chafed at their insularity, narrow-mindedness, and fear of the goyim. Beginning with the short story “Defender of the Faith” (The New Yorker, 1959)—which he deemed the first good thing he ever wrote—Roth felt free to mock his co-religionists as being just as cynical, manipulative, and dishonest as anyone else in the world. As his friend Ted Solotaroff said, “Roth was making public . . . the mentality of many of us who were trying to liberate ourselves from twenty centuries, or so it felt, of communal solidarity, moral authoritarianism, and adaptive hypocrisy.”
Like-minded Jews, chafing at the pieties of their elders, were thrilled. “Defender” appeared in Best American Short Stories that year. But it generated a powerful backlash. The editor of Esquire, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, effectively banned Roth from the magazine’s pages as a “self-loathing Jew.” A number of Jewish readers canceled their subscriptions to The New Yorker, which had until then published only stories about “cute Jews,” as Roth would have it (Leo Rosten’s “The Education of h*y*m*a*n k*a*p*l*a*n,” for instance). The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith asked for a meeting with Roth, bringing to his attention a chilling letter from Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “What is being done to silence this man?” the rabbi asked. “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” Roth’s response:
Grossbart [the cynical Jewish Army private in “Defender of the Faith”] no more stands for all Jews than Hamlet stands for all Danes, Othello for all Negroes and/or Moors, Raskolnikov for all students or all Russians. Nor does Marx, the hero [of “Defender of the Faith”] stand for all Jews. . . . I resent deeply and cannot forgive you your insulting letter which demands of me a kind of Jewish patriotism which is akin to the kind of American patriotism demanded by Senator McCarthy a while back.
“I wanted to write literature. Instead I took Dick [Stern]’s advice and wrote Goodbye, Columbus.”
The novella Goodbye, Columbus, published the following year in The Paris Review and later in book form, accompanied by five short stories, continued the project of depicting Jews as ordinary, fallible, corrupt, and often ridiculous human beings. (In writing this segment of Roth’s life, Bailey was reminded of Isaac Singer’s response to his critics: “ ‘Why do you write about Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes?’ . . . and I said, ‘Shall I write about Spanish thieves and Spanish prostitutes? I write about the thieves and prostitutes that I know.’ ”) The novella was written at a moment of change for Roth, when he finally decided to turn his back on what had promised to be a solid academic career. After undergraduate studies at Rutgers-Newark and then Bucknell, he received an MA in English literature at the University of Chicago and began work on a Ph.D. Finally, he recalled, “I strangled on Anglo-Saxon, and kept thinking about stories I wanted to write while talking about stories Henry James did write.” This rigorous academic work had imbued him with a Jamesian high seriousness about fiction. Unlike many other writers, he had very few interests outside literature, something that became a problem when he retired from writing in old age: “I don’t really have other interests,” he reflected. “My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book.” (Sex, Bailey says, was “arguably his only hobby.”) And he meant, from the very beginning, to write for the ages, if possible. “I wanted to be morally serious like Joseph Conrad,” he said of his young self. “I wanted to exhibit my dark knowledge like Faulkner. I wanted to write literature. Instead I took Dick [Stern]’s advice and wrote Goodbye, Columbus.” (Stern, a lifelong friend, had noticed “a discrepancy between Philip as he told stories and Philip as he wrote stories.”) The advice was of course excellent, with the resulting work putting Roth squarely in the middle of the literary map.
“Newark!” enthused Leslie Fiedler. “A Florence it will never be in the minds of men, nor a Baghdad nor a Paris; but after Roth, we can hope that perhaps it will survive on library shelves ravaged by ambitious boys as another Yonville or Winesburg, Ohio.” Stunningly, Goodbye, Columbus won the 1960 National Book Award, beating out works by Bellow, Faulkner, and a youthful John Updike and making Roth the youngest writer ever to win the award, in any category (he was twenty-seven). It even won the Harry and Ethel Daroff Memorial Award for “the year’s best fiction work of Jewish interest” from the Jewish Book Council, a decision that upset the kind of Jewish readers who had been so disturbed by “Defender of the Faith.” Speaking for many, one editorialist opined that it was “a grave mistake for the Jewish Book Council to extend ‘Jewish interest’ recognition to a book that shows no understanding whatever of basic Jewish values or proper appreciation of the sensitive American Jew’s relationship to his heritage.” (Roth wondered what “Jewish values,” a term he so often heard, could possibly be: “I would very much like to hear what values of a moral nature are exclusively Jewish.”)
From this point—and the atmosphere would only thicken when Portnoy’s Complaint came along a few years later—Roth took on a special significance within Jewish intellectual life. As the critic David Boroff put it:
Philip Roth has become a kind of shibboleth for American Jews; they define themselves and other people in terms of how they react to Philip Roth. In the suburbs, for example, there are always little cells, little revolutionary movements, of people who have read Goodbye, Columbus and are admirers of Philip Roth; and this sets them apart from the great mass of suburban people to whom Mr. Roth is anathema . . . . [I]t is a kind of an issue, a way of dividing the sophisticated from the non-sophisticated. You are given a choice: Leon Uris or Philip Roth.
In one particularly unpleasant incident in 1962, Roth was heckled by students at Yeshiva University when he appeared on a panel there. “ ‘You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!’ said one. ‘Yes?’ Roth replied. ‘And what is that?’ ‘English literature! English literature!’ ” Plus ça change, one is tempted to say, for the same harangue is going on today on campuses all over America, with “racist” substituted for “anti-Semitic.” Ralph Ellison, also on the dais at Yeshiva, pointed out that his depiction of incest among black sharecroppers in Invisible Man had provoked outrage from black readers, but that he was not in the business of producing propaganda; the students barely listened to him. Traumatized by such attacks, Roth wrote a piece for Commentary on “Writing about Jews” and even considered the possibility of never doing so again.
Of course he was only getting started. He followed up Goodbye, Columbus with two intelligent, dense, serious novels: Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), books which are of interest to serious Roth fans but which posterity, and many critics then and now, have deemed forgettable. (The French Pléiade Roth edition omitted them both.) He did a bit of experimentation with playwriting, a form he never made his own but which allowed him to try out different narrative voices. One of the dramatic pieces he toyed with was a play about a Jewish man and his analyst:
Not until I found, in the person of a troubled analysand, the voice that could speak in behalf of both the “Jewboy” (with all that word signifies to Jew and Gentile alike about aggression, appetite, and marginality) and the “nice Jewish boy” (and what that epithet implies about repression, respectability, and social acceptance) was I able to complete a fiction that was expressive . . . of that character’s dilemma.
The work that would become Portnoy’s Complaint appeared in four magazine installments and then in book form in 1969. It became, as all the world knows, a phenomenon, the best selling book in the history of Random House: 3.5 million copies in its first five years. The rage from a large portion of the Jewish community boiled on (“This is the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying,” complained the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Haaretz), but the compensations of fame and fortune made it all considerably easier for Roth to bear.
Portnoy marked some sort of a turning point in American cultural history. In hindsight, from the viewpoint of the twenty-first century, Roth seems to have won the moral/aesthetic battle he waged in the Fifties and Sixties with the self-appointed guardians of “Jewish values.” We are all certainly living in Portnoy’s world now, whether we want to or not. And in 2014, when Roth was eighty-one, the process was formalized when he received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Roth has won,” as the Forward announced: “American Jews today are more the heirs of Portnoy than of his uptight community. . . . We can laugh today because we are no longer compelled to cry.” As Roth subsequently quipped: “All that’s missing now is the Gloria Steinem Award from the National Organization for Women and the cherished Kakutani Prize.”
Still, the objections of his bygone antagonists do not deserve to be entirely forgotten. The late Fifties, when the rebellious young Roth sought to liberate himself from Jewish xenophobia and fear, was an extraordinarily sensitive moment for Jews in America and the world over, with the horrors of war, genocide, and displacement scarcely behind them. In its shameful reluctance to admit Jewish refugees, the United States had revealed its naked face—not that of a generous Lady Liberty after all, but of a snarling anti-Semite. Roth was no Zionist—“There is a Zion,” he once told the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, “and it’s called America”—and he wrote with great audacity, as well as a stubborn refusal to accept the possibility that what had happened in Europe might one day happen here. (He explored this idea later, in The Plot Against America.) Alfred Kazin, the critic whose praise Roth most coveted but who secretly disliked the bumptious, arrogant writer, had reservations about Portnoy that are hard to argue with:
I admire it, but love it I don’t. The Jewish family torture, even for those who have gone through the mill, has in the past not been so purely psychological, has certainly in the past gone along with a certain moral and even spiritual insight. But Roth is essentially a savage writer: no nuances, and above all, no love.
Along with the charge of being a self-hating Jew and even an anti-Semite, what most enraged Roth was being called a misogynist. How could he, he argued, who clearly adored women, be accused of hating them? He has a point there, but the question is of course subtler than he admitted and rests on definitions, which are so often subjective: how do we define “misogyny”? How do we define “loving women”?
Roth was certainly obsessed with women, capable of falling deeply in love. He was in no way abusive, and all of his relationships, even the short-term ones, appear to have been consensual. He was of course a man of his time, and some of his sexual ploys will be deeply offensive to readers of younger generations: in the years when he taught a weekly undergraduate literature course at Penn, for example, a friend in the administration played the pander, making sure that in his oversubscribed courses the most attractive girls were given first dibs at registration. Through and beyond middle age Roth continued to think it was his God-given right to pair off with nubile young women, and he was over seventy when it finally occurred to him that he might be “too old to seriously consider attracting the women who attracted him.” I would say so! But judging a man of yesterday by today’s moral standards is pointless and presumptuous. All those pretty girls at Penn were not worrying about power dynamics; they were lusting after the hot, famous writer. And it’s worth noting that when Roth lay dying at New York-Presbyterian, he was surrounded by what Bailey calls a “remarkable” number of former lovers—“all the more for a man reputed to have problems with women.”
What he wanted appears to have been no different from what most men (or at least straight literary men) want: “a woman I can trust and love, and who is sweet and passionate; a home of my own to live a long life in; and to write the best books I can,” he wrote to his analyst in the post-Portnoy era. “I suppose I ache only with vanity—and yet I would relinquish all that, vanity, and pathetic social aspirations, and that ghastly stinking bastard, that son of a bitch, Shame—gladly relinquish that—but how?” He found women who seemed to fit the bill, notably the beautiful and gentle Ann Mudge, with whom he spent much of the Sixties, and his next girlfriend, the tough, sensible Barbara Sproul, a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary who later founded Hunter College’s Religion program. He could have married either of these two appropriate women instead of the two wildly inappropriate ones he did wed, but would such a marriage have lasted? “As a rule he thought there was a ‘two-year limit’ to sexual interest, and marriage was deadly in any case.” Sproul walked out on him when she turned thirty, though they had been happy and compatible for several years; she wanted children and knew that he did not, and that was that.
In 2014, explaining why he’d married the two women he’d married—Maggie Martinson and Claire Bloom—instead of more suitable ones like Mudge or Sproul, Roth recalled: “It was not for lack of love that I did not marry any of those women I did not marry who would have married me. I did not marry them because none was a finagler, a cheat, or a manipulator made tenacious who would have her man no matter what.” This describes to a tee Maggie Martinson, whom Roth wed in 1956, after three years together, under the impression she was pregnant (she had surreptitiously exchanged her own urine with that of an expectant women before they went in for the test). They lived together miserably until 1963—the era of Goodbye, Columbus, the National Book Award, a blissful residency in Rome, and the extraordinary rise to fame that should have comprised the most exciting years of his life. That Maggie was a monster is attested to not only by Roth (she is transparently portrayed in When She Was Good, My Life as a Man, and The Facts), but also by all of their friends and even by her own children, to whom Bailey gives the pseudonyms Ronald and Helen. She “tried to destroy everything in her path,” the adult Ronald remembered. “I’ve got to say that if it were not for the positive influence Philip had on my life at that time, I might be in jail today.” Recognizing that the children’s own father, Burt Miller, was not much better as a parent than Maggie (“He bought that book How to Be a Dummy for Dummies”), Roth set about patiently trying to educate the children. Eight-year-old Helen did not yet know how to read; he gave her lessons and got up at 5:30 every morning to drive her to a reading clinic. “I began to thrive on finding out what it was to have a good father,” she told Bailey.
Roth’s rages always festered for years, but his rage against Maggie outdid all the others. The dispassionate reader might think that Roth should have spent less time ranting about her incessant manipulation and emotional blackmail and more time considering why he was so peculiarly vulnerable to it. Plenty of men would have gone ahead and walked out when she threatened suicide; it took him years. He himself believed that the moral demands of his upbringing had much to do with it and that in agreeing to marry a woman he did not love and to take two small children into the bargain he was trying as hard as he could “to earn the award for the Nicest Jewish Boy of the Century.” In later years, Bailey explains, “Roth would view himself as a product of his era, when young men were taught to value themselves in proportion to the number of crippling obligations—marriage, children, career—they were willing to assume.” He was unable to shake Maggie even after they separated in 1963, and she spent another five years fleecing him for whatever she could extort. He felt only a vast relief when in 1968 she was killed in a car accident in the Sixty-sixth Street Central Park transverse, henceforth referring to the man who had been driving the car as “my emancipator.” This is not wanton cruelty; others heartily concurred. When informed of Maggie’s death, both Roth’s brother Sandy and her own son Ronald said “Good.”
Roth’s second marriage was almost as hard to explain as his first: he and the famous British actress Claire Bloom had already been together for fifteen years, the last fourteen of which had been distinctly unhappy. When they finally did wed, in 1990, the battle lines had long been drawn. Roth was greatly resentful of the fact that Bloom’s daughter, Anna Steiger, appeared to be more important to her than he was. (To this one can only say that perhaps in that case he should not have married a woman with a child.) She was enraged at his attempts to exclude Anna from their lives. He didn’t want to live in England—his fictional material was clearly elsewhere; she didn’t want to live in America. He liked to lead a quiet life in the country; she got bored there. Their sex life was already over by the time they married. Roth consoled himself throughout the period with “Erda” (called by Bailey “Inga”) and, when in England, with a pretty, unhappily married young bbc employee. And of course there were others. Perhaps worst of all, Roth and Bloom communicated ever more awkwardly over the years. He learned that “if he wanted to impart his thoughts on any remotely controversial matter, it was best to commit them to paper, since conversation was hampered by Bloom’s tendency to scream and run away, sobbing.” In 2010 he noted in his diary that “Claire, prompted by nothing that could be seen, began to run crazily around the fields, her arms raised in the air and wailing uncontrollably.” The Romanian novelist Norman Manea, who was present, confirmed the incident to Bailey.
One could say that Roth was very, very lucky to have died in 2018, just before #MeToo reached its full efflorescence. Bailey, too, was lucky that Roth died when he did. Had he lived on, his biographer would have been pressured to take sides in the great Claire/Philip War. He does not do so, however. He effectively communicates the fact that both players were unreliable, defensive, and self-exonerating and takes both Bloom’s narrative in Leaving a Doll’s House and Roth’s vociferous responses to it with at least a pound of salt. At one point Roth, suicidal, had been committed to the Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut; he was doing better, soon to be released, and Bloom came up for a visit. When, at his instigation, they discussed the possibility of living separately after his release, she became so hysterical that the hospital authorities took her to the locked ward—“the first visitor in Silver Hill history, or so Roth claimed, to be retained as a patient overnight.” They were both nuts, in other words. Bailey lays the facts out for us, and we can make of them what we will.
“It is like using exquisite Carrera [sic] marble to expertly carve the sculpture of a dildo.”
I would not classify Roth as a misogynist, but he does seem to have found it difficult, in his fiction, to present a woman in any way except through the personal filter of whatever Roth-substitute featured in the novel in question—Zuckerman, Tarnopol, Kepesh, et al. Robert Towers complained in The New York Review of Books about Roth’s apparent inability “to create young women (as opposed to Jewish mothers) who convey the sense of an existence independent of the protagonist’s need for sex or suffering or both.” Hermione Lee found four general female types in Roth’s work: “overprotective mothers,” “monstrously unmanning wives,” “consoling, tender, sensible girlfriends,” and “recklessly libidinous sexual objects.” This is true, I think, and while it does not make him a misogynist it does limit his work, in the same way that some of the great Victorian novelists were limited in their ability to create complex female characters. As a woman reader who began reading Roth during my teenage years in the Seventies and was delighted by Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Our Gang, I found myself bemused by The Breast and I strangled on The Great American Novel (as Roth had done on Anglo-Saxon). I read My Life as a Man with interest, if not entire comprehension, and then, with The Professor of Desire and the Zuckerman books, I simply grew tired of it all. The brilliance was still there, always, but as a woman reader I found too much that didn’t interest me. It’s not that these books got my feminist dander up; I just found Roth’s very male obsessions with his manhood and his mortality to be tedious, ditto the endless narcissistic meta-fictional game playing. From my many discussions, over the decades, with other women readers, I know I am not alone in this response. As Rhoda Koenig wrote in New York magazine way back in 1988,
Despite Roth’s constant disclaimers that his novels are not his life, the material here is familiar to the point of exhaustion. Obviously, there is still a great sympathy for Roth and a great appetite for his works. I, for one, however, am tired of hearing that old organ grind.
Roth was to some extent imprisoned in his own ego, a state that intensified as he aged: his interests, never broad, narrowed further, as did his social life. He wrote superbly about being a son, a lover, a husband, a brother, but his worldview could not encompass parenthood, and one of his friends remarked on his complete lack of interest, even in old age, in the joys of being a grandfather. Sex never lost its absolutely central position in his idea of the human—and again, this gets boring. Dick Stern complained of Roth’s The Dying Animal that “the only thing that counts is fucking,” and the critic Lee Siegel had worse to say: “It is like using exquisite Carrera [sic] marble to expertly carve the sculpture of a dildo.”
Roth went far to redeem himself in his so-called “American Trilogy,” American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), in which, though Zuckerman is still present as a narrative voice, he dispenses with his usual obsessions to deal with larger social and historical—indeed, world-historical—themes. Bellow, whose judgment meant more to Roth than that of any other novelist, had been quoted in People magazine making fun of the Zuckerman books: “Why write three novels that examine one’s career as a novelist? Things are bad out there. The knife is at our throats. One can’t write books so attentive to one’s own trouble.” And John Updike, whom Roth also greatly admired, had been rather stinging in his review of Operation Shylock: “Some readers may feel there has been too much Philip Roth in the writer’s recent books. Such readers should be warned: there are two Roths in his new novel.” Roth responded to such justified criticism with the trilogy. I Married a Communist was a petty score-settling attempt, but American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and the subsequent Plot Against America (2004) were magnificently successful in turning Roth’s relentless inward gaze out into the world. After this monumental effort, Roth, aging and in precarious health, appeared to lack the stamina for more big novels and turned to the novella form—and, once again, turned inward, with mixed results.
Blake Bailey has done an absolutely superb job with the masses of material he had to work with, and with a very controlling subject. He manages to strike a sane and equable tone, and while he demonstrates a certain sympathy for Roth, he is nobody’s fool. The result is a detailed portrait of a man who is self-obsessed but generous and often kind; full of bile, yet, to many people, the funniest man they ever met; a devoted friend to many, an equally fervent foe to many others. Roth did not always show himself to best advantage, but when he did, it was striking. With Norman Manea, for instance, whose work had been banned by the Ceaușescu dictatorship and who wished to immigrate to the United States, Roth got him a job teaching at Bard College, nominated him (successfully in both cases) for a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and a Guggenheim, found him an apartment in a nice doorman building, put up $20,000 (in early 1990s money) as a contribution to the purchase price, and accompanied him to Manhattan’s Federal Building when Manea eventually took his oath of citizenship.
Finally—the prose. This is what it all rests on, in the end, despite themes and obsessions that may fascinate or bore individual readers. Roth ran neck and neck throughout his career with John Updike, born just a year before him, and was shocked by Updike’s death in 2009: “He was the indestructible writer with the indestructible fluency,” he reflected. “He was an ace, maybe the ace.” Whether one likes Roth’s work more than Updike’s or vice versa is more a question of personal preference than literary judgment; they were the two preeminent writers of their generation. Both aces, after all. Readers of Bailey’s book—or of this review, for that matter—who might find themselves turned off by Roth the man should be reminded of Roth the prose magician. And here he is, in the final passage of his late novella Everyman (2007). Everyman is dying:
Daylight, he thought, penetrating everywhere, day after summer day of that daylight blazing off a living sea, an optical treasure so vast and valuable that he could have been peering through the jeweler’s loupe engraved with his father’s initials at the perfect, priceless planet itself—at his home, the billion-, the trillion-, the quadrillion-carat planet Earth! . . . Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing it. Just as he’d feared from the start.
1 Philip Roth: The Biography, by Blake Bailey; W. W. Norton, 912 pages, $40.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 66
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com