Researching his richly textured Philip Roth: The Biography, authorized by Roth himself in 2012, Blake Bailey recognized the challenge of narrating the story of one of the most celebrated, complex, and controversial figures in contemporary American literature. Roth, Bailey admits at the outset, is “too protean a figure” to pin down.
“Roth is a minefield for biographers,” notes the critic Jesse Tisch. Roth’s imagination was explosive, driven by grievances that, as Bailey states, “would not leave him in peace.” The challenge for a Roth biographer is in digging down into the bedrock of his life, dislodging the origins of Roth’s rage — the core emotion that drove his greatest art. After more than eight hundred pages of often revelatory details about Roth’s private life, his unsettling sexual biography, the shape of his literary career, his colossus-like presence in American culture for over half a century, Philip Roth can’t completely capture the incendiary aspect of Roth’s presence in the world — what Nicole Krauss calls his “darker, more mischievous magic.”
The Rothian “minefield” for biographers also refers, I believe, to Roth’s sly art of fabricating alternate selves, the invention of characters like Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, and Mickey Sabbath, whose subversive, “uncensored” voices tend to be mistaken by naïve readers as unmediated, as their author’s unvarnished, true confession. In his fiction and interviews, Roth announces his method of masking. In this respect he anticipates critics’ literal interpretation of his work; in the process, he teaches us how not to read him.
The most treacherous minefield a Roth’s biographer must navigate, however, is the shifting landscape of memory. In life and in his art Roth was, like his alter ego Mickey Sabbath, an “animal with a long memory.” Bailey shows Roth to be unforgiving and vengeful in his personal relationships (while also acknowledging his “essential magnanimity” and acts of generosity). Roth frequently misremembers significant events in his past. The challenge for Bailey was separating fact from fabrication as Roth sought to control the narrative, the presentation of his private life for posterity.
Bailey spent hundreds of hours listening to Roth revisiting archaic grievances, defending himself against critics, railing against ex-wives and would-be biographers (like his ex-friend Ross Miller who, before Bailey, had been invited to write Roth’s biographer). Bailey also had special access — currently denied to future Roth scholars — to Roth’s detailed rebuttals to others’ accounts of him among them to Claire Bloom’s unflattering portrait of him and their marriage in Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), along with a manuscript by the woman with whom Roth had a combustible seventeen-year affair, the model for Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater. Bailey quotes numerous passages from these documents in the biography.
Bailey is superb at reconstructing Jewish-saturated 1930s and ‘40s Newark, a region that shaped Roth’s literary imagination. He deepens our understanding of that insular world satirized in The Ghostwriter (1979). Looking back, Newark induced in Roth a profound nostalgia, which animated his fiction. It also generated pain and mourning, which later became the source for Sabbath’s Theater and his last novel, Indignation (2008).
Among the more fascinating sections of Philip Roth is Bailey’s account of Roth’s little-known college days at Bucknell, which spurred his desire to write plays and act on stage. Bailey also discusses Mildred Martin, Roth’s favorite English professor at Bucknell, who played a key mentoring role over the decades. In retrospect, Professor Martin inaugurated a line of women — fellow writers, editors, and confidantes — with whom Roth shared drafts of novels in progress (among them Roslyn Schloss, Veronica Geng, Judith Thurman, Claudia Pierpoint Roth, Hermione Lee, Nicole Kraus, and Lisa Halliday).
The most soul-shattering memories in Philip Roth hover around Roth’s fraught marriages to Maggie Martinson and, later, his equally disastrous relationship with Claire Bloom. Thanks to Bailey, we now have a detailed account, transcribed from Roth’s still seething memory, of his first marriage. Roth was initially “fascinated” by Martinson’s “goyish chaos” (Bailey quoting Roth), but their relationship, which began when Roth was twenty-three, was filled with turbulence and deception. A faked pregnancy compelled Roth to propose marriage, and for the rest of his life Roth would never forgive or forget Maggie’s “ruse.” At first Claire Bloom was “a great emotional soulmate” (Bailey quoting Roth) to Roth, but Bailey recounts how this relationship devolved into exposé and mutual accusation.
Other sections of Philip Roth provide thick descriptions of Roth’s life story, many already well known, others revelatory: Roth’s emergence on the literary scene in the late 1950s; his friendship with Saul Bellow (“Roth’s hero”); his ambivalence towards Malamud and his Yiddish-inflected immigrant characters; his rivalry with Updike; his battles with Jewish intellectuals like Irving Howe, whose critique of Portnoy cut Roth to the bone; his disdain for Woody Allen; his single-handed recovery of authors from Eastern Europe living under extreme political conditions.
In the end, Bailey manages to avoid the minefields surrounding his subject. Philip Roth conjures the intellectually overpowering, sexually omnivorous, wounded, hilarious, monumental literary figure as fully as possible.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He lives in Amherst, MA.