Non­fic­tion

Philip Roth: The Biography

  • Review
By – April 5, 2021

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.

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