Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey

“I do not think of it as writing a book. I think of it as writing a sentence,” said Philip Roth, who wrote 31 books containing many, many sentences. Well, O.K. then. I do not think of this as writing a review. I think of it as contemplating a human being, one who is more brilliant and charming and manipulative and petty than any of you, though if one of you exceeds this, we should talk.

In his 85 years, this Philip Roth character made many friends, more enemies, two ex-wives, and a voluminous catalogue of lovers—too many for a 900-page biography. He besotted and horrified readers and was a job creator for the legal profession. And so? I behold a man named Blake Bailey, a chronicler of a beautiful and filthy life that was anything but unexamined. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

Roth identified as an American writer who happened to be Jewish, not the other way around. Offense was his brand:

You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!

Yes! ENGLISH literature!

What was bad for the Jews—at least for easily offended normative Jews—was good for business. Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s youthful transgression of a fourth book and a landmark of masturbatoralia, was the best-selling novel in the history of Random House.

The Facts was supposedly an autobiography of Philip Roth, but the final pages were a retort by Nathan Zuckerman, the most prominent of Roth’s fictional alter egos, who told the author that he, Roth, lacked “the heart—the gall, the guts—to do in autobiography what you consider absolutely essential in a novel.” Roth himself felt empty when he wasn’t working on a novel, and, from reading these pages, he often felt empty anyway.

When he knew he was onto something, Roth would produce a page a day, and after a year, they would proliferate into the finished product. When he wasn’t sure, he panicked, often quite seriously, and he finally threw in the towel in 2012, when the world learned of a Post-it on his computer: “The struggle with writing is over.” And yet the struggle with writing Philip Roth was very much in earnest when he quipped, later, “I work for Blake Bailey. The pay is not good.”

No one in Roth World walks into anything without ego, personal failings, biases, hang-ups—issues. And yet, as Bailey, our intrepid goy from Oklahoma, observes and reports, we always wonder, like a Philip Roth character, what’s behind that elegant prose and seamless research.

In his 85 years, Roth made many friends, more enemies, two ex-wives, and a voluminous catalogue of lovers.

Bailey, author of biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, had a predecessor, Ross Miller, a nephew of Arthur Miller’s. We learn a great deal about him, his memories of Aunt Marilyn, his 13-hour chats with Roth, his dereliction of duties as editor of the Library of America volumes of Roth’s novels, and, finally, the slow decay of his friendship with Roth until, tragically, he is no longer Roth’s biographer.

Roth in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

His replacement’s name is never uttered, like Yahweh. “Don’t rehabilitate me,” said Roth. “Just make me interesting.” He once said he thought people were more interesting when they were unhappy. By that measure, Roth is never uninteresting. Our bard of carnality did not even enjoy kissing.

If there was going to be one person other than Philip Roth that could take on Philip Roth, it appears to be Blake Bailey. He never gilds Roth’s lilies, he never calls attention to himself, and he doesn’t even show off most of his interviews. He seems to have taken Flaubert’s advice that a writer should be like God: present everywhere and visible nowhere. He doesn’t have to tell us not to try this at home. He is behind the scenes, giving us the picture, accurately, elegantly, obscenely.

It’s amazing how not great at least half of Roth’s 31 novels are, and yet, in Bailey’s book, they all have the weight of the world on them, with the chronic back pain Roth endured since basic training. The disastrous marriages! The great actress Claire Bloom, C.B.E., whose most challenging role must have been that of Mrs. Roth, was not even allowed to attend his funeral. We are guided through the litany of affairs with beautiful and ambitious young women that went on into his 70s. (If you’re Philip Roth, an elevator ride at the Wylie office is your Tinder.) We get the receipt for the SoHo shopping spree of one of his conquests, for whom he was happy to wait in the limo and play sugar daddy. We get deets, somberly, on his final lover and waning fecundity. By his mid-70s, Portnoy just wanted to cuddle.

Goodbye, Columbus made Roth the youngest National Book Award winner in history. So anyone above the age of 26 without a National Book Award failed. He peaked in his 50s and 60s, then inevitably declined. He stayed in the ring too long. The writing stopped, the public appearances stopped, the fucking stopped. He won everything but the Nobel, and when Dylan got it, he said, “It’s O.K., but I hope they give it to Peter, Paul, and Mary next year.” If Roth had received the call from Stockholm, it would have been a good day, not much more.

A #MeToo Nightmare

We are not in Philip Roth’s world anymore, not by a long shot, when one is a “content provider” or “influencer” or “creative” or “likes” anything on social media. It is Roth who quotes German poet Heinrich Heine: “There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.”

Although he didn’t really need the money, Roth taught at universities most of his adult life, and it kept him on his reading game. At the University of Pennsylvania, in the 70s, his department chair made sure to fill his popular classes with beautiful and intelligent young women for him to squire, back when that was allowed. Of one of his brilliant and eager conquests, who graduated summa cum laude and went on to Princeton, he said, “I was 40 and she was 19. Perfect. As God meant it to be.” Roth even referred to his chair as a “pimp.”

By the time he regaled us with this anecdote in the 90s, he knew it could get him sentenced to “Feminist Prison.” After he was out of the classroom, an earnest teacher in London wrote him to inform him that her students, “sharp and witty feminist critics,” were reading American Pastoral in terms of “ideology, myth, intertextuality, gender and ambivalence.” “I regret to tell you,” Roth replied, “that the words ‘ideology, myth, intertextuality, gender and ambivalence’ make my flesh crawl.”

“The child in me is delighted, the adult in me is skeptical.” Roth appropriated those lines from Saul Bellow for his own tombstone. He knew some version of this book would be coming for the rest of us, and he made an arrangement with Bailey, inspired by Kafka, to destroy all the evidence once his book was done, an operator till the end. Roth had no belief in the afterlife, or in the notion that people would be reading novels at all. He narrated his own quietus many times. “He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing it. Just as he’d feared from the start.”

“Don’t rehabilitate me,” said Roth. “Just make me interesting.”

Rest, rest. I’m glad I know about escaping to Yaddo and running back to fancy Manhattan apartments (no Brooklyn here) and all those women, even the one, for whom he professed love, he claimed to be breaking in for the others. Young Roth, giving cunnilingus, can’t stop thinking about how he is losing his hair.

It is impossible to read this without 2021 hovering over. There are really three of us here. Most of his choices, personal and literary, are so not now. The 1970s might as well be the 1870s. Roth came and went at just the right time. He exited in 2018, and Philip Roth appears now. Roth, who became a millionaire with Portnoy’s Complaint, knew that controversy could sell books. People will stop reading them soon, he said. But not yet.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell