In ‘Philip Roth,’ a life of the literary master as aggrieved playboy

By Parul Sehgal

In 2013, Philip Roth was around 80, recently retired and finally at peace — or so he was fond of saying.

As a young novelist, he used to goad himself in the mirror: “Attack! Attack!” Later, his credo would become “Let the repellent in.” Over the course of his career — 31 books in 51 years, from the deviltry of his madmen Alexander Portnoy and Mickey Sabbath to the suffering of the tragic heroes in his so-called American trilogy (“American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain”) — he tilted against the seductions of group identity. Whether he was pilloried as the Jewish second coming of Goebbels (“What is being done to silence this man?” the president of the Rabbinical Council of America wrote to the Anti-Defamation League) or a woman hater, he held to the notion of novelist as the “nose in the seam of the undergarment,” the enemy of public relations. And now, he who found liberation in sex and work reported being rid of the tyranny of both.

“Virtually every night I go to sleep with a goofy smile on my face,” he wrote to a friend, “and in the dark am made positively gleeful by softly uttering aloud, ‘I have recovered my life before I was embattled. The battles are over. I’ve come home. And I won.’”

On the whole, winners do not, I think, behave as Roth did in those years, frenziedly shoring up the legacy and burnishing the brand. He put together a page-by-page rebuttal of his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s scathing memoir of their marriage, which friends persuaded him not to publish.

He dumped one biographer (his erstwhile best friend Ross Miller) and hired another (Blake Bailey), while, in effect, trying to ghostwrite the thing himself, conscripting friends to conduct interviews with the questions he provided.

“What the obsessive man still wanted, when he wasn’t blissfully muttering in bed, was an apology,” Bailey writes in “Philip Roth.” From whom? In short order: villainous ex-wives, the needy children of said ex-wives, feminists who accused him of misogyny, Jewish critics who accused him of anti-Semitism, The New York Times, John Updike, Irving Howe, his bad back, insufficiently devoted editors (“your engine doesn’t throb any longer at the sound of my name,” he chastised one) and possibly the Nobel Committee. From the first page, the message is clear: Roth is owed.

Bailey is the acclaimed biographer of writers including John Cheever and Richard Yates — “the safely dead,” as Hermione Lee has described her own subjects. He once expressed suspicion of writing about the living: “I would have a hard time writing a single page without worrying what the consequences might be,” he said, admitting that he “would almost certainly end up diluting the content somewhat.”

At their first meeting in 2012, a job interview in effect, Roth was every part “the imperious maestro,” Bailey recalls in the acknowledgments, examining the credentials of this “gentile from Oklahoma” — what did he know about the Jewish American literary tradition? Apparently mollified, Roth brought out a photograph album dedicated to old girlfriends — “an artifact attesting to the only passion that ever rivaled his writing,” Bailey writes. “He doted on these women and vice versa; several of them came to his bedside while he lay dying, as did I.”

There’s another version of this story. At a panel on Roth, held a year after his death in 2018, Bailey recalled the interview but added a detail that he doesn’t include in the book. Again, Roth quizzed the gentile from Oklahoma, again he produced the album of girlfriends. But then the conversation turned to the Hollywood adaptations of Roth’s work. Bailey mentioned Ali MacGraw, who starred in “Goodbye, Columbus.” (He thought she was “just wow.”)

“I could have taken her out,” Roth said.

“My God, man, why didn’t you?” Bailey asked.

“OK,” Roth replied. “You’re hired.’”

“And I was. He was totally serious,” Bailey said. He added: “Just as important a literary qualification for a biographer as knowing where he fits into the literary continuum with Malamud and Bellow and so forth is not taking too prim or judgmental of a view of a man who had this florid love life.” It was perhaps the credential that mattered most — this feeling of complicity.

At just under 900 pages, the book is most thoroughly a sprawling apologia for Roth’s treatment of women, on and off the page, and a minutely detailed account of his victimization at the hands of his two wives.

“Always it came back to the women,” Bailey writes. The biography skates through the stages of his life swiftly, each section with a woman at the center: Bess, his indefatigable, much idealized (or so Bailey argues) mother; Maxine Groffsky, the college girlfriend who became the model for Brenda Patimkin in “Goodbye, Columbus”; Maggie Martinson, the disastrous first wife who was originally so attractive to Roth for embodying a certain “goyish chaos.” Later there would be the long relationship with Bloom (not to mention the long affair that he conducted concurrently) and the retinue of “perky Texan” blondes, nurses, prostitutes, students, daughters of his friends.

“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” Roth instructed Bailey. “Just make me interesting.”

Instead, we receive a narrow portrait of a wide life. We know the ’60s have arrived because we are told that Roth is now regularly propositioning women in the elevator. When he travels to Thailand, Bailey speculates: “Perhaps he was most struck by the ubiquitous availability of sex.”

It’s poignant to recall that Roth told Ross Miller that he did not want his biography to read like “The Story of My Penis” — it must stay centered on the work, not the gossip.

But Bailey is strangely reticent on the work. Roth often claimed he would make a lousy subject of a biography — it would just be him staring at his typewriter, he said: “The uneventfulness of my biography would make Beckett’s ‘The Unnamable’ read like Dickens.” Of those hours, those years (Roth would revise each novel four to five times), Bailey tells us little; is it because it is so difficult to stage such scenes, to make them interesting? Only if you’re a writer for whom ideas have no glamour, no drama of their own. Roth’s own writing was full of provocations on the art of biography, full of masks and veils and alter egos, obsessed with plucking apart the idea of a self. Bailey avoids it all, offering readings of the most tepid kind, primarily noticing biographical correspondences, most of them familiar by now.

In doing so he reduces Roth to the most literal kind of confessionalist, a charge his subject strenuously protested; in 1984, he sat for a Paris Review interview largely to dispel the notion that he was a confessional writer. (He also wanted to clear up the misapprehension that he was hard on women.)

Bailey’s proud refusal to seem prim or judgmental blossoms into a troubling tendency to join the fray. It’s strange to see a biographer get his own shots in at a despised ex-wife; here is Martinson, in Bailey’s description: “A bitter, impoverished, sexually undesirable divorcée.” Strange too the elision of the questions Roth asked of himself, or rather, put in the mouth of his character Zuckerman in his autobiography “Facts.” “Can everything about Josie have been vengeful?” Zuckerman protests, using Roth’s pseudonym for Martinson. “I suspect that Josie was both worse and better as a human being than what you’ve portrayed here.”

Copious, complicitous, written with style and almost filial tenderness and myopia — in many ways the book feels like an unavoidable stage of public mourning. It has been done, and like the psychiatrist at the end of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” having heard a mighty torrent of confession and justification, one is tempted to say: “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

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