Philip Roth biography emphasizes his unruly life over his celebrated novels

“Philip Roth: The Biography” aims to “rehabilitate” its subject’s reputation, but succeeds only in making his excesses more apparent. 

W. W. Norton & Company
"Philip Roth: The Biography" by Blake Bailey, W. W. Norton & Company, 912 pp.

Editor’s note: Blake Bailey, the author of “Philip Roth: A Biography” has been accused of rape, and his publisher has withdrawn the book.

“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting,” was celebrated novelist Philip Roth’s astringent instruction to his biographer, Blake Bailey. The result is the nearly 1,000-page “Philip Roth: The Biography,” in which Bailey, who completed the book after Roth’s death in 2018, seems to be saying something along the lines of: “You’re already interesting. I shall therefore rehabilitate you.” 

Making Roth interesting is the easy part. From the start of his literary career with the publication of “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959 (which won the National Book Award) to his ascent to literary stardom (and notoriety) with his fourth book, 1969’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” to his Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for “American Pastoral” to his announcement in 2012 that he was retiring from writing, Roth was one of the most famous writers in America. He was more disciplined than his cohort Norman Mailer, more stylistic than John Updike, more overtly humorous than his literary father-figure Saul Bellow. There were many awards, many lovers, a marriage to actress Claire Bloom that resulted, among other things, in her incendiary, condemning 1996 memoir “Leaving a Doll’s House.” By the time he died, Roth had led one of the most prominent literary lives in United States history. 

Rehabilitating Roth, however, is frankly impossible, although Bailey does his best. His research is enormously comprehensive, but although he includes incidents that Roth might have wanted him to exclude, he’s always ready with equivocation, obfuscation, and euphemism. 

Roth orchestrates harassment campaigns against reviewers he doesn’t like, and Bailey calls them “pranks.” Roth uses college teaching jobs to stalk and prey on young women, and Bailey demures, “Not all of Roth’s mentoring projects had an erotic component.” Roth meets the great Czech writer Ivan Klíma, who tours him around Prague; he meets the Milan Kundera, and readers learn a little about the Czech novelist; but when Roth meets Vera Saudková, the daughter of Franz Kafka’s youngest sister, he offers, more or less on the spot, to marry her. She declines, saying her two sons lived in Prague. Or, Roth speculates, “she was waiting for an offer from John Updike.” 

When readers reach that wisecrack, there are 500 more pages of this sort of thing still to come.

Roth was volcanically bitter about “Leaving a Doll’s House,” but Bailey, doubtless unintentionally, confirms every comma and semicolon of Bloom’s book. “For what it’s worth,” Bailey writes, “Roth perceived himself as the opposite of anti-Semitic or misogynistic, and indeed had little patience for reductive categories one way or the other.” But only Roth’s dedicated fans will care how he perceived himself (indulging in what Cynthia Ozick once called “the easy pleasures of self-approval”), and Bailey’s own thoroughness is the worst enemy of rehabilitation. 

At every turn, with every anecdote, “Philip Roth: The Biography” inadvertently paints its subject as a griping, whining, scolding, manipulator and a compulsive womanizer who then turned around and vilified the women in his life for not being sufficiently supportive. And Bailey’s excuse for such appalling behavior is almost worse than the behavior itself: “As for Roth himself, his greatest urge was always to serve his own genius – amid the keen distractions, albeit, of an ardently carnal nature.” Distractions. Ye gods.

Readers don’t require their writers to be saints, or at least they shouldn’t. But the more the saint recedes, the more weight the work must bear, and this is a striking weakness of Bailey’s book: Roth’s many novels are very much portrayed as his business, and maybe his therapy, but almost never his passion. Each new novel’s gestation and critical reception is logged, but there’s far, far more of the writer than the writing in these pages. Like many of the women in Roth’s life, the reader simply can’t avoid him. After leaving this cenotaph, they may very much want to.

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