Philip Roth: The Biography, by Blake Bailey, Jonathan Cape, 912 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0224098175
Two decades on, it’s clear that the latter half of the twentieth century was a golden age for American fiction. The global disruption of World War II, the end of which released so much wealth, energy and opportunity into American life, also stimulated a cultural and literary shift that increasingly gave heft to content and voices previously unexplored and unheard ‑ or kept underground. Beginning with, say, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, both published in 1953, and ending with Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Don DeLillo’s Underworld as the century neared its end, this fifty-year span delivered a repertoire of novels and short fictions stunning for their breadth of subject, formal innovation, and inclusiveness.
And for insight. Time will tell, of course, but the loosening of standards of correctness and the democratisation of experience that took seed in the fifties and burgeoned in the sixties and beyond allowed some very talented writers of diverse identity to examine the lives and attitudes of their contemporaries with utter freedom, and to fashion a variety of narrative modes with the intricacy and suppleness to portray a teeming, overheated, post-industrial republic. Refining the techniques and sensibilities of modernism, American novelists of this period chronicled a time and place that cried out for exegesis: a country that deemed itself all-powerful, exceptional and anointed by God for good; that denied its legacies of racism and economic imperialism; that grew into a commercial and cultural behemoth where willed extremism, at both ends of the sociopolitical spectrum, increasingly crowded out a rational middle. Somehow, in a national atmosphere of mistrust of intellectual endeavour and widespread ignorance of serious literature, these writers managed to do more than anyone to lay bare their country’s baroque contradictions.
Philip Roth was not just a resident of this belle époque but one of its principal architects. With the aesthetic rigor of Henry James and the madcap iconoclasm of Harpo Marx, his was the perfect voice for the cultural explosion that began when, as his greatest creation, Nathan Zuckerman, puts it in The Ghost Writer, “Oswald shot Kennedy and the straitlaced bulwark gave way to the Gargantuan banana republic.” The evolution of postwar America ‑ and his place in it as a Jew, a writer, an American, and a man ‑ was Roth’s great subject, and he was as perceptive, detailed and savage in his dissection of his country’s flaws and excesses as he was of the straitlaced and Gargantuan sides of his own personality.
The scope and skill with which he tackled this great subject, in twenty-seven novels published in seven different decades, make a strong case for Roth being considered the finest American novelist of this gilded age. For consistent quality of output, for growth and longevity, for the honesty and intensity of his narrative voices and for the relentless quest to find fictional forms that would make sense of his experience and the experience of his country, he has few rivals, during the long stretch of his career or at any other time. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review asked more than a hundred prominent writers, critics, and editors to identify the single best work of American fiction published in the previous twenty-five years. Morrison’s Beloved received the greatest number of votes. Runners-up included Underworld, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, and Roth’s American Pastoral. Altogether, twenty-two novels received multiple votes. Six of those were by Roth, several more than any other writer. As the editor of the survey, AO Scott, concluded: “If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction over the past twenty-five years, [Roth] would have won.”
Roth’s writing life was both a steady progression toward mastery and a recurring loop of literary self-discovery. At least once a decade he gave us a classic work, different from anything he had written before, which nevertheless built on the strengths and discoveries of what he’d left behind. In 1959, at the age of twenty-six, he became the youngest winner of the National Book Award with Goodbye, Columbus, a collection whose title story is an assured, wonderfully formed novella, as perfect in its way as Daisy Miller. Exactly ten years later he published one of the defining books of the sixties, Portnoy’s Complaint, a cultural phenomenon and ribald succès de scandale that made Roth a wealthy man while marking his discovery of a voice ‑ wise-cracking, profane, tortured, robust ‑ that reflected the energy and anarchy of the time and was driven by the subversion and scepticism of a man coming up for air, like the country itself, from the confining depths of sexual repression and bourgeois respectability. Another ten years and The Ghost Writer appeared, the Portnoy voice modulated and refined into that of Roth’s most resilient and intriguing fictional surrogate, Nathan Zuckerman. An ideal marriage of form and content, this masterwork is a delicate study of literary ambition and the writing life as well as the opening volume of the tetralogy Zuckerman Bound, a free-form, expressionistic examination of a writer’s outward fame and inward torment, which Harold Bloom said deserves “the highest level of aesthetic praise for tragicomedy”. Zuckerman would hang around for most of the rest of Roth’s writing life, but in The Counterlife, published in 1987, he was the dazzling vehicle for his fullest exploration of the author as his own subject and the novel’s form as a series of mirrors and impersonations. By the early 1990s, as Roth reached the age of sixty, he had developed his craft and worked out his personal and literary obsessions to the point where he was ready to write his two greatest novels, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, fully realised works of social realism that are Shakespearean in their dramatic structure, richness of language and tragic sensibility, yet formally modernist and ideally aligned with his aim of interweaving national malaise and individual despair as the American century fizzled to a close.
Let’s catch our breath. Is it any wonder Blake Bailey’s biography has been so long anticipated? An enviable oeuvre, a trail of literary prizes, riches and renown, influence among those who mattered to him, from Nobel prize-winners to presidents and prime ministers ‑ Roth seemed to have everything a novelist might strive for; so much for a biographer to cover, so much to sift and weigh. And yet the success is only half the story. It came at a price. At no point in his sixty-plus years as a published author did Roth fail to generate animosity ‑ deeply held, fiercely articulated, highly public. From the rabbis and guardians of the conservative and hypersensitive postwar American Jewish community, to the New York intelligentsia, to feminists and others who took issue with his depiction of women, to a wave of younger writers who saw him as a social dinosaur, Roth carried a lifelong target on his back. Some of this enmity he relished. “Do you have a Roth reader in mind when you write?” Hermione Lee asked him mid-career. “No,” Roth replied. “I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, ‘How he is going to hate this!’ That can be just the encouragement I need.” But the demand, book after book, to justify his choice of subject matter, his exploration of extremes and his manic impersonations was exhausting, often debilitating, and occupied much time he would have preferred to have spent reading or writing. These frequent battles added rich grist to Bailey’s biographical mill.
Though Roth would live to be eighty-five, he had a long history of heart disease, chronic back pain, and other medical issues that made him worry from a relatively young age that he might die before a fair and comprehensive account of his life and legacy had been written. Such a concern was natural for a man who generated so much controversy and provoked antipathy from so many quarters, but it was especially pressing after Roth and his second wife, the Anglo-Jewish actor Claire Bloom, divorced in 1994. Bloom’s memoir Leaving a Doll’s House, published two years after the divorce, depicted Roth as neurasthenic, adulterous, selfish and financially vindictive, and did so with a cool tone well-designed to elicit sympathy for her and her daughter, with whom Roth had a fractious relationship from the beginning. Roth made sure to tell his side of the story, in letters, fictions, and an unpublished 300-page manuscript (read by Bailey but sealed from public access until 2050) entitled “Notes for My Biographer”. But worried that Bloom’s book would be the only substantive published version of their difficult eighteen-year relationship, for a year or two he contemplated writing a full-life autobiography (he had, in 1988, published a memoir, The Facts, covering his upbringing, first marriage, and beginnings as a writer). From 1996 onward, Roth engaged sporadically with his close friend Ross Miller on an authorised biography, and the two worked together for more than a decade before they fell out and the project sputtered to a halt. Then, in 2012, Bailey, who had written biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, put himself forward for the job. “Why should a gentile from Oklahoma write the biography of Philip Roth?” was the potential subject’s first question. “Well, I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage,” Bailey replied, “but I wrote about John Cheever.” Three hours later he had won Roth’s approval.
Bailey was the right man at the right moment for the job. Roth had stopped writing fiction and believed he would live only another year or so. But he lived for six more years, and during their frequent meetings over that time he was expansive and forthcoming. Bailey also held hundreds of interviews with family, friends, colleagues ‑ even enemies ‑ and had access to scores of others conducted by Ross Miller. Supplementing this oral raw material was a trove of written Rothiana, including personal papers and content from Princeton, Harvard, the Library of Congress, the University of Chicago and other institutions.
In spite of this wealth of sources and the depth of the research, Bailey’s book has a light, vocal surface, with the intimacy and rhythm of a good conversation ‑ a good Jewish conversation. Roth’s spirit presides. Clearly the two men got on, and Roth made it clear early on that he did not want his character whitewashed. “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” he told Bailey. “Just make me interesting.” So we get plenty of earthy detail in language that, though it may not rival the explicitness of Roth’s most extreme diction, often matches the “wiseguy talk and sex talk” that Roth learned in the pinball joints of Newark and made a feature of his inimitable style. The triumphs, in art and life, are thoroughly presented and celebrated, but so too is Roth’s dark side: his willingness to use the most personal details of his friends and family in his fiction, for example, or the way he could nurture a resentment for decades. Indeed, Philip Roth gives us what we expect of a biography of a major writer: plenty of detail, gossip, insight, and context, context, context. And though the 900-page narrative is exhaustive, it is never boring.
Bailey is also a subtle and sympathetic reader of the fiction and offers critical analyses of Roth’s novels that, while they may not break new ground, do much more than simply align the fictional characters and situations with real-life analogues (though there is plenty of that too). He is not afraid to express his taste, and his judgement of why some of Roth’s work falls short adds credibility to his praise for the best. Roth’s dystopian alternative history, The Plot Against America, in which America-Firster Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, was palatable with the general public, Bailey suggests, precisely because of its weaknesses ‑ “a schematic but compelling plot; stylized characters; unembellished prose”. He agrees with JM Coetzee’s assessment that “by the standard set by Sabbath’s Theater, The Plot Against America is not a major work”. Like many of Roth’s admirers, Bailey also found Operation Shylock a slog, but his respect and understanding of the greatest books ‑ The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, The Human Stain, and, of course, American Pastoral ‑ are evident in his sensitive readings and generous praise. And it is good to know from Bailey that Roth’s favourite among his books was the “splendidly wicked” Sabbath’s Theater, which many, including Martin Amis of all people, have found rebarbative.
Bailey avoids the temptation of some recent biographers to depart from a solid, chronological framework (Edmund Morris’s 2019 Edison told the inventor’s life story backwards), and the eighty-five years of Roth’s eventful life unfold steadily and clearly for the reader. Roth’s home city of Newark, New Jersey is established early on as his Yoknapatawpha, and Bailey describes its evolution from industrial hub to middle class haven to urban decline to revitalisation primarily by tracing Roth’s shifting attitude toward the peaceful, secure environment of his boyhood, from which he longed to escape only to “spend the rest of his life thinking about it”. And writing about it ‑ Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist are all great Newark books. Though the city was the often claustrophobic setting of his home and family, it also offered Roth as a boy and young man “a great emancipation from Jewish xenophobia” via the open stacks of its excellent public library and his classes at the Newark campus of Rutgers, where he studied for a year before transferring to Bucknell University in rural Pennsylvania.
Roth went from Bucknell to the University of Chicago, where he did postgraduate work and published his first stories, sensitive tales à la Truman Capote and JD Salinger that earned him a local reputation but were rather anaemic efforts that avoided addressing what would become his central theme: the conflict between being “a nice Jewish boy” and aggressively pursuing individual fulfilment. But reading Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, both coming into their own around this time, convinced Roth he could write about Jewish life in America without apology ‑ and without the sentimentality and propaganda of Jewish American fiction prior to the war. By the late fifties, he had hit his stride, publishing the powerful stories that would accompany the title novella in Goodbye, Columbus. All the fictions in that first book featured Jewish protagonists and Jewish themes, handled in ways that would stir the first major controversy of Roth’s career.
One of them, “The Defender of the Faith”, had been published in The New Yorker just weeks ahead of the book’s publication. Its depiction of an unprincipled soldier willing to trade on his Jewishness for selfish ends did not go down well with some Jewish readers of the magazine; letters flooded in, and many cancelled subscriptions. “Your story makes people ‑ the general public ‑ forget all the great Jews that ever lived,” one typical objector wrote. The president of the Rabbinical Council of America also weighed in, asking, “What is being done to silence this man?” When Goodbye, Columbus was published six weeks later, the satire of the nouveau riche family in the title story poured more gasoline on the fire, and while the literary establishment was celebrating young Roth’s remarkable achievement, mainstream publications like the New York Post were saying that his work was “an exhibition of Jewish self-hate”.
Bailey does a good job of reporting the crossfire, giving us the social and historical context for the backlash, and assessing its effect on Roth’s life and work. This salvo would be the first of many accusations of Jewish self-hatred, which always bewildered and angered Roth, especially as they grew more subtle over the years. After the 1969 publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (the best-selling novel in Random House history to that point) and the commercially successful release of the film version of Goodbye, Columbus the same year, some of the old, wise heads of what Capote called the Jewish literary mafia began to reconsider their earlier praise of this wunderkind. It’s hard now to see their change of heart as anything other than a reaction to Roth’s lack of decorum. In the pages of influential journals like Commentary and Dissent, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Howe and others began to attack what they saw as Roth’s “stance of superiority” and lack of any “historical context” and claimed to have overpraised his early work. But the truth was they didn’t like his tone ‑ or the tone of his narrators at any rate. Other critics focused on a different sin. Anatole Broyard wrote, in his New York Times review of the 1974 novel My Life as a Man, that Roth seemed “to have a bone to pick with women”, a censure that would persist in various forms for decades. Bailey doesn’t spare the detail of these two charges ‑ antisemitism and misogyny ‑ which Roth “was unable to forgive or at least forget”. He presents the context fairly and carefully, recording Roth’s reactions and responses ‑ sometimes fiery, sometimes despairing ‑ as he did his best to turn opposition into motivation, and he skilfully weaves discussion of the controversies into the personal details of Roth’s life: his marriages and love affairs, his health issues, his friendships, his teaching, and of course his writing.
Roth’s penchant for narrators who have backgrounds similar to his own and indulge in overstatement, satire and self-incrimination (the whole of Portnoy’s Complaint, replete with rant and ridicule, is disguised as a session with a psychiatrist) was partly what got him into trouble. As well as alienating many readers and critics, this hyper-confessional strain made it tempting to confuse Roth’s narrators with the author. It also made it easy to overlook how engaged he was with international literary culture, past and present, which informed his craft and deepened his thinking about what it means to be an American writer. His first heroes were James and Flaubert, followed soon by Kafka. In 1972, he made a pilgrimage of sorts to Prague, visiting Kafka’s grave and the places he had read about in the diaries and letters and Max Brod’s biography, as well as meeting several Czech writers and spending time at a museum for the victims of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The trip moved him deeply, as a writer and as a descendant of Eastern European Jews, and over the years that followed, this distant and very different part of the world would become an important element of his fiction and his life.
Roth returned to Prague several times during the 1970s, cultivating relationships with writers, filmmakers and intellectuals. He began devoting much of his non-writing time to helping dissidents. With Jerzy Kosinski, president of PEN, he raised money for writers throughout Eastern Europe who had been barred from publishing or teaching; he wrote newsletters for PEN’s Freedom to Speak committee; and in 1974, he pitched to Penguin Books the idea of publishing a paperback series called “Writers of the Other Europe”, works of fiction that had been suppressed in countries behind the Iron Curtain. Seventeen volumes by Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz and others would be published over the next fifteen years, with Roth’s name as editor on the cover of each to spur sales.
Eastern Europe under communism fascinated Roth because it was a place where “nothing goes and everything matters” ‑ unlike the United States, where “everything goes and nothing matters” and where, as Roth put it, an enormous commercial society’s demand for complete freedom of expression results in culture becoming a “maw”. In the closing pages of The Prague Orgy, his epilogue to Zuckerman Bound, Nathan Zuckerman has been expelled from Czechoslovakia, having failed in his mission to retrieve a valuable manuscript of Yiddish stories, and on his way out he quotes from Kafka’s The Castle as he wrestles with the meaning of narrative for the repressed writers he has met, and for himself:
“What could entice me to this desolate country,” says K., “except the wish to stay here?” ‑ here where there’s no nonsense about purity and goodness, where the division is not that easy to discern between the heroic and the perverse, where every sort of repression foments a parody of freedom and the suffering of their historical misfortune engenders in its imaginative victims these clownish forms of human despair ‑ here where they’re careful to remind the citizens (in case anybody gets any screwy ideas) “the phenomenon of alienation is not approved of from above.” In this nation of narrators I’d only just begun hearing all their stories.
Roth saw in the communist suppression of the arts a strange parallel to the writer’s dilemma in America. Being ignored can be as debilitating as being muzzled. And the subversive strategies of disguise, impersonation, false history and burlesque that Czech writers used ‑ in their fictions and their lives ‑ to work around the suffocating strictures of totalitarianism had been and would be similar to the narrative techniques Roth employed to confront the bloated reality of America’s crassness and false sense of itself. Roth wrote most of Zuckerman Bound, a tour de force of literary ventriloquism and the calculated confusion of the distinctions between art and life, the real and the imagined, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whom Roth described in 1984 as the apotheosis of “American-style philistinism run amok” and “a terrifyingly powerful world leader with the soul of an amiable, soap-opera grandmother”. And as we now know, it was a trend that would only get worse in the decades that followed.
That same year, the Paris Review published a long, revealing interview of Roth by Hermione Lee. Fifty years old, he was reaching his peak. He knew what he was doing. He was ready, if a little squeamish, to talk about himself in a format and a publication that he knew was, as Bailey puts it, “a touchstone for readers interested in his work and person”. In his prime, he had the confidence, experience and energy, in the dozen or so years that lay ahead, to create his finest work: The Counterlife, Sabbath’s Theater, and American Pastoral. And his well-considered responses to Lee’s questions help us see how, at this key juncture, he saw his job as a novelist and what he thought about the complicated issue of biography.
After the usual Paris Review questions about how he gets started and what is the best time of day for him to write and so on, Lee got down to business. “What happens to Philip Roth when he turns into Nathan Zuckerman?” she asked.
Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift … Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade … You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it ‑ all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life.
Pressed by Lee on the relationship of life to fiction, he elaborated:
You have to be awfully naive not to understand that a writer is a performer who puts on the act he does best ‑ not least when he dons the mask of the first-person singular. That may be the best mask of all for a second self … The intriguing biographical issue ‑ and critical issue, for that matter ‑ isn’t that a writer will write about some of what has happened to him, but how he writes about it, which, when understood properly, takes us a long way to understanding why he writes about it.
This subtle perspective, which pushed Roth to extremes of self-exposure and literary technique, bears on our assessment of Bailey’s book. The how of literary effort is so important to Roth that it makes us ask to what extent Bailey, using the conventional tactics and tropes of literary biography, can capture the truth of the man. Bailey certainly gets this ‑ he pays due attention to Roth’s tenets about character and its presentation in prose, and he is subtle himself in his description of them. And, after all, this is a biography, not a Philip Roth novel. But Roth’s firm belief in the power of fiction, in the “delicate devices by which novels create the illusion of a reality more like the real than our own”, helps us understand that his novels, carefully read, properly pondered, bring us closer to his essence than any biography could. Throughout my reading of Bailey’s book, I kept thinking of Zuckerman’s warning in the opening chapter of American Pastoral, when he is meeting his old hero and the novel’s protagonist, Swede Levov, just months before the Swede’s death and long after the action of the novel to come has taken place. Frustrated by the Swede’s unruffled surface and bland resistance to his repeated probing, Zuckerman wonders if it is possible to get to the core of this intriguing man ‑ or any person:
You do your best to get to the reality of people, but you never fail to get them wrong … You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception.
No one is exempt from this illusion, not even the novelist. Here is Zuckerman again, from The Counterlife, that brilliant hall of mirrors of a novel that disregards every Aristotelian unity in its attempt to understand the map of reality, the meaning of character and the demands of narrative:
Being Zuckerman is one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself. In fact, those who most seem to be themselves appear to me people impersonating what they think they might like to be, believe they ought to be, or wish to be taken to be by whoever is setting the standards. So in earnest are they that they don’t even recognize that being in earnest is the act.
Yet the novelist’s need is to keep trying to get it right, to peel away the layers of the act, to use illusion itself to unlock the secrets we all carry, including our own. And yet never get to the bottom of things. So what hope has the biographer? What hope had Bailey of knowing what performance Roth was summoning in their exchanges? Just make me interesting, he said. But how did Roth “wish to be taken to be”? Was he making himself interesting? With the story of being invited up to Jackie Kennedy’s Fifth Avenue apartment at the end of an evening and being given a “lingering kiss”? With details of propositioning his female neighbours in the lobby and elevators of his Kips Bay apartment building (“easy as pie”)? What impersonation was at play during these interviews? What sly masquerade was he perpetrating?
Is character destiny or is a man’s fate “the joke that his life plays on his character”? Trying to answer that question lies behind every Philip Roth fiction. And behind his biography. It is a question writers have been asking since Homer, one best addressed by the imagination. As detailed and informative and well-written as Bailey’s book is, I can’t help feeling that he should have interviewed not just Roth but also Nathan Zuckerman ‑ for the input of Roth’s imagination. And how could he have done that? Well, Roth could have helped him there ‑ that is exactly what he did when he wrote The Facts. His memoir opens with a letter to Zuckerman and closes with an eight-thousand-word response from his alter ego. These two fictional missives make up a quarter of the whole memoir! “Is the book any good?” Roth asks Zuckerman up front. “Because The Facts has meant more to me than may be obvious and because I’ve never worked before without my imagination having been fired by someone like you or Portnoy or Tarnopol or Kepesh, I’m in no real position to tell. Be candid.”
And of course Zuckerman is candid, pulling no punches in the book’s long postscript: “Don’t publish,” he warns, “you are far better off writing about me than ‘accurately’ reporting your own life.” As this concluding letter unfolds, we come under the influence of another brilliant piece of Rothian legerdemain, one that makes the central, nonfiction narrative of the memoir feel almost banal and tells us more about the magician behind the words than anything the “facts” of his life do. Zuckerman continues to hector his creator, ruthlessly:
What you choose to tell in fiction is different from what you’re permitted to tell when nothing’s being fictionalized, and in this book you are not permitted to tell what it is you tell best: kind, discreet, careful ‑ changing people’s names because you’re worried about hurting their feelings ‑ no, this isn’t you at your most interesting. In the fiction you can be so much more truthful without worrying all the time about causing direct pain … You, Roth, are the least completely rendered of all your protagonists … My guess is that you’ve written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were. By now what you are is a walking text.
Facts, Roth tells us through Zuckerman, are unmanageable and inconclusive and kill the inquiry that imagination opens up. And by turning autobiography into metafiction, Roth further confirms his belief that we can never really know someone. Even ourselves. But we can know a novel, and love the magic a great novelist performs as he plays with the confusing elements of our existence. So let the final words come from Zuckerman, the ventriloquist’s dummy, the unabashed spokesman for the imagination, from the closing pages of The Prague Orgy:
One’s story isn’t a skin to be shed ‑ it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.
It’s great to have a good biography of Philip Roth. But the real story is in the fiction.
Kevin Stevens is a novelist and critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.