Philip Roth was one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century. Prolific, profane and darkly comedic, he challenged conventional wisdom about Jewish assimilation and identity, sexual hedonism, American culture and politics, and the boundaries separating "fact" from "fiction."
In this authorized biography, Blake Bailey, who has written books about John Cheever, Richard Yates and Charles Jackson, draws on Roth's personal and professional correspondence, and interviews with Roth himself as well as dozens of family members, friends and lovers, to provide an intimate portrait of his creative, combative, complex subject.
Bailey examines Roth's middle-class, Jewish upbringing in Weequahic, N.J.; his undergraduate and graduate courses in creative writing and literary criticism, and his teaching jobs at several colleges and universities. He reviews responses to Roth's "breakout" short stories, "Defender of the Faith" and "Eli the Fanatic," and "Goodbye Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint," including allegations that he was a self-hating Jew.
Bailey canvasses contemporary assessments of Roth's 31 books. He documents Roth's support of dissident writers behind the Iron Curtain, his fraught friendships with Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, John Updike and William Styron, and his frustration that he was not awarded a Nobel Prize.
That said, "Philip Roth: The Biography" devotes far more space to "shmutz" (Yiddish for filth) — Roth's sexual appetite — than to his literary legacy. Roth's catastrophic marriages to Maggie Martinson and Claire Bloom take center stage. Bailey provides details of an 18-year-long affair with a neighbor (whose identity he hides with a pseudonym!), on whom he pressed a semen-encrusted napkin. Roth taught his nurse how to perform oral sex. Bloom's daughter accused him of propositioning her best friend. Playing Pygmalion, Roth complained about a young partner's "dyke hair" and took her to a posh stylist, where he ogled other customers.
Highlighting Roth the organ grinder is justified, Bailey implies, because, like Mickey Sabbath, Roth aspired "to affront and affront till there was no one on earth unaffronted" and mock bourgeois piety. Bailey also demonstrates that virtually all of the women with whom Roth slept "appeared" (along with male relatives, friends and rivals) in his fiction.
Perhaps titillating, this approach becomes tiresome. Roth often had it both ways, explaining how characters differed from their "real life" models, while acknowledging that Mickey Sabbath's mistress had only one source. More important, as if to refute what literary critics call "the biographical fallacy," Roth insisted that characterizations in novels are "produced by the demands of the narrative." For this reason, in "The Plot Against America," Roth's brother "became a rather unpleasant (an un-Sandy-like)" follower of the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh.
As he connects real-life people to fictional characters, Bailey does not illuminate Roth's broader themes. And, although Roth freely discussed (along with Alex Portnoy) the perpetual warfare between his sexual longings, "often of a perverse nature," and his "strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses," one wonders whether, if he could read Bailey's book, he would conclude, with Oscar Wilde, "that biography adds to death a new terror."
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Philip Roth: The Biography
By: Blake Bailey.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 896 pages, $45.