Bailey was recommended to Roth as a biographer by his sharp and empathic book about that other self-destructive truth-teller, John Cheever. “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” Roth told him. “Just make me interesting.” Bailey duly gives illuminating depth and context to what Roth liked to present as “the facts” of his “life as a man” while reserving moral judgment. He is guilty at times, perhaps, of taking the grand male passions described by Roth a little too much in earnest. While Roth is allowed his adolescent infatuations and changes of heart, his jilted lovers and their capsized lives are sometimes implicitly dismissed as dull or hysterical.
The first major biography often marks a turning point in the reputation of an artist. Much-loved writers like Roald Dahl and Philip Larkin took a hit when their worst features were exposed – though the work lives on. Perhaps it’s better to get your controversy done with when you’re still alive, as Philip Roth did. We have a strong idea not just from the books but the circumstances of their publication what he was like, and I dived into Blake Bailey’s much-anticipated biography expecting to find what I did: a big, horny genius.
Philip Roth, Bailey’s authorised biography, is an exhaustive and deeply sympathetic account of a life that began in the predominantly Jewish Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, and ended in a hospital bed not far away in New York; and of a long career that started and finished with prizes (a National Book Award in 1959 and the National Humanities Medal awarded to him by President Obama in 2010) — with a great deal of contention and controversy in between.
Is Bailey’s compassionate and comprehensive book the biography? No other biographer will have known Roth so well, had such unlimited access to his archives, had a chance to ask him rude questions, even to watch him as he lay dying. Future books will be readings of the life, interpretations, arguments. So nu? He’s big enough. Bring them on.
Surely if you want to know who Philip Roth was, and how he lived his life and loves, it’s all there already, in the books, exhaustively (as Roth was often criticised for) mined? Well, that hasn’t bothered Bailey, whose double doorstopper of a book about Roth mines it again and again, in even greater detail than the man himself did over the course of that life’s work. In fact what Bailey is able to do, as a result of Roth’s insistent roman-à clefness, is continually trace the reality through the fiction. (Let’s call what Bailey is writing reality, despite Roth saying, elsewhere, correctly: ‘We are all writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the nearest thing we have to the truth.’)
He told one of his first biographers, Ross Miller, that “Maxine Groffsky was ‘key’ to understanding his early years as a writer and a man”. Groffsky was the model for Brenda Patimkin, the nice Jewish girl in Goodbye, Columbus, whom the hero almost asks to marry him; instead, he tries to claim her by persuading her to get a diaphragm. When her mother finds it, they break up. The novel launched his career, but Roth later came to resent its popularity. As Bailey remarks, “for many years he would often be informed, wistfully, by critics and everyday readers alike, that he’d never quite ‘fulfilled the promise’ of his first book”.
You’ll thank me for reading this book on your behalf, and cutting it by three quarters would only be an improvement. As for Roth himself — his coarse male humour (try Sabbath’s Theatre: “There is no punishment too extreme for the crazy bastard who came up with the idea of fidelity”) will always probably be enjoyed by people who lack a sense of humour, so academics do him proud. Portnoy’s Complaint is amusing during adolescence but for myself I did grow up eventually. I’m not sure Roth did. He was a sour mix of pushy spoilt child and crabby pensioner, ranting on the sun porch.
his literary reputation was at odds with his personal one and accounts surfaced of his self-centred, objectionable behaviour, with growing accusations of misogyny fed by the actress Claire Bloom’s searing account of her ill-fated marriage to Roth in her 1996 memoir Leaving A Doll’s House — which, as one reviewer put it, exposed him as ‘a spectacularly troubled and manipulative man’.
Always unfaithful, he enjoyed hall-of- mirrors game playing — his 1990s novel Deception was about a middle-aged writer called ‘Philip’ doing the dirty on his wife.
Ever since the publication of Bloom’s book, Roth had been making arrangements for an authorised biography to assert his side of the story, cooperating fully with chosen writer, Blake Bailey.
But if Bailey came to praise his subject, he instead ends up burying him under the sheer weight of patiently catalogued betrayals. By the end of this exhaustively researched book I was ready to believe even the most outlandish claims made by the various wronged parties from whom Bailey seeks to defend his subject.
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?”
He would approve of this biography, too, not because it’s partial but because Bailey’s industriousness is on a par with his own. With a “mile of files” and boxes to work through, it’s a miracle that he has published so lucid a book just three years after Roth’s death – and one so packed with good anecdotes and jokes, including one at his own expense when Roth took a toilet break during their interviews (“I sat on his studio couch, listening to our greatest living novelist empty his bladder, and reflected that this was about as good as it gets for an American literary biographer”). Among the documents he quotes from is “Notes for My Biographer”, a 295-page rejoinder to Bloom that Roth planned to publish till friends and lawyers talked him out of it. Bailey relies on this more than he should, unfairly dismissing her memoir as “scurrilous”. But given how determined Roth was to control his posthumous reputation, after falling out with his first official biographer, Ross Miller (nephew of Arthur), it’s an achievement for Bailey to have gained as much distance as he has.
Roth fans with a detailed knowledge of the oeuvre may enjoy Nadel’s more thematic approach. But Bailey’s account is definitive and genuinely gripping to boot. Bailey, who has written lives of John Cheever and Richard Yates, was appointed by Roth as his official biographer after the relationship with Miller turned sour. He talked extensively to Roth before his death in 2018 and conducted interviews with all relevant willing parties. He leads us lucidly through a dense palimpsest of overlapping drafts, fictional identities, literary feuds and women.