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14 April 2021

Philip Roth and the repellent

What is most disturbing in Blake Bailey’s biography is not Roth’s behaviour, but his biographer’s apparently unthinking alignment with it. 

By Erica Wagner

On page 700 of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, we find Roth reading Greg Bellow’s memoir of his father, Saul Bellow’s Heart. Roth and Bellow had a complex relationship, meticulously detailed in Bailey’s book. The pair first met in 1957, when Roth was just starting out as a writer and teaching at the University of Chicago; Bellow arrived as a visiting writer and bestowed the blessing of his admiration on the younger man. But Bellow called The Ghost Writer (1979) – which features an author called Felix Abravanel, a thinly fictionalised version of Bellow – “disgusting”, and Bailey notes that in the following years Bellow would go out of his way to disparage Roth and his work. Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature; Roth, famously, did not. (Asked what he thought of Bob Dylan winning the prize in 2016, Roth said: “It’s OK, but next year I hope Peter, Paul and Mary get it.”)

Bellow died in 2005; his son’s book was published in 2013. Despite his difficult relationship with the elder writer, Roth had little sympathy with Greg Bellow’s account and, as Bailey writes, “scribbled a running commentary of ‘Oy’ and suchlike glosses, until he wrote ‘I quit’ on page 35” – though Roth didn’t quit, continuing to make disparaging notes in the margins of the book.

I felt more than a twinge of sympathy for Roth at this point, having scribbled “Oy” a great many times myself in the margins of Bailey’s book, which has been feted on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Roth, I was tempted to quit, but there are no quitters in the pages of the New Statesman and so, dear reader, I gamely carried on despite my boredom and dismay.

I am a great admirer of Roth’s work. I am troubled by it, energised by it, worried by it, infuriated by it. This is the function of art, surely: to push us away from comfortable assumptions, to force us to question our beliefs and even the nature of self. From the appearance of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, Roth was a literary force. “Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr Roth appears with nails, hair and teeth, speaking coherently. At 26 he is skilful, witty and energetic and performs like a virtuoso.” So wrote Bellow in the pages of Commentary, the influential Jewish cultural journal; this review, Bailey writes, perhaps meant more to Roth than any that would follow in his whole career.

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Gwendoline Riley, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michael Spitzer and Matthew d’Ancona]

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It’s hard to argue with this assertion; for among the many, many things that caused Roth tsuris across the span of his life was the inability of book reviewers to fully appreciate his genius. I can’t blame him, of course: I’m no Philip Roth, but as an author I can attest that when it comes to reviews there’s no such thing as too much praise. And yet the reader sees, in Bailey’s treatment of much of the criticism that came Roth’s way, one of the problems of this book: the near-complete alignment of Bailey and his subject. The question I kept asking myself as I read on and on was: where does Roth end and Bailey begin?

We learn, for instance, that The Great American Novel, published in 1973, received “another shoddy pan” (Bailey’s words) from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. Lehmann-Haupt was a particular nemesis of Roth’s. Bailey quotes the critic calling the novel “pretty mechanical, far-fetched and boring”. Ouch. But Lehmann-Haupt also called the book glorious and comic; the reader can decide whether the review is “shoddy”, but we know where Bailey and Roth stand. Another critic of the novel, William H Gass, is described as “a vindictive highbrow”: once again, Bailey’s words. His throw-away lines can undermine the seriousness of his material. When Portnoy’s Complaint transformed Roth into a real celebrity in 1969, Truman Capote used the novel, and the publicity it received, as part of his longstanding and troubling beef with what he called “the Jewish Mafia” in American letters; speaking to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he accused Roth of working with said Mafia (“they promote each other continuously”) to fix his own reviews. This is ugly stuff; but Bailey, by referring to Capote as a “diminutive gadfly” diminishes this unattractive tale.

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Roth settled on Bailey as his biographer after dispensing with the services of Ross Miller, whose initial work he found unsatisfactory, to say the least; Hermione Lee was another choice, but was never really available. Bailey has written biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever; the epigraph to his life of Roth is the instruction given to him by his subject: “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.” That Roth believed he was in need of rehabilitation is in itself interesting; it gives a sense that no amount of acclaim, no shelf of awards, could make up for his sense of himself as the underdog. Bailey’s book is diligent, and the writing is appealing enough, but does he make Roth “interesting”? That is a moot point.

There is the trouble – especially in the later life – of what Bailey calls “the ironclad sameness of his days”: Roth was a writer, and he spent his days writing. There is only so much mileage to be got out of a man sitting at his desk for hour upon hour. There is plenty of detail on his youth as a son of Newark, New Jersey, born in 1933, “two weeks after Roosevelt’s first inauguration and about seven weeks after Hitler became chancellor”.

Roth grew up in a Jewish community built by emigrants who fled Russian persecution at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th; his work tracks the way in which that community integrated itself into the life of the United States. Yet what does knowing that, as a student at Newark Rutgers, Roth “rode the number 14 bus for twenty minutes to Raymond Boulevard, whence he walked another ten minutes to one of the two buildings that composed the physical plant of his then four-year-old college” add to one’s understanding of his work? This is the business of biography, I suppose, but over the course of more than 800 pages it can pall.

And then there are the women. “Always it came back to the women,” Bailey writes as part of his dissection of the first of Roth’s two disastrous marriages – to Margaret (Maggie) Martinson, who died in a car crash in 1968 when the two were separated but not divorced. His second marriage was to the British actress Claire Bloom, who chronicled their lives – much to Roth’s displeasure – in her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, published in 1996.

It’s hard to avoid that in the relationship department, Roth was – to use the technical term – a real shit. The reason seems obvious: his focus was on himself, and himself alone. Perhaps the most telling reflection in the book comes from Susan Rogers, a girlfriend who was the daughter of old friends of Roth’s and to whom he dedicated The Plot Against America. “The extent to which our relationship was lopsided, and seeing that pattern again and again in his relationships… This wasn’t equal in any way.” There has been some discussion about whether the “revelations” of Roth’s infidelities and misogyny (while some of his relationships were clandestine, his attitudes could never have been described as a secret) might result in his being “cancelled”. Oh, give over.

[See also: Paul Kagame: the hidden dictator]

Again, what is most disturbing in this book is not Roth’s behaviour but his biographer’s apparently unthinking alignment with it. In 1954 Roth’s brother Sandy marries Trudy Schanker, who is described by Bailey as “a kindhearted but plain young woman”. Plain? Who says? Perhaps Philip Roth: but this “fact” isn’t put in quotes. There are many slips like this. While at the University of Chicago in 1954-55, Roth dated a woman called Pat McEnerney, described as “a skittish graduate student”. Well, I’d be “skittish” too if – as the reader learns in the following paragraph – I’d been “molested by a priest, while her father, who objected to her ballet dancing, had once tied her ankles together and put her in the closet when he learned she was taking lessons on the sly”.

A biographer should not be expected to condemn his or her subject. But some of these descriptions – including the use of outdated phrases such as “sex change operation” and a gay person having “proclivities” – shouldn’t have made it past an editor’s desk. Bailey rightly remarks on Roth’s determination to “let the repellent in” to his writing; that is often what gives his work its force. But too often in Bailey’s book one feels it is let in where it doesn’t really belong.

“Everything you ever wanted to know about Philip Roth you can discover in his novels. Everything you ever wanted to know about what it took to become one of the greatest American writers of our time, you will find in Blake Bailey’s breathtaking biography.” So runs the novelist Nicole Krauss’s blurb for this book. I would agree with the first part of Krauss’s statement; less so with the second.

This raises two fundamental questions: first, whether you think that anyone’s artistry can be understood through his or her life; and second, whether biography or autobiography are even stable forms, given the mutability of opinion and sensibility.

Roth drew on the material of his own life over and over again to make his uncomfortable, complicated art; yet – as he told me when I interviewed him in 2009 – “the original biographical material is almost untouched”. I remarked that many readers disagreed; they think, I said, you’ve touched it again and again. “Well,” he said, “they’re wrong.” It’s that simple? “Simpler,” he said plainly. People wanted to pick up books by “the biographical handle” – which he described as “really another species of gossip”.

Bailey knew Roth well. I met him only once. And yet I believe that what he said to me is true. What I missed in this book was exactly what Krauss claims is there, but I felt, finally, was lacking: a sense of making.

The reader is tantalised by mentions of Veronica Geng, a writer and editor at the New Yorker who became Roth’s trusted reader and editor; after their first meeting to discuss The Ghost Writer, she became “one of the elect who read every one of Roth’s novels in draft”. When she was diagnosed with a brain tumour Roth paid for her treatment and supported her in other ways; she died at the age of 56. I would happily have read more about this relationship, and less about Roth masturbating on the phone while one of his patient and exasperated lovers listened. (“As soon as he has come, ejaculated, he bangs the receiver and that’s it.”)

The final photograph in this biography is of Roth’s gravestone in Bard College Cemetery. It is a boulder from his beloved property in Connecticut, and it is inscribed “Philip Roth 1933 – 2018”. Such simplicity is an invitation to consider not his life, but the work he left behind.

Philip Roth: The Biography
Blake Bailey
Jonathan Cape, 912pp, £30

This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people