It was shaping up to be the publishing event of the year, the first blast of post-pandemica as we emerged from our hobbit holes and combed the cobwebs from our hair: the starship arrival of Blake Bailey’s authorised biography of Philip Roth, Philip Roth: The Biography. The ‘the’ of the subtitle said: accept no substitutes. Another biography of Roth was in the offing, Ira Nadel’s Philip Roth: A Counterlife, a sizeable, solidly researched, intelligently wrought handful whose subtitle, as the journalist Judith Shulevitz noted, seemed to indicate an awareness of its also-ran status against the looming behemoth. Bailey’s book was the baby for which the literary world was setting the banquet table and beating the tom-toms. Feature articles on Bailey were fulsome, bestsellerdom was practically assured, and the first spate of reviews, apart from a few dissents that turned out to be prescient, went off like confetti cannons. ‘A stunning feat’ (Publishers Weekly). ‘What a story’ (the Atlantic). When Cynthia Ozick’s champagne-popping review christening the biography ‘a narrative masterwork’ was published in the New York Times Book Review on 1 April, Bailey tweeted a humblebraggy ‘it’s all downhill from here,’ or words to that effect. He was righter than he knew. Ozick’s magisterial blessing of Roth and The Biography represented the heights and from there on it was all abyss. ‘Sexual Assault Allegations against Biographer Halt Shipping of His Roth Book’ was the New York Times headline on 21 April. Bailey was accused of grooming female students as an eighth-grade teacher in New Orleans in the 1990s and of two sexual assaults, the second alleged rape reported to have taken place in 2015 at the home of one of the Times’s book critics. Norton halted shipments and cancelled a second print run; the panels, interviews and book festival events instantly vaporised. What began as a parade float was a runaway dumpster fire.
Let us backtrack a bit. Not too far back: just far enough to present a portrait of the artist in fall plumage pondering the third act of his life and career. In 1996, Philip Roth, the lean fireballer who had long been the Sandy Koufax of American prose, executed a strategic withdrawal from the world and took refuge in the hushed bosom of his 150-acre Connecticut estate. Previous withdrawals into the protective bubble of privacy and hard work had been tactical, provisional. But just because you have a persecution complex doesn’t mean there aren’t people out to get you. At the wonder-boy age of 25, Roth had angry rabbis clamouring for his head after the publication of his story ‘Defender of the Faith’ in the New Yorker. The then president of the Rabbinical Council of America railed: ‘What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him,’ which had an ominous sound. In 1963, Roth ventured a calm, considered defence of his intentions and methods in an essay titled ‘Writing about Jews’, but such harpsichord stylings could only sedate the rumblings for so long, and then, as if fired from a cannon, came Alexander Portnoy wagging his dingdong and marauding for shiksas.
The tremendous, scandalous success of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), that pyrotechnical display of flying ejaculate, stopped-up bowels, Jewish angst and mother-woe, revived and inflamed accusations that Roth was a self-hating Jew, an enemy of his own people peddling filth. ‘Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favour, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass – I happen also to be a human being!’ Declining the invitation to furnish his ass further, the philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem compared the novel to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the Zionist author and activist Marie Syrkin pegged it as something out of the Goebbels-Streicher playbook. The film version of Roth’s novella Goodbye, Columbus came out the same year, introducing Ali MacGraw to a grateful world and raising qualms with what the New York Times called its ‘overstuffed, blintz-shaped caricatures’ of affluent Jewish suburbanites: another item for the ‘Philip Roth is Bad News for Jews’ file, even though the blame largely belonged to the lampoonish visuals by the director, Larry Peerce. These hate-bursts Roth could handle, employing his rhetorical ninja skills. Such Sturm und Drang was the price of breaking the sound barrier that separated Promising Upstart from Major League Sensation, and there was way more money in the bigs. What was flummoxing for Roth was finding his name and his protagonist turned into punchline material. He didn’t share the mirth of his countrymen and women when Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls, joked on the Tonight Show that she’d love to meet Philip Roth but wouldn’t want to shake his hand. Here was proof that Portnoy’s wank hand had taken on a Frankensteinian life of its own, and its creator found himself a boldface gossip column item. Norman Mailer might crackle before the TV cameras, Gore Vidal might manicure his aperçus and Truman Capote flick his malice, but Roth had no desire to hop on the carousel horse.
Post-Portnoy, he mastered the art of emerging and receding from the media spotlight, surfacing when he had a squalling new novel to promote and granting a few key interviews to explain its formation and thematic concerns, then dissolving like Dr Strange and transmigrating into his private domain. In this way Roth avoided overexposure and avuncularity, amassing a body of work that kept building on itself, achieving magnitude, his romantic and health crises mostly curtained offstage.
Until, that is, the publicised (tabloidised) dissolution of his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom and the parting kick of her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), which set a million squinty eyes on him, judging, condemning – how dare this broody brute browbeat Lady Marchmain so? The guilty verdict, a public condemnation based only on her testimony and the understandable prejudice against highfalutin authors with scowling dispositions, was an injustice that Roth would spend the rest of his life scheming to overturn. He was, after all, acutely sensitive, like most soreheads. Fed up with the foul world, unfairly maligned (he felt), he would reconsecrate himself to fiction. There he sat, bent over his typewriter, Sisyphus at the IBM Selectric, toiling with perfectionist ardour over every sentence, season after season, year after year, novel after novel, a photograph of Franz Kafka hanging on the wall like a religious icon and haunting admonition. So sacrosanct was Roth’s Fortress of Solitude that he once returned a pair of kittens because their frolics were too distracting – he needed every ounce of sniper focus to carry out his ongoing mission. Hypervigilance was Roth’s operating mode in art and in life. A pioneer self-quarantiner and social distancer long before it became our common lot, Roth narrowed down his supporting cast to a trustworthy few, each with a defined role. There was, for example, a recurring slot for a younger woman whom he could mentor in mind and body, a prospective princess bride who might help prop him up in his doddering years.
‘Philip had searched diligently for a beautiful young woman to see to him as Jane Eyre looked after old Mr Rochester,’ Benjamin Taylor writes in his memoir, Here We Are. ‘What he got instead was me.’ Taylor was young, goyish and gay, all of which Roth was not. ‘I can’t be the first gay man to have been an older straight man’s mainstay,’ Taylor writes, but the ‘degree of attachment surprised us both. Were we lovers? Obviously not. Were we in love? Not exactly. Sufficient to say that ours was a conversation neither could have done without.’ They watched movies together, dined at dumpy restaurants (of one such dump, Roth joked, ‘a rat in a tuxedo greets you at the door’), attended concerts at Lincoln Centre. Their movie tastes were not aligned. ‘What do you see in all this Hollywood dreck, Ben?’ Roth wanted to know, ‘And why are you gay men so beguiled by Bette Davis?’ Yeah, Ben, what gives? Roth: ‘You don’t look twice at Ava Gardner, who was, to put it mildly, more attractive. She had an enduring sexiness, even in London. In the 1980s. When I had her.’ When I had her: how the phrase just rolls off the wrist. Memories of Ava weren’t enough to warm Roth on winter nights, as the string of candidates for the role of Jane Eyre dwindled to one. ‘Twelve years ago,’ Taylor writes,
I saw him through his last love, for a young person less than half his age whose family strongly disapproved of the association and who evidently grew to disapprove of it herself. It was a trauma that might have ploughed Philip under and that he tells aslant in Exit Ghost, the novel dedicated to me. After that came a couple of misguided attempts at courtship, painful for the women involved. Then he closed the door on erotic life altogether. He’d learned how to be an elderly gentleman who behaves correctly. He’d joined the ranks of the sexually abdicated. I say: ‘I think I’ve worshipped at the altar of Eros long enough. I think my dues are paid.’ ‘Wait till you go well and truly to sleep where the body forks. A great peacefulness, yes. But it’s the harbinger of night. You’re left to browse back through the enticements and satisfactions and agonies that were your former vitality – when you were strong in the sexual magic.’
All forked out, Roth could redirect and redeploy his warlock energy and remaining resources on the later fiction (which the critic Stanley Kauffmann described as ‘firestorms of vitality’) while casting the most important role of all before the Big Fade-Out. Enter the biographer.
Not just any golden retriever would do. In Roth’s case, the position required a literary Lego architect of tact, sophistication and meticulous care, not some racketeer who would go rooting around behind his back but a capable junior partner who could take direction and follow the sheet music. ‘On one occasion,’ Taylor writes, ‘he handed me a full-scale book called “Notes for My Biographer”, which would shortly be announced for publication before being withdrawn. The text is a point-by-point effort, frequently self-deceiving, to refute all of Claire Bloom’s charges against him in Leaving a Doll’s House, whose publication Philip counted among the worst catastrophes of his life and credited with his failure to win the Nobel.’ (Much as Mailer rued that the Time magazine cover depicting Marilyn Monroe mussing his hair had cost him his.)
Roth’s first choice was Ross Miller, a friend, professor at the University of Connecticut and nephew of the playwright Arthur Miller. Unfortunately, the neph was no chip off the old oak. Hapless is perhaps the kindest word. A workhorse like Roth could only look on aghast at the lackadaisical and slapdash way Miller went about interviewing his literary colleagues, childhood friends and closest relatives, including his beloved, ailing brother Sandy, with whom Miller spent a measly half hour before hustling off as if he had a bus to catch. More defensibly, Miller resisted doing Roth’s imperious bidding when he insisted that Barbara Epstein (co-founder of the New York Review of Books) be interviewed on her deathbed to pin down the rumour that Leaving a Doll’s House had been dictated by Roth’s Connecticut neighbour and flouncy nemesis Francine du Plessix Gray – ‘Francine Duplicitous Gray’, as Roth called her. Interviewing may not have been Miller’s forte but what was his forte? He made such a skimpy mess of the Notes on the Text for Volume Three of Roth’s Library of America edition that Roth went apoplectic in a barrage of faxes that must have had little lightning bolts shooting out of them. ‘This is unacceptable!’ ‘What is going on with you?’ Given the pace at which Miller was futzing around, Roth, who had already had more than one near death scare, must have feared he might slide off the deck without anyone capable in place to do the spadework of documenting his past. Zeus finally had enough and Miller was relieved of duties, the position now open for a more experienced hand. Hermione Lee, then at work on her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, was invited to be Miller’s successor, but had to decline, sparing herself no end of eventual aggravation.
Into this vacancy the editor and biographer James Atlas tentatively ventured. He had made his name with a Life of Delmore Schwartz in 1977 and had matured into a venerable if fidgety fixture in New York publishing. He and Roth had been friendly for decades. Early in their relationship, which began in earnest when Atlas moved to New York in 1978, he had served primarily as a rapt audience for Roth’s intimate showmanship as monologist, impressionist and sit-down stand-up comic with a Jewish joke for every occasion. In his audio memoir, Remembering Roth (Audible, £5.99), Atlas claims not to have been bothered by such one-way transmission. It was the price and privilege of being in the presence of a master spieler: ‘Roth did all the talking – does the operagoer at the Met interrupt Pavarotti?’ Atlas accepted his subordinate place as the price of admission into Roth’s confidences. ‘Our friendship mattered more to me than to Roth, how could it not?’
As Atlas conceded in his memoir, The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, he had a knack for getting up the nostrils of his literary idols. First he made the bonehead error of praising Roth’s novel The Anatomy Lesson to Roth, then badmouthing it to a friend, which got back to Roth, because of course it did. Roth had initially encouraged, endorsed and facilitated Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow, but once Atlas began cataloguing some of Bellow’s more unsavoury amours and making clucking sounds of bourgeois disapproval, he incurred the ire of King Saul. Roth took Bellow’s side, because of course he did. ‘The writers I admired most in the world were conspiring against me,’ Atlas lamented, victim of a classic squeeze play. As a bonus indignity Roth inserted a nasty sideswipe at an Atlas-like critic and biographer in Exit Ghost, in which Roth’s familiar alter ego Nathan Zuckerman reviles ‘the dirt-seeking snooping calling itself research’ as ‘just about the lowest of literary rackets’. Roth seemed to find a spot in nearly every novel to insert a minor character based on somebody who had recently vexed him. That is one of the seldom acknowledged privileges of being a novelist.
Despite their scuffling, Roth and Atlas reached a rapprochement in later years, yet another miracle wrought on the sidewalks of New York. At some point, Atlas, having heard the reports of discontent from Roth travelling over the jungle grapevine, wondered aloud what the deal was with Ross Miller. Roth, picking up the hint, shot back: ‘Why, do you want to do my biography?’ Atlas had the experience and credentials for the undertaking, and one night even got off the phone with Roth elated that he might indeed receive the royal nod. Instead, Roth chose Blake Bailey, the well-regarded biographer of Charles Jackson (The Lost Weekend), Richard Yates and John Cheever, three alcohol-plagued novelists whose torments kept late hours. As it happened Atlas would outlive Roth only by a year, dying in September 2019 from complications of a lung condition. At the close of Remembering Roth, he bids sad adieu to Philip – ‘I will miss you until I myself am no more’ – as his frail voice wafts into the wings. Exit ghost.
With the diligent and diplomatic Bailey, Roth appeared to have made the right choice. If anything, he appeared to have made too right a choice, a certain conceited quality stardusting their collaboration, The Biography at times taking on a buddy tone with a fireplace glow.
That first summer I spent a week in Connecticut, interviewing him six hours a day in his studio. Now and then we had to take bathroom breaks, and we could hear each other’s muffled streams through the door. One lovely sun-dappled afternoon 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.
Ah, the melodic sounds of Philip Roth’s pee stream, music to live by. This reverie appears in the end acknowledgments of the book, reflecting the satisfaction of an author who believes he has steered the Queen Mary into port. And why wouldn’t he have felt all pink and pleased? At nine hundred pages, Philip Roth: The Biography delivers the surplus goods, as if subscribing to the notion that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Each paragraph is as firmly packed as a steamer trunk.
Not all of this information serves any vital purpose (do we really need to know that Roth wrote to the co-op board on behalf of his agent, Andrew Wylie? Or that Roth’s friend Joel Conarroe read a goofy telegram at Roth’s sixtieth birthday bash purportedly from John Updike that began ‘Masel gov, you alte cocker’?), but it concretises the sense of comprehensiveness to an impressive, even irritating degree. Roth’s elysian childhood in Newark; his college days at Bucknell; his literary apprenticeship; his first blow job (an inspiration for him, an unsettling incident for her); the first peeps of national recognition; the long procession of literary creation; his friendships and fallings out with the premier writers of his generation; the switch between publishers that seemed so seismic at the time: it’s a real-life mini-series in teeming Panavision. The anecdotes alone could wallpaper a mansion. For those of us conversant with the expanding universe of Rothiana – the intimate memoirs (Taylor’s and Atlas’s but also Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound), critical studies (Mark Shechner’s zesty Up Society’s Ass, Copper: Rereading Philip Roth) and the fictionalised portraits of Roth in his former lover Janet Hobhouse’s The Furies, his former protégé Alan Lelchuk’s Ziff: A Life? and his former protégée-lover Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry – it may feel at times as if we’ve made this expedition before, with Claire Bloom hovering overhead.
But buoyancy carries the reader along even in the thick of misgivings, the postwar American literary scene in all its brash bravura and high stakes providing a Radio City Music Hall backdrop for even celebrity-averse writers such as Roth to achieve stardom. That Roth made it a lasting stardom is a testament to a relentless work ethic and a bottomless faith in the value and vocation of literature; he didn’t try to smooth down the bristles of his egoism in order to ingratiate himself to those outside his orbit; and to those within his orbit he revealed an amplitude that redeemed many of his sins, faults and arrogances. One of the book’s revelations is just how generous Roth was, generous with time, money, patience – a mensch who went above and beyond the call of Samaritanism. He underwrote numerous educations and medical bills: even in his eighties he was writing a $25,000 cheque to help an old high school friend facing destitution. It’s a revelation because Roth never had the affect of a ‘giver’, a go-to guy for those in distress. He presented as pinched and pulled-tight, as on-guard and flinchy as Bellow, but there he was, whipping out the chequebook like Wyatt Earp.
Some reviewers have objected that Bailey focuses on the menagerie of Roth’s life at the expense of the writing, his discussion of the fiction being somewhat cursory and pat. It’s an impression one might draw on first reading the book, distracted and beguiled by the cameo appearances and one-liners flung out like tennis serves, but a second look shows Bailey did as well as might be expected given the enormity of the corpus. When a novelist produces as many touted masterpieces and near masterpieces as Roth did, the biographer risks getting stuck leading a glorified museum tour, and Bailey does his best to keep the line moving. So much stellar criticism was expended on Roth’s work when it was hot off the grill – by, among others, Alfred Kazin, Marvin Mudrick, Frank Kermode, Leslie A. Fiedler, Stanley Crouch and Vivian Gornick (how she has been vindicated! Her 1976 Village Voice essay on Roth and company, ‘Why Do These Men Hate Women?,’ was a warning siren) – that fresh illuminations would be tough to unlock. It’s not as if literary criticism is pining for another consideration of the moral gravitas of The Ghost Writer (whose genesis Bailey discusses extensively) or a finely executed rehash of the peekaboo identity gambits in Operation Shylock, and if I never have to entertain another orchestral tune-up for American Pastoral or see the name of its protagonist, ‘Swede’ Levov, again, I will consider life a holiday. The strengths and limitations of Roth’s fiction are hardly concealed behind dense foliage. Once he perfected his voice as a writer, its vibratory tension and apprehensive grip, he was able to arm each novel with a cruciality that either hooked the reader or didn’t, but couldn’t be dismissed as a vanity mirror. There are almost no minutiae in Roth’s fiction, no incidental bits of business or tempo shifts for the sake of tempo shifts, but they abound in monologues, diatribes and impassioned pleas to an invisible jury whose eloquence can leave scorch marks; or, in the case of his sharpest one-liners, razor cuts. This is why nearly every movie or TV adaptation of Roth’s novels (American Pastoral, Indignation, The Humbling, The Human Stain, The Plot against America and Elegy, based on The Dying Animal) failed to deliver: they couldn’t find visual correlatives for that voice, and made up for it with large helpings of ham acting and portentous scenery setting.
What’s compelling about Philip Roth from a biographical vantage point isn’t so much the rewards, thematic concerns and investigative zeal of the individual novels, which can fend for themselves; it’s the topography of Roth’s endeavour, the rough terrain that looks like a smooth incline from thirty thousand feet. In retrospect, a career such as Roth’s appears a foregone thing, but it was much more precarious than it looked until he found his stride, and even then trapdoors lurked. His first two novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), were respectfully praised and soberly commended, but their dun-coloured, slow-drip realism wasn’t going to stimulate any reader’s pleasure nubs, not in the neon decade of Pop and Barbarella’s orgasmatron. Earnest intentions weren’t enough. Blow out the skylight!
It was the verbal jam sessions with fellow spritzers – Albert Goldman (a Columbia professor who would court infamy with his scabrous biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon), the theatre critic Robert Brustein, and others – that helped crack open the shell that released Alex Portnoy into the urban wild. The glum littérateur acquired the gleam of an asylum escapee. Pranked at a breakfast shop by Roth, who mimicked the voice of Goldman’s mother (‘Albert, your father and I have been worried sick about you!’), Goldman wrote: ‘Looking nothing like the picture on the jackets of his books … this was the comic-crazy Roth, the one lost soul on the pilgrimage, a jarring presence sending out hysterical waves in every direction.’ Portnoy’s Complaint was an assault of hysterical waves that kept cresting, cresting, then crashing into depths of foaming guilt and fury.
Not since Lenny Bruce had there been such a virtuoso desperado, but how far could Roth ride his comic daimon without it becoming a shtick? After the overblown burlesques of the Watergate satire Our Gang and the Kafkaesque fabulism of The Breast and his baseball opus The Great American Novel (replete with ethnic and racial slurs that wouldn’t fly today, as Bailey notes), Roth appeared in danger of being pegged as a novelty act – a high velocity show-off. Irving Howe’s ex cathedra denunciation ‘Philip Roth Reconsidered’ (Commentary, 1972), which tried to stuff Roth back into his jack-in-a-box before he trespassed again (rereading Portnoy’s Complaint had laid bare its claptrap construction and jejune antics, Our Gang was ‘flaccid’ etc), shook and infuriated Roth. He would later retaliate in The Anatomy Lesson, going after Howe’s Jewish-tenement nostalgia with a wicked spitball, but in the short term he stewed, and a stewing Philip Roth was a menace to propriety. Two years after Howe’s attack, Roth would unleash the maelstrom of My Life as a Man, an exorcism of his first cursed marriage that is to my mind Roth’s supreme yawp of Roth Man in existential extremis. (The subsequent Sabbath’s Theatre seems an overwrought, over-thunk Tarzan yell by comparison, though I concede this is a minority opinion.)
My Life as a Man swung open the gates for one of the greatest thoroughbred runs in American letters, but even as Roth assumed full command of his powers, the controlled burn of his anger and vivacity, he would be sidelined and knocked flat by health problems that would have tried a saint, and he was no saint. It was as if his body was booby-trapped: a ruptured appendix in 1967 (‘spreading deadly bacteria throughout his abdominal cavity’) that nearly put him permanently down for the count; a knee operation that went bad (‘within a week he was barely able to walk, even with crutches’); excruciating back pain that required steady doses of the opioid Percodan; roiling bouts of insomnia for which he was prescribed Halcion, which nearly sent him round the bend (hallucinations, panic attacks, suicidal ideation – the whole Walpurgisnacht); quintuple bypass surgery; nervous breakdowns; a migraine courtesy of an ugly encounter with Norman Mailer; a rectal polyp. At their worst the health crises, psychological turmoil, family loss and marital infighting converged into a clusterfuck that had Roth pinwheeling.
‘Something – many things – happened to Roth from the late 1980s and after,’ Mark Shechner, one of the keenest Rothphiles, noted, ‘and his books throughout the 1990s record, with seismographic precision, a collapse of morale. We need only reflect on what we do know – the death of his father, the dissolution of his marriage to Claire Bloom and his brief institutionalisation afterwards, his harrowing episode with the painkiller Halcion, his cardiac surgery – and wonder how he survived with his creative faculties intact.’ He did survive. As Pauline Kael once said of Jean Cocteau, these wiry guys are tougher than they look. At any point after, oh, The Plot against America (2004), a waking, walking nightmare of democracy undone that gained renewed relevance after the election of Trump, Roth might have rung off for good, having all the money he needed and nothing left to prove, but a sense of mortality perched on his shoulder and cawed forth Everyman, Exit Ghost, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis. No American writer since Poe or Melville leaned into death longer, harder and more unflinchingly than Roth (the last paragraph of Everyman slams like a lid), refusing to avert his stare from the empty grave awaiting his arrival and seek solace in the flimsy hope of an afterlife or a reincarnative reboot (as Mailer did). It doesn’t matter that these novels weren’t up to the calibre of his strongest work, though none of them was a bowl of noodles.
Roth’s work on behalf of writers and dissidents subjected to repression, censorship and persecution under communist regimes during the Cold War was heroic. To assist individual writers in economic distress he conceived an ad hoc fund that channelled donations from an all-star roster of American authors, including William Styron, Bellow, Alison Lurie and Gore Vidal; even Irving Howe chipped in. It was thanks to Roth’s entrepreneurship that Penguin launched its Writers from the Other Europe series, which introduced (among others) Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz, Tadeusz Borowski and György Konrád to audiences who didn’t know what they were missing. Roth not only edited the series but commissioned introductions from the likes of John Updike and Joseph Brodsky for an extra imprimatur. The series lasted fifteen years, a labour of literary world citizenship that seems to have been lost in the passage of time, perhaps because American culture has never been more parochial, tuned out and self-referential. Roth also took personal risks on behalf of cultural exchange with writers under hostile surveillance. It wasn’t exactly Mission: Impossible but on one of his many visits to Prague, trailed by secret police and hassled by uniformed officers, he broke loose before he could be led away for further questioning, hopping a passing trolley for his getaway. When the police browbeat Ivan Klíma to discover what Roth was doing in Czechoslovakia, Klíma replied: ‘Don’t you read his books? He’s here for the girls.’
Ah, yes, the girls. It keeps coming back to the girls. No matter how loftily we may wish to elevate our sights and vouch that only the Work matters, the sheer volume of activity in Roth’s erotic life as recorded in Blake’s compendium, the turnstile whirl of passing infatuations (while certain lovers loyally remain in the corner of the frame), makes that a tough go. Girls, women, devoted mistresses, literary groupies, other men’s wives, writing class students, famous actresses (not only Ava Gardner but Mia Farrow), one-night stands, sex with prostitutes in London, handjobs in Bangkok, orgies in Prague (‘as he picked his way upstairs amid the copulating bodies, he was bitten on the ankle’): it all makes for an R-rated sizzle reel competing with the feature attraction. Roth had cautioned Ross Miller that he didn’t want his biography to degenerate into ‘The Story of My Penis’, but Roth’s penis up-periscopes throughout Bailey’s book until at page 705 we have a long-time girlfriend regaling him with ‘Mr Hard-On’, a racy take on the song ‘Mr Sandman’ paying homage to Roth’s indefatigable trouper. Like many men emerging from the square proprieties of the Eisenhower years into the frugging 1960s, Roth enjoyed and exploited the standard perks of male prerogative plus all the extras that accrued to a hotshot author. He helped himself to everything, a Playboy philosopher in ardent praxis.
At times he seemed to have his own procurement department. Joel Conarroe, head of English at Penn, where Roth taught, screened the students who registered late and wanted to squeeze into Roth’s popular class as if they were beauty contestants, performing, as he put it, ‘the role of, pardon the expression, pimp’. Of one such student, Roth recalled: ‘I was forty and she was nineteen. Perfect. As God meant it to be.’ When Anatole Broyard, the book critic and disputed model for Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, taught at the New School in New York, he would send ‘some of his comelier students’ to Roth’s nearby walk-up, ‘where, unbidden, but certainly welcome, they would announce via the intercom that “Mr Broyard” had sent them’. They might as well have arrived gift-wrapped. One of the puzzles in the various accounts of Roth is why so many friends and associates felt the need or impulse to cater to his libido, acting as talent scouts or playing matchmaker when he was feeling lovelorn following a breakup. Perhaps they simply wanted to please the prince, to be a part of his floating ensemble theatre.
Reports describe Roth as a smooth talker, experienced mindgamer, practised seducer (‘He was not averse to cuckolding inattentive husbands,’ Taylor writes, an oddly passive wording) and crafty tactician (although the romantic advice he gave David Hare sounds like something from a cut-rate campus Casanova). He also took in troubled lambs gone astray whom he could counsel and Pygmalionise, such as Brigit (a pseudonym). Roth met her when she was still grief-struck over the death of her mother. When at their second meeting Brigit became self-conscious about everything there was to learn, Roth assured her: ‘Don’t worry – I’ll teach you.’ Of one former Penn student, who resurfaced in his life a few years later, Roth bragged that he’d taught her how to give a proper blow job. Another he immortalised in fiction, or at least parts of her. ‘Walking along the pathway outside Dodge Hall,’ Bailey writes,
Roth ran into a tall, fetching young woman with an Australian accent: ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Are you Mr Roth?’ She offered to show him to [David] Plante’s class, and he got the impression she’d been waiting for him. After he seated himself with the other students around a large oval table, Roth glanced at his guide again – call her Margot – and noticed that she’d removed her sweater: ‘As well she should have,’ he said, ‘because she had lovely large breasts and I put them into The Dying Animal.’
As if he had a trophy case specifically installed. Margot endears herself to the reader when she gets off a bus at Port Authority, the former hellmouth feeding into Times Square, ‘rather than spend another weekend in Connecticut with [Roth]’. With even younger scholars, it was helpful to have a chaperone or a bulldog around when Roth was on the pedagogical move. One of the crisper exchanges in The Biography occurs when Roth offers to help Chelsea Clinton with any papers she might write about his work, and Hillary shoots back: ‘She doesn’t need any help.’ Hillary really should have been president.
Later in life Roth would lament to Bellow that much of the fun had gone out of teaching – ‘You used to be able to sleep with the girls in the old days … and now of course it’s impossible. You go to feminist prison’ – and this loss in penis-privilege is unlikely to evoke pathos in any but the most predatory. Did Roth and Bailey exchange similar sighs, invoking the iron clang of feminist prison? The allegations of predation against Bailey have raised the spectre of an affinity between him and Roth that frames their relationship less as that of biographer and subject and more that of co-conspirators – partners in slime, a fraternal symmetry. Among the allegations against Bailey is that as the self-styled popular, cool English teacher, he groomed a number of his favourite eighth-grade female students, writing flirty things in their yearbooks and spritzing innuendo in the air, in order to soften them up for a charm offensive once they were of age.
And when charm wasn’t enough, force was applied. One former student, Eve Peyton, told the New York Times that she and Bailey crossed paths in New Orleans in 2003 and he raped her. ‘After he drove her to her father’s house, where she was staying, Mr Bailey said he had “wanted her” since the day they met, when she was twelve, Ms Peyton said.’ The moment I read that I snapped to a passage in The Biography in which Roth has a reunion with ‘the raffish Jiří Mucha’, the host of the bacchanal in Prague where Roth got his ankle bitten. ‘If Mucha had read The Prague Orgy in the meantime, he gave no sign; rather he suavely remarked that he (in his mid-seventies then) had a 15-year-old girlfriend. When Roth looked unimpressed, Mucha added: “But I’ve known her since she was twelve.”’ Bailey adds in a footnote that Roth tucked this line into the mouth of one of the puppeteers in Sabbath’s Theatre, providing such suavity with a new home. For the record, Bailey denies saying he had ‘wanted’ Ms Peyton since she was twelve, but another accuser claims that Bailey told her: ‘I’ve been wanting to touch those breasts since I met you’ (presumably in the eighth grade).The overlap of Roth’s seigneurial hauteur and the horrific charges against Bailey have blended into an ugly, symbiotic perception that is nearly impossible to unglue. It’s tempting to stuff the whole into a trash bag marked ‘Misogyny’ and be done with it – except where Roth is concerned there is more here than pretty maids all in a row, flicked over like dominoes.
A list of character witnesses could be compiled from the congregation of women to whom Roth was by all accounts devoted, supportive, steadfast and caring: they included the novelists Janet Hobhouse, Alison Lurie and Mary Karr; her royal highness Edna O’Brien; the journalists Janet Malcolm and Claudia Roth Pierpont; the biographers Judith Thurman and Hermione Lee. Some of them would be with him till the end, at his hospital bed in the cardiac intensive care unit at New York-Presbyterian. Being present is sometimes the most meaningful thing you can do, and Roth had been there for many of them. After Hobhouse’s cancer returned,
he accompanied her to chemotherapy sessions and one day spent almost three hours with her at an East Side restaurant, Petaluma, awaiting the results of a test that would determine whether her tumour had shrunk. Roth promised to ‘fuck her silly’ if the news was good, and she asked him to put it in writing; finally, at three o’clock, she phoned her doctor and learned the worst: the tumour hadn’t shrunk, and therefore she was probably doomed. She and Roth spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the park, then he took her home.
She died a month later; Roth paid for the grave plot and burial. My one exchange with Roth took place at the memorial service for our mutual friend Veronica Geng, the unclassifiably gifted and mercurial New Yorker humour writer who was Roth’s favourite editor (‘one of the elect who read every one of Roth’s novels in draft’), also felled by cancer. When Geng was diagnosed with a grapefruit-sized tumour and underwent surgery to have it removed, Roth contributed and raised money for her medical expenses (she had no health insurance), moved her into his uptown studio, hired nurses to look after her, and would wheel her outside whenever she wanted to smoke. He would dedicate I Married a Communist to her, which I think would have made Veronica laugh (how could it not). Roth also arranged monthly stipends for a former girlfriend whose life had spun off its axis and organised food drops at her cabin door. This is not the conduct of an unreconstructed cad. He could be selfish and peremptory – his rap sheet is profuse in that regard – but his actions and affections occupied an incredible range of frequencies – he was a complicated bastard, which is why he needed so many alter egos (Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh, Peter Tarnopol) to thrash himself out.
Any efforts at fine-shading Roth’s behaviour with women into a three-dimensional portrait runs into the problem of his two marriages. If any man had been shaped by nature and disposition to be a permanent bachelor, a creature with one eye on the escape hatch, it was Philip Roth. He would regret the women he didn’t marry and even more deeply the women he did. His first marriage looks in hindsight like an attempt to prove to himself he could be a responsible adult, fulfil his obligations and pay outward deference to societal norms, unlike those damn beatniks. It was the 1950s, after all. Margaret ‘Maggie’ Martinson was four years older than Roth, gentile, a divorcée whose two children had been taken from her in a custody fight, a raging drinker, an unfulfilled soul. When she announced she was pregnant, Roth promised to marry her if she got an abortion. She took the money for the abortion and went to the movies.
A few years later she confessed that she had faked her pregnancy results by buying a urine sample from a pregnant Black woman in the East Village, a ruse that Roth whipped into urban gothic melodrama in My Life as a Man. Although there were intervals of affection and going through the motions, the marriage resembles Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turned into a high-shriek miniseries. They separated in 1963, after ‘that fucker’s’ windfall from Portnoy’s Complaint. Then, one night in 1968, Maggie was killed in an accident when the friend driving her, speeding through Central Park to show off his new Jaguar, lost control and ploughed into a tree. Her friend survived the crash only to have the police ‘beat the shit’ out of him (he was Black). Maggie’s fatal accident, all that roiling life drama gone in a blink, was Roth’s guilt-free get-out-of-divorce-hell ticket. ‘You’re dead and I didn’t have to do it,’ he said as she lay in her casket.
The marriage to Claire Bloom carried a more plausible silver-framed composition: a famous novelist and a famous actress strolling the stately grounds together. But Bloom’s marital track record indicated faulty instincts when it came to men. Her first marriage, to the moody method actor Rod Steiger, produced a daughter, Anna, who would grow up to be one of the banes of Roth’s existence; the year Bloom and Steiger divorced, she married the producer Hillard ‘Hilly’ Elkins, whose Mephistophelean beard should have been an omen. Gore Vidal, wise in the ways of men, had advised Bloom not to consort with Roth, just as he had cautioned Elaine Dundy not to return to Kenneth Tynan. ‘You have already had Portnoy’s complaint [i.e. Elkins],’ he told Bloom. ‘Do not involve yourself with Portnoy.’ As for Roth, he expressed too great an appetite for adultery to be faithful to Bloom, carrying on a nearly two-decade affair with a married physical therapist named Inga (another pseudonym), ‘an adjunct to my domestic life, without which I couldn’t have continued my domestic life’, a doozy of a rationalisation. She was also the model for Drenka in Sabbath’s Theatre, drinking deep from the passions of life. Their affair began when she was massaging Roth’s neck and he grabbed her breast, not exactly the Lubitsch touch. Anticipating Louis C.K.’s solo act by a couple of decades, Roth would masturbate in front of Inga, sometimes presenting as a gift ‘a semen-encrusted napkin’. While living in captivity with Bloom in London (he loathed London), he would take me-breaks over the phone long-distance with Inga, portnoying away while doctors and patients milled around her.
He humiliated Bloom with his portrayal in his Pinteresque novel Deception of a drab middle-aged dishrag ‘forever sobbing over his adultery with younger women’ (Bailey’s words), compounding the offence by originally naming the character Claire, a true dick move. Criticised, Roth reverted to his customary fiction-shouldn’t-be-construed-as-autobiography defence, which had long worn threadbare. Deception should have been the conclusive sign that these two weren’t suited to grow old together, but they went and married anyway, hitching up after fifteen years together. With Maggie, Roth had been rooked into marriage, or so he fumed; here, Roth rooked himself. He was determined to make the best of it, in the spirit of ‘the condemned man ate a hearty meal.’ A week after the nuptials, he phoned David Plante to declare himself a convert to fidelity. Bailey, not missing a trick, points out that the pronouncement was ‘belied somewhat at the wedding, when he leered at Inga’s cleavage’.
As anyone who has been paying attention for the last thirty years will know, the Roth-Bloom marriage turned into ‘quite a debacle’, to quote Brian Keith from Reflections in a Golden Eye. No need to recap the blow by blow, available for your gruesome reading pleasure not only in the partisan Leaving a Doll’s House, Bailey’s semi-partisan account here, and chapters nine and ten of Nadel’s more circumspect Philip Roth: A Counterlife. After three years of intermittent trauma, hospitalisations, verbal knock-down drag-outs and finagling over finances, Bloom and Roth divorced. When the first flutterings of Bloom’s memoir rustled from the hothouse of publishing gossip, Roth appeared unperturbed. She can’t write, he told a friend, and conjectured that the book would be a sequel to her less than fiery first memoir Limelight and After. Besides, the money he had given her, the teleplays he’d written for her, the coaching and rehearsing of her performances – why would she throw that all away and sock it to him?
The mousy reticence Roth ascribed to Bloom left him complacently unprepared for the napalm drop of Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), though he got a hint of what he was in for when, out for a walk, he saw Barbara Epstein, who had introduced him to Claire, and instead of the customary stop and chat she frosted by him like some Edith Wharton matriarch at opera intermission. Sensing a bad moon rising, Roth made getaway tracks for the Jersey Shore, stopping on the way to visit his parents’ graves. Leaving a Doll’s House wouldn’t live up to its prize fight build-up but delivered enough body blows not to disappoint, depicting Roth as a monomaniacal control freak, melodramatic hypochondriac, vindictive skinflint and pervy Svengali. A police sketch artist couldn’t have drawn a more sinister wanted poster of a man whose baleful eyebrows seemed to follow you around the room. The more astute reviewers didn’t fail to suss out how self-serving Bloom’s account was, how strewn with simpering pieties and luvvie banalities (Zoë Heller in these pages referred to its ‘princessy tone’), but for those who believed Roth’s fiction reflected the leerings and sneerings of a spoiled temperamentalist, here was first-hand non-fiction confirmation.
Roth resorted to novelistic revenge, pinning Bloom like a pale moth in I Married a Communist, where she was Eve Frame, ‘a faded star of the silent screen who writes a damning exposé of her former husband’. Silent screen! He might as well have fossilised her. Taylor: ‘He evened the score with Gray in a series of satirical portraits, including someone named Countess du Plissitas in Sabbath’s Theatre.’ Mostly, however, he brooded over the rebuttal that he assembled for his future biographer and vindicator. Bailey’s book, drawing on the dossier Roth left behind and interviews with his subject, serves as a conduit for Roth’s posthumous counteroffensive, portraying Bloom (Jewish herself) as a poshie antisemite who found New York Jews an affront to the eyes, and, in one grotesque scene, chatting, playing and fussing with her mother’s dead body as if it were a life-sized doll. Since Claire Bloom is ninety, we can pack up the marriage scoreboard and allow her peace, though one likes to imagine that she permits herself a Cheshire cat smile over how badly Roth’s long-calculated counterattack backfired.
In 2012, having produced a sturdy, much saluted body of work untainted by commercial pandering or high-priced hackwork, Roth made public his intention to switch off the muse and retire from writing. He was putting himself out to pasture, a very un-traditional gesture in the US, where public figures usually hang on until they have to be picked off the floor. A harrowing health scare had been the decider. Over dinner one evening, Taylor asked Roth the name of the real-life baseball player shot by an obsessive fan who had inspired Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. Instead of the usual snappy reply, Roth’s expression morphed from amusement to confusion to fear as he plopped face first into the soup – knocked out cold from a bad reaction to a prescription drug he was taking. An ambulance was summoned. Taylor: ‘When I entered the examining room Philip said “No more books.” At first, I didn’t know what he meant. What he meant, I shortly realised, was that Nemesis … published two years earlier, would be his last. Thus he announced his retirement.’
No longer handcuffed to a writing regime, Roth was able to live like any other illustrious retiree. As the beloved paragon of a literary ethos on its last legs, having outlived Bellow, Mailer, Sontag and that fink-weasel Updike (whose review of Operation Shylock was said to have caused Roth a nervous breakdown), he found himself the beneficiary of a valedictory send-off. His annus mirabilis was 2013. France awarded him the Légion d’Honneur; he was the subject of a doting documentary, Philip Roth: Unmasked; and for his eightieth birthday he was given an all-star tribute in Newark where Jonathan Lethem, Edna O’Brien and Hermione Lee, among others, held his genius up to the jewelled light with a series appreciation later collected in Philip Roth at Eighty: A Celebration (a Library of America special publication). A year later, comity breaking out all over, Roth was offered and accepted an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, which the Forward headlined: ‘PHILIP ROTH, ONCE OUTCAST, JOINS JEWISH FOLD WITH JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY HONOUR’. As Roth said to a friend: ‘All that’s missing now is the Gloria Steinem Award from the National Organisation for Women and the cherished Kakutani Prize.’ The Kakutani Prize consists of a clunk on the head, so he was better off without it. It was the Nobel he craved, and if Leaving a Doll’s House did capsize his chances, perhaps Bloom did him an unwitting favour. Receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature may have been the best thing that never happened to him, preventing his work from becoming overly sanctified, platitudinised, boringly universalised. No danger of that now, as the bonfires blaze.
Roth was a control freak up to the end, zealously getting his house in order. In 2016, he donated his personal library of more than 3500 books to the Newark Public Library, and earmarked $2 million, supported by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, to have the library moved and rehoused. He planned his memorial tribute at the New York Public Library down to the dot, drawing up the list of speakers, their batting order and the amount of time each was allotted to speak; he also chose the music, Fauré’s Élégie in C Minor, Op. 24. Roth had played the long game flawlessly and it continued paying dividends until, oh, this April. Of the trinity of novelists David Foster Wallace consigned to the old pervs’ home as the ‘Great Male Narcissists’ (GMNs), Mailer, Updike and Roth, Roth’s reputation seemed to have sunk and corroded the least, faring better than Bellow’s too. Indeed, Roth’s rep may have taken on less ballast than DFW’s own standing following the disclosures in D.T. Max’s biography and Adrienne Miller’s memoir regarding his own patronising, manipulative, man-baby treatment of women. (The New Republic review of Miller’s book was titled ‘Infinite Jerk’.) According to Wallace, he and his fellow Generation X-ers recoiled from the GMNs’ ‘radical self-absorption [and] their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters’. But radical self-absorption carries less onus in the age of autofiction, and Roth’s self-preoccupation was usually fused with self-interrogation, a ruthless audit of the way Roth Man managed to intricate himself between the interlocking teeth of social-historical-psychological-sexual forces.
Exemplary craftsman, incorrigible satyr, subversive joker, avid grievance collector, liberal humanist, good son, bad husband, bountiful benefactor, Philip Roth in his prickly contrarieties aroused an ambivalence unlike that of almost any other American writer, and this ambivalence may have been what helps keep him alive for us, always under contention, a disputable proposition. Or kept him alive because, from here on, who the hell knows? I’ve been switching tenses around like a three-card monte dealer because I don’t know where we are with Roth. He’s a great writer but is he a great writer? And what does ‘great writer’ mean now anyhow? I find that I’ve gone numb of feeling for and about Roth in the study of his dinosaur bones. He has been abstracted into unreality. I almost feel sorry for his ghost. Roth’s glowering omnipresence this spring, thanks no thanks to the Bailey imbroglio, has obliterated him as a writer citizen and former earthling, and substituted in his stead Philip Roth, a man-shaped mass of dark matter sucking in everyone’s antipathies, not so much cancelled as stencilled black.
As for his disgraced Boswell, Blake Bailey, his life, career, reputation and name have been rat-holed at record speed. He and his story will serve as a case study for some future literary autopsist. I opposed the campaign to cancel further printings of Philip Roth: The Biography on the democratic principle that if I was able to buy and read the book, which has substantial merits despite its disfigurement, it’s only fair that everybody else is; that’s now moot, at least in the US. Norton’s decision to permanently deep-six The Biography and make a sizeable donation to sexual abuse organisations was declared a victory by most commentators and decried by a smaller number as Woke Capitalism caving to the social justice mob, a culture clash that will keep the hearties of the opinion pages, Twitterverse and Substack Nation busy sharpening their certitudes for the next volley of javelin throws. Unscathed and unmucked is the perfectly fine Life of Roth sitting in plain view minding its own business with no stink attached – Ira Nadel’s. It would be a tasty irony if the also-ran emerged as the upset winner after all. It would be the only light note in this whole misbegotten mishegas. But if, as an educated consumer, you’re disinclined to read another word about Philip Roth, or another word by Philip Roth, I’d say only this: give My Life as a Man a try. It still rips.