Philip Roth: The Biography

Image of Philip Roth: The Biography
Release Date: 
April 6, 2021
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

in Philip Roth: The Biography, Blake Bailey provides ample evidence of his understanding of modern American literature and the frailties and achievements of an artist like Roth.”

Anyone who ponders the daunting task of writing a biography—or reading one that weighs in at nearly 900 pages, for that matter—might well examine Steven Millhauser’s joyously poetic and satiric first novel Edwin Mullhouse as a warmup. In a very funny and incisive take on the knotty relationship between biographer and subject, the frustrations and ecstasies, the Dr. Strangelove battles between embellishment and evisceration, Millhauser makes it clear that it’s a near impossible minuet. In Philip Roth, Blake Bailey performs the task of the biographer so gracefully that it’s hard to know the dancer from the dance.

All biographies of important writers are initially bildungsromans, portraits of artists in transformation. But the great biography, although always anchored in fact, must transform itself into a work of art in which the characters and their daily lives become as complex and compelling as those in an unforgettable novel.

Bernard Malamud, one of Roth’s contemporaries, wrote that all biography is ultimately fiction. Malamud was right, of course, in suggesting that the biographer must take the often-intractable substance of mundane fact and shape it into a story that has dramatic propulsion and meaning. It’s easy enough to step from Malamud’s pronouncement to Didion’s a few years later: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” And that’s where most biographers find themselves: caught between hagiography and demonization. Great biographers find a narrative path to their subjects inspiring and frightening humanity.

Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth is that rare sort of book, meticulous without sacrificing dramatic energy, endlessly entertaining without ever surrendering critical integrity, candid without forfeiting compassion. There’s a good reason why the subtitle of the Bailey’s book is The Biography rather than a biography.

Roth is one of the most important writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, according to the BBC “arguably the best writer not to have received the Nobel Prize since Tolstoy.” Too comic and too explicitly sexual for the Scandinavian intellectuals, perhaps. As Roth once grumbled, “I wonder if I had called Portnoy’s Complaint ‘The Orgasm under Rapacious Capitalism’ if I would have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.” Even in his bitterness, Roth kept his sense of humor. When Bob Dylan beat him out for the award in 2016, Roth said, “It’s okay, but next year I hope Peter, Paul, and Mary get it.” 

Bailey’s much-anticipated biography puts Roth’s career into personal and historical perspective.

A lesser biographer would have made of Roth’s life a blizzard of salacious details—there are plenty of them to recount (most of the pseudonyms in the biography are reserved for Roth’s many lovers)—but, instead, with a persuasive critical insight and what can only be called a novelistic sense of empathy, Bailey gives us the picture of a memorable life, a penetrating look into the troubled genius that was Philip Roth, rising up from a middle-class, Jewish background in Newark, New Jersey, to the pantheon of American and world literature.

Some biographies are simply exercises in self-fulfilling prophecies: the biographer, hogtied to a psychological platitude (Hemingway hated women because his mother kept him in dresses too long or Twain , the split personality, couldn’t decide between being a Victorian gentleman and bohemian outlaw), does the inevitable procrustean tailoring job. Not so with Bailey. He presents Roth’s life and books with grace and unflinching honesty, connecting the man to the work in a way that makes each more compelling as the story proceeds. Roth’s fan letter to James Atlas about the latter’s life of Delmore Schwartz, praising the clarity and tact, sympathy and understanding, could well be Roth’s posthumous footnote to Bailey’s engaging biography. 

He tracks the epic cast of Roth’s lovers, and a few wives as well, (the dysfunctional first marriage he was conned into in the early 1960s by Maggie Martinson and the disastrous second marriage to the actress Claire Bloom that imploded after 18 years in 1995), showing how many of them found their way into the autobiographical novels—from Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint to My Life as a Man and When She Was Good.

Acerbic and often brutal in his responses to critics in the press or in life, Roth was also often immensely generous, helping writers and acquaintances in financial need. In addition, he could be a loving friend, visiting the sick and the dying. He was a contradiction, though, faithful and unfaithful, loving and self-consumed, hidden from the world and caught in its maelstrom.  Bailey examines Roth’s books, as he does the facts of his life, with critical care, not as objects of masturbatory gossip. Roth used family, friends, enemies, lovers, and wives in his eclectic work.  He was fond of quoting the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” 

Roth wrote 31 books, ranging from somber realism and deft satire to a Kafkaesque surrealism and farcical clowning as well as the self-reflexive Zuckerman sequence and the tragedies of his late American Trilogy—American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. As much as Roth has at times been pigeon-holed as a writer of sexual slapstick because of Portnoy’s Complaint or The Breast, more than any other American writer of the last 50 years, his achievement in terms of voice and genre has shown a breathtaking range—as Jonathan Lethem pointed out, encompassing and transcending “modes of historical fiction, metafiction, memoir, maximalist, minimalist, picaresque, counterfactual, etcetera.”

Thomas Carlyle said that a well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one. Carlyle could have been writing about Blake Bailey and Philip Roth, a biography for our time and a novelist for the ages. At the celebration for Roth’s 80th birthday, Edna O’Brien offered a few words. She started by reluctantly admitting that she and Roth had never been lovers, despite rumors to the contrary, and after offering a few anecdotes, she said, “So, friends, this is the tip of the iceberg, I can only give you a glimmer of the complexity of the man that is Philip Roth, feared and revered, plagiarized, envied, hermit and jester, lover and hater, by his own admission foolish and yet fiercely formidable, too adorable for words, a true friend and undoubtedly one of Yeats’s Olympians.” Roth once joked with Bailey that a good title for the book could have been “The Terrible Ambiguity of the I: The Life and Work of Philip Roth.” Bailey gives us that wonderful ambiguity. This book is not the tip of the iceberg but the iceberg itself.

Memory and research are just forms of imagination and in Philip Roth: The Biography, Blake Bailey provides ample evidence of his understanding of modern American literature and the frailties and achievements of an artist like Roth. The biography of a writer should do one thing above all else: it should send us back to the books. Philip Roth: The Biography will send readers back to this brilliant, troubled, eclectic creator of Portnoy and Zuckerman and Levov and maybe his greatest character of all: Philip Roth.

With this book, Bailey deserves the definite article for himself. He is the biographer of Philip Roth.