Philip Roth with Allegra the cat, Manhattan, 1959. (Photo/Courtesy W.W. Norton & Company)
Philip Roth with Allegra the cat, Manhattan, 1959. (Photo/Courtesy W.W. Norton & Company)

Highly anticipated Philip Roth biography delivers the goods

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

In the autumn of 1960, Philip Roth traveled to the Bay Area to participate in a symposium organized by Esquire magazine. Speaking at Stanford University on the topic “Writing in America Today,” the 27-year-old held forth about the mystifying nature of contemporary American life.

“The fixes, the scandals, the insanities, the treacheries, the idiocies, the lies, the pieties, the noise …” Roth intoned, wondering how serious fiction writers could compete with a culture that had produced its own cast of colorful characters, men such as Charles Van Doren (of TV quiz show scandal infamy), Roy Cohn (Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel) and Richard Nixon. (And to think he made this observation decades before a certain reality TV personality became president.)

After his talk, Roth — the subject of a new, 912-page authorized biography — fielded questions from a hostile audience. “If you don’t like it here, Mr. Roth, where else would you like to live?” one man asked.

One woman, looking Roth up and down, wondered aloud why he was so antisemitic. The previous year, he had a story in the New Yorker about a conniving Army recruit named Grossbart, prompting much handwringing in the Jewish community. One prominent rabbi sent a letter to the Anti-Defamation League asking, “What is being done to silence this man?” Such was the polarizing effect that Roth’s words had from the very beginning of his career. (The Bay Area, especially, was less than welcoming to him; Stanford declined to offer him a creative writing fellowship in 1958, which he dismissed as “stupid.”)

“Philip Roth: The Biography” charts that astonishing career — spanning five decades and producing 31 books that won all of the major literary prizes, except the elusive Nobel. Author Blake Bailey also delves deeply into Roth’s often tumultuous personal life, including his two disastrous marriages and many love affairs. The hefty tome has a publication date of April 6.

Through meticulous research, including interviews with Roth’s confidants, former flames and enemies, Bailey (who also has penned biographies of American writers Richard Yates and John Cheever) reveals a fiercely ambitious, funny and obsessive man who put his commitment to “words, words, words” — one of his mantras — above everything and everyone else.

The son of a life insurance salesman and homemaker, Roth grew up in Weequahic, a Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. By his father’s account, he was “an all-American boy who loved baseball” and dreamed of studying law and getting a job defending the rights of Jews at B’nai B’rith. But an intimidating female English professor at Bucknell University became Roth’s mentor and nurtured his interest in literature. Soon enough, the words began to pour out of his Royal typewriter.

Roth, who died at 85 in 2018, idolized Thomas Wolfe, but it was books by Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud — Jewish literary titans with whom Roth would later share testy friendships — that provided early inspiration. From Malamud’s “The Assistant,” he learned “you can write about the Jewish poor, you can write about the Jewish inarticulate, you can describe things near at hand, like a grocery store.” And though Roth resented being pigeonholed as a Jewish writer — “I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew,” he would say — he would return again and again to Jewish characters and issues in his work.

Blake Bailey
Blake Bailey

A major theme of Roth’s oeuvre, Bailey writes, is “the I against the They, the necessary revolt against one’s community in order to capture it in art.”

Indeed, Roth rejected the communal expectation that his Jewish characters must be sympathetic — or, good heavens, what will the goyim think? And while he mostly relished the controversy his stories and books provoked inside and outside the Jewish world, he eventually would express misgivings about “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the book that made him an international celebrity in 1969. “I could have had a serious enough career without it and I would have sidestepped a barrage of insulting shit,” he bemoaned.

Roth traveled to Israel several times, and parts of at least three of his novels — “Portnoy’s,” “The Counterlife” (1986) and “Operation Shylock” (1993) — were set in the Jewish state. He spoke with David Ben-Gurion during one visit, a photo of the meeting proudly displayed by Roth’s parents in their living room.

Years later, Roth had lunch with Ehud Olmert at the Knesset. When Roth expressed pessimism about the Israeli settlements, the future prime minister retorted that more American Jews should move to Israel to help the cause. Roth shot back: “American Jews aren’t coming … they have lives of their own! There is a Zion, and it’s called America.”

Many will be intrigued —and baffled, and disgusted — by Bailey’s accounts of Roth’s numerous affairs, including with women who were much, much younger than he. Roth was an unabashed adulterer, and he once described his personal religion as “polyamorous humorist.”

To his credit, Bailey addresses the criticism leveled by Roth detractors that his portrayal of women in his work reflected a deep-seated misogyny by allowing friends such as writer Claudia Roth Pierpont to come to his defense: “There are no generalizations to be made about Roth’s women, any more than about his men.”

One of the longer sections of the book deals with the chaotic years when Roth was involved with, and briefly married to, British Jewish actress Claire Bloom. They split their time between the U.S. and the U.K., where Roth encountered antisemitism in the form of nasty comments. (He grew a beard “in the hope of provoking such people all the more,” Bailey notes.)

Roth with his second wife, actress Claire Bloom. (Photo/Courtesy WW Norton
Roth with his second wife, actress Claire Bloom. (Photo/Courtesy W.W. Norton & Company

After their 1995 divorce, Bloom published a damning tell-all about their long relationship and troubled two-year marriage. Roth responded to “Leaving a Doll’s House” the only way he knew how: by writing a 295-page rebuttal called “Notes for My Biographer” that Bailey was able to consult even though it was never published.

Bailey’s biography is a big book filled with big egos, big interpersonal conflicts and big heartache. A 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Cheever: A Life,” Bailey writes with clarity and flair. For example, in describing Roth’s inability to handle criticism about his early work, he writes: “Roth would always look pensive whenever someone said hard words about ‘Letting Go,’ as if the novel were a faded but beloved old girlfriend whom he hated for anyone but himself to mock.”

It also should be noted that Bailey, though not Jewish, displays an impressive fluency with Yiddish and Jewish culture.

Perhaps the best praise is that I, a Roth fanatic, can give is that I learned a lot about a writer I thought I already knew very well, having read nearly everything written by and about him.

I found out, for example: how he borrowed names for his characters from the headstones at the cemetery where his parents were buried; how he wrote three or four drafts of most of his novels; how he tried his hand at writing plays and screenplays (“nobody has ever written worse plays than me”); how he felt about teaching writing to university students (“not only do you have to read the crap, but then you have to think about it and discuss it, tenderly, with them”); and how he was nearly driven to suicide on a number of occasions.

And a whole bunch of other surprises. I, for one, am grateful that Roth decided to become a writer and not a B’nai B’rith attorney.

“Philip Roth: The Biography” by Blake Bailey (912 pages, W. W. Norton & Company)

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.