‘Blake Bailey’s chronicling of Philip Roth’s intellectual life is fascinating’: book review

Jonathan Cape, £30

Review by Nick Major

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey in March, 1933. That same month, Hitler attained absolute power in Germany. It was a time of dark foreboding for Jewish families like Roth’s. In his 1969 comic novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, the Jewish protagonist Alexander Portnoy attempts to free himself from his overbearing parents, mostly through sexual depravity: “My wang was all I really had that I could call my own.” He also describes leaving Jersey City for Newark to escape the anti-Semitism. “Just before the war, when the Bund was feeling its oats, the Nazis used to hold their picnics in a beer garden only blocks from our house.”

In this exhaustive – and slightly exhausting – official biography, Blake Bailey explains how Roth became a celebrity after Portnoy’s publication. “I tried going to the theater last night,” Roth wrote to his friend Jacquie Rogers, “and as I emerged from the taxi, a cry went up (yes, my dear, a real cry, as though I had tits and was Elizabeth Taylor): “Portnoy!” they screamed.” Roth was accused of writing an obscene and anti-Semitic tract. A strange argument when one considers his later novel, The Plot Against America, his friendship with Primo Levi, and his love of Kafka. These detractors, who failed to understand the nuances of fiction, had pursued Roth from the beginning, reacting furiously to his 1959 debut Goodbye, Columbus.

Before the publication of Portnoy, Roth took his parents out to dinner. He warned them they might get their share of the spotlight; he also reassured them they were his parents, not Portnoy’s. However, Roth’s working method was nearly always to recycle his life into fiction. He once told the Paris Review that “concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life”. Such was his acuity, every so often someone would read one of his novels, then berate him down the phone for stealing their lives.

Roth held the view that “literature is not a moral beauty contest”. This didn’t sit well with the more censorious types in society. He exercised tremendous perseverance to keep writing through the near-constant criticism (one reason he moved to rural Connecticut). Luckily, his ego was huge, a distinct advantage for a writer. Roth still had numerous mental breakdowns, although mostly as a result of his two marriages.

He spent years trying to fictionalise his first wife, Maggie Martinson, who died in a car crash in the late 1960s. The marriage caused Roth great emotional pain. But as a character, he knew Maggie was gold-dust. Their marriage was based on blackmail. Maggie paid a pregnant woman for some of her urine so she could present Roth with a positive pregnancy test. It worked. And the scene made its way into Roth’s 1974 novel My Life as a Man.

Roth’s second marriage, to the actress Claire Bloom, was just as disastrous. The two were fundamentally incompatible and Roth had one long, and numerous short, affairs. Bloom wrote a memoir about their marriage wherein Roth was depicted as a sexual predator; he was a misogynist. (Yet perhaps only a misogynist could invent someone like Mickey Sabbath, libidinous anti-hero of his 1995 novel, Sabbath’s Theatre?) In the 1950s, he dedicated himself to “bibliography by day, women by night”. He never gave that up. After a while, Bailey’s detailed analysis of Roth’s relationships becomes almost unnecessary. But it does highlight Roth’s final years, when he is almost overcome by the kind of loneliness that is the preserve of the promiscuous.

Bailey’s chronicling of Roth’s intellectual life is fascinating. It’s where the biographer of John Cheever and Richard Yates comes into his own. Roth’s work rate was astonishing: 10 or 12-hour days, six or seven days a week. He liked nothing more than spending days with the best copy-editor in town improving his sentences. He once spent nine hours reading The Counterlife to his editor, David Rieff. The pair were listening out for a sentence that was “slightly off” or “ambiguous”. Bailey gives us a sense of how Roth’s writing developed over the years; often this comes down to small details. When Roth was an undergraduate, one of his set texts was Albert Baugh’s Literary History of England, “an underlined copy of which Roth would forever keep on the library table of his Connecticut living room”.

In the 1970s, Roth championed dissident East European writers who were stuck behind the Iron Curtain, such as Milan Kundera. He helped covertly channel money to them and persuaded Penguin to publish a series of paperbacks – Writers from the Other Europe – so their work could be read in America. Roth’s generosity and open-heartedness extended beyond literature. He once gave his cleaner $75,000 so she could buy a flat in New York. In person, he was playful, independent-minded, secretive, rebarbative and witty – everything you might expect from the style and tone of his novels.

Despite claims otherwise, the subject matter of Roth’s novels is impressively diverse. Here are just a few: a novel about a deadly epidemic? Nemesis, about Polio in 1950s America. A novel about a right-wing demagogue who becomes president? The Plot Against America. A novel about public shaming? I Married a Communist. A novel about Death? Exit Ghost. A (good) novel about a novelist? The Ghost Writer. A novel about a man who is all vice and no virtue? Sabbath’s Theatre. A novel about the tumult of the 1960s? American Pastoral. And every one of them rewards rereading.

Throughout his work, Roth gave his home city a place in the literary imagination. As Saul Bellow is to Chicago, and Joyce is to Dublin, so Roth is to Newark. When he died in 2018, “the lion’s share of his estate went to the Newark Public Library”. This essentially saved the library from closure. Soon, Roth’s collection of 4,000 books, along with his writing desks and reading chairs, will be kept in a special reading room designated the Philip Roth Personal Library Collection. What better way to commemorate one of the great writers of the last century?

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