“Biography gives a new dimension of terror to dying” -Philip Roth (Bailey p.928)
Never more firmly than now has it been believed that the author is dead when it is also insistently demanded that his feet be held to the fire. Either reports of the Death of the Author have been greatly exaggerated, as Benton (2009) notes, or sections of the literary critical establishment have decided the author ought to be dead and have proceeded—when it suited them—as if that were true. It is the latter supposition that seems right: all too often the very voices dismissing the possibility of links between authorial intent and the meaning of a literary text are the loudest inquisitors of an author’s motivations in composing it. When these authorial motivations are deemed relevant the situation is characterised as one where the author ought to have been dead but due to his misbehaviour has returned as a zombie; thus, the scrum of critics and theorists reaching for their guns.
Predictably, Blake Bailey’s (2021) Philip Roth: The Biography has had many a critic up in arms against its subject for his misbehaviour as well as its author for being too forgiving; for his take on the writer’s life seeming too “complicitous” and contaminated with “filial tenderness and myopia” (Sehgal 2021). For Sehgal it is obvious that the “aggrieved playboy,” Roth, gave Bailey his blessing only after Bailey responded to his wistful boast that he could’ve gone out with Ali MacGraw with “My God, man, why didn’t you?” Sehgal scolds Bailey for not diving deep into dominant themes in the subject’s novels, dismissing his work identifying biographical correspondences as both boringly “familiar” and alarmingly reductive in making Roth look like a “confessionalist.” But she is surprisingly lenient with Ross Miller’s abysmal crack at the biography which appears to dwell on his sex life to the exclusion of almost everything else, which neglects to interview family members and friends well placed to speak about the subject’s development. One isn’t even talking about Miller’s prose yet, which Roth thought was “no jeweled and nuanced thing” (Bailey p.772). Anyway there is no reason to think Miller’s fascination with Roth’s satyriasis would have extended to Roth’s oeuvre which had the distinct disadvantage of not composed by his dick.
Ari Brostoff of Jewish Currents opines that the fact Bailey has been accused of grooming eighth grade students “when he worked as a teacher in New Orleans and/or sexually [assaulting] them later as adults” obviously bears on “our understanding of Philip Roth in ways both material and imaginative.” Bailey doesn’t quite deliver a Roth “biography for serialization in Hustler magazine” (p.775) but it would be remiss to say he was coy about listing the protagonists in and the timeline of his subject’s many torrid, often unseemly, affairs. In any case it is hard to see how the problematic behaviour of Roth or his biographer informs our understanding of the 31 novels which make us interested in the biography and its subject. It is true Bailey doesn’t take Roth to task for his at some time or another having brought to tears his college sweetheart Maxine Groffsky, first wife Maggie Martinson, and second wife Claire Bloom; or, even for consorting with a “retinue of ‘perky Texan’ blondes, nurses, prostitutes, students,” and “daughters of his friends” as Sehgal reminds us. Yet he certainly isn’t concerned with making the scabrous aspects of his subject’s behaviour look genteel as one would expect from someone whose complicity compromises their capacity for objective coverage.
Laura Marsh faults Bailey for failing to illuminate why “Roth was simply determined to pick up a pretty shiksa,” and ended up disastrously marrying Margaret Martinson. It seems Roth didn’t know himself. Know thyself is pooh bear philosophy for whose pedigree blame can be laid at the feet of Plato. But there is a reason it strikes a chord over all these centuries: we don’t know ourselves, at least not as well as some readers of Roth and Bailey seem to know them. To such seers that a man can “like and respect some women, while demonizing and vilifying others” (Marsh 2021) can only be explained by the fact that he is a misogynist; though curiously the parallel fact that he can have good relationships with some men but not others is not because he’s a misandrist. Woe betide the man who sorts the world into allies and enemies, he is a misogynist—though may be not a misandrist or Machiavellian. If Bailey does not share this paradoxical, even mystical, insight and endorse it to the detriment of the reputation of his subject, and himself as a thinking individual, then so much the worse for his critics. It might well be true that defending Roth on his own terms actually hurts his legacy, but disagreeing with young women who dated the aged author and still have only good things to say [like Julia Golier and Lisa Halliday] is less feminism than it is motivated reasoning.
Even as literary critics and literary theorists have been ambivalent, condescending, or dismissive towards literary biography, readers have had and continue to have an abiding fondness for the genre. The appeal is easy to see: it provides one way to dwell in the afterglow of beloved literary texts, glimpses into the life and times of the mind that composed them, and a model that can perhaps be emulated by readers who dream of becoming peers of their literary idols. Of course, it doesn’t follow that a literary biography ought to satisfy these demands on part of the reader. Literary critics and theorists have been at the vanguard of the vocal readership disabusing biographers of this responsibility. Biographers are no longer expected to provide edifying and educative glosses of their subject’s life, and their role is now seen as analogous with that of the journalist (Howes 2018, p.139). At this level Bailey has performed admirably, reporting stories Roth would’ve wanted excised. Stories like Roth’s calling his flame Inga to listen to him masturbate while she dropped everything and stood outside her office till he came and hung up; or expecting her to be pleased when he gave her a “semen-encrusted napkin or some such fetish” (Bailey p.537); or, his propositioning his step daughter Anna Steiger’s friend Felicity (Bailey p.642). Bailey loves the author and thinks him “a darling man,” but was also relieved when he passed away in 2018 while the book was still incomplete (Hankin 2021). He knew he wouldn’t otherwise have been free to include the stories necessary to compose an accurate, even if compassionate, gestalt of the subject. Bailey recognized that when Roth was around he was always being closely watched, coached on interview questions to ask, given glosses to unflattering stories that tended to go beyond the brief of making him interesting and aimed instead for rehabilitation. The presence of stories at whose inclusion Roth would’ve bristled speaks to the independence and objectivity Bailey brings to his work even as he acknowledges his affection and admiration for the subject. This doesn’t mean anodyne and extraordinary stories which show Roth in a good light as a writer and an individual have been given short shrift. Had these inclusions and exclusions been the only merit of Bailey’s work it would still be the narrative masterwork Cynthia Ozick calls it in her NYT review. But in fact the work goes beyond this to project, with an impressive level of success, a synoptic coherence to the many-faceted man’s various apparent and actual contradictions.
James Ley (2021), who thinks the biography is an “own goal,” acknowledging Bailey doesn’t portray Roth as an admirable man, nevertheless holds that Roth never balked at exposing his own flaws and contradictions in his writing. But so obsessed with his legacy was Roth he wrote the historical plaque in his honour at 81 Summit Avenue calling himself “one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th and 21st centuries;” he also wrote the “ten-thousand-word Chronology of the author’s life” and “every word of the jacket copy” for the Library of America editions of his works while crediting them to Ross Miller (Bailey p.890). Bailey thinks Roth may have written his own biography under Miller’s name too if they hadn’t had a falling out—after being very close friends for a long time. Incensed by Claire Bloom’s memoir, Leaving A Doll’s House, which put his alleged mistreatment of her centre stage he felt compelled to write a line by line rebuttal, 295 pages long, and even accepted an advance for it from Andrew Wylie. It was only the near unanimous advice of friends not to publish this manuscript entitled Notes for My Biographer on pain of coming across as a bully that he withdrew the manuscript. If this weren’t evidence of his controlling streak when it came to leaving a public record that could influence how he came across, after obsessively listening to and making notes on every interview Ross Miller conducted while working as his biographer Roth put together a rebuttal longer than the other withdrawn manuscript, called Notes On a Slander-Monger. He began this unpublished book with a quotation from his ex-wife’s memoir: “I felt unfairly misunderstood and started screaming” (Bailey p.963). Bailey who had access to these documents allows us to see Roth at his pettiest and most vulnerable, but he also gives us a panorama of Roth at his most magnanimous and heroic moments. We learn Roth helped Eastern and Central European writers like Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz, Tadeusz Borowski, and Danilo Kis among others find an audience in the Anglophone world. Pitching the idea of publishing English translations to Kay Webb at Penguin as Writers from the Other Europe he hoped that securing them international fame would reduce the chance that living talents would be murdered by repressive governments as Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam were (p.498). He gave generous cash gifts, and paid off onerous loans and medical bills of friends both romantic and Platonic.
For all his alleged neglect of the literary oeuvre Bailey nevertheless delivers the essentials of Roth’s attitude to the craft. Aspiring writers could do worse than imitate Roth’s work ethic as revealed here. His lover Janet Fraser didn’t fail to notice he “organised his existence around the two pages a day he set himself to write” (Bailey p.13). For most of his writing life he averaged one fully formed page a day, and yet he envied Updike the “fluency” which allowed him to crank out his three pages per diem (Bailey p.939). In a career over 50 years long Roth published 31 novels. Compared with Updike’s 73 books this seems modest, but on its own it is a stupendous achievement. It is even more impressive when one considers he was a “fanatic reviser” working through “four or five drafts of a given novel” (Bailey p.552). He’d submit the penultimate draft to five or six trusted readers who were on his side but still spoke “candidly,” using the book as they’d described it to him as a yardstick of the success of his intentions while composing it (Bailey p.553). He reciprocated this favour by beta reading the work of his friends and providing candid feedback. When with Bloom they had a parlour game where they improvised dialogue, and he relied on this method whenever he wanted to write a realistic scene between a man and a woman (Bailey p.584). A consummate and canny writer of dialogue he constantly experimented with the device while remaining noncommittal towards any singular approach. Despite once insisting “all conversations should be summarized except the brilliant ones” he set out to write a novel that was almost all dialogue; provisionally titled Ears it had this bit of dialogue that was perhaps brilliant in context: “‘I want to fuck you, shiksa.’ ‘Suck my cock.’” (Bailey p.673).
As a writer he was protean, always experimenting with genre and its formal limits; his influences, revealed almost explicitly in his ninth novel The Professor of Desire, include such odd bedfellows as “Sophocles, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Strindberg, O’Neill, the Bloomsbury group, Joyce, Maupassant, Twain, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Henry James, Hemingway, Chekhov, Freud, Kafka, Yeats, Faulkner, Genet, Synge, Céline, Hardy, Mann, Brontë (both Emily and Charlotte), Bellow, Kundera, Melville, Colette, Updike, Henry Miller, Hawthorne, and Gogol” (Royal p.22). He knew he would be labelled experimental or postmodern and he detested the laziness inherent in such a superficial nominative enterprise (Bailey p.619). The Plot Against America uses science fiction genre conventions to offer up an alternate history; Deception is organised as a series of dramatic dialogues; Operational Shylock is a work of metafiction; the American Trilogy consisting of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist,and The Human Stain are examples of literary realism and literary modernism. His use of intertextuality in weaving references to Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady into Letting Go, introducing echoes of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street into When She Was Good, leavening Portnoy’s Complaint with Freud’s and Freudians’ writings, and his allusive appropriation of Franz Kaka’s Metamorphosis in The Breast reveal his deep intellectual engagement with the formal apparatuses of literary composition. As Parker (2021) rightly notes for Roth “the Zuckermans, the Kepeshes, the “Philip Roths,” were not experimental fiddles or metafictional gimmicks” but “ways of being real.” To lump him in with the postmodernists, or experimentalists, treats Roth’s literary powers too lightly and is in any case uninformative about the technical and substantive aspects which give his oeuvre its sui generis blend of levity and gravity.
Ley asks readers to “forget the biography” and “read the novels.” But it is salutary to remember that Roth, who appreciated the nuances of substantive differences between self-presentation in autobiographical and confessional fiction, and autofiction and biography, was keen on Bailey telling his story. Even if the story ultimately was not all he would’ve wanted it to be. Bailey puts you into Roth’s head and heart without sentimentality or sensationalism, and—despite being a fan—without gushing. His biography has something for everyone: it satisfies the reader who wants to relive the rapture of reading Roth at his best, the literary dilettante who wants to bone up on dinner table banter about notable priapic penpushers, and aspiring heirs to Roth’s ballpoint sceptre.
Blake Bailey (2021) Philip Roth: The Biography. Skyhorse Publishing
Craig Howe “Ch.7. Ethics and Literary Biography” in Richard Bradford Ed. (2018) A Companion to Literary Biography, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. PP.123-42.
Cynthia Ozik. (2021). “Cynthia Ozick Calls the New Philip Roth Biography a ‘Narrative Masterwork’,” The New York Times. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/01/books/re view/philip-roth-the-biography-blake-bailey.html Updated: May 17, 2021. Accessed: July 14, 2022.
Derek Parker Royal “Ch.2. Roth, Literary Influence, and Postmodernism” in Timothy Parker Ed., (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. PP.22-34.
James Ley (2021) “Marred by controversy, the Philip Roth biography is a spectacular own goal,” The Sydney Morning Herald. URL: https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/marred-by-controversy-the-philip-roth-biography-is-a-spectacular-own-goal-20210506-p57pkq.html Updated: May 12, 2021. Accessed: July 14, 2022.
Laura Marsh. (2021). “Philip Roth’s Revenge Fantasy: The novelist wanted his biography to settle scores. It has badly backfired,” The New Republic. URL: https://newrepublic.com/arti cle/161640/philip-roths-revenge-fantasy-review-blake-bailey
Michael Benton (2009). Literary Biography: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Parul Sehgal. (2021). “In ‘Philip Roth,’ a Life of the Literary Master as Aggrieved Playboy,” The New York Times. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/29/books/review-philip-roth-biography-blake-bailey.html Updated: May 17, 2021. Accessed July 14, 2022.
Sam Hankin. (2021). “Blake Bailey – The Biography of Philip Roth,” Wellington Square Bookshop. URL: https://youtu.be/kOlg9OS3Iag Updated: April 9, 2021. Accessed: July 15, 2022.