The Vying Animal

Philip Roth: The Biography by blake bailey. new york: norton. 912 pages. $40.

The cover of Philip Roth: The Biography

MORE THAN REALISM OR ITS RIVALS, the dominant literary style in America is careerism. This is neither a judgment nor a slur. For decades it has simply been the case that novelists, story writers, even poets have had to devote themselves to managing their careers as much as to writing their books. Institutional jockeying, posturing in profiles and Q&As, roving in-person readership cultivation, social-media fan-mongering, coming off as a good literary citizen among one’s peers—some balance of these elements is now part of every young author’s life. It’s a matter of necessity and survival, above and beyond the usual dealings with editors, agents, and Hollywood big shots. The ways writers used to mythologize themselves have either expired or been discarded as toxic. In the old gallery there were patrician men of letters (Howells, Eliot), abolitionists (Stowe), adventurers (Melville, London, Hemingway), madmen (Poe), shamans (Whitman), aristocrat expatriates (James), bohemian expatriates (Stein, Baldwin, Bishop), playboy expatriates (Fitzgerald), denizens of café society (Wharton), romantic provincials (Cather, Thomas Wolfe), small-town chroniclers (Anderson), country squires (Faulkner), suburban squires (Cheever, Updike), vagabonds (Algren), cranks (Pound), drunks (West, Agee, Berryman), dandies (Capote, Tom Wolfe), decadents (Barnes), butterfly-chasing foreigners (Nabokov), cracked aristocrats (Lowell), recluses of uncertain eccentricity (Salinger, Pynchon, DeLillo), committed radicals (Steinbeck, Rexroth, Wright, Hammett, Hellman, Paley), disabused radicals (Ellison, Mary McCarthy), radicals turned celebrities (Mailer, Sontag), activist women of letters (Morrison), alienated children of immigrants (Bellow), neo-cowboys (Cormac McCarthy), hipsters (Kerouac), junkies (Burroughs), and hippies (Ginsberg). In the end there is only the careerist, the professional writer who is first, last, and only a professional writer. The original and so far ultimate careerist in American literature was Philip Roth.

When Roth died at age eighty-five in 2018, Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times that it was the end of a cultural era. Roth was “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists.” Never mind that at least four other major American novelists born in the 1930s—DeLillo, McCarthy, Morrison, Pynchon—were still alive. Forget about pigeonholing as white and male an author who at the beginning of his career was invited to sit beside Ralph Ellison on panels about “minority writing”—because Jews were still at the margins. No matter that the modes that sustained Roth—autobiography with comic exaggeration, autobiographical metafiction, historical fiction of the recent past—are the modes that define the current moment. Roth was not an end point but the beginning of the present. There had been fluke golden boys before him, like Fitzgerald and Mailer, but Roth, twenty-six when he won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus in 1960, reset the template for the prodigy author in the age of television, going at it with Mike Wallace in prime time. The morning before he spoke to Wallace he gave an interview to a young reporter for the New York Post, who asked him about a critic who’d called his book “an exhibition of Jewish self-hate.” A few weeks later the piece turned up in the mail Roth received from his clipping service while he was staying in Rome. He was quoted as saying the critic ought to “write a book about why he hates me. It might give insights into me and him, too.” “I decided then and there,” his biographer Blake Bailey quotes him saying at the time, “to give up a public career.”

At the time the remark might have been wishful thinking. In retrospect it’s laughably disingenuous. Far from retreating from public view, Roth embarked on a decades-long campaign of public-image control. He always hated critics, but reserved his vitriol for lengthy letters to the editor (one to the New York Review of Books in 1974 suggested that Times staff critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt be sacked and his job be filled by an annual contest among undergraduates) or fictionalized rebukes where he and his alter-egos had the last word. He welcomed sycophants who conducted friendly interviews that were then placed in supine organs (then, as now, the New York Times Book Review) that were all too happy to oblige the famous author with a new book out. “If you mention a writer’s name without saying he’s the greatest writer in the world, you put him down,” he said of a perceived slight Bernard Malamud suffered at a party. The statement was at least true of Roth himself. In addition to an ego as fragile as his chronically bad back (diagnosed once in the 1970s as the result of too much typing on his Olivetti, causing him to switch to a more pliant IBM Selectric), Roth had a persistent public-relations problem. Too often he was confused with his characters. Roth was never not a Jew, but his true creed was secular, his gods success and sex. He made his name writing about race traitors, class traitors, and perverts. He needed to spread the word that he was still a Nice Jewish Boy: responsible, successful, and normal. He was getting too much mail: hate mail from offended New Jersey rabbis and propositions from turned-on Midwestern nurses. He relished it all, but he knew as soon as he had anything that he had a lot to lose.

Philip Roth, New York, 1969.
Philip Roth, New York, 1969. © Bob Peterson

The reconciliation of erotic desires and modern propriety was one of Roth’s great subjects. The psychoanalyst is the confessor the office-bound professional—Alex Portnoy was assistant commissioner of human opportunity for the mayor of New York—tells his dirty secrets. The biographer is the one the novelist tells the truth as he’d like to believe it: mostly he tried to be good and did his work. But the work of a writer alone at his desk is impossible to dramatize, no matter how much shoulder pain the Olivetti causes. What material is left to the biographer? Family life, education, romantic couplings, publishing details, professional rivalries, the zigzag of reputation across time. Higher gossip or just plain gossip. Any successful career will generate a lot of it. Roth claimed to hate gossip and gossips, but he piled his books with filtered versions of it. Blake Bailey’s new biography of Roth is full of gossip high and low. When galleys first circulated, word went around in New York literary circles, at least among those over forty, that everybody is in there. A friend from out west called me and told me he’d heard he was in there, unnamed. Could I find him? I found him. He had a novel coming out in 2005 and one of Roth’s friends, my friend’s teacher, wanted to put him in his place by introducing him to the master. He was also curious if my friend was gay, which he isn’t. My friend laughed. That dinner rates slightly fewer lines than the night widow Jackie Kennedy invited Roth up for a nightcap in 1965.

Reading the end of this book first was perhaps a mistake on my part. Roth’s last two decades, until he stopped writing after completing Nemesis in 2009, were productive. (If you begin in the mid-1990s and include Sabbath’s Theater and the American trilogy, it was arguably the time of his best work.) They were, after the turmoil of his two marriages, happy times. He mined recent American history, turned over old themes, revisited old characters, and contemplated mortality. Many of the books were good (The Dying Animal, The Plot Against America, Everyman) and a few were duds (Exit Ghost, The Humbling, Nemesis). But the last pages of this biography are a dull procession: a new book is finished; parallels between real people and their fictional counterparts are identified; there are squabbles with editors over the apparatuses to his Library of America editions; there’s a trip to the hospital for yet another operation, perhaps a further angioplasty; Roth somehow finds a new girlfriend a few decades younger than himself and pursues a May-September romance, boosted by his generosity (shopping sprees, debts paid off) and in one case stalled by his suggestion of having a child, something he’d hardly contemplated, indeed steadfastly resisted, before he turned seventy; the book comes out; Michiko Kakutani says this (“nasty instead of funny,” of Sabbath’s Theater); Frank Kermode says that (“splendidly wicked,” of the same novel); Roth wins one prize but not the other prize. Repeat cycle until Nemesis in 2010. (Was I disappointed not to find my New York Observer pan of that novel quoted? Reader, I was.) Letting slip to a French interviewer in 2012 that he’s stopped writing, Roth reads of his retirement in international headlines, and it is interpreted by some as yet another canny career move. He enters his lifetime-achievement award phase, receiving many a gold watch for his service to American letters. He waits in vain for the Nobel, claiming to have given up on that “narcissistic extravaganza,” while indulging in several other such events that don’t require a transatlantic flight. There are fallings-out, reunions with friends, and many exertions on behalf of Bailey towards this biography. Roth becomes a grandfather figure to his ex-girlfriends’ children. He writes open letters to Wikipedia to correct the crowd-sourced record. He falls asleep in his chair crying when his cook quits.

Adam Begley’s 2014 biography of John Updike was criticized for its less than comprehensive treatment of its subject’s last decades, the result of his second wife’s unwillingness to talk. It made for a better book: Updike’s fiction peaked in the mid-1970s, and his late middle age was more tranquil than his adulterous youth. Coming to the later years first, I started to think that Bailey’s book and Roth himself would have benefited from a similar sunset on information. Roth’s imperative to his biographer was “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Make me interesting.” The latter years simply aren’t very interesting. Even all the implied fucking is boring. This was not true of Lisa Halliday’s portrait of Roth as the fictional Ezra Blazer in her 2018 novel Asymmetry. But Halliday was working with firsthand material and had the luxury of fiction, in which the man is tender and playful and the only scars present are those visible on his torso, not those of his disastrous divorces. Bailey is stuck with the factual litany. Poor old man Roth. He was rich, he was famous, he was lonely, and he was still somehow horny. It was one of his military bunkmates in the 1950s, Bailey reports, who went on to discover the nucleotide key to Viagra, a tool that stopped working for Roth after he turned seventy-six.

But after the agon of Roth’s life and career up to his divorce from the actress Claire Bloom, which in Bailey’s hands are almost too interesting to bear, the last decades read as a tranquil denouement. The pain of Roth’s two marriages, each of which drove all parties to the edge of suicide, emerges from thickets of accusation and counteraccusation so tangled that the reader can only shrug, reckon that these cursed unions transpired decades ago, and follow along with Bailey’s narrative as if reading a dark sex comedy. (Reading the book in this way will also accommodate the many girlfriends and mistresses whose presence in these pages seems a bit gratuitous, like Nancy the pseudonymous paralegal he picked up at a Hungarian cafeteria in 1975; “Your writing drives me crazy!” she avers in her otherwise uneventful paragraph and change.) In 1959 Roth’s first wife, Margaret Martinson, tricked him into thinking she’d had an abortion by buying the urine of a pregnant woman she met in the park, and he married her out of guilt. (The phony abortion was preceded and followed by two actual ones.) She constantly threatened to murder him if he ever slept with her teenage daughter (something he never seems to have contemplated), and then died in a car wreck before a divorce in which she was bent on taking him for all she could. (After her funeral, Roth repaired to Yaddo and finished writing Portnoy’s Complaint in twelve days.) His second marriage, to Bloom, made official years after they’d stopped sleeping together, landed Roth in a mental hospital and resulted in Bloom’s 1996 memoir Leaving a Doll’s House, which he feared would permanently ruin his reputation. These relationships are fictionalized in several of Roth’s novels. As much as he was the bard of sex and success, he was really the bard of human incompatibility.

THE WORKING-CLASS WHITE ETHNIC SONS AND DAUGHTERS of the Depression couldn’t have known what a bonanza of liberty and prosperity they were in for after the scarcity and war they witnessed in youth. The gestalt of Roth’s Newark, Bucknell, and Chicago years will be familiar to readers of even a few of his books. It seems that all the nice Jewish boys (and many of the girls) from Weequahic went on to become distinguished doctors, lawyers, dentists, professors, shrinks, and public officials. Roth was the spokesman of these careerists, the ventriloquist of their private ambitions and of their shame, qualities that when put together are also known as lust. He was tarred as a careerist by Irving Howe, who lamented his floating away from Jewish tradition; Truman Capote, who said it on the Tonight Show; and Norman Podhoretz, the author of Making It, knowing whereof he spoke. They were all correct, but their derision was misplaced. Roth’s careerism was an inevitability, the zeitgeist of his generation in America’s prime years of boom and so-called meritocracy. He looked at its underside.

The scandal that emerged from his work came from his refusal to idealize the upwardly mobile, his commitment to portraying his characters’ possession by self-destructive desires. The first wave of hostility to his work—accusations of anti-Semitism from the Jewish establishment—receded with time, as his liberated generation of secular Jews became that establishment. Charges of misogyny, there from the start but cresting with Portnoy, still persist, and Roth seems to have stopped venturing into classrooms in his last years to avoid tedious discussions of whether his female characters were “round” or “flat.” A few days after his death, the Gen X novelist Dara Horn, also a New Jersey Jew, lamented in the New York Times that she recognized everything in Roth’s novels but his women: “The Jewish New Jersey women I know are talented professionals in every field, and often in those two thankless professions that Roth quite likely required to thrive: teachers and therapists. Roth, who achieved true greatness in depicting people like himself, never had the imagination to give these women souls.” The implied equation between being “talented professionals” and having “souls” is a telling expression of current literary attitudes. People’s souls are more likely to be found in the ways they betray each other, their modes of love and hate, than on their résumés. Authorial image management now seeps into the writing of fiction itself. The more readers (and critics) are content to conflate alter egos with authors, the more authors are tempted to idealize their fictional selves: confessional literature cedes the field to the autofiction of self-flattery. Characters in middlebrow melodramas are fine-tuned to avoid the ruffling of sensitivities. Elsewhere villains and victims are flattened so that the readers of contemporary gothic narratives can easily tell them apart. A pseudopolitical moralizing about these issues has crept into more and more of our criticism, and prizes are bestowed on maudlin therapeutic narratives of abuse and recovery. (See last year’s Booker winner Shuggie Bain.) Roth was rarely maudlin, and however much his characters indulged in therapy (analysis, as it was called back then), it never worked.

The seeds of this morally didactic culture were planted in Roth’s youth, and he resisted them. Despite an occasional hostility to critics Bailey seems to have picked up from his subject (who here is dismissing William Gass as a “vindictive highbrow” for panning The Great American Novel, Bailey or Roth?), he is excellent at tracing the arc of Roth’s literary progress. It becomes clear that Roth (like any good careerist) read his critics obsessively and often heeded their advice. (He went so far as to ask for it straight out from Anatole Broyard.) After the breakthrough of Goodbye, Columbus, which had something of the romantic magic of The Great Gatsby in its striver hero, his devotion to the methods of James and Flaubert threatened to make him a writers’ writer. The critics told him to return to comedy, and he became famous again with Portnoy’s Complaint. After the satirical excesses of The Breast and The Great American Novel, he turned back to autobiography and gradually honed a metafictional approach, resulting in the triumphs of The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock. Sabbath’s Theater was the masterpiece that fused the early theme of sex with the late theme of mortality. After a last flourish of combining autobiography and history in the American trilogy, he retreated into the elegiac death-obsessed novellas of his final working decade.

An exquisitely managed career, right down to this totemic and compulsively readable biography, which young writers are well advised to consult as a blueprint for enduring literary stardom. Its lessons include: never marry; have no children; lawyer up early; keep tight control of your cover designs; listen to the critics while scorning them publicly; when it comes to publishers, follow the money; never give a minute to a hostile interviewer; avoid unflattering photographers; figure out what you’re good at and keep doing it, book after book, with just enough variation to keep them guessing; sell out your friends, sell out your family, sell out your lovers, and sell out yourself; keep going until every younger writer can be called your imitator; don’t stop until all your enemies are dead.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.