PHILIP ROTH: THE BIOGRAPHY By Blake Bailey
I SUPPOSE IT MIGHT BE SAID—and, in fact, has been said in one form or another since this unprecedented literary scandal erupted two months ago—that everyone gets the biographer he deserves (which strikes me as more of a clever axiom than true). That discreditable character will come out, regardless of the talents of the biographer or his subject; or, again, that choosing a biographer on the basis of his sympathy—or, even more questionably, identification—with one’s hectic and often unsavory sex life is a chancy thing to do.
I am referring, of course, to the allegations of “grooming,” sexual harassment, and rape brought against Blake Bailey, author of Philip Roth: The Biography (not, notably, “a” Biography) and the subsequent decision by W. W. Norton to halt shipment and promotion of the book on April 21. The plot grew ever thicker: six days later, Bailey’s publisher made a further decision to “unpublish” the book, by announcing that it would take the title (which, surprisingly for a literary biography, had made the New York Times’ bestseller list) entirely out of print, including in ebook and audiobook form, and that it would withdraw Bailey’s 2014 memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned. The news included Norton’s plans to make a donation equivalent to Bailey’s advance (reportedly in the high six figures) to organizations that support survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. There was no mention of whether or not the publisher would pay Bailey, who continued to deny the allegations, the remainder of his contract. Three weeks later, Skyhorse Publishing, the independent press that acquired Woody Allen’s memoir after it was dropped by Hachette, announced that it would be releasing the biography in paperback on June 29.
The scandal, which jumped past the insular confines of the literary world to the front page of the New York Times, detonated in the midst of my writing this essay. My first thought was that the level of irony was off the charts, bringing front and center a subtext of lechery that characterized both men. Actually, I had already had qualms while reading galleys of Bailey’s biography when they arrived in February, leading me to confide in a close friend of Roth’s that I thought the book did its subject no favors, much as it might have been conceived in a spirit of tribute. The elegantly jacketed, almost 900-page book came garlanded with rhapsodic blurbs from Mary Karr (who makes sure that we know Roth was a friend she had “loved quite literally to death”), Nicole Krauss (who describes the biography as “heartbreaking”), and Jonathan Lethem (who deems Bailey’s effort “charming, wise, and witty,” one that “achieves a balance and comprehensiveness that shouldn’t have been possible so soon after Roth’s death”). It received some mixed and a few glowing reviews, including a gushing, slightly addled piece by Cynthia Ozick in the Sunday Times Book Review comparing Roth to the dying King David and declaring Bailey’s biography to be a new form of 19th-century novel, a “narrative masterwork.” There happened to be, if one were following closely, two early sightings of the worrisome nature of Bailey’s portrait of Roth, one by Laura Marsh in The New Republic and the other by Christian Lorentzen in Bookforum. Although tethered to different issues—Marsh’s to Roth’s and Bailey’s underlying sexism, Lorentzen’s to the careerism that marked Roth’s climb to the top of the literary heap—they indicated trouble to come.
In the wake of the news came a rush to judgment on the part of both Roth fans and detractors; the former attempted to separate the writer out from his and his biographer’s sexual histories while the latter tried to tar the two men with one brush. The question of whether the flawed character of an artist should be allowed to supersede his work was floated and left to drift, while Roth’s reputation sank under waves of sanctimony.
THE FIRST TIME I MET PHILIP ROTH was in the fall of 1984, on my way out of a dinner held at the Lotos Club in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Partisan Review. He cut an imposing figure; he was tall and fit and had blazingly alert dark eyes under serious eyebrows. I remember what I was wearing: a lilac dress with white sprigs and Dynasty-era shoulder pads. I introduced myself and, in my provocative fashion, told him I liked some of his books. “Not all?” he asked. Some weeks later I received an express airmail letter from Roth (he was living in London), telling me that he had liked a story of mine which had appeared in the New Yorker shortly after we met. He said that he would be coming to New York for a few days and would I be interested in meeting. Of course I was, although when he called to make plans I let my answering machine pick up his message for fear of seeming too eager. He was probably the best-known writer of the time, and I didn’t want to come across as a literary groupie. Then too, after our brief conversation, I already had the sense that he was in the habit of mocking the enthusiasms of humankind in general, and women in particular.
It is all but impossible from the vantage point of our current fragmented literary culture, much of which takes place online, to imagine the level of celebrity that accrued to Roth especially after Portnoy’s Complaint. He was a person whom people recognized on the street (the only other writer who enjoyed anything like this level of fame was Susan Sontag), and though he ran from his celebrity he also reveled in it when he chose. He made himself rare at book parties over the decades, or so I thought, the better to appear in a blaze of glory when he decided to show up.
I was an avid reader of Roth’s work, having been especially taken with the title novella, Goodbye, Columbus, that comprises, along with five short stories, his first, National Book Award–winning book, published in 1959, when Roth was 26. I loved everything about it, from the plunging immediacy of its opening sentence—“The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses”—to the percussive dialogue between 23-year-old Neil Klugman, the narrator, and almost everyone he encounters, be it Aunt Gladys (who gives as good as she gets), or Ron, Brenda’s oafish, basketball-obsessed brother, or Brenda Patimkin herself.
The incidental observations are as precise as they are caustic (and sometimes, if more rarely, tender), whether about Neil’s coworkers at the Newark Public Library, where he has a summer job, or the lavish lifestyle of Brenda’s nouveau riche family in Short Hills, less than ten miles from Newark but another world entirely. (Aunt Gladys: “Since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills? They couldn’t be real Jews believe me.”) The Patimkins’ house, set among oak trees, boasts a tennis court, a basketball court, a finished basement that contains a mirrored bar stocked with twenty-three bottles of Jack Daniels and an old refrigerator reserved just for fruit: “shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit.” Roth describes the changes in the American-Jewish community as it shifts from a lower middle-class urban life to a more affluent suburban one with a mixture of derision and affection. (His tone would be criticized as hostile and “bad for the Jews” by august leaders of the Jewish community, and although I believe there is truth to this censure as it applies to some of his later writing, it doesn’t seem to me to apply to Goodbye, Columbus.)
I knew by heart the last two lines of the novella’s first paragraph, in which Neil watches Brenda swim: “She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.” No wonder Saul Bellow, among countless others, applauded Roth’s debut: “He is skilled, witty, energetic and performs like a virtuoso.” Interestingly enough, Roth did not evince much fondness for Goodbye, Columbus in an interview he did with Joyce Carol Oates in 1974, noting that the book was “apprentice work and weak on character invention all around.”
I continued to be a faithful reader, immersing myself in Roth’s successive, somewhat dreary, Dreiser-like novels—Letting Go (1962), which is set in the 1950s among a group of breast-beating graduate students at the University of Chicago and which I admired for its ambition and psychological forays, despite its cumbersome length and slightly claustrophobic atmosphere—and the intermittently absorbing When She Was Good (1967). Set in the 1940s in a small town in the Midwest, it plumbs the complex and ultimately monstrous character of Lucy Nelson. Lucy is based on Roth’s first wife, Margaret Martinson Williams (known as “Maggie”), from whom he was trying to wrest a divorce when she died in a car crash in 1968 at the age of 39.
While Bailey seems to take Roth’s vilification of Maggie as gospel, Ira Nadel, in his biography Philip Roth: A Counterlife, which appeared within a week of Bailey’s and was mysteriously ignored (other than being cursorily dismissed by Michael Gorra in his New York Review of Books essay on Bailey), proposes a less gullible and reductive view of Roth’s demonized first wife. Nadel writes: “[He] may have overplayed Maggie’s negative dimension. She had a much greater supportive role than he admitted; he portrayed only the bad, not the good of her. In letters to his editors, he repeatedly praised her critical sensibility and even reinforced her efforts to work in publishing, including several projects she proposed.” A Counterlife, for all its infelicities of style, is a more objective account than Bailey’s; Nadel analyzes both Roth’s character and his heavily autobiographical writings to pinpoint the differences between one and the other.
Critics were mostly unimpressed with Roth’s attempt to penetrate to the heart of the Anglo-Saxon temperament in When She Was Good. Writing in the New York Times, Wilfred Sheed thought that Roth had projected his own sense “of social textures onto his Lutheran characters, making them just like Jews only duller,” while Robert Alter began his review in Commentary with a crushing blow: “The kindest thing one can say about Philip Roth’s new novel is that it is a brave mistake.” A mere two years later, almost as a reaction to the moral wrestling of these novels, came Portnoy’s Complaint. This excursion into the blasphemous claims of the id was published in 1969, during the sexual gale of the late Sixties, and sprang Roth into a new level of fame and fortune. (My mother tried to bribe me not to read it, just as she had with Mary McCarthy’s The Group. This of course only heightened my interest. I was fourteen or fifteen years old and I’m not sure I understood half of the sexual practices that were described, but I felt a frisson at the very idea of entering forbidden territory.)
Portnoy produced a blizzard of responses, some of them dire. From Israel, the German-born scholar Gershom Scholem, who singlehandedly created an academic discipline of the study of Kabbalah, an influential current of mysticism that had been scanted by modern Jewish scholarship, weighed in with an alarmed attack in the pages of Ha’aretz, the country’s most intellectual and highly regarded newspaper. Portnoy, he wrote, was “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying,” one “for which the Jewish people are going to pay a price.” Other responses verged on the rapturous, even decades after the novel first burst on to the scene. Bernard Avishai, in Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness (2012), which is jacketed in the same colors—black and red typeface against a bright yellow background—as the original cover, asserts that “Portnoy’s Complaint is about everything that matters, which is to say everything that hurts.”
This large claim seemed to be aimed retrospectively at Irving Howe’s searing reconsideration of Roth in 1972 for Commentary. Howe reneged on his early touting of Goodbye, Columbus, predicting that Portnoy would not endure because the novel was “an assemblage of gags” and “the cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.” (Roth would eventually get back at both Howe and Commentary by casting him and the magazine as laughably pious hypocrites in The Anatomy Lesson (1983).)
LOOKING BACK, I remember finding Portnoy as incendiary and transgressive as it was undoubtedly meant to be. Peppered with capital letters and exclamation marks (the latter a grammatical tool once characterized by Helen Gurley Brown, the founding editor of Cosmopolitan, as “sexy”), as if to emphasize the urgency of Alexander Portnoy’s reflections and protests, the novel is delivered up to his psychoanalyst in one long monologue. Portnoy, who in his mid-thirties rails that “my wang was all I really had that I could call my own,” has a father whose most memorable quality seems to be his chronic constipation and a loving but smothering Jewish mother, “one of the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time.” We are treated to a parade of humiliating memories from Portnoy’s teenage years in New Jersey, his outré fantasies, and anecdotes from his sexual life with his girlfriend, the polymorphously perverse “Monkey” (a moniker that still causes me to flinch all these decades later). There is, of course, the much commented-upon scene in which the novel’s alternately whining and enraged anti-hero masturbates into a piece of refrigerated raw liver. (This same scene led Jacqueline Susann, author of the camp classic Valley of the Dolls, to quip to Johnny Carson when she went on the Tonight Show to promote her new novel, which was vying with Portnoy for the number one slot on the Times’ bestseller list, that although she was curious to meet Philip Roth she preferred not to shake his hand.) Aside from having wearied of the novel’s unremitting and ultimately tedious wish to shock, I didn’t find it as funny as many other, predominantly male, readers apparently did. When I taught the book decades later as part of a course at the 92nd Street Y, my female students rejected it as sophomoric and sexist. And indeed the novel’s animus toward women is impossible to ignore.
THE SECOND TIME I MET ROTH was over lunch at a little restaurant in the East 60s specializing in omelets called Madame Romaine de Lyon. (I wondered if he’d pay, rumors of his fabled stinginess having reached me. I’m happy to report that he did.) I’d had my hair blown out, my nails done, and the lunch went on forever. I told him about my passion for frequenting tanning booths, which he seemed to find hilarious, and he told me about the genteel anti-Semitism he kept encountering in London. When he asked me where I had grown up in the city, I replied vaguely, “on 65th and Park”—a veiled answer that Roth, a connoisseur of minute class signifiers if ever there was one, correctly deduced was an attempt to downplay the toniness of the address. He shot back: “On 65th or on Park?” We went on to discuss my background in great detail, including the fact of my having grown up in a modern Orthodox family, which he seemed to have trouble putting together with the Park Avenue address, as though the one belied the other. I explained that I alone among my five siblings had left the fold and that I sometimes regretted it. Although he was capable of imagining all sorts of human configurations, Roth seemed without comprehension of the religious impulse. Those ancient and constricting rituals were risible to him, worthy of tickling his funny bone but nothing more.
Needless to say, I was enchanted: his comic timing was impeccable and he paid the sort of riveted attention to women that women like Pamela Harriman and Jackie Kennedy are said to have paid to men. He seemed pretty smitten himself, asking me at some point why I wasn’t married yet; I had turned 30 some months earlier and I wondered if he saw me as being on the cusp of a tragic spinsterhood. I recounted some failed romantic adventures from the annals of my dating life in an effort to remedy the impression I might have given of being a wallflower at the mating dance. At which point he promptly proposed to me, notwithstanding his relationship with the actress Claire Bloom. I walked him back to The Wyndham, a hotel on 58th Street a few steps away from Bergdorf Goodman, where Roth always stayed when he was in the city, and we pecked each other chastely on the cheek. I went home in a flutter and immediately called Diana Trilling to tell her that Philip Roth wanted to marry me. “I don’t think he meant it,” I said tentatively, to which Diana replied with great conviction in her plummy voice, “Of course he does, dear.”
I went on to skim the trio of books that appeared in the early ’70s—Our Gang, The Breast, and The Great American Novel—because they all seemed to call upon the least compelling aspects of Roth’s talent, which included an increasingly overwrought sense of humor and a regressive, infantile streak. I warmed, on the other hand, to My Life as a Man (1974), from its epigraph—an entry from one of its character’s diary that goes, heartbreakingly and delusionally, “I could be his Muse, if only he’d let me”—to its final yelp of indignant but touching recognition that we are not sovereign creatures in any but our own minds: “I turned to Susan, still sitting there huddled up in her coat, looking, to my abashment, as helpless as the day I had found her. Sitting there waiting. Oh, my God I thought—now you. You being you. And me! This me who is being me and none other!” The novel introduced Nathan Zuckerman, the first of Roth’s many stand-ins and alter egos, who is in turn a fictional character created by the protagonist, Peter Tarnopol.
The explicit subject of the book was, again, Roth’s torturous marriage to his first wife, but it was also an examination of the essential Rothian predicament: How to live and connect beyond the confines of the narcissistic self. In that sense it is a fierce and hilarious tribute to the warping power of love but also to its possibilities, a less common note in this writer’s emotional landscapes.
In 1979, when The Ghost Writer came out, I reviewed it in The New Leader under the title “Roth’s Promise.” Nathan Zuckerman puts in a second appearance as the novel’s narrator, a young and promising writer of short stories that sound conspicuously like those in Goodbye, Columbus. He visits Lonoff, an established older writer (modeled on Bernard Malamud) who lives in the Berkshires and whom Zuckerman reveres. The novel could be read as a story about the conflicting allegiance to Art and Life, and the betrayals involved therein, but this theme never really gets off the ground. Instead Roth gives a tired nod to his vexed Jewishness in the form of Zuckerman’s fantasy involving Amy Bellette, a young assistant of Lonoff’s whom he envisions as a resurrected Anne Frank.
In my review I summarized The Ghost Writer as “a slight book about almost-major themes.” Still, Roth’s voice—“something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head,” as Lonoff describes the mysterious power of a literary voice—is in evidence, as is his scalpel-like way with dialogue. Here is Lonoff arguing with his self-sacrificing wife Hope about a phone call.
“Who is it? Not the genius again.” “Would I have said you were here?” “You have to learn to tell people no. People like that make fifty calls a day. Inspiration strikes and they go for the phone.” “It’s not him.” “He has the right wrong opinion on everything. He has a head full of ideas, every one of them stupid.” “I’ve said I was sorry. And it’s not him.” “Who is it?” “Willis.” “All that wonder,” said Lonoff to his wife. “Always so greatly moved. Always on the brink of tears. What is he so compassionate about all the time?’” “You,” she said. . . .
THE TRUTH IS, in the decades to come after that lunch, although I saw Roth infrequently, I never wrote without wondering: What would Philip Roth think of this? (I always thought of him in full dress, both first and last name.) And will he even notice it? Notwithstanding the fact that I became a less devoted reader of his work as the years passed, he became, in a way, my imagined reader—the person whose affirmation of my writerly self I most desired. I had been wildly flattered by his proposal of marriage, although now, having read Bailey’s gossipy and salacious account of Roth’s doings with women, I realize I probably shouldn’t have been. Whatever one thinks of Roth’s writing style—that muscular prose that thrusts the reader into his fiction without a by-your-leave—he was one of the great pick-up artists of our time. Witty, charming and attractive before his chin started disappearing somewhere in his sixties—magnetic, in a word—he had women under a spell: the writer as cerebral Don Juan, whispering sweet Jamesian nothings as verbal foreplay. (He demonstrated his flirting technique with one of my assistants, 23 and Titian-haired, at a book party in 2008, when he approached her at the dessert table and, having learned who she was, murmured, “If you were my assistant, darling, I’d feed you bon-bons in bed all day long.”)
Whether he actually liked, much less loved, the many women—mostly young and often blonde—whom he ensorcelled and frequently dumped on a dime is another question altogether. Benjamin Taylor, who was probably Roth’s closest friend in the last two decades of his life, and who published a slim, poignant memoir about their friendship, insists that Roth frequently fell in love. That may be, but he seems to have fallen out of love as frequently, and rather quickly. He chafed under the yoke of monogamy and was a compulsive philanderer, joyfully cheating on girlfriends and wives; a number of his friends have speculated that he suffered from satyriasis. We learn from Bailey’s biography, which I found myself reading with growing unease because he seemed—as many have now noted—so besotted with his subject’s cocksmanship, that Roth specialized in cunnilingus and disliked kissing. Make of that preference what you will. He appears to have seen women as an itch he had to scratch, a way of assuring himself that a forbidding Jewish god was not in the heavens and that he was not going to be dragooned into anyone’s, especially his prescriptive father’s, idea of a Good Boy ever again. He had made that mistake once in his early life, putting the demands of responsibility over the demands of his penis by marrying a woman who tricked him into thinking she was pregnant, an admittedly nasty bit of manipulation and one that he never got over.
Roth nursed all his grievances over years, even decades, whether they had to do with his first wife, Maggie, or critics of his work, from Howe to Michiko Kakutani. The contention that he had a self-hating attitude toward his Jewishness could not, I believe, be brushed aside simply by saying it was a manifestation of a profound and singular sense of irony, as Roth would have it. This accusation, which began with “Defender of the Faith” in Goodbye, Columbus and peaked with Portnoy’s Complaint, particularly rankled him, but produced nothing more reflective than a sustained irateness about the presumed philistinism—the “inanities,” as he called them—of his tribe. (He wasn’t altogether wrong, either. One of the most vocal critics of “Defender of the Faith” was Emanuel Rackman, then the president of the Rabbinical Council of America and later the rabbi of Fifth Avenue Synagogue, which had been co-founded by my father and which I irregularly attended. In a letter to the Anti-Defamation League, the usually mellow Rackman thundered: “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”)
To be sure, a large part of Roth was always in a rage about something or other, no matter how much in the way of stroking he received, the acclaim and prizes and sycophantic fans.
He nurtured his rage, noting in The Counterlife (1986) that “People are unjust to anger—it can be enlivening and a lot of fun.” I will never forget a long phone conversation we had one afternoon about Claire Bloom, whom Roth had gone on to marry, and who published an incriminating memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, a few years after their divorce (they had been estranged for quite a while before they legally called it quits). I had described it as a “revenge memoir” in my review in the New Yorker, and its author “a source of lurid fascination—a sort of Lorena Bobbitt for the kaffe klatch set.” Although a part of me thought that Bloom, with all her condemning details, was shocked by the end of their marriage and still longed for her life with Roth—“Bloom would always claim to be flummoxed,” Bailey writes, “by her husband’s sudden disaffection”—in our call Roth excoriated her with a venomous passion I had never heard from anyone before. There was not an ounce of pity in his voice for all the hurt she had sustained—nor did I sense that he had given an iota of thought to his contribution to the failure of the marriage.
ROTH, IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING, was a supernal narcissist, although the term has been thrown around so much that it has all but lost its meaning in the true diagnostic sense. Thus the insistence on occupying center stage in his own literary imagination—creating, well before the arrival of the term “autofiction,” the endless stand-ins, doppelgangers, and meta-selves who are all given his signature virile voice and refer back, however trickily, to Roth himself. Thus the sedulous cultivation of his image as a monkish fellow tied to his desk in Cornwall, Connecticut, oblivious to the trappings of fame and being skipped over for the Nobel Prize, even as he vigilantly curated his career, bullying his editors about print runs and the exact wording of jacket copy and ads. (A publicist friend of mine once exasperatedly told me that Roth was unwilling to be interviewed for a profile in Time unless they could assure him a cover.) Thus the shallow transactionalism underlying many of his friendships: goodbye devoted editor Aaron Asher, hello longstanding frenemy Saul Bellow.
To be fair, a degree of narcissism doubtless resides in most of us, and probably more so in writers and artists. However, many of us try to side-step it or tamp it down for the sake of intimate engagement with other people, if nothing else. But even in Bailey’s sympathetic portrait, Roth comes across as having felt no such compulsion. When he was honored “as the sole subject” of a book festival in Aix-en-Provence in 1999, Bailey notes that after his initial lack of enthusiasm, “Roth himself was the mastermind of it all, overseeing every detail and even providing a rather immodest but not inaccurate title: ‘The Roth Explosion.’”
Bailey quotes Susan Rogers, an ex-girlfriend of long standing (Roth dedicated The Plot Against America to her), and one of many “beached fish” (as Bailey describes them) in Roth’s amorous history, on their relationship years after it had ended: “There’s not a one-for-one there. . . . The extent to which our relationship was lopsided, and seeing that pattern again in his relationships . . . This wasn’t equal in any way.”
ROTH CONTINUED TO PRODUCE BOOKS at a prodigious rate—it would come to thirty-one in all. Operation Shylock (1993) took on the problem of modern Israel; Roth grappled with the theory of “Diasporism” as well as (big surprise) pretending to be his own double. Roth told his biographer that it had caused him “more misery than all the other books combined.” The misery was worth it: Harold Bloom and Ozick sang the novel’s praises. Ozick went into her usual male-worshipping overdrive, declaring Roth to be “a divine manifestation” before whom she went down “on [her] knees.”
I, on the other hand, as I wrote in a symposium in Tikkun, found the novel cynically conceived, from its Hebrew epigram (why Hebrew, when, by his own admission, he didn’t retain a word of the language from his restless studies in the “small, ill-ventilated classroom” of a Newark Hebrew school?) to its carefully transliterated Hebrew phrases, to Roth’s stippling his text with substantive, real-life events: the Demjanjuk trial, the Achille Lauro incident, the Intifada, the Holocaust, Jonathan Pollard, and Herzl’s dream of a Jewish homeland. Still, under all its inventiveness and “sacrosanct pranks”—its musings on fiction versus reality, on imposterhood and the Eternal Doppelganger who lies in wait—Roth doesn’t seem to have bothered to investigate the Middle East situation other than from his comfortable perch at the King David Hotel and through meetings with prominent Israeli authors and credential-bearing Palestinians. Although the issue of assimilationist, proto-ethnic Jewish identity had undergone changes since the glory days of Lenny Bruce, you wouldn’t know it from reading Operation Shylock—perhaps because Roth was forever stuck in himself, trying once again to “subdue the inner quarrel,” cogitating on the endlessly fascinating Paradox of Being Philip Roth.
American Pastoral (1997) featured Roth as John Updike, paying close attention to the workings of a glove factory in Newark owned by Swede Levov, an assimilated and hardworking Jew whose radicalized daughter Merry (based in part on Kathy Boudin though not a particularly persuasive character) bombs the local post office in protest of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The novel reached beyond Roth’s usual purview to take on the darkening of the American dream in the tumult and rebellion of the Sixties; it won the Pulitzer Prize. Ozick weighed in once again with due homage—“Roth is Niagara. They should stop fiddling in Stockholm already and make the phone call”—and despite the novel’s slow-moving plot, there is much to admire about it. The cultural politics were ambiguous enough that the jazz critic Stanley Crouch convened a small group made up of Paul Berman, Todd Gitlin, and myself to discuss American Pastoral over lunch at a downtown restaurant, where the book provoked a lively debate about the insurrectionist spirit of the Sixties and what it had wrought. (Gitlin approved of its ramifications, Crouch mostly deplored them, while Berman and I were stranded in the middle.)
Other critics, like Louis Menand, thought that the writer had made “a swerve to the cultural right.” And, indeed, the novel does point to a certain conservative streak that runs through Roth’s politics despite his épater la bourgeoisie stance. Norman Podhoretz newly approved of him as the “born-again Philip Roth” who, for once, celebrated “the ordinary Jews of his childhood—for their decency, their sense of responsibility, their seriousness about their work, their patriotism. . . .” Roth himself kept clear of anything so nailable as position-taking. “I don’t write about my convictions,” he told Claudia Roth Pierpont. “I write about the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.”
Sabbath’s Theater (1995), in which Roth gleefully embraces the repellent aspects and desecrating impulses of his protagonist Mickey Sabbath, a 64-year-old former puppeteer, was the writer’s favorite among his books. Moving between the two poles of Eros and Thanatos, the novel showcases Roth at his most manic and nihilistic. Although some critics have managed to see in Sabbath’s outsize desires and objectification of women a send-up of hyper-masculinity, an exposé of the myth of “male dominance and potency” (My Life as A Man), this view strikes me as a wishful over-reading. I found Sabbath, with his foul-mouthed bluster, largely an unpersuasive bore and in general resisted the novel’s negative intensity, exemplified in its final sentences: “He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”
While I was dipping into Roth’s oeuvre for this essay, I rediscovered that my favorite of his books is Patrimony (1991). A starkly unsentimental but deeply affecting memoir of his 86-year-old widower father, a former insurance salesman nearing the end of his life, this work of autobiographical nonfiction succeeds in doing what Roth’s novels strive to do but often as not fail at: the astonishing egotism reflects more than just itself; the personal stands in for the universal; and the palimpsest of recollections leads us down the corridor of memory, until author and reader are back at their own origins and misfires.
The voice is vintage Roth, assured and direct, beginning the story without benefit of a prelude or an inviting lead-in. “My father,” Patrimony begins, “had lost most of the sight in his right eye by the time he’d reached eighty-six. . . .” The assumption is that this is a father worthy of our interest, not least because he is the father of a son who has captured our interest time and time over. The perceptions are precise as ever but there is a note of something unsettling—something hovering beyond the grasp of even so honed and rational a mind as Roth’s—behind them: “What cemeteries prove, at least to people like me, is not that the dead are present but that they are gone. They are gone and, as yet, we aren’t. This is fundamental and, however unacceptable, grasped easily enough.”
All of which leads one to wonder: from whence emerged this withholding, cold, self-centered and often cruel man? His character, and its relationship to his family background, is especially relevant given how heavily he drew upon it, directly or indirectly. Could it be that he was too doted on as the younger, smarter son of his aspirational parents, the ever-striving Herman and his wife, the neatnik hausfrau Bess? (His brother Sandy appears to have uncomplainingly accepted his secondary place in the family pantheon.) Or was Roth in the end so tied to the family that shaped him that he was forever proving how far away he had ventured, throwing stones at their middle-class values, homey beliefs and connection to traditional Judaism? (Roth’s mother lit Shabbat candles and kept a kosher home.) No doubt he was something of a Jewish princeling, one whose inculcated self-confidence only swelled with his early success, freezing in place the doubts and needs that lurked just beneath the surface. What’s curious is that it seems not to have occurred to Bailey to probe deeply into the how and why of his subject’s knotty psychology: he takes Roth’s immensely complicated personality as more or less a given rather than reckoning with it.
WHATEVER HIS CRIMES and misdemeanors—including, yes, misogyny and a callous mindset about women—Roth was neither an alleged sexual harasser nor an alleged rapist, like his biographer. He may have boiled down the erotic life to the “hazardous allurements of the flesh and the pecker’s irrepressible urge to squirt” (as off-putting a description of the libidinal impulse as any I’ve read) and described women’s vaginal secretions as having “a heavy, clinging, muttony stench” (beyond off-putting), but his relationships with women, however dastardly, appear to have been consensual. You could describe him as a cad and a bounder, to employ those old-fashioned terms, but it seems a mistake for us to link him forever with Bailey’s possible crimes, as has been done in the blogosphere and the press.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that Roth’s behavior, cutting a swath through women like so many alluring but expendable pieces of flesh, indicts the masculine culture that produced his arrested and entitled attitude. Ross Miller, Roth’s first and ultimately deposed biographer, told a cousin of the writer that “there is a predatory side to both Sandy and Philip . . . they are misogynist. They talk about women in that way.” For the record, Roth was hardly the only Jewish male writer of his time obsessively fixated on sex and shiksas; there were, in no particular order, Leonard Michaels, Bruce Jay Friedman, Herbert Gold, Mordechai Richler, and Richard Stern. They were all Jewish boys from provincial neighborhoods who came to the big city and discovered “pussy” (if I may) and were all of them permanently suspended in a breathless adolescence regarding the eternal mystery of what women want—and whether they had what it took to satisfy that elusive desire.
While Roth, with his undeniable drawing power, may have captured me in a certain way, I was also aware from the start that this kind of swashbuckling, supremely manipulative man could only break my heart, and that I’d end up like Anne Mudge—the devoted girlfriend who attempted suicide after Roth abruptly ditched her. When this conquistador attitude is imitated and exponentially heightened by men like Bailey, the issue becomes more grave—leading, at its worst, to something much darker.
In the end, Roth’s need to control everything and everybody (down to his memorial service, for which he drew up the list of attendees and the music to be played) has proven a fatal flaw. After firing Miller as biographer, and trying to nab Hermione Lee (who had done a Paris Review interview with him), then impatiently moving on when she insisted on first finishing her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald—Roth had imperiously told her to abandon it—he thought he’d found the perfect accomplice in Blake Bailey. Admittedly, Bailey had written excellent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, but it must have been his malleability (as well as his convenient ignorance of the Jewish context) that won Roth over, allowing him to stage-manage the whole enterprise. Bailey was willing to read Roth’s flood of emails about whom he should and should not talk to and was equally willing to cast a forgiving, even worshipful eye on the more sordid aspects of his subject’s behavior and flagrant bed-hopping. In his wish to have his biography double as a brief for the defense, Roth required someone who was not prepared to admit the dicey elements in his treatment of women. The consequences of his choice proved disastrous, although we have yet to see how Roth’s legacy will play out.
And still the fact remains: For all that Roth was and wasn’t, he was first and foremost a writer. He spent most of his waking hours alone, painstakingly crafting one sentence after another; it was what mattered to him in the long and short run, beyond all the careerist machinations. There was a singular conviction and even purity about his devotion to writing that was, or so it appears, unmatched by other writers in his lifetime. One might argue that the underside of this high-minded passion was reflected in his prolific, driven pursuit of women. And, in fact, perhaps they were two sides of the same coin. But it also might be argued that the one side, which was reviled throughout his career and has only caught the light more glaringly since Bailey, might plausibly have had nothing to do with the other: that disciplined and super-human commitment to sitting (and later in his life, when his back pain proved unbearable, standing) at his desk every day, including weekends, writing and rewriting.
My own sense of Roth is that the motive behind his books, his drive and ambition as a writer, has everything to do with his unceasing energy as a seducer—a seducer of readers as well as of living people, friends and lovers. One might argue, again, that the intimate connection between eros and the desire to communicate with readers is true of many writers—but in Roth’s case I wonder if he might have been a better writer, certainly a freer one, if he had been able to unknot the two impulses a bit more. (Part of the failure of American Pastoral is that he can only imagine the daughter, Merry, as an object of seduction: it all comes back to Swede Levov French kissing his daughter, to mouths and tongues, and thus Merry is ultimately unreal. There is utterly no sense of the prosaic, well-worn relations between parents and children. Instead there is Roth’s unyielding nostalgia for bygone Newark and his visceral disgust with various threats—upstart women, the Sixties—to the familiar values of the status quo.)
For all of my mixed feelings about Roth (and for the record, I never went to bed with him), I still cherish the letter he typed on a generic piece of white copy paper, eschewing stationery. It is dated Sept. 16, 1985 and signed in his emphatic lefty scrawl; I have kept it tacked up above my various desks ever since he sent it to me.
Dear Daphne, I was in NY to see a Mets game on the way to London and was interviewed for the Times, also bought a suit. That was it, period. I’m here in Conn, writing. Off to London in November. Forget about all those arguments and write. Stop dreaming and write. You’re a writer. That’s the whole story. End of Saga. Yours, Philip
End of saga, indeed.