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An Examined Life

By Patrick Hayes

Philip Roth: The Biography

Blake Bailey, Penguin, 2021

When Roth received the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus (1959) he used the occasion to harangue his audience about the spuriousness of their interest in celebrity personality:

The concern is with writers instead of writing; the concern is with poses and postures, with etiquette, as if the manners of the writer ultimately determined the manner of the writing … ‘Should the writer?’ ‘Can the writers?’ ‘Is the function of the writer in contemporary…?’ Baloney! What questions! What a lightweight novelistic approach to human character! Imagine — should Jane Austen? Can Thomas Hardy? Is it the function of Sir Walter Scott…?’

Of course, the irony here is that Roth would become one of the most autobiographical of writers, and was himself repeatedly berated — even by friends such as John Updike — for his self-display. To name only the chief highlights: the Zuckerman Bound tetralogy (1979-85) replayed the major scandals of Roth’s literary career through the figure of the notorious writer Nathan Zuckerman (the name derives from ‘suckerborn’, but implies other ‘uck’ words besides); Operation Shylock (1993) featured not only one but two ‘Philip Roth’ characters in its zany exploration of Holocaust memorialisation.

Yet these novels are only superficially about Roth, and in truth they have very little to do with autobiographical disclosure. In creating fictionalised versions of his own experience Roth’s deeper purpose was to scrutinise what Kierkegaard — who Roth was fond of quoting — named the ‘petty persecution’ of recognition, and the ‘great drum of triviality’ that is continuously being beaten in modern public life. If these themes seem undignified or lacking in high seriousness, then one of Roth’s greatest strengths was precisely the way he overcame his own high-minded embarrassment in pursuing them, because they have become ever more crucial to understanding what it is to live, as we do, in the distracted frenzy of a personality-obsessed consumer society.

The challenge facing Blake Bailey was somehow to illuminate a literary life that has already been extensively, perhaps exhaustively, told and retold through his subject’s fiction. This must have seemed daunting. Another kind of biographer might have chosen to continue with Roth’s own play with the idioms of life-writing, and tackled him through some kind of experimentation with the form of biography itself. In a sense this is what Alan Lelchuk did in Ziff: A Life (2003), a playful roman-à-clef that pays homage to Roth’s multi-layered metafictional reflections on the entanglement of intimacy and public image. But Bailey did not go down this route at all. Philip Roth: The Biography presents Roth through the most conventional kind of biographical storytelling, giving us a chapter-by-chapter chronological unfolding of the life, from cradle to grave.

And yet I suspect the decision not to be drawn into a sub-Rothian formal experiment was a good one, for in broader terms Bailey succeeds as a biographer by carefully observing the limits of his chosen form. This is an amiable and unpretentious book that refuses to be drawn into making any grand interpretation of Roth’s life, or any deep synthesis of his personality. Bailey doesn’t get involved in a campaign for Roth’s reputation (‘I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,’ Roth instructed him, ‘Just make me interesting’), and he avoids the all-too-common biographer’s fantasy that the subject’s inner life can somehow be reconstructed on the page. Leaving out psychobabble, he steers round reductive ideas about the ‘Jewish American writer’ (a label Roth disliked and disavowed), and sensibly avoids trying to adjudicate the unilluminating quarrel about whether or not Roth was ‘misogynistic’. He seeks only to pull together the diverse strands — friends, lovers, editors, readers — that made up Roth’s long and complex literary career.

In making this point about the conventionality of Bailey’s approach, and in using the word ‘only’ to describe his aims, it may seem as if I’m damning this biography with faint praise, but that’s not my intention. Ray Monk, the biographer of Wittgenstein, thought of biography as a form whose chief merit lies in the way it can explore ‘life without theory’. The loose form of a biography, Monk suggested, can avoid what Wittgenstein called the ‘thicket’ of misunderstanding that overbearing theories tend to generate; its ranginess can help bring about a form of human meaningfulness that involves ‘making connections’ rather than demonstrating arguments, in a way that respects the contingencies of ordinary life. Bailey’s reluctance to theorise and his unwillingness to launch into grand interpretations, coupled with the breath of his research and the consequent freshness of his connection-making, are in this context strengths rather than weaknesses.

As with many literary biographies, this one only really gets going once the first hundred or so pages dealing with childhood, school, and family background are done with. While this material is of course important, it is familiar terrain to anyone who has spent any time at all reading Roth’s fiction, and better engaged with through the rich array of memoir that deals with second-generation Jewish immigrant life: not only Roth’s defining contributions to this genre (The Facts (1989) and Patrimony (1990)), but works by other (and also older) Jewish New Yorkers, such as Irving Howe or Alfred Kazin. Equally, some of the major episodes of Roth’s life, such as his marriage to Margaret Martinson and the Portnoy’s Complaint fiasco, have already been so deeply examined, both by Roth and his array of critics, that despite the turning-up of some intriguing new sources there proves to be little of any real novelty left to say.

Instead, what this biography most valuably generates is a deepened understanding of what it was for Roth to have become a major writer at this time in America, and the various ways and means through which literary recognition could be won and lost. Bailey describes the networks of East-coast American publishers, journal editors, and writers that shaped Roth’s career, and which in turn he started to reshape. He clarifies the ways in which Roth became central to New York cultural life in this period and explores his many literary friendships, including Alison Lurie, William Styron, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo, Susan Sontag, and the ‘fascinating symbiosis’, as Bailey rightly names it, of his relationship with the painter Philip Guston. (One of the highlights of perusing Roth’s archive in the Library of Congress is the correspondence with Guston, which includes some very amusing sketches.) It is interesting to learn more about the importance of Richard Stern, an underrated novelist and long-time friend, not least for his role in astutely steering Roth away from his misfiring first attempt at a novel (named The Go-Between, a suspense caper set in Frankfurt, a city about which Roth was completely ignorant) towards Goodbye, Columbus, the triumphant debut in which Roth discovered his capacity to ‘hit long fungoes’ by writing about the local and the demotic. Bailey is also illuminating on the contingencies of the editing process, and the multiple ways in which texts and reputations are shaped. Staying with Roth’s first collection, we learn of the impact of George Starbuck, his editor at Houghton Mifflin, who was so impressed by ‘Defender of the Faith’ (an early story about Jews serving in the military) he cut two other stories in favour of ones with a more explicitly Jewish focus. ‘George, in a way, determined my future,’ Roth remarked, ‘because I didn’t think that was my subject. I didn’t know what my subject was.’ Bailey’s insight into what Roth had to contend with in the combustible intersection between mass media and ‘ethnic’ identity is particularly telling. He somehow managed to track down the memo written to prep Mike Wallace for his TV interview with Roth following the National Book Award. ‘Maybe we can get his back up’, the memo runs, noting down interview questions designed to challenge Roth’s claim that he wasn’t an ‘essentially Jewish writer’: ‘CRITICS HAVE SAID THAT YOUR HUMOR IS ‘TYPICALLY JEWISH HUMOR’; THAT YOUR RANGE IS ‘NARROW.’ COULD IT BE THAT THE THINGS WHICH GET YOU ANGRY ARE LIMITED, AND THAT YOUR SOCIAL CRITICISM ARE LIMITED, SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO INVOLVED WITH THE THEME OF THE JEWS?’

One reservation about the book is that less space might have been given to the interminable saga of Roth’s ill-fated marriage to Claire Bloom, and rather more could have been said about his dealings with Eastern European writers. This involvement began with visits to Prague and an ‘Ad Hoc Fund’ Roth set up through PEN to provide financial assistance; it extended into his editorship of the Penguin Writers from the Other Europe series, through which he used his influence to promote a range of authors including Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, and Danilo Kiš. There is a story waiting to be told about the reception of these interesting figures in the West and their influence on Roth and others. A further reservation is that Bailey gets a little bogged down in the biographical parlour-game of identifying the models for Roth’s characters. The aesthetic transformation of personal experience is clearly a big subject when it comes to Roth, but Bailey rarely uses his research to develop critical arguments about what is actually at stake in the way life becomes refigured as art, so at times it just feels like wading through trivia.

These reservations aside, Philip Roth: the Biography is continually enlivened by Bailey’s sharp eye for quotation, through which he harvests rich pickings from Roth’s uncollected and unpublished writings. At a time when many English departments feel obliged to open creative writing schools, I was particularly interested in Roth’s robust views (he was briefly involved in the MFA program at Iowa in the early 1960s) about what such teaching should involve. ‘Part of our function,’ he told an interviewer, ‘is to discourage those without enough talent. A lot of people come for self-expression or therapy. We try to put a stop to that.’ Speaking more freely about creative writing courses in 2012 he added: ‘I think it’s a great waste of time. Get them the fuck out of there. They should shut all those places down.’ (But as Bailey points out, ‘Teaching students how to read — versus write — was another matter’: Roth’s long involvement with the English department at the University of Pennsylvania was testament to his deep commitment to the enterprise of teaching literature.) Bailey’s conversations with Roth also grant access to some great cameos, including George Plimpton of the Paris Review: ‘‘‘Oh boy! How’re ya, boy?”’ he greeted Roth, wringing the young man’s hand and applauding his work in that ebullient mid-Atlantic accent (‘”I think from George [Roth tells Bailey] you might have known how Henry James talked”’).’ Or of Alfred Kazin, who complains that Roth’s idea of ‘Jewish identity’ was ‘a callow secularisation of a subject that "began in the desert, not in Newark." "You don’t understand," he’d say, poking the younger man in the chest. ‘You don’t even understand when I tell you you don’t understand.’’'

These and other quotations serve as a constant reminder of why we were drawn to read about Roth’s life in the first place. Most obvious is his comic energy: selling an advance copy of the ‘Whacking Off’ chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint to the left-wing Partisan Review, Roth cunningly advises editor Philip Rahv that Alex Portnoy is ‘A masturbator yes, a capitalist no.’ ‘I’m a great sucker for domesticity,' he explains in another letter, ‘I don’t want to sit in fucking Elaine’s. I want to have dinner, have a drink … read, get in bed, fuck, and go to sleep. What else is there? Then in the morning go back to my place, work, and so on. And every day more or less the same.’ But alongside this kind of fun Bailey quotes a diary passage from an encounter, late in life, with a long-lost childhood friend: ‘The little girl who shared our childhood summers at the shore … The two survivors,’ Roth recalls. ‘Frightening. The last two left who lived in that summer house from 1938 on. A man and a woman beyond sex.’ Which contrasts with a reflection on being in Yaddo at springtime: ‘it’s like living in the company of seven thousand eleven-year-old girls.’ Such passages bespeak what Roth called the ‘ruthless intimacy of literature’, and the fact such different voices co-existed in the same literary oeuvre is nothing short of remarkable.

PATRICK HAYES is a tutorial fellow and associate professor of English at St John's College.

Art by Izzy Fergusson

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