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Philip Roth: The Biography

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The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master an The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master and of the postwar literary scene. Bailey shows how Roth emerged from a lower-middle-class Jewish milieu to achieve the heights of literary fame, how his career was nearly derailed by his catastrophic first marriage, and how he championed the work of dissident novelists behind the Iron Curtain. Bailey examines Roth’s rivalrous friendships with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and William Styron, and reveals the truths of his florid love life, culminating in his almost-twenty-year relationship with actress Claire Bloom, who pilloried Roth in her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll's House. Tracing Roth’s path from realism to farce to metafiction to the tragic masterpieces of the American Trilogy, Bailey explores Roth’s engagement with nearly every aspect of postwar American culture.


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The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master an The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master and of the postwar literary scene. Bailey shows how Roth emerged from a lower-middle-class Jewish milieu to achieve the heights of literary fame, how his career was nearly derailed by his catastrophic first marriage, and how he championed the work of dissident novelists behind the Iron Curtain. Bailey examines Roth’s rivalrous friendships with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and William Styron, and reveals the truths of his florid love life, culminating in his almost-twenty-year relationship with actress Claire Bloom, who pilloried Roth in her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll's House. Tracing Roth’s path from realism to farce to metafiction to the tragic masterpieces of the American Trilogy, Bailey explores Roth’s engagement with nearly every aspect of postwar American culture.

30 review for Philip Roth: The Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    Given the recent news about the sexual allegations against Biographer Blake Bailey.... I’ve chosen not to review this book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    Philip Roth generated more outrage than any American writer since Henry Miller. The mere mention of his name triggers a multi-channel set of associations: Roth the joker, Roth the sex-fiend; Roth the celebrated, Roth the walking ego. Neither judge nor jury, Blake Bailey’s biography presents Roth the writer in all his unvarnished glory. Unusually the ‘early life’ section doesn’t tempt you to skip ahead with a cry of ‘get famous already!’ on your lips. Roth’s ancestors were East-European Jews, thei Philip Roth generated more outrage than any American writer since Henry Miller. The mere mention of his name triggers a multi-channel set of associations: Roth the joker, Roth the sex-fiend; Roth the celebrated, Roth the walking ego. Neither judge nor jury, Blake Bailey’s biography presents Roth the writer in all his unvarnished glory. Unusually the ‘early life’ section doesn’t tempt you to skip ahead with a cry of ‘get famous already!’ on your lips. Roth’s ancestors were East-European Jews, their homes harassed by the Tsars and emptied by the Nazis. ‘Pole, Yid and Hound – each to the same faith bound’ was a message nailed to trees wherever Poles, Jews and dogs had been hanged. Jewish neighbourhoods were routinely ransacked and burned. The Tsar’s adviser outlined his chilling plan for purging the Jews: ‘One-third conversion, one-third emigration, and one-third starvation.’ Once safe in the New World, the family tree bore cruel fruit. His Father’s side suffered from heart disease; his Mother’s relatives suffered from a genetic oddity – the appendix formed and settled abnormally close to the lower intestine. As a result, their appendixes would burst and remain undetectable even a week later. Death from peritonitis was common. Roth inherited and nearly died of both. Young Roth had a happy childhood in Newark, New Jersey, and was known and liked as the class clown. Although never the top of the class, he warmed to books. His favourite authors had a fierce regional loyalty – Sherwood Anderson (especially Winesburg, Ohio), William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. As Roth’s interest in reading grew, so did his other favourite pastime – masturbation. After a failed pass at a local girl, Roth recalled being ‘bent over like a cripple’, limping behind a cluster of bushes to relieve the unbearable urge. The triumph of his young life was sneaking inside a cinema with a group of friends to watch Hedy Lamarr sylph naked through the woods. ‘This is it,’ they cheered. Later in life Roth listed his three great passions as ‘fucking, writing and reading.’ Soldiering was not one of Roth’s passions. Called up in the middle of college, he was swiftly invalided out and spent the next six months bound to a painful back brace. Fortunately, Roth put the experience to good use in an early short story ‘The Defender of The Faith.’ The day the story appeared in The New Yorker – after netting Roth a cheque for $2,200 – Roth spent the day reading his story over and over in blissful triumph, whether strolling through the park or sitting on the toilet. Soon the story was grouped with other early efforts in Roth’s debut book Goodbye, Columbus and published to acclaim. The day before his 27th birthday, Roth became the youngest author to win the National Book Award. The book caused outrage. Angry letters promptly dropped through the letterbox. By portraying American Jewish life without piety or sentimentality, Roth had placed himself beyond the pale. After asking about the complaints he had been receiving, Roth was shown a letter from the President of the Rabbinical Council of America. ‘What is being done to silence this man?’ the letter demanded. ‘Medieval Jews would have known what do with him.’ It took two more novels – both relative duds – before the lesson sunk in. It was not the lesson his detractors meant. To go forward Roth would need to be himself. It was no good, he realised, trying to play the part of the neighbourhood's nicest boy. From now on he would ‘let the repellent in.’ An unfinished play from the time was titled ‘The Taming of the Id.’ Roth’s id would be tamed no longer. The result was his early masterpiece, Portnoy’s Complaint(‘The funniest book about sex ever written’, Tony Tanner.) The novel was to wanking what Moby Dick was to whaling. The novel caused a scandal, outraged middle America, and promptly sold 400,000 copies in hardback. The book was banned in several countries. In Australia, copies were confiscated. Roth was reviled and rich. The success and backlash forever split his life into two halves – before Portnoy, and after. At times he came to regret ever writing the novel. Yet it was Roth’s first breakthrough, capturing a large audience, and freeing his imagination as never before. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Roth’s output became stranger. One of his novels featured a professor that transforms into a 155 pound breast. (‘Why a big brainless bag of dumb, desirable tissue, acted upon instead of acting, unguarded, immobile, hanging, there, as a breast simply hangs and is there?’) The novels also became more self-centred. Through the first of many alter-egos, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth explored and sent up the writing life, including himself. Roth would produce 4 novels with Zuckerman as the main character. In retrospect, the books from here onwards read like a series of status updates. Readers know, of course, not to confuse writers and their characters. As Roth reminded us, our selves are bundled inside each other like Russian Dolls. This strikes many, then as now, as wilfully misleading. When She Was Good contains a scabrous portrait of Roth’s first wife, who died tragically in a car crash. On her death Roth simply said, ‘You’re dead and I didn’t have to do it.’ Readers require few detective skills to spot thinly disguised – and merciless – portraits of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow in his work, two authors that did much to further Roth’s budding career. Even a Father on his deathbed was fair game. Few sons have written about their terminally ill father, as Roth did in Patrimony, walking to the toilet, failing to reach the bowl in time, and ‘exploding’ over the tiled floor. When Roth’s second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, published her memoir of their marriage, Roth acted as he though he’d been mugged in the street. Roth took revenge on her in his next novel, portraying her as a mentally unstable anti-Semite. Bailey is fair to both sides, and does not deny that Roth may deserve the charge most frequently levelled against his work – rampant misogyny. ‘You used to be able to sleep with the girls [his students] in the old days,’ Roth leers to Saul Bellow. ‘And now of course it’s impossible.’ In Sabbath’s Theatre, the main character considers leaving an annual college prize of $500 for any female student who’s ‘fucked more male faculty members than any other.’ Another character refers to himself, with scant irony, as ‘an aesthetician of fucking.’ This is hardly the character’s fault - with all the logic of the bar-room bore, he insists ‘man wouldn’t have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn’t venture off to get fucked. It’s sex that disorders our normally ordered lives.’ You can perhaps see why Roth meant when he told his biographer ‘I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.’ He does – and rounded. Bailey presents Roth’s charity simply and without additional comment, balancing the meanness with the goodness. When a friend and editor was diagnosed with a ‘grapefruit-sized’ brain tumour, Roth paid $5,000 for her medical care, hiring the best nurses. Roth helped to obtain Visas for a family fleeing the civil war in Brazzaville. When a Visa was refused for the eldest daughter, he personally contacted then-President Clinton on her behalf. Two months later the family was reunited, and Roth personally paid the girls’ tuition. The next year they made their high school honour roll. Selves within selves. It was in the 1990s that Roth’s fiction reached its full maturity. The American Trilogy – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain – restored his critical reputation and enjoyed his healthiest sales in years, netting virtually all of America’s major book awards between them. Critics soon took to calling the books ‘The Swedish Trilogy’ – the works that would finally net him the Nobel Prize. Outraged defenders wrote open letters year after year demanding to know why Roth hadn’t won it. Near the end of his life, he would visit New York’s Museum of Natural History and pass the pillar commemorating all the previous American winners. ‘This is actually quite ugly, isn’t it?’ a friend said. ‘Yes’, Roth replied. ‘And it’s getting uglier by the year.’ Philip Roth is Bailey’s fourth literary biography, following Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Charles Jackson. Two books about failures, two about successes. Bailey's steely eye turns each facet of Roth’s personality under the light and captures each reflected spark of genius and each sharp corner. Roth was a giant of the 20th century novel and this is a biography worthy of his mettle - whether the reader has had an earful of enemas by the end or not.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    At the end of a long and acclaimed career, Philip Roth instructed his biographer that “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me, just make me interesting.” Bailey’s account of Roth’s life is thoroughly and intimately detailed—if you want to know who Roth was reading, where he was living, or who he was sleeping with at various points, then this book will tell you. But does that in itself make him interesting? Biography doesn’t necessarily have to psychoanalyze its subject to be worthwhile. And there At the end of a long and acclaimed career, Philip Roth instructed his biographer that “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me, just make me interesting.” Bailey’s account of Roth’s life is thoroughly and intimately detailed—if you want to know who Roth was reading, where he was living, or who he was sleeping with at various points, then this book will tell you. But does that in itself make him interesting? Biography doesn’t necessarily have to psychoanalyze its subject to be worthwhile. And there are serious drawbacks to assuming, as some postmodern critics do, that the life story of the actual human beings who create works of art are utterly irrelevant. Living people write books, and they’re not only stenographers or social constructs. It can be very rewarding to explore the reasons why an artist is drawn to certain subjects, themes, or characters. Bailey’s just-the-facts approach to Roth’s life limits our ability to explore what really made Roth tick as a writer, which is disappointing. Bailey’s scrupulously researched information merely hints at Roth’s deeper motivations and avoids taking the reader very far into Roth’s inner life. Roth was by no means the only 20th Century novelist who deliberately and pretty openly drew from his personal life for his fiction, but in many ways his life story can be found exactly where Roth engaged with it the most productively, in his writing. At one point in The Counterlife, his acclaimed 1986 novel, Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman muses that “what people envy in the novelist aren’t the things that the novelists think are so enviable but the performing selves that the author indulges, the slipping irresponsibility in and out of his skin...what’s envied is the gift for theatrical self-transformation, the way they are able to loosen and make ambiguous their connection to a real life through the imposition of talent.” Roth consistently followed this advice, writing dozens of books, many of which were rooted in his fairly ordinary life growing up in Jewish family in 50’s era middle-class Newark. It was appropriate that the house he grew up in eventually received a commemorative plaque, even if Roth warily hoped that he’d win the Nobel Prize every year. Roth had an impressive and inspiring capacity for work, which is not always an easy thing for writers to do, especially when an old Army injury gave him relentless back pain that was exacerbated by spending years at the desk. He sometimes chided himself when he sat down every morning, remembering that his competition had already been at it for a couple of hours. Outside of the writing room, Roth was less disciplined. We read of some tempestuous affairs, including some very ill-advised marriages—deciding to marry because of a faked pregnancy doesn’t auger well-- but generally it seems like Roth was more focused on getting his work done than conspicuously making the scene, a la Mailer or Capote. Bailey shows that Roth was always acutely aware of the critical responses to his work and was sometimes rather petty about it. However much he tried to stay above the fray, he constantly worried over how his books were going to be received. It’s an understandable anxiety—Roth started writing at a time when novelists were more culturally central, and the reading public was larger, so critical reputations were everything. After winning the National Book Award for Goodbye Columbus in 1959 at 27, Roth didn’t play it safe or rest on his laurels. He consistently took moral and aesthetic risks with his art, and that kept him relevant. Flaubert argued that an artist must be orderly and mild-mannered in life in order to be violent and original in their work. In some ways, Roth’s extensive romantic life, which included a nightcap with Jackie Kennedy and a fling with Ava Gardner, is an example of a time when writers (generally, it should be said, straight white males) had real social cachet. Publishing Portnoy’s Complaint, especially during the tumultuous year of 1969, made him a household name, in part because of the exasperated way its titular hero obsessed over the forbidden fruit of the blond, All-American shiksas, and ranted and wanked his way through a guilt-ridden, self-conscious, hyperverbal monologue reminiscent of a standup routine by Lenny Bruce or Richard Lewis. It takes a fearless comic sense for a character proclaim: “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off!” It wasn’t the first or last time that one of Roth’s characters caused a stir-- some of Roth’s literary peers were outraged at Portnoy’s pyrotechnics, and one creepily wondered aloud about “what is being done about this man?” The public lined up to buy the notorious new novel and it made Roth rich and infamous. He tired quickly of people shouting “Portnoy!” at him when he walked down the street. Jaqueline Susanne, not exactly a doyen of highbrow prose herself, once wittily remarked that Roth was probably a great writer, but if she met him she wouldn’t want to shake his hand. Bailey reveals that Roth never let a chance for a good feud go to waste and Zukerman rants in The Anatomy Lesson about the controversy swirling around his novel Carnovsky, which is obviously a chance for Roth to settle some scores, fictionally speaking, about whose hand is really worth shaking. For me, Portnoy and the so-called “American trilogy” of the ‘90s is Roth’s most lasting work. Even if Bailey can indicate who the real people were behind the characters in I Married A Communist, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain it doesn’t necessarily explain what makes those books important. The art outperforms the real-life inspirations. Each book in the trilogy provides a nuanced exploration of the different social, political, and psychological currents that defined the second half of the 20th Century. Roth digs as far into what one character calls “the real American crazy shit” as any of his peers. Race, sex, American identity, Jewish identity, the Red Scare, the rise of Political Correctness are all addressed with the vividness of place, comic sense of irony, and keen eye for character that is the novelists’ forte. It’s what fiction can do better than other forms of art. Swede Levov, the hero of his High School for his athletic prowess and a paragon of all-American decency gets blindsided by the radicalization of his daughter Merry. Coleman Silk makes an offhand comment while teaching a class and reaps the whirlwind of censorious PC culture. Ira “Iron Rinn” Ringold loses his public credibility after being outed for a closet Red by his vengeful wife, who had some overlaps with Claire Bloom, who wrote an angry account of her unhappy marriage to Roth. Bailey clarifies in some cases where real life ended and fiction began-- Roth’s doting mother was nothing like Portnoy’s outrageously overbearing mom, for one example, and the sordid desires of Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater weren’t Roth’s. There is a telling moment when Roth takes his typewriter to get fixed and discovers that the key most worn down was the letter “I.” This doesn’t necessarily peg Roth as a neurotically self-centered freak, even if plenty of his most interesting characters certainly were. Given how many characters and situations Roth produced, reading his autobiography doesn’t attempt to answer the intriguing question of what the constant use of that pronoun really meant to him. Was he slipping in and out of his real skin in order to get to something true about himself through his characters or were Portnoy, Mickey Sabbath, The Swede, Iron Rinn, and all the others autonomous products of his fertile imagination? For an interested reader, which is precisely who this kind of biography is intended for, the questions naturally arise: did Roth see any or all of himself in these manic, often transgressive characters? How does that change the way we read them? These questions aren’t fully or memorably addressed in Bailey’s voluminous account of Roth’s actual life, which is a weakness in such an authoritative treatment of a major American writer. In terms of the request Roth made of him, Bailey might have failed. The Philip Roth that is presented in Bailey’s account isn’t quite as interesting as the “Philip Roth” that often appears in the books he wrote, whether he was self-consciously presenting himself as “Philip Roth” or not. But then again, maybe the book unintentionally does fulfill that wish, by leading us back to the writing for answers. Which, for Roth, always seemed to be what mattered most.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Glenn Sumi

    Philip Roth, who died in 2018 at age 85, was an important, prolific writer and a complicated man. Blake Bailey’s massive 900-page biography does him and his impressive body of work – some 31 books – justice. With a few caveats. Indirectly, it also sheds light on the challenges of writing about a man who a) became a celebrity (and hence a much commented-upon figure) after an early bestseller (1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint); b) frequently inserted alter egos named Philip Roth into his work; c) liked c Philip Roth, who died in 2018 at age 85, was an important, prolific writer and a complicated man. Blake Bailey’s massive 900-page biography does him and his impressive body of work – some 31 books – justice. With a few caveats. Indirectly, it also sheds light on the challenges of writing about a man who a) became a celebrity (and hence a much commented-upon figure) after an early bestseller (1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint); b) frequently inserted alter egos named Philip Roth into his work; c) liked controlling his own narrative, going so far as to hire a friend to write his biography and then, later, fire him; and d) had a complex relationship with women. This last point is especially important, because I must address the elephant in the room. Earlier this year, just after the book’s publication, a story came out alleging that author Bailey, while a beloved Grade Eight teacher, had groomed students and later raped one of them as an adult. Bailey has denied the allegations, but the story – which has encouraged more women to come forward – caused him to lose his agent and his publisher, who promptly stopped printing of the book. (I borrowed a library copy.) If any of the allegations are true, and I’m inclined here to sympathize with the women, how objective would – and could – Bailey be about his subject’s own treatment of women? Roth candidly admits to his extramarital affairs and, as he grew older, his attraction to younger women. And then there’s the matter of his antagonistic relationship with his second wife, Claire Bloom’s, daughter, Anna, and one instance of alleged inappropriate behaviour with Anna’s childhood friend. Before reading the book, I had little knowledge about any of this. Bailey had to vet the book with Roth’s literary executors, and neither Bloom nor her daughter Anna agreed to be interviewed, although, according to Bailey, they were “cordial and often forthcoming via email.” But could he have dug deeper, or been more critical, of Roth’s attitudes towards women when his own have been questionable? Perhaps. What’s interesting is that many of Roth’s lovers stayed friends; one of his literary executors is, in fact, a former girlfriend. Much of Roth’s fiction was filtered through real-life experience. His early marriage to Maggie Martinson, who lied about being pregnant to force Roth to marry her (she used urine from a pregnant woman she spotted in Washington Square for her pregnancy test), greatly affected his entire life. And his second marriage, to actor Bloom, when both of them were middle-aged and famous, was equally fraught. Bailey doesn’t connect the dots, but Bloom’s 1996 memoir sullied Roth’s reputation for a time and caused him to retreat into solitude, perhaps fuelling his remarkable late-career output that included I Married A Communist (which contains a portrait of a Bloom-like older actress), set during the McCarthy era, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. Roth would be the first to admit that he was often attracted to damaged, broken women, and with some lovers – the woman who inspired the character of Faunia in The Human Stain, for instance – he played Higgins to their Eliza. He convinced some girlfriends to go back to school; late in life, he paid for college courses for his cook. Although he never had children of his own, he cared for many, including the damaged children of his first wife, who both admitted that Roth essentially saved their lives. Normally, I wouldn’t be so concerned with an artist’s life. But Roth’s major works – from his award-winning first book, Goodbye, Columbus, through Portnoy, The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife and his ambitious American trilogy – seem linked to episodes or people in his life. An injury during basic training in the army left him with a lifetime of often crippling back pain; he’d also inherited heart problems and had life-saving cardiac surgeries that showed up, transformed, in novels like The Counterlife. I’ve read seven Roth books – I consider American Pastoral and The Counterlife to be masterpieces – and this biography has made me want to seek out a few more. Bailey gives a solid account of his major themes and his maturation as a writer. I’m also curious to read some of the books Roth edited in the Writers From The Other Europe series, which he launched in the 70s and early 80s to bring lesser-known Eastern European writers to the attention of English readers. There are also accounts of his friendships with colleagues like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (the two major Jewish-American writers who came before him), his friend and sometime rival John Updike, his nemesis Norman Mailer, lifelong friend Ted Solotaroff, and others. I had no idea novelist Alison Lurie and biographer Judith Thurman were in his close circle; and two of his best male friends, Joel Conarroe and David Plante, were gay. The story of Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, his favourite editor, who ended up dying of cancer, is touching. (Here and elsewhere there are examples of Roth’s enormous generosity towards his friends.) What gives the book emotional heft is its symmetry. After introducing readers to Roth’s ancestors and his family, along with a good history of the New Jersey neighbourhood he grew up in, Bailey sketches portraits of Roth’s earliest friends, many of whom would stay close. Near the end of his life, having buried many friends, Roth, living alone and facing mortality, starts seeking out some people he lost touch with. It’s poignant to see him so open and so vulnerable. Based on this book, I don’t think Roth was a misogynist – a word frequently used about his work. I became less of a Claire Bloom fan after reading the material about her (I have a feeling her memoir ruined any chances Roth had of winning the Nobel Prize). But as with any he said/she said situations, who will ever know the entire truth? In the end, I think we have to trust the truth in the art itself. And it’s there in all its nuanced, layered complexity, in 31 books of ambition and varying quality, for generations of old and new readers to keep discovering.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joe Kraus

    There’s an inevitability to this biography. As a Roth scholar, or Roth-adjacent scholar, I felt compelled to read it. And, as I read, I felt Blake Bailey must have felt compelled to write it. After all, how could he have passed up the opportunity once it came: to have arguably the most controversial writer of the 1960-2010 era agree to participate in an authorized biography? What’s more, I figure Roth must have felt compelled to take part in it himself. As someone who famously avoided getting pinn There’s an inevitability to this biography. As a Roth scholar, or Roth-adjacent scholar, I felt compelled to read it. And, as I read, I felt Blake Bailey must have felt compelled to write it. After all, how could he have passed up the opportunity once it came: to have arguably the most controversial writer of the 1960-2010 era agree to participate in an authorized biography? What’s more, I figure Roth must have felt compelled to take part in it himself. As someone who famously avoided getting pinned down on the particulars of his own life – preferring to explore a range of fictions around his experience – he must finally have conceded to the obvious: with so many people wondering about what “really happened,” there would be both intellectual curiosity and the urge for gossip. Such a book would be – as this is – one of the literary events of its seasons. And that’s to say nothing of his now well-documented impulse to grind his axe; much of this feels like Roth pulling the strings of the project as a posthumous response to Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House memoir. Bailey seems to push against that somewhat, but it’s telling that he doesn’t seem to have tried to speak with Bloom or with a Bloom loyalist like Francine du Plessix Grey. I get the impression Roth forbade it – as he indeed pulled his one-time friend Ross Miller from the project when Miller got the revolutionary idea that it was his book to write rather than Roth’s – which must have been one more burden for Bailey. I feel the weight of that series of necessity as I read this. Above all, it’s heavy. Even as an audiobook, it weighs a lot – more than 30 hours. I have to hand it to Bailey, he has done the legwork. He’s tracked down high school classmates who figure as potential inspirations for one or another character from the novels. He’s read (in their entirety, it seems) Roth’s college humor magazine columns. And he’s wrung out as many tiny possibly consequential details of Roth’s parents, wives, and late life friends. I admit there’s something impressive and, maybe, necessary in all that. I wish I’d had the chance to be friends with Roth, and I flatter myself that I’d have been a solid friend of a season. Roth famously circulated his younger friends, growing close to them and then gradually pulling away. I fit the demographic – Jewish, literary (in my way), and curious about a variety of things he appreciated too (baseball, Jewish gangsters) – and I expect it would have been striking to know him. But, in the end, Bailey faces an insurmountable challenge. He is trying to turn “the facts” of Roth’s life into literature, and that puts him into competition with Roth himself. I don’t care how good Bailey is, and at times he seems pretty good, but he can’t make Newark or Jewish summer camp or life with a movie star wife come alive with any of the success of Portnoy, Nemesis, or I Married a Communist. Every detail we get seems to suggest the possibility that it influenced something Roth would write. The trouble is, a careful reader of Roth – at least my own careful reading of him – recognizes that it’s never about the detail seen straightforward but rather, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the one seen slant. If you’ve read Patrimony, you know at some level that Roth thrived when he exaggerated or distorted “the truth.” There may not be another contemporary writer who has more scrupulously explored the ironic boundary between what actually happened and how we narrate it. At the most obvious level, the novels that feature a protagonist named Philip Roth, such as Operation Shylock, are clearly less autobiographical than many of the ones that feature Nathan Zuckerman. At a philosophical level, though, Roth strikes me as exploring Henry James’s admonition to strive to be someone on whom nothing is lost. Everything he writes is, in part, an interrogation of what it means to write, of what it means to transform, to blur experience into art. Bailey is compelled to do the opposite, to distill the original experience from the art, and it’s nowhere near as much fun. One reason to love Roth is that he makes literature that matters. When you read his work, whether the early short stories or the late-life dying-animal short novels, you recognize an ethical imagination. He manages to boil down the challenges of life, to render them as heightened truths. He gives us characters who seem real – with “seeming” carrying more truthfulness than the messier reality of real life can generate – with the result that their challenges are real, more real than the challenges of the actual people who inspired them. I sometimes tell my students that we study literature because the best fiction gives us the chance to dissect life in a way analogous to bio lab. Just as we can’t cut into living creatures to see how they work and so settle for dead and pickled ones, we can’t freeze living humans and sort out their emotional and ethical complications. As a result, fiction – at least powerful fiction of Roth’s sort – makes that work possible. It’s the irony at the heart of what I do: imagination can often be more compelling than reality. To be fair, Bailey gets at that point with a striking anecdote. He claims that Arthur Gefen, who first told Roth the story of a boy who threatened to jump off of his synagogue roof, went on to become a literature professor at Minnesota. While there, Gefen would tell his own version of the story and then assign “Conversion of the Jews,” asking which was better. He said the students invariably preferred the literary version to the historical one. Bailey, then, finds himself in the position of Gefen, giving us “the facts” from an author who’s already given us The Facts. I have to admit that few of the broad strokes are new to me here. We get the awful experience of Roth’s disastrous first marriage, the extended she-said/he-said of his second, and the late-life pleasure of the American master somewhat at peace at last with his fame. There are plenty of lesser known issues, though. We get names for many of his sexual conquests, Playboy’s Miss May 1956 (apparently a writer in her own right), Jackie Kennedy, Mia Farrow, and a host of intelligent seeming Mrs. Roth hopefuls who clung to him for months or sometimes years. The whole of it is often dreary, though. I was glad to get the information, but it finally saddened me to get so much of it. At the worst here, knowing more of the background of Sabbath’s Theater turns me off. And I resent that since it’s probably my favorite Roth novel of all. One disturbing element comes in his near affair with his step-daughter Helen. Bailey is coy in reporting it, painting Helen Miller as the aggressor, but the near impropriety is disturbing. The Roth that Bailey paints was attracted to young Helen, noting her “leotard-clad legs” and acknowledging that she was “blooming” as her mother became less and less appealing to him. In similar but later fashion, Roth purportedly propositioned Bloom’s daughter’s best friend, Felicity, in the home he shared with Bloom. (Bloom charges him with this in Leaving a Doll House; here, Roth owns up to it as a joke that misfired, something that the, to-his-mind, manic Bloom exaggerated into gossip and theater.) I imagine I’d have forgotten those anecdotes if not for the uncomfortable parallel they suggest to the Woody and Soon-Yi Allen relationship. That’s another leading Jewish light of the generation who, in the midst of a disastrously unraveling marriage to a non-Jewish woman, found himself attracted to a step-daughter who could confirm her mother’s “crazy” status. What’s more, each man also found himself deeply and publicly at odds with his ex-wife’s daughter – Allen with Dylan Farrow and Roth with Anna Steiger.) I’m not sure what to make of that, but there it is. Arguably the two most famous popular culture Jews of the era caught in the same melodrama. Roth’s life is, in many ways a tawdry one, which makes the accomplishment of his art all the more impressive. Bailey does a fairly good job of showing how Roth distilled an ethical sensibility from the various messes of that life. He falls short, though, in showing how – beyond that ethical vision – Roth recognized a fundamental comedy as well. Roth is a very good writer because he does ask us to contemplate what it means to be decent in the bewildering contemporary world. Roth is a great writer, though, because he makes us laugh at the same time he makes us think. That’s the greater forest that gets lost among the many, many trees that Bailey lays out in this necessary but not always welcome biography.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Stewart Mason

    Earlier this week, WW Norton announced that they were ceasing promotion for and canceling a second printing of Philip Roth’s official biography because his biographer, Blake Bailey, has been credibly accused of rape by two different women, among other accusations. This is so completely on the nose that it feels like something that would have happened in one of Roth’s novels. I knew when I first got the ARC last month that this was going to be at least a challenging read for me: I’ve read all of Earlier this week, WW Norton announced that they were ceasing promotion for and canceling a second printing of Philip Roth’s official biography because his biographer, Blake Bailey, has been credibly accused of rape by two different women, among other accusations. This is so completely on the nose that it feels like something that would have happened in one of Roth’s novels. I knew when I first got the ARC last month that this was going to be at least a challenging read for me: I’ve read all of Roth’s novels through 1986’s The Counterlife, and a smattering of those that followed, and I’ve always been annoyed by even the books of his I’ve liked (and the one that I genuinely loved, The Ghost Writer) because of his treatment of women. Misogyny is not the correct term for it, quite. It’s more specifically a matter of how sex is treated in his books: as something men do to women rather than with women. And based on this biography, that’s how Roth thought of sex in his own life. Constantly. Honestly, this is primarily a book about Philip Roth’s dick. That becomes most disturbingly clear in a passage in the book’s endnotes, where Bailey reminisces about spending a week interviewing Roth at his country place in Warren, Connecticut, and how during their breaks, he could hear Roth peeing in the bathroom adjoining his office. (My question isn’t even so much about why he wrote about that as why didn’t an editor remove it later?) Bailey also spends a good chapter and a half shit-talking a guy named Ross Miller who Roth had appointed as his biographer prior to Bailey getting the gig, which just gives a further sense that this guy is a schmuck. From his wartime youth in Newark to his final days as one of the most honored novelists in American literature, Bailey’s focus is so completely on the complications of Roth’s sex life -- it doesn’t even seem correct to call it his romantic life, because romance doesn’t seem to have been much of a thing Roth thought about beyond a hackneyed set of lines and moves (he seems to have been big on the extravagant gifts and occasional stipends) to get his targets into the sack -- that it’s impossible to think of this as a literary biography, despite its bookstop length and copious notes. Entire books are disposed of in a couple paragraphs, and almost all of the others are discussed solely through the lens of who Roth was fucking during the writing period. The most infuriating part -- even before the revelation of Bailey’s alleged grooming of his female pupils when he was a middle school teacher -- is Bailey’s casual, boys will be boys treatment of Roth’s habit of sleeping with his undergrads during his times as a college professor, including intimations that other professors and even administrators would basically send girls they thought he’d like into his classes. By far the most disturbing is the interminable section covering Roth’s first marriage, which a New Yorker essay this week accurately described at feeling like Bailey had a personal vendetta against Roth’s wife. (When I was reading this section, I actually did a little online research of my own to see if she really was as horrible as described. Apparently, she pretty much was.) Only slightly less painful is the couple hundred pages devoted to Roth’s second wife, British actress Claire Bloom, whom Bailey is equally compelled to portray as a flighty emotional wreck with an unhealthy fixation on her daughter, opera singer Anna Steiger, who is portrayed as a sullen and manipulative teen even into her 30s. Bailey repeatedly returns to a clumsy pass Roth makes toward a teenage friend of Anna’s, a leitmotif for the MeToo era that now has a distinct consciousness-of-guilt vibe. Philip Roth was an interesting-but-irritating writer who comes across quite poorly in what may end up being his only detailed biography. The fact that it’s now hard to see if that’s because Roth really was an obsessive coozehound or it we’re seeing that through the eyes of his alleged-rapist biographer is just another metafictional bit of fuckery of the kind he was so fond of.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Gayla Bassham

    On Tuesday morning, I was a quarter of the way through this biography, contemplating Bailey's take on Roth's first marriage. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. But I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth's behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth's excesses than his wife's. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I On Tuesday morning, I was a quarter of the way through this biography, contemplating Bailey's take on Roth's first marriage. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. But I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth's behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth's excesses than his wife's. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I was beginning to actively dread the Claire Bloom section. Then this news broke. This, of course, casts an entirely different light on Bailey's portrayal of Roth's wife and, in fact, all the women in the other biographies. I find myself in the perverse position of wishing to reread and reevaluate all of them, and yet also not wanting to read another word by him. Should this book be read? I think it should, though not right now, and perhaps I will even finish it myself one day. Roth was, despite his many faults, an important writer of the twentieth century, and Bailey had access to sources that no one may ever see again, or at least not for a very long time. But it can never again be thought of as definitive, and I think it should be read with an eye toward what we are willing to forgive of men we consider geniuses, and how we determine who these geniuses are in the first place. Because it seems to be the case that the gatekeepers who anoint our brilliant writers are often themselves men who treat women very badly indeed. It is just possible that this clouds their judgment when they consider misogynists who happen to construct sentences well.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mary Kearney

    I was saddened and angered when Norton decided not to promote this fine work of non fiction. Due to some claims that Mr. Bailey was sexually inappropriate with two women from his past, his work is now "verboten". I am an extreme liberal but the idea of "cancelling" a person's work due to their past misdeeds would eliminate a great deal of literature from any canon of fiction or non fiction. Bailey presents Roth as a whole, a gestalt, a HUMAN who has faults and generosities. He was a man of his t I was saddened and angered when Norton decided not to promote this fine work of non fiction. Due to some claims that Mr. Bailey was sexually inappropriate with two women from his past, his work is now "verboten". I am an extreme liberal but the idea of "cancelling" a person's work due to their past misdeeds would eliminate a great deal of literature from any canon of fiction or non fiction. Bailey presents Roth as a whole, a gestalt, a HUMAN who has faults and generosities. He was a man of his times and a person who is often very unlikeable but who was a literary genius. If you are reading for salacious content, you will be disappointed. If you are reading to gain insights into the person and into his work you will be gratified. Bailey has been criticized for being too condoning of Roth and his exploits with women. He addresses that near the end and refers to all the women authors, lovers, friends, and critics who say otherwise. This is a fine piece of work and I hope it wins the Pulitzer for biography --all ALLEGATIONS aside. Read it for what it is: a biography of a flawed human (who amongst us is not?). Read it for what it is: an excellent biography of a literary giant.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sean

    **NB: I haven't finished the book yet. This is not a review. This is a reckoning with Roth, Bailey, and a divided fan-dom.** While Philip Roth is one of my favourite writers, I'm well aware that his real-life treatment and occasional fictional depictions of women make him very problematic to 21st-century thinking. That difficulty would have been enough to wrestle with--does his unfiltered and unapologetic phallocentric viewpoint really need to be considered at a time when we (i.e. straight white **NB: I haven't finished the book yet. This is not a review. This is a reckoning with Roth, Bailey, and a divided fan-dom.** While Philip Roth is one of my favourite writers, I'm well aware that his real-life treatment and occasional fictional depictions of women make him very problematic to 21st-century thinking. That difficulty would have been enough to wrestle with--does his unfiltered and unapologetic phallocentric viewpoint really need to be considered at a time when we (i.e. straight white males) are *finally* realizing the importance of those minority voices that have been marginalized and suppressed during our long tenure as society's dominant power? Shouldn't we spend our time learning from those whose perspectives we'd never experience, particularly in light of the injustice those groups have suffered at the hands of people who look exactly like us? For that reason, my huge enthusiasm for Roth's work feels out of place and almost (but not quite) inappropriate these days. I was long looking forward to reading this book, glad I finally am, but all too sure that my interest leaves me outside of the forefront of today's empathetic progressive movements (i.e. all versions of "woke"-ness). And that's a shame, because I feel that those movements are, in general, totally correct about the injustice inherent in modern Western society. And now, there's friggin' Blake Bailey to deal with. The allegations against him are terribly serious, and given the first-person reports from his accusers, I'm inclined to believe that they are--ALL of them--true. So now I'm reading a sympathetic biography of a self-absorbed, selfish, controlling, and excellent artist, written by an alleged rapist. If I believe that a survivor's voice absolutely MUST be heard, and that abusers deserve unmitigated condemnation, why wouldn't I shun this book? The fact is that my fandom goes too deep. I came to Philip Roth at time in my life of despair and rage at my failures, and Roth's rounded depictions of masculinity in crisis, self-absorbed men who do the obviously wrong thing actually resonated with me. That says whatever it will about me, unfortunately, but the warts-and-all portraits of men of intellect who keep fucking up (after all, "hurt people hurt people") are, to me, brilliant. So now, I've bought this book, thereby giving money and support to Bailey. All I can think to do now, to rebalance the moral scales that my modern-age guilt about supporting this man are tipping, is a) continue to read books written by historically marginalized voices, and b) to make a donation to a charity supporting the survivors of sexual abuse. Happy reading, all, and may we each reconcile our own personal struggles with the love of brilliant art created by morally reprehensible artists.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Edward Champion

    This book is misogynistic claptrap and many of you are fools for buying into this corporate marketing racket. My full review here: http://www.edrants.com/blake-bailey-c... This book is misogynistic claptrap and many of you are fools for buying into this corporate marketing racket. My full review here: http://www.edrants.com/blake-bailey-c...

  11. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Nelson

    Just an FYI that the author, Blake Bailey, has been accused of rape and sexually inappropriate behavior with young women. Per the New York Times 4/21/21. The publisher is pausing the promotion and distribution of the book

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jim Breslin

    On the morning I received the library notice that a copy of “Philip Roth: The Biography” was ready for me to pick up, the news broke that the biography’s author, Blake Bailey, was accused of sexual assault and predatory behavior. I hesitated to pick up the book on the day of the breaking news, and was relieved the librarian didn’t give me a scolding glance. After reading about the multiple allegations (which Blake Bailey denies), it’s hard to approach the material with an objective view. This is On the morning I received the library notice that a copy of “Philip Roth: The Biography” was ready for me to pick up, the news broke that the biography’s author, Blake Bailey, was accused of sexual assault and predatory behavior. I hesitated to pick up the book on the day of the breaking news, and was relieved the librarian didn’t give me a scolding glance. After reading about the multiple allegations (which Blake Bailey denies), it’s hard to approach the material with an objective view. This is compounded by the fact that Philip Roth has written about sexually perverse men, Portnoy’s Complaint being the novel that made Roth a household name. That being said, I started to read the 900-page biography but didn’t have the stomach to get more than 220 pages. Reading about Roth’s sexual encounters and first marriage filtered through Bailey’s filter made me question the stories and viewpoint. Although Bailey interviewed many of Roth’s friends and former lovers, I found myself questioning the narrative. And then I read a line which had nothing to do with sex but which was factually incorrect and elitist. “At Bucknell, Sides had been a member of the sorority most known for it’s pulchritude, Tri-Delta, though she considered herself an ‘odd girl out’ there: her first two years had been spent at Kutztown State Teacher’s College (“an overgrown high school”) in her hometown of Williamsport, until she dropped out and spent a year working as a chambermaid at a nearby resort.” As a graduate of Kutztown University, one could write a whole essay unpacking this sentence. I’d love to see my creative writing professor Harry Hume dissect this passage. Why doesn’t Bailey know that Kutztown State Teachers College is not located in Williamsport but is indeed located in scenic Kutztown, PA? And are we to understand that Roth or Sides made the snide remark of the Teacher’s College being an overgrown high school? In the days where I lumbered through the early pages of the book, I found myself more interested in the scandal than the biography. I decided to listen to April 8th New York Times Book Review podcast where Pamela Paul interviewed Blake Bailey just weeks before the scandal broke. Paul explained that Bailey was “not the first choice but was the ultimate choice” to become Roth’s biographer. Bailey said that he heard at a luncheon that the original biographer Ross Miller “is no longer returning Roth’s phone calls.” Having previously connected with Roth when he had written Cheever’s biography, Bailey reached out to the author. Roth invited Bailey to a meeting and asked, “Why should a gentile from Oklahoma write the biography of Philip Roth?” Bailey responded to Roth, “Well, I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient puritan lineage but I wrote a biography of John Cheever. And I think that’s what Philip kind of wanted to hear. Just because all his career he said I’m not a Jewish American writer, I’m an American who is a Jew who writes to that effect. And I think he didn’t want to be judged through a Jewish lens.” And at the end of the interview, Bailey acknowledges that Roth’s writing has it’s detractors. He said, “There’s been a lot of talk about Philip as a misogynist and canceling him and so forth, and kind of the worst part of this task is that you can’t make everybody happy with a biography of Philip Roth, they either love him or hate him and the people who love him think you are too hard on him and the people that hate him think that you aren’t hard enough.” Evidently, Roth was concerned about who would write his biography, and wanted to be sure he left it in the right biographer’s hands. As the book has now been pulled from store shelves, it’s ironic that Roth appears to have chosen the wrong person to write his story. And while I've seen many literary readers acknowledge that Roth is "brilliant but problematic," it appears that the Blake Bailey scandal may burnish his legacy.

  13. 5 out of 5

    clayton trutor

    Check out my review of the new Philip Roth biography in American History Magazine/HistoryNet: https://www.historynet.com/philip-rot... Check out my review of the new Philip Roth biography in American History Magazine/HistoryNet: https://www.historynet.com/philip-rot...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Wilder

    An apology, please! Is not some form of correction in order? Having demolished Philly’s chances at a trip to Stockholm with her memoir LEAVING A DOLL’S HOUSE, Claire Bloom went on British TV at the moment of Phil’s death to grieve, to talk about the good times. The good times? But what about her claims, on the book’s release, that she often gasps and starts imagining Roth were about, “as if waking from a nightmare”? Some shrinky reader might be forgiven for wondering, if he read Bailey’s knockout An apology, please! Is not some form of correction in order? Having demolished Philly’s chances at a trip to Stockholm with her memoir LEAVING A DOLL’S HOUSE, Claire Bloom went on British TV at the moment of Phil’s death to grieve, to talk about the good times. The good times? But what about her claims, on the book’s release, that she often gasps and starts imagining Roth were about, “as if waking from a nightmare”? Some shrinky reader might be forgiven for wondering, if he read Bailey’s knockout bio and Woody Allen’s memoir APROPOS OF NOTHING back to back, why both master artists in the 1980s headed for meshugginah shikses who tore their lives apart? (And let’s not forget Philly’s late-in-the-day, post-Soon-Yi-pocalypse “friendship” with Mia Farrow, who photographed herself with the novelistic eminence and plastered the shot on Twitter, captioned “Watching SHARKNADO.”) A million glittering details here—like Phil’s stray thought that Al Pacino’s film of THE HUMBLING might empower Phil to sock it to Greta Gerwig. Or Hillary Clinton’s response to Phil’s offer to help Chelsea with her paper on AMERICAN PASTORAL: “She doesn’t need your help.” Bailey clearly sought to make of Roth’s life, yes, you bet, a Roth novel, pungent, vivid, but finally seeking, shining a flashlight into the mystery inside us. In Roth’s case, it’s an addiction to finding broken-wing women, and being as victimized as enraged by them. It feels so unfortunate that both Phil and Woody impaled themselves on such unexceptional actresses. What if they had lost it all for Glenda Jackson and Judy Davis?

  15. 4 out of 5

    Michael Asen

    First do not be daunted by the 900 pages..it's only 800(the rest being index and notes).If you are a fan of Roth it's indispensible reading and will fit the characters from Roth's life into everything you have read by him. I've read all 4 of Blake's literary bios and no one does it better. No one. He never takes a straight line chronilogically but the order he uses makes perfect sense. Here he is never sympatheic or judgmental of Roth. You come away with all the foibles of the man, most of which First do not be daunted by the 900 pages..it's only 800(the rest being index and notes).If you are a fan of Roth it's indispensible reading and will fit the characters from Roth's life into everything you have read by him. I've read all 4 of Blake's literary bios and no one does it better. No one. He never takes a straight line chronilogically but the order he uses makes perfect sense. Here he is never sympatheic or judgmental of Roth. You come away with all the foibles of the man, most of which you will recognize from his novels. You will also get a sense of his incredilbe financial and literary genorosity. I couldn't get enough of this book. Easily could have gone another 800 pages. At least. If you miss Roth as much as I do, this is a great trip back. I have a list of books I will reread after this..starting with "My Life as a Man" and then probably "The Counterlife."

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    The hardcover book is so heavy it gave me tendonitis. But it was worth it. Excellent biography. Philip Roth was not a perfect person. He was a misogynist. I hated most of his work except for a couple books. Four stars for the bio. Two stars for the man. If you really want to know who Philip Roth was, read the book by his ex wife Claire Bloom, Leaving a Doll's House. Only an ex wife who lived with the man for seventeen years can really convey what a shit he truly was to live with. The hardcover book is so heavy it gave me tendonitis. But it was worth it. Excellent biography. Philip Roth was not a perfect person. He was a misogynist. I hated most of his work except for a couple books. Four stars for the bio. Two stars for the man. If you really want to know who Philip Roth was, read the book by his ex wife Claire Bloom, Leaving a Doll's House. Only an ex wife who lived with the man for seventeen years can really convey what a shit he truly was to live with.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sketchbook

    Those who waxwroth can stay home..."Nobody's perfect." Let others piss off. FREE the book fr wokeness. (Meant as comment, not a review). This Roth crise is screwball comedy. Those who waxwroth can stay home..."Nobody's perfect." Let others piss off. FREE the book fr wokeness. (Meant as comment, not a review). This Roth crise is screwball comedy.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Gittleman

    I've read everything Philip Roth ever wrote. Despite the obviously problematic elements, I devoured his work so I was very excited to read the definitive biography. Blake Bailey being a scumbag aside, this book is sheer torture. I felt like he was going to tell us what Roth had for breakfast every morning and what color his socks were each day of his long life. I read and read and Roth was still in his 20s. I almost never leave a book unfinished but this had to go - I was losing the will to live I've read everything Philip Roth ever wrote. Despite the obviously problematic elements, I devoured his work so I was very excited to read the definitive biography. Blake Bailey being a scumbag aside, this book is sheer torture. I felt like he was going to tell us what Roth had for breakfast every morning and what color his socks were each day of his long life. I read and read and Roth was still in his 20s. I almost never leave a book unfinished but this had to go - I was losing the will to live.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Blake Bailey seems not to know that Philip Roth spent several years in the late 1960s teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (now Stony Brook University), in part thanks to Alfred Kazin who taught there from 1963 to 1985. (Bailey wrongly credits Kazin with "nearly a fifty-year career" at City University New York, where Kazin earned a degree but never taught). Roth worked on "Portnoy's Complaint" and found the name for his protagonist while teaching at Stony Brook. Each time Blake Bailey seems not to know that Philip Roth spent several years in the late 1960s teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (now Stony Brook University), in part thanks to Alfred Kazin who taught there from 1963 to 1985. (Bailey wrongly credits Kazin with "nearly a fifty-year career" at City University New York, where Kazin earned a degree but never taught). Roth worked on "Portnoy's Complaint" and found the name for his protagonist while teaching at Stony Brook. Each time Roth went to the university he passed by a dentist's office on a street called Pond Path. The dentist's name: Portnoy. One of the secretaries in the English Department at the university typed various drafts of "Portnoy's Complaint." I asked her once if she had been offended by any of the scenes in the novel. "Oh, no," she said, "I was just typing words."

  20. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    I feel like I've spent the summer with Philip Roth. At over 800 pages it was a long read providing a meticulously detailed telling of his life. There will be other volumes, no doubt, focusing on the 31 books he produced in his lifetime and while there is some insight here, the focus is Roth's life rather analysis of his work. The author of this biography has his own personal issues which should be addressed elsewhere. If you want to know the life of one of the major American authors of the last I feel like I've spent the summer with Philip Roth. At over 800 pages it was a long read providing a meticulously detailed telling of his life. There will be other volumes, no doubt, focusing on the 31 books he produced in his lifetime and while there is some insight here, the focus is Roth's life rather analysis of his work. The author of this biography has his own personal issues which should be addressed elsewhere. If you want to know the life of one of the major American authors of the last half century or so, this will stand as the definitive telling.

  21. 4 out of 5

    R.

    Got about 80 pages in and then just ground to a halt - way too much front filler about aunts, uncles, sandlot baseball and the golden age of radio. Ended up just using the index, jumping around like Doctor Who through the juicy bits of Roth's lifetime. In truth, though, the best biography of Philip Roth his his own bibliography. Got about 80 pages in and then just ground to a halt - way too much front filler about aunts, uncles, sandlot baseball and the golden age of radio. Ended up just using the index, jumping around like Doctor Who through the juicy bits of Roth's lifetime. In truth, though, the best biography of Philip Roth his his own bibliography.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ted Morgan

    Entertaining, first of all! Well written by a master stylist.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Timothy

    You know those lazy-guy book reviews you sometimes see on Goodreads but mostly on Amazon? Those are reviews that consist primarily of quotes, enabling the writer to fill space without doing any real thinking. To illustrate, I provide this review of PHILIP ROTH, the terrific Blake Bailey biography. The review, by the way, intends to convey nine aspects of this great novelist’s being and character. o Roth as a professor: “…he found he was ‘lonesome and wanted some students to talk to.’…and besides You know those lazy-guy book reviews you sometimes see on Goodreads but mostly on Amazon? Those are reviews that consist primarily of quotes, enabling the writer to fill space without doing any real thinking. To illustrate, I provide this review of PHILIP ROTH, the terrific Blake Bailey biography. The review, by the way, intends to convey nine aspects of this great novelist’s being and character. o Roth as a professor: “…he found he was ‘lonesome and wanted some students to talk to.’…and besides teaching gave him an excuse to read and think about books (‘My education comes from teaching, really’). …Roth considered the teaching of literature—that is, how to read properly—a rigorous, rather somber business. Young people, after all, were given to ‘habitual moralizing, ingenious interpretation,’ and ‘steamrolling generalization,’ whereas Roth focused on the most exquisite (and usually non erotic) concrete details… what he couldn’t stand was flippancy coupled with ignorance. Roth himself was never less than meticulously prepared.” 338-339 o Roth as a reviser: “Roth was a fanatic reviser who typically went through four or five drafts of a given novel (‘first drafts are terrible’), turning sentences around and around as he went; finally he’d hand over the penultimate (or so) draft to five of six readers who, as he put it, ‘I know are on my side, but who will speak candidly.” 429 o Roth as a colleague: “… Roth sought additional help from a woman he would come to call his ‘secret weapon’, Roslyn Schloss. …the best copy editor who ever lived… spending hours together, minutely discussing each correction, the kind of conversation Roth relished. Henceforth Schloss worked on every one of Roth’s books, and was perhaps better acquainted with this preeminent aspect of his obsessiveness than anybody.” 453 o Roth as a synthesizer: “Once again Roth had found a place where ‘everything matters,’ and suddenly ‘the bits and pieces of crap’ he’s managed to write over the past year began, he said, ‘to flash signals and to arrange themselves in little constellations and I think I may be on the brink of an idea that won’t bore me.” 473 o Roth as a boyfriend: “As for Bellow’s often vexed relations with women (especially wives), Roth was nothing but sympathetic. Both were bewildered by charges of misogyny, since it seemed to them the problem was the opposite—that is, an all but helpless susceptibility, sexual and otherwise, hence a mutual tendency to say in touch with old girlfriends, give them money, and basically remain interested in their lives.” 537 o Roth’s source of inspiration: “Roth usually considered SABBATH his own favorite among his novels—certainly the one he had the most fun writing, as he mined a misanthropic vein that flourished amid his travails with Bloom. ‘The misanthropy is genuine,’ he later remarked. ‘And a misanthrope can be a very funny fellow...’ Martin Amis was one of the many who noted that Roth was ‘a divided self’—torn, like Portnoy, between altruism and perversity—but SABBATH is the first time that Mr. Hyde had been given the floor.’ ‘I have chosen to make art of my vices rather than what I take to be my virtues.” 582 o Roth as a competitor: “Roth and Updike had been estranged for almost a decade when Roth was ‘shocked and saddened’ to learn of his great rival’s death from lung cancer [in] 2009. Eight months later, the absence was still ‘incomprehensible’ to Roth. ‘He was the indestructible writer with the indestructible fluency… He was an ace’… what Roth had always envied most about Updike was his ‘…fluency, his gush of prose’ that flowed through the man’s fingers at the rate of three pages a day… Roth’s… came at a relative trickle of a page a day and, usually, he was delighted to accept that much.” 736 o Roth as an obsessive artist: “Finally, in August, he relinquished ‘Draft 12A [of NEMESIS], wearily admitting he wasn’t altogether happy but he didn’t “know how to complicate it anymore.’ Then he became depressed. ‘I don’t really have other interests,’ he told [his friend] Alvarez in 2004. ‘My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book. That’s what stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow, obsessing about nothing.’” 747 Highly recommended.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stetson

    In many ways, this is an impressive work of biography. Blake Bailey provides what appears to be a fairly honest and incredibly detailed picture of Philip Roth the man and the author. However, I fear the work would benefit from a little more organizational self-discipline and less lurid indulgences. It is more than clear (even just from reading Roth's work) that Roth was a man with an insatiable libido - a libido that inspired a carousel of torrid affairs. In the book, the gossipy details of these In many ways, this is an impressive work of biography. Blake Bailey provides what appears to be a fairly honest and incredibly detailed picture of Philip Roth the man and the author. However, I fear the work would benefit from a little more organizational self-discipline and less lurid indulgences. It is more than clear (even just from reading Roth's work) that Roth was a man with an insatiable libido - a libido that inspired a carousel of torrid affairs. In the book, the gossipy details of these largely run together. This is of course something that the biography needed to discuss, but I felt Bailey's focus on it came at the cost of deeper discussion of Roth's literature or even his thinking on important issues or the nature of his friendships and vendettas (wanted to learn more about him and Norm Podhoretz). I felt that Bailey should have provided more detail, analysis, and criticism of Roth's oeuvre. On Roth's major works, excepting American Pastoral, Bailey provides only superficial or brief commentary in favor of dilating on how elements of Roth's works intersected with the actual details of Roth's life. This is interesting to an extent but cataloging them does little to advance the readers understanding of why Roth was such an important writer or what about his writing is enduring, powerful, meaningful, etc - maybe this isn't the purview of biography but it should be when chronicling the life of an author. Admittedly I've not read a ton of Roth (just American Pastoral, The Ghost Rider, and various selected passages), but I don't come away from reading Bailey's biography feeling more informed on Roth's authorial qualities and accomplishments. However, I do come away with an understanding of Roth as a human being and social presence, which appears to have been Bailey's aim.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Maher Battuti

    I was lucky to buy this biography before the decision to stop its distribution. The author used the archive of Roth to paint a real life of him with all its good and bad features. He used the words of Roth mainly, and the good thing is that he relates almost all Roth life events to his books.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Chris Oleson

    What is the Yiddish word for the opposite of a mensch? The harder Bailey tried to rehabiliate the image of Roth (and my Dylan did he try!), this bio devastatingly revealed a petty, narcissistic, womanizing, constantly virtual-signaling celebrity. Seemingly every slight experienced by Roth is broached and attacked, torn to shreds. Grudges are introduced, nurtured, and eviscerated. Roth is nothing if not vindicative. I lost track of the number of times Bailey gave Roth credit for helping a woman (of What is the Yiddish word for the opposite of a mensch? The harder Bailey tried to rehabiliate the image of Roth (and my Dylan did he try!), this bio devastatingly revealed a petty, narcissistic, womanizing, constantly virtual-signaling celebrity. Seemingly every slight experienced by Roth is broached and attacked, torn to shreds. Grudges are introduced, nurtured, and eviscerated. Roth is nothing if not vindicative. I lost track of the number of times Bailey gave Roth credit for helping a woman (often providing financial support or temporary housing, assuming responsibility for medical bills, etc.) even though he never slept with her or had already moved on his next partner. Bailey has managed a very long con here. There is no need for anyone to write a scathingly critical biography of Philip Roth the person because Bailey has already spent 900 pages clearly illustrating just how much of an asshole he was. And of course, the most delicious irony is that Bailey doesn't even know how all of his hundreds of pages of rationalization indict the topic of his book. Bailey revealed one disgustingly salient detail that will stay with me. One of Roth's most pathetic/troubled women from the latter part of his life would utter the phrase "that's the ticket" during sex. Roth "borrowed" that language and dropped it in the mouth of a novel's character and was surprised that she took umbrage. 'Nuff said.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Myles

    We learn in Blake Bailey´s biography that Philip Roth carried on an affair with his friend´s wife for 20 years. In my books that’s long time. Later in life, Roth had sex with a friend’s daughter, that he had another friend pimp beautiful students into Roth’s literature classes, that he had sex with his students, that he made a pass at his step-daughters friend, poisoning his marriage to Claire Bloom, that he had sex with his personal employees, and that he hung around his publishers´offices to sc We learn in Blake Bailey´s biography that Philip Roth carried on an affair with his friend´s wife for 20 years. In my books that’s long time. Later in life, Roth had sex with a friend’s daughter, that he had another friend pimp beautiful students into Roth’s literature classes, that he had sex with his students, that he made a pass at his step-daughters friend, poisoning his marriage to Claire Bloom, that he had sex with his personal employees, and that he hung around his publishers´offices to scout out new conquests. He also had an affair with at least one woman who was likely bi-polar. Both his wives likely suffered from mentally illness. Roth documented many of his affairs in his fiction, so his wives and girlfriends didn’t have to wait long to find out with whom he was being unfaithful. And several of the women who appear in this book as Roth’s conquests have been given pseudonyms. We’re not told why, but it wouldn’t a big stretch to guess that Roth had probably raped underage women. His books and fame brought Roth wealth, wealth he sometimes used to support friends and charities, but wealth he also used to control his lovers. And he unabashedly used his fame to bed more women. The details are pretty gross. There are also some pretty unflattering portraits of Bobbie and Jackie Kennedy in this volume. Like another serial seducer, John Kennedy, Roth also suffered serious and debilitating back pain. After reading all this who could imagine that Roth’s books will be studied in literature programs around the world in an era of cancel culture? Roth broke every taboo I can think of, and his books circle around men who likewise break sexual taboos. Roth and at least some of his friends — including the biographer — were creeps. Bailey himself has been accused of sexual misconduct with his students and his publisher. We may never learn the truth of these accusations, but we can surmise why Bailey took on the job: to learn seduction at the feet of a master. Roth was pretty candid with his biographer only asking that he make him sound “interesting.” Well, interesting he is in this biography if you are excited by the prurient. But Roth’s life outside of literature was pretty thin. He didn’t have any jobs outside of academe after his military service. He didn’t have any children of his own. He didn’t build any unique institutions. In a New York Times podcast we also learn that Roth asked that most of his huge output of letters be burned after the biography was finished. It’s as if he wanted to end the suffering for his victims. Roth complained that he had terrible luck with his wives and girlfriends, but then again he seemed to be in such a rush to bed so many of them it’s hard to empathize with him. His idol was Saul Bellow, another serial seducer if only judged by his five marriages. I must add that while I could not put down this very long 800-page biography, I’m not sure I ever want to read another of Roth’s books or watch the movies of the books. He casts a large shadow over American letters whatever you think about his personal behaviour. A large and troubling shadow.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Peter D

    Engrossing, complete, and surprisingly involving.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Rovira

    Firstly, let me say that his book will only come as a shock to readers who are not particularly familiar with his writing. Having read all 31 of his novels, there is nothing here that wasn't present in his work. Yes, I've known for ages that his depicition of women is demeaning, that he is obsessed with sex, his ego, his physical health... There is nothing new here. However, does any of his lurid personal life impact on the ferocity and elegance of his writing, the way the man can turn a sentenc Firstly, let me say that his book will only come as a shock to readers who are not particularly familiar with his writing. Having read all 31 of his novels, there is nothing here that wasn't present in his work. Yes, I've known for ages that his depicition of women is demeaning, that he is obsessed with sex, his ego, his physical health... There is nothing new here. However, does any of his lurid personal life impact on the ferocity and elegance of his writing, the way the man can turn a sentence, or throw away 90 pages of writing to only start again and again. I've read Malamud and Bellow and Mailer, and Roth does it better - read The Human Stain or The Plot Against America (both more relevant now than ever) and tell me otherwise. This kind of fifth-draft discipline is absent from a lot of modern writers who have got to the point where they can sell books by their name alone (McEwan, Amis etc). Roth was a workhorse, monkish in his writing and as a result impossible to live with (same with Dickens). However, it was this focus that made his work brilliant. It WAS his sexual excess that created most of his best and most loved characters such as Portnoy and Sabbath. It was his anger and ego that created Zuckerman. He put everything into his writing. He went there when other writers remained afraid. With Roth, his work is a hall of mirrors - and one must try to separate the art and the life. He may not have been a great to women but does that mean he should be cancelled and his writing should be banned? Hardly not. If so, let's stop listening to Michael Jackson and Morrissey, watching Bryan Singer films, not to the mention innumerable historical figures. In Blakes's gossipy bio, he presents the whole Roth, warts and all, and poses the question: can we still enjoy his writing? The answer is yes. This may not be the literary bio you're after - some novels are reduced to barely a paragraph - but it reveals all: the madness and the genius. He was distasteful at times but he wrote exceptional novels which revealed much about the human condition, as flawed as it often is.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    This 800-page book is a fairly compelling review of Roth's life, which is a product of its time, region and culture. I am drawn to several of Roth's novels for their incredible frankness about the gender wars, Jewish life, the New York Metro area and publishing. It is my parents world. So I read it with more interest than many people would. In places, this book is incredibly rich in detail. It was interesting to read about Roth's relationships with peers such as Saul Bellow, Bill Styron, John Upd This 800-page book is a fairly compelling review of Roth's life, which is a product of its time, region and culture. I am drawn to several of Roth's novels for their incredible frankness about the gender wars, Jewish life, the New York Metro area and publishing. It is my parents world. So I read it with more interest than many people would. In places, this book is incredibly rich in detail. It was interesting to read about Roth's relationships with peers such as Saul Bellow, Bill Styron, John Update, Bernard Malamud and Norman Mailer. Historical leaders such as David Ben Gurion, Vaclav Havel and the Clintons also have interesting cameos here, as does, memorably, Jackie Kennedy. Roth is clearly shown as a strong international advocate for freedom of speech. But the book is also flawed. It is more a personal history than a literary analysis. Most of the literary analysis you get here is the repetitive, tiresome reviews of Roth's Many novels. I didn't get a full sense of Roth as a writer, except that he had the discipline to write every day for hours. Some of his books seem to have been written just to settle scores. And not to be a prude, but there is also an excessive emphasis on his sex life -- even for the writer of Portnoy's Complaint (!) This trivializes the reader's interest in Roth. The book also is prone to Roth's side of the story. True, the biographer talks to lots of Roth's friends, some of his enemies, and doesn't cover up the dirty laundry, of which there is a lot. But in the end, Roth seems to get the last word. And if you are a normal person, you won't like him, anyway.

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