Roth’s theatre: the writer in his apartment in Kips Bay, New York City. Photo: Bob Peterson

Philip Roth’s ruthless intimacy

Roth dedicated his life to literary and sexual conquest. As his biographers show, he was victorious in both fields—but at what cost?
March 28, 2021

“Two things await me,” Philip Roth told his friend Benjamin Taylor near the end of his life, “death, and my biographer. I don’t know which is more to be feared.” Biography can be a kind of little death—entombing what Virginia Woolf called the “rainbow” of personality in the deadening “granite” of fact. Yet it still feels like a curious fear for a writer who, more than most, plundered his life for his art, appearing in nine of his 27 novels wearing the flimsy mask of his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman (and playing walk-on parts in several more as a character named “Philip Roth”), as well as keeping control over the narrative of his life through carefully dispensed interviews with obliging journalists.

In 1974, he said that his work was “spawned by the interplay between my previous fiction, recent undigested personal history, the circumstances of my immediate, everyday life and the books I’ve been reading and teaching.” (He reckoned the events of his novels lagged a decade or so behind those of his life: his friend and rival John Updike’s turnaround, he said, was more like 24 hours.) He was hostile to the generalisations of critics and academics, instead placing his faith in what he called the “ruthless intimacy of literature, its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars.” His working methods were accumulative. He would document encounters, transcribe conversations and sometimes whole letters into his novels, to the bemusement and often chagrin of his subjects, some of whom only recognised themselves years later. What most of us refer to as “real life” he called “the unwritten world,” as though it existed only to be turned into fiction—preferably fiction written by him.

Following his death in 2018, friends and acquaintances have begun to pick over his life with renewed vigour. A short but engaging memoir by Benjamin Taylor, Here We Are, was published last year. Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography—note that “the,” which brooks no competition—is the first of two more traditional biographies published in 2021. The second, subtitled “a counterlife” in a nod to Roth’s 1986 novel and Bailey’s official account, is by Ira Nadel. Read alongside each other, they show how much of a challenge Roth presents to his biographers. Where Bailey focuses on Woolf’s “granite,” patiently accumulating the particulars of a long and storied life, Nadel, denied the co-operation of the Roth estate and permission to quote from the work, is all “rainbow.” This makes Philip Roth: A Counterlife a strange, insubstantial book, full of overreaching psychoanalytical speculation, tortuous paraphrase, and the kind of generalisations that would have made his subject weep.

Bailey says that Roth’s “co-operation was honourable and absolute,” but it certainly wasn’t passive, and you can detect the novelist’s influence throughout. Even the book’s epigraph quoting Roth—“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting”—takes for granted the idea that the life of one of the most celebrated novelists of the 20th century simply should be interesting (and not just a plodding account of a man waking up each morning and heading to his typewriter). In his fiction Roth often sought to celebrate the quiet dignity of everyday lives. More than most writers, he was bound to the place he came from (what Dublin was for Joyce, the Jewish suburbs of Newark were for Roth), and he fictionalised the local heroes of his boyhood—teenage athlete Seymour “Swede” Levov in American Pastoral; the young gym teacher Bucky Cantor in his polio novel Nemesis—throughout his career. But he wanted his own life to be exceptional, and he made sure—through his novels, but also through curating the myth of his own existence—that it would be remembered as such. By the end he had erected an edifice around himself as formidable as the one he described surrounding Felix Abravanel, the fictional novelist based on Saul Bellow, in his book The Ghost Writer: “a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect.”

In The Counterlife, Zuckerman worries, perhaps on his creator’s behalf, that he’d “mined my past to its limits, exhausted my private culture and personal memories” and deplores “the nutshell of self-scrutiny” he has lived in for “years on end.” But the real Roth seemed to harbour few such doubts, and knew when he was on to a good thing.

“Roth wanted his own life to be exceptional, and he made sure that it would be remembered as such”

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he repeatedly denied (less and less convincingly as his career went on) that his novels were in any sense “confessional.” Often the denials were merely a form of self-protection, or a way of generating more copy. “I’ll never write about Jews again,” he said after a particularly bruising appearance at New York’s Yeshiva University in 1962, following the publication of his first story collection Goodbye, Columbus. He spoke there on the “Conflict of Loyalties in Minority Writers of Fiction,” and later recalled he was asked a question that would be asked of Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer: “Mr Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?” In his pseudo-autobiography, The Facts, Roth presented the encounter as an attack, but if you listen to the transcript of the event, reports Nadel, it becomes clear that Roth was very much in control: it was he, not his questioners, who first raised the Nazi analogy, and the overall impression is that he was not “the victim but the star, fully prepared to face his antagonists.”

Roth’s chronic recycling of the events of his life means that much of the meat of Bailey’s book will be at least vaguely familiar to most fans of the fiction. Over the course of 900 pages we read about the early success of Goodbye, Columbus, which won the 1960 National Book Award and led to condemnation by prominent members of the Jewish community; of his disastrous first marriage to Maggie Martinson, a divorcée with two young children who tricked him into proposing to her by faking a pregnancy (an episode Roth would finally pin down in fiction in My Life as a Man); of the huge success and even greater controversy of his third novel, about a priapic Jewish teenager, Portnoy’s Complaint (“Philip, are you an antisemite?” his mother asked him after it was published); of his dysfunctional second marriage to Claire Bloom and their subsequent separation (which would form the bones of her explosive memoir Leaving a Doll’s House and of his The Counterlife); and about the incredible flourishing of creativity in his last decades—during which he wrote the extraordinary, prescient novels American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, as well as a series of increasingly spare and moving novellas—years of pomp and celebration during which he won every award going (bar the Nobel) and conducted a long valedictory lap around the interview circuit.

Author Philip Roth walking w. his wife, actress Claire Bloom on residential street.  (Photo by Ian Cook/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images) Author Philip Roth walking w. his wife, actress Claire Bloom on residential street. (Photo by Ian Cook/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

When he was bad: Roth relentlessly mined his own life for his fiction, much to the chagrin of his friends and partners—not least his second wife Claire Bloom. Photo: Ian Cook/The Life Images Collection via Getty Images

Bailey has certainly done the legwork, tracking down old flames, including the woman who gave Roth his first blowjob in a cemetery in Newark (“It wasn’t the least bit romantic” she reports). The relationships are laid out in Rothian detail: the numerous affairs with students, friends’ wives, cleaners and Playboy bunnies. They often ended in disaster but, equally often, spawned enduring friendships. Here too are the seemingly endless health issues: the back pain, caused by an accident with a pot of potatoes while Roth was in the army; the appendicitis (an inheritance from his Galician forebears), which threatened to kill him on numerous occasions; the psychiatric wobbles; the persistent heart trouble. On and on it goes, a runaway train of gossip and intrigue, recounting the story of a man who squatted over American literary culture for half a century.

What is new here? I hadn’t realised how difficult he’d found it to navigate the succès de scandale of Portnoy’s Complaint. “I wasn’t trying to alienate the huge audience I’d won with Portnoy,” he later remarked of the mystifyingly bad novels—including Our Gang and The Breast—that he wrote in the early 1970s, “but I didn’t mind if I did. And I guess I did.” In the middle of his career Roth, says Bailey, would “wander the commercial desert for some time” (though it was a desert most of his peers would have killed to wander in). 

Nor did I realise how petty Roth could be. He cut people out over seemingly minor offences and was cruel to old friends, even those he once considered heroes. When the veteran novelist Bernard Malamud read to him from a work in progress, Roth said it felt pretty slow and wondered where the story was going. Malamud died a few months later. Roth framed his remarks as critical honesty, but it could just as easily be seen as spiteful, especially as he seemed loath to accept anything but praise from others. “If you mention a writer’s name without saying he’s the greatest writer in the world, you put him down,” he said about Malamud, but really he was talking about himself.

He could be decent, too, Bailey shows, but often only if it helped his own career. In the early 1970s he became interested in Czechoslovakian dissident writers (partly in order, he said, to avoid the “trivialising idiocies” that had followed the publication of Portnoy), befriending Rita Klímová and Milan Kundera and promoting their work in the English-speaking world. But the kindnesses were always conducted with one eye on the novels that would emerge from them. When his editor and friend Veronica Geng developed a brain tumour, Roth organised to pay for her medical care and accompanied her to hospital. But he also plundered the details of her illness and gave them to Amy Bellette in Exit Ghost.

Some of his most lasting relationships were with professionals: the doctors, cleaners and psychiatrists who tended to him. Despite his resistance to what he called the “psychoanalytic shit,” he saw a therapist, on and off, for a good portion of his writing life. Hans Kleinschmidt, the model for Dr Spielvogel in Portnoy, wrote an academic paper called “The Angry Act: the Role of Aggression in Creativity,” in 1967, in which Roth features anonymised as a “successful Southern Playwright,” whose “compulsive masturbation” is ascribed to “the phallic mother figure.”

Bailey doesn’t spare the unflattering details—reporting, for instance, that Roth most likely did make a pass at a teenage friend of Claire Bloom’s daughter he calls “Felicity”; that his many affairs included at least three with students—but he tends to see all this only as evidence that Roth was merely a man of his generation. Responding to Felicity’s account of his attempt to kiss her, Roth said: “I for one have never found the ‘French kiss’ pleasurable. To go searching around the cavern of a woman’s mouth with a jutting, insinuating tongue was never my idea of fun, not even as an adolescent and certainly not as a man, even one who willingly admits a profound fondness of cunnilingus,” a flimsy defence Bailey doesn’t really challenge. It would be hard to quibble with Bailey’s acceptance that Roth was driven by “duty” into his first marriage to Martinson, but it’s less easy to accept Roth’s own account that he was “a product of his era, when young men were taught to value themselves in proportion to the number of crippling obligations—marriage, children, career—they were willing to assume.” You might not know it from Roth’s novels, or from Bailey’s biography, but marriage, children and careers needn’t always be “crippling obligations.”

If Bailey sometimes uncritically adopts the Roth weltanschauung, Ira Nadel’s willingness to speculate on his subject’s unconscious motives and unexpressed desires hinges on the absurd. His book is also a masterclass in irrelevant detail. Quite why it should be significant that “there were 155 patent-leather manufacturers” in Newark when Roth was a boy, “producing an amount of leather then valued at $899,200,” or that “besides the production of leather for shoes, Newark manufactured carriages,” is difficult to say. His biography is built on a single generalisation: that Roth’s life and career, as Nadel says in his introduction, were characterised by “betrayal.” For evidence he assembles a few well-worn anecdotes and polishes them with his psychoanalytical rag.

So we are told a story about Roth, as a young boy, asking a shop assistant for a bathing suit with a jockstrap, to which his mother said: “You have such a little one that it makes no difference.” Whereas according to Bailey, Roth laughed this off, for Nadel the “devastating remark caused adolescent fury and shame and the feeling of betrayal.” On Nadel’s telling, Kleinschmidt’s publication of “The Angry Act” wasn’t a slight annoyance that would become a funny anecdote, but “was, in fact, the signal betrayal of Roth’s thirties.” “The betrayal by his analyst,” Nadel concludes, “confirmed that a lifetime of distrust began literally at Roth’s front door, one of a series of deceptions that led to his sustained unhappiness and anger and that filtered through his life and defined his work.” Well, maybe. But it seems just as likely that the anger led to the betrayals or, at least, made every slight feel like one. Sometimes a jockstrap is just a jockstrap.

Most people—Roth says in The Counterlife—are entirely unoriginal in their lives, and so the novelist’s job is to make them original in prose. The problem he poses to his biographers is that, though his work allowed for no clichés, his life was full of them. He seemed to revel in being a great American novelist—a creature he practically invented, even calling one of his books The Great American Novel. He worked for years in monkish isolation, never allowing domesticity or fame to get in the way of the fiction. In the late 1990s he told his hero Bellow: “You used to be able to sleep with the girls in the old days. And now of course it’s impossible. You go to feminist prison; you serve 20 years to life.” Yet in the final years, while the prizes and awards kept coming, so did the younger and younger girlfriends. Roth became increasingly baffled when they wanted more than bed, board and pocket money, and the scarred body of a septuagenarian.

“You might not know it from Roth’s novels, but marriage, children and careers needn’t always be crippling obligations”

Bailey doesn’t speculate on why he was so often attracted to fragile women (Nadel is only too happy to), but you get the feeling that sometimes they were the only people willing to sacrifice their lives to his. The writer Lisa Halliday, who described the power imbalance that characterised her long affair with Roth (over 40 years her senior) in her novel Asymmetry, suggests why most, in the end, were not able to keep it up. Roth doesn’t emerge from either of these very different biographies as the “master manipulator” that David Streitfield accused him of being in a review of Bloom’s memoir, but as having been, especially near the end of his life, a somewhat naive man who mistakenly thought he was on an equal footing with the women he went to bed with.

Roth’s life was dominated by a wish to conquer: to conquer his quotidian origins; to conquer within the literary and sexual realms. (Maybe that’s why when he wrote about sex it was such a combustible combination.) The relentlessness with which he pursued both left damaged people in his wake—not least Roth himself. “Why am I so happy?” he asked himself in 2010, “I haven’t had any serious back pain for well over a year. And something more: for the first time in my adult life, I haven’t written a word of fiction for over a year.” He eventually stopped having affairs, too, and was happier than ever. Only during his last days were, he said, “the tyranny of writing and the tyranny of sex overthrown.”

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth by Benjamin Taylor (Penguin Random House USA, $26)

Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey (Jonathan Cape, £30)

Philip Roth: A Counterlife by Ira Nadel (OUP, £22.99)