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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?

By Jon Day   May 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…

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