Rehabilitation of a great stylist

Christopher Bray thinks Roth’s “novelist’s autobiography” is one of his most fizzing examinations of the stories that construct our various selves

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When Philip Roth sent Alfred Kazin a copy of The Facts, Kazin told Roth he was in “awe” of his brilliance. He reserved his real feelings for his diary. The book was, Kazin wrote, no more than “the latest issue in the plentiful long-standing journal of PR’s every moment, love, emotion and visit to the analyst”.

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

As it happens, I think Roth’s “novelist’s autobiography” one of his most fizzing examinations of the stories that construct our various selves. But even Roth’s most devout fan would have to concede Kazin’s point. No novelist mined his private life for material more deeply than Philip Roth.

Here to prove the point is Philip Roth: The Biography. It’s a magnificent book — sedulous, scrupulous, fair-minded, reassuringly elegant in tone — everything Roth, who gave Blake Bailey the gig after Hermione Lee dropped out, could have hoped for. Still, anyone familiar with Roth’s work will already know the story Bailey tells.

Then again, for a guy who spent most of his time putting in 12 hours a day at his desk, and another couple of hours keeping fit, Roth’s life was far from dull. “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” he briefed Bailey at one of their early meetings. “Just make me interesting.” No problem, Philip.

No matter how many times you’ve read about it, Roth’s first marriage retains its noisome fascination. A Norwegian blonde from a booze-wrecked home, Maggie Martinson was the shanty town shiksa every Jewish momma dreads. With one divorce already behind her — an Eisenhower-era divorce in which, astonishingly, she had lost custody of her children — Maggie had flunked out of college after a single term. Roth, always a model student, was fascinated by what he called the “goyish chaos” that turned his apartment into “a psychiatric ward with café curtains”.

But not for ever. After two or three years of non-stop fighting (topped off by the discovery that Maggie had faked a burglary in order to hock his typewriter), Roth decided it was time she left. “I can’t go,” she told him, “I’m pregnant.” If Roth wouldn’t marry her she’d kill herself, though not before having the baby and abandoning it on his parents’ doorstep. Yikes!

Beyond summarising the reviews Roth’s books received, Bailey shows precious little interest in his man’s work

Still to come: the night Maggie tries to drive their holiday hire car off a mountain road; a whiskey and pills suicide bid during which she confesses that her pregnancy — and the abortion Roth had insisted on as the price of marriage — were phoneys; and a drunk-drive pile-up in Central Park in which she finally gets to the early grave she seems always to have been destined for. “You’re dead,” Roth told her funeral casket, “and I didn’t have to do it.” Yikes and yikes again!

Such a pile-up of catastrophes, so freighted with psychosexual significance even Thomas Hardy might have thought them over the top, sorts ill with a man who all his life cleaved to Flaubert’s dictum about being “orderly and regular in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be wild and original in your work”. Could it be that Roth sought out disastrous relationships — yes, there were more than one — in order to goose his otherwise monkish existence into narrative shape?

Bailey never asks the question. This biography is a life first, last, and always. Beyond summarising the reviews Roth’s books received, Bailey shows precious little interest in his man’s work. You will search the book in vain for an opinion or a judgment. You wouldn’t know from Bailey that after Roth hit paydirt with 1969’s masturbatory frenzy Portnoy’s Complaint he had a lacklustre period that lasted through 1986’s The Counterlife.

To hear Bailey tell it, American Pastoral (a sturdy yet turbulent examination of post-’Nam USA, and by any reckoning one of the great American novels) is no better than Roth’s laboured baseball satire The Great American Novel; and Sabbath’s Theatre, 450-odd pages of the most refulgently perverse prose ever written, no more invigorating than The Breast (a limp riff on Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which our hero is transformed into a mammary gland and our author makes a tit of himself).

But whether Roth’s books worked or not, his sentences were always on point. He is one of the great stylists. Bailey’s earlier subject, John Cheever, could turn out 20 pages a day. Roth was happy if he finished one. He once told Hermione Lee he could be six months and a hundred pages into a novel before “there’s a paragraph that’s alive” and he knew what the book was meant to be.

That means that among the treasure trove of papers Roth donated to the Library of Congress there must be multiple versions of, say Operation Shylock or The Human Stain, not to mention ideas and try-outs and works-in-progress that never saw the light of day. “The vast columns of boxes,” says Bailey, put him “in mind  of the final, lingering crane shot in Citizen Kane.” Dandy. But how about giving us the lowdown on what’s inside them? Roth was fond of quoting Joe Louis’s verdict on himself: “I did the best I could with what I had.” Bailey could have done more with those boxes.

The trouble is, I’m not sure Roth comes out of this book all that well

But then, despite its subject’s protestations, this is a book with an agenda. Roth didn’t just want Bailey to make him interesting. He wanted rehabilitating. As Bailey makes clear, Roth saw this book as serving vengeance on his second wife, Claire Bloom. Roth, Bailey argues, never got over Bloom’s memoir — the cawing, caustic Leaving a Doll’s House — which painted him as a vile, misogynist egotist. Two can play at that game, Roth essentially briefed Bailey.

Bloom being a beautiful actress, one is ready for her to be exposed as a prima donna. But what a prima donna: selfish, self-obsessed, jealous of Roth’s male friendships, unsympathetic (on first seeing Roth’s father after he suffered a disfiguring stroke she “threw her hands up to her face in horror, began to scream, and ran out of the house”), and worryingly unstable. At one point she visits the psychiatric hospital in which Roth — crazed by a bad back, painkillers and anti-depressants combo — is being cared for, and the staff think her so loopy they lock her up too.

The trouble is, I’m not sure Roth comes out of this book all that well. Jacqueline Susann famously said that while she’d like to meet the man behind Portnoy’s Complaint she wouldn’t want to shake his hand. Well, when it comes to the author of Valley of the Dolls and Philip Roth I think we can agree there’s only one pornographer under consideration.

Still, even Roth’s most worshipful fan will likely think him a jerk-off after reading Bailey. His hand was always in his trousers. At one point, when Roth is nearing 50 and living with Bloom in her London pad, he calls his lover back home in Connecticut and has her listen to him cleaning his rifle.

That lover — the model, Bailey tells us, for the insatiable Drenka in Sabbath’s Theatre — was a rarity for Roth in that she was somewhere around his own age. By and large he chased young skirt. “I was forty,” he remembered of an affair with one student, “and she was nineteen. Perfect. As God meant it to be.” Thirty-odd years later, Roth was dating a girl so young she once asked him “what’s fascism?” and he “had to explain the whole Second World War to her”. Little wonder that when Roth palled up with Bill Clinton and offered to talk to young Chelsea about an essay she was writing on American Pastoral, Hillary snapped, “She doesn’t need any help.”

Don’t get me wrong. On the evidence arraigned here, Roth was no monster. He was a good son and brother; he was generous with his money, and not only with friends and employees. As the editor of Penguin’s Writers from the Other Europe series he regularly smuggled cash through the Iron Curtain to help struggling dissidents.

And he was a good patriot. He wasn’t — as his great rival John Updike was — misty-eyed about his country. But he was one of the first intellectuals to come out against Susan Sontag when she facetiously argued that the US got what was coming to it on 9/11. When Ehud Olmert told Roth that Israel needed more people like him to settle there, Roth snapped “Are you crazy? […] There is a Zion, and it’s called America.”

Most of all, of course, Roth was funny — off the page as well as on. Bailey’s book is almost worth buying just to be reminded of Roth’s response to Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: “It’s OK, but next year I hope Peter, Paul and Mary get it.” It is worth buying for the moment in which Roth tells Bailey his favourite gag. (Two Jews talking about Hawaii. A fortnight after reading it I’m still laughing.) And it would be worth buying a copy for everyone you know if only they’d thought to reproduce the cartoon R. D. Kitaj faxed Roth of Anita Brookner performing what the redtops call a sex act. Yikes and yikes and yikes again!

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