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The Philip Roth Minefield

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Donald Weber offers his verdict on the new Philip Roth biography.

Researching his richly-textured Philip Roth: The Biography, authorized by Roth himself in 2012, Blake Bailey recognized the challenge of narrating the story of one of the most celebrated, complex, and controversial figures in contemporary American literature. Roth, Bailey admits at the outset, is ‘too protean a figure’ to pin down.

‘Roth is a minefield for biographers,’ notes the critic Jesse Tisch.  Roth’s imagination was truly explosive, driven by outrage, bruised by grievances that ‘would not leave him in peace’. The challenge–the danger–for a Roth biographer is in digging down into the bedrock of his life, in dislodging the origins of Roth’s rage, the core emotion which drives his greatest art.  After 800+ pages of startling, often revelatory details about Roth’s private life, his unsettling sexual biography, the shape of his literary career, his colossus-like presence in American culture for over half a century, Philip Roth can only begin to capture the incendiary, turbulent aspect of Roth’s presence in the world, what Nicole Krauss calls his ‘darker, more mischievous magic.’        

The Rothian ‘minefield’ for biographers also refers, I believe, to Roth’s sly art of fabricating alternate selves, the invention of characters like Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, and Mickey Sabbath, whose hilarious, subversive, ‘uncensored’ (voices tend to be mistaken by naive readers as unmediated, as their author’s unvarnished, true confession. ‘I can only exhibit myself in disguise,’ explains Roth’s alter ego Zuckerman in The Counterlife (1986); ‘All my audacity derives from masques.’ In his fiction and interviews, Roth announces his aesthetic method of masking, of self-exhibition.  In this respect Roth anticipates his identity-obsessed critics’ literal interpretation of his work; in the process, Roth teaches us how not to read him.  

In his best fictions ‘Roth’ offers a version of himself and then slides away.  Like Coleman Silk, an African American passing as a Jew in The Human Stain (1999), Roth celebrates ‘the sliding relationship with everything’. How can a biographer capture Roth in light of his shape-shifting art?  Roth voices his philosophy, his way of being in the world, in Sabbath’s Theater (1995), his most emotionally autobiographical novel: ‘The law of living: fluctuation. For every thought a counterthought. For every urge a counterurge.’  

The most treacherous minefield a Roth biographer must navigate, however, is the shifting landscape of memory. In life and his art, Roth was, like his alter ego Mickey Sabbath, a deeply ‘remembering animal,’ an ‘animal with a long memory.’  Bailey shows Roth to be unforgiving and vengeful in his relationships, holding onto grudges, feeling disrespected, needing to be justified. (On the other hand, Bailey also highlights Roth’s ‘essential magnanimity’, his acts of generosity, financial and personal, to numerous friends and lovers.) But as Bailey notes, Roth frequently miss-remembers significant events in his past or mixes things up.  The challenge for Bailey was separating fact from fabrication as Roth sought to control the narrative, the presentation of his turbulent private life for posterity.   

Bailey spent hundreds of hours listening to Roth rummaging the past, re-visiting archaic grievances, defending himself against critics, railing against ex-wives and would-be biographers (like his ex-friend Ross Miller who, before Bailey, had been invited to write Roth’s biographer). Bailey also had special access–currently denied to future Roth scholars—-to hundreds of pages of Roth’s detailed rebuttals, among them to Claire Bloom’s unflattering portrait of him and their marriage in Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), along with the salacious narrative, which exists only in manuscript, by the woman with whom Roth had a combustible seventeen-year affair, the model for the sexually liberated ‘Drenka’ in Sabbath’s Theater. Bailey quotes numerous passages from these rarely-seen now shrouded, documents in the biography.    

Bailey is superb at reconstructing Jewish-saturated 1930s and 1940s Newark, a region that shaped Roth’s literary imagination.  Deepening our understanding of that enclaved, tribal world, satirized in The Ghostwriter (1979). Looking back, lower-middle-class Jewish Newark induced in Roth a profound nostalgia, which animated his fiction.  It also generated pain and loss and mourning, which later became the source for Sabbath’s Theater and his last novel, Indignation (2008). Speaking about his best childhood friend, Marty Weich, whose older brother Bertrum (nicknamed ‘Chubby’) was shot down over the Philippines in 1944, during the War, Roth recalled the family’s grief and desolation in the wake of the tragedy: ‘’[E]verything you love disappears,’’ Roth muses to Bailey.  Ultimately, however, Roth sought escape from the ethnic fold. His ‘most prominent theme,’ as Bailey recognizes, remained ‘The I against the They’: the self unrestrained, released, needing to ‘affront and affront and affront’.      

Among the more fascinating sections of Philip Roth is Bailey’s recuperation of Roth’s little-known college days at Bucknell, which spurred a desire to write plays (‘The Taming of the ID’ later became in the mid-1960s ‘The Nice Jewish Boy’) and act on stage. Even more interesting, Bailey recounts the shaping influence of Mildred Martin, Roth’s favourite English professor at Bucknell, who played a key mentoring role over the decades.  In retrospect, Professor Martin inaugurated a line of women–fellow writers, editors and confidantes–with whom Roth shared drafts of novels in progress (among them Roslyn Schloss, Veronica Geng, Judith Thurman, Claudia Pierpoint Roth, Hermione Lee, Nicole Kraus, and Lisa Halliday).

The most soul-shattering memories in Philip Roth hover around Roth’s disastrous marriages to Maggie Martinson and later, his equally disastrous relationship with Claire Bloom. Both were marked by rage and betrayal, along with the itch for revenge–indelible emotions that haunted Roth his entire life. Thanks to Bailey, we now have a detailed account, transcribed from Roth’s still seething memory, of his first marriage.  Initially ‘fascinated’ by Martinson’s ‘goyish chaos’ (quoting Roth), their tortured relationship, which began in 1956, when Roth was 23, was filled with turbulence and deception: a faked pregnancy, which compelled Roth to propose marriage. For the rest of his life Roth would never forgive or forget Maggie’s ‘ruse.’  Only her death in 1968, in a car crash driving through Central Park, liberated him, at the threshold of fame and tremendous wealth, with the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth’s breakthrough novel.      

In the case of Claire Bloom, Bailey recounts in substantial detail how their relationship, initially Bloom was ‘a great emotional soulmate’ (quoting Roth), devolved into exposé and mutual accusation. Roth penned a point by point rebuttal to Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), an unflattering, deeply unsettling portrait, which at first he sought to publish, but was persuaded by friends not to.

Other sections of Philip Roth provide numerous thick descriptions of Roth’s life story, many already well known, others revelatory: Roth’s emergence on the literary scene in the late 1950s; his crucial friendship with Saul Bellow (‘Roth’s hero’); his ambivalence towards Malamud and his Yiddish-inflected immigrant characters; his rivalry with John Updike; his battles with Jewish intellectuals like Irving Howe, whose critique of Portnoy cut Roth to the bone (‘The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is read it twice’); his disdain for Woody Allen (surprising in light of shared themes and their playful use of autobiography); his single-handed recovery of authors from Eastern Europe living under extreme political conditions.

Philip Roth, pictured here in 1993, has died at the age of 85

In the end, Bailey manages to avoid the minefields both surrounding and defending its subject. Philip Roth conjures its intellectually overpowering, sexually omnivorous, deeply wounded, hilariously Jewish, deeply empathic, incredibly generous, monumental subject as fully as possible. Still, we can assume there will be other Roth biographies appearing in the near future (a number, in fact, are already underway).  Like Bailey, these authors will also need to skirt Rothian minefields. They will have to figure out how to re-imagine a life already brilliantly re-imagined.  As Roth famously confessed:  ‘Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. . . .To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend.’ A warning to future biographers: step carefully, and beware of Roth’s self-fabricating, self-exploding art.   

Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey is published by Vintage, priced £30.

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Donald Weber writes on Jewish American literature and popular culture.  His current project is a book on OTD cultural expression titled "On and Off the Derech: A Family Story."  He divides his time between Mohegan Lake, NY and Brooklyn.
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