Philip Roth’s Authorized Biography Goes Awry

I’m currently reading Blake Bailey’s authorized biography of Philip Roth, a work removed from the shelves of America’s bookstores (not to mention from Amazon warehouses) after its publisher WW Norton suspended shipping and promotion as a consequence of several women accusing Bailey of sexual misconduct, including assault, which he adamantly denies. An independent publisher called Skyhorse has acquired the rights and issued a paperback edition, so the book is still available, though in a less glamorous format.[1]

Before tackling the biography (wrapping it in my arms and driving it to gridiron), I revisited Portnoy’s Complaint, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and though it came out in 1969, the prose is as fresh as this morning’s oven-extracted loaf of Jewish rye, except that Portnoy uses the c-word as both an anatomical descriptor and as a synecdoche for womankind in general.[2] Of course, Portnoy’s a madman, so we shouldn’t hold Roth personally responsible for his creation’s misogynistic language, any more than we should lambaste Nabokov for Humbert’s pederasty, except that throughout the biography, Roth himself uses the c-word in the same manner, anatomically and collectively.[3] This unfortunate habit tends to conflate the biographer with his subject.

Indeed, it seems that like Portnoy and perhaps Blake Bailey, Roth was sex obsessed. When interviewing Bailey for the job of authorized biographer, he produced a photo album devoted to his ex-girlfriends, which reminded me of the scene in Carnal Knowledge when the Jack Nicholson character projects a slideshow of photos of his sexual conquests. On the other hand, Bailey writes that the album was “an artifact attesting to the only passion that ever rivaled his writing. He doted on these women and vice versa; several of them came to his bedside while he lay dying, as did I.” 

In her review of Philip Roth the Biography, entitled “In ‘Philip Roth,’ a Life of the Literary Master as Aggrieved Playboy,” Parul Sehgal writes that Bailey’s book is “a narrow portrait of a wide life. We know the ’60s have arrived because we are told that Roth is now regularly propositioning women in the elevator. When he travels to Thailand, Bailey speculates: ‘Perhaps he was most struck by the ubiquitous availability of sex.”’

Also, there is the conundrum of Roth’s relationship with Judaism. Again, Sehgal, “Whether he was pilloried as the Jewish second coming of Goebbels (‘What is being done to silence this man?’ the president of the Rabbinical Council of America wrote to the Anti-Defamation League) or a woman hater, he held to the notion of novelist as the ‘nose in the seam of the undergarment,’ the enemy of public relations. And now, he who found liberation in sex and work reported being rid of the tyranny of both.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the Roth’s literary output that I’m eager to see analyzed. I mean, his body of work inspires awe: American PastoralThe Human StainThe Plot Against AmericaThe Ghost Writer, etc. To me, his not being chosen for a Noble Prize borders on criminality. So what if Roth was arrogant, self-obsessed, vengeful, it’s the work that matters. Look at Yeats, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Philip Larkin – they all possessed more than their share of human frailties. I’m only 100 pages in Bailey’s bio but haven’t seen much critical contemplation of Roth’s fiction. It reminds me of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Being Yourself, an assessment of David Foster Wallace that essentially ignores his work. What makes Roth and Wallace interesting is their art, not their foibles. 

The bad news for Roth is that Blake Bailey’s own sexual misconduct may have tainted the biography, to have, in the words of Alexandra Alter and Jennifer Schuessler, “intensified a parallel conversation about Roth’s treatment of women, adding fuel to the questions of whether Bailey’s account of Roth’s sexual and romantic relationships was overly sympathetic and oversimplified” despite Roth’s attempt to, as one critic put it, through Bailey “ghost write his own biography.” 

The best laid schemes of mice and men.

Roth in 2010, photo by Nancy Crampton

[1] I actually possess the hardback edition, which I copped from independent bookseller Buxton Books right after Norton yanked it out of print. I’m hoping that one day it will be considered a rare first edition and I’ll be able to swap it for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.  (BTW, I’m weary of Microsoft Word EB-White-ing out every goddamned adverb I carefully insert in my sonorous sentences). They want me to ax “actually” which I actually don’t want to do.

[2] “Synecdoche is a literary trope in which a part stands for the whole, as in “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” or more familiarly, “Donald Trump is an asshole.” 

[3] The late James Hillman made a cogent observation about the ugliness and violence of English vernacular terms dealing with sex, e.g., “nailed her,” “fucked her eyes out,” “gash,” etc. as opposed to Hindi’s “jade stalk” for penis and “pearled temple” for vagina, suggesting, of course, very different attitudes toward sex, one diseased, the other reverential.

2 thoughts on “Philip Roth’s Authorized Biography Goes Awry

  1. I haven’t read the biography and probably won’t. I’d rather spend the time re-reading some of Roth’s novels. But my husband wrestled with the biography and had the same problem with it that you did—it largely ignores Roth’s work.

  2. Thanks. leemrob9, for reading and commenting. Since I composed the post, I’ve read a couple of reviews of the biography, both of which were negative. At 900-plus pages, it’d quite an investment of time. Cheers!

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