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A Review of Philip Roth's Biography

April 1, 2021

Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey, (W.W. Norton: New York), $40.00


It can be fairly said of our best novelists, the male ones anyway, that "He told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." That is, in fact, how John O’Hara’s gravestone reads, marred only by the facts that O’Hara composed it himself, and that he prefaced it with the four words, "Better than anyone else," leaving the impression that he was a self-aggrandizing blowhard rather than a clear-eyed appraiser of his own life’s work. If he had omitted those first four combative words, and if he’d quoted one of his many readers who had written even kinder words about O’Hara’s talents, we would have been left with an essential truth: that the finest realistic novelists chronicle themselves, the society they lived in, and the period they lived in, with far greater, and more perceptive, insights than any historian possibly could have.

Certainly, O’Hara (who wasn’t a self-aggrandizing blowhard as much as he often played one in public) did describe U.S. culture from the 1920s through the 1960s with astonishing, sometimes shocking, honesty, encapsulating its many virtues and its more numerous vices, in memorable language, as did so many other novelists writing in his lifetime, and in ours. Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Thomas Pynchon, James Baldwin, Joseph Heller, Richard Yates, Scott Fitzgerald….I could go on and on (and on), naming only those writers I admire who published novels during O’Hara’s lifetime, and I think each of them could argue (and some of them did) that they performed their craft "Better than anyone else."

I sometimes have thought, and sometimes still do think, that if I had to pick one single champion among all these contenders (and ignoring, for the sake of argument, our female writers altogether), the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century might be Philip Roth, the subject of Blake Bailey’s huge new authorized biography. ("Huge" = 898 pages, "new" = pub. date Tuesday next, "authorized" = Roth cooperated with Bailey but didn’t restrict his writing in any way.) 

Each of these writers staked out his own territory, and defined it as he saw fit, so they often were not competing as far as subject matter went. Some of these men—Mailer, Pynchon, Hemingway—tried to cover the whole of U.S. culture, and often beyond, to other nations and other ways of thinking, while others stuck very close to their own lived experiences and the geography they happened to inhabit, such as Richard Yates or J.D. Salinger. Roth is that rarity who stood accused of writing both about his own personal details exclusively but also about a wider, more imaginative swath of experience than he could possibly have known about.

My first example here of the literary territory that Roth staked out, of all those he sometimes was charged with dwelling on obsessively, is the example that some of BillJamesOnline readers are primarily interested in: Roth’s writing on baseball, which Bailey’s biography covers extensively and well (with one small goof that I will explicate).  If you’re not interested in reading about other stretches of Roth’s literary territories, you can stop reading after the next few paragraphs, but I do consider Roth to be a legitimate and excellent, if sporadic, chronicler of baseball.

Roth wrote about baseball, notably in The Great American Novel and Portnoy’s Complaint, primarily  because "it was one of the  few subjects [he] knew anything about" as he put it, a concept that most BJOL readers can identify with—I think if you grabbed a random subscriber of BJOL and showed him a random entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia, the odds are pretty good that he would find something meaningful to say about that entry. In other words, there is a lot of shit floating around in all our brains on the subject of baseball that we are consciously unaware of, but which comes to the surface with only the slightest provocation. That metaphor, of shit floating through one’s brain, by the way, is the one Roth used himself in describing his exposure to baseball lore:

Roth hit on the idea of a homeless baseball team, the Ruppert Mundys—"some shit occurred in my brain," as he later explained, about Jews and baseball, though he worried such shit would be mistaken for something so serious as a deliberate metaphor.

He used baseball for his subject matter, in other words, according to Bailey, because it was already voluminously somewhere in his mind without requiring any research or devoting any conscious thought to it. The passage that expresses Roth’s feelings about the game most beautifully occurs in Portnoy’s Complaint, where the narrator, Alexander Portnoy, tries to explain to his foreign-born psychoanalyst the emotions stirred up by his childhood attempts to copy the mannerisms of his Brooklyn Dodger hero:

. . . Or just standing nice and calm—nothing trembling, everything serene—standing there in the sunshine (as though in the middle of an empty field, or passing the time on the street corner) standing without a care in the world in the sunshine, like my king of kings, the Lord my God, The Duke Himself (Snider, Doctor, the name may come up again), standing there as loose and as easy, as happy as I will ever be, just waiting by myself under a high fly ball (a towering fly ball, I hear Red Barber say, as he watches from behind his microphone—hit out toward Portnoy; Alex under it, under it), just waiting there for the ball to fall into the glove I raise to it, and yup, there it is, plock, the third out of the inning (and Alex gathers it in for out number three, and folks, here’s old C.D. for P. Lorillard and Company), and then in one motion, while old Connie brings us a message from Old Golds, I start in toward the bench, holding the ball now with the five fingers of my bare left hand, and when I get to the infield—having come down hard with one foot on the bag at second base—I shoot it gently with just one flick of the wrist, at the opposing team’s shortstop as he comes trotting out onto the field, and still without breaking stride, go loping in all the way, shoulders shifting, head hanging, a touch pigeon-toed, my knees coming slowly up and down in an altogether brilliant imitation of The Duke. Oh, the unruffled nonchalance of that game!

Every baseball fan with two molecules of imagination to rub together has indulged in something very similar to this boyhood fantasy, but no one has conveyed the fantasy as clearly or as lyrically as Roth does here: how it feels to be playing ball in the sunlight, free for the moment of other cares, concentrating with pleasure on one’s chosen model of baseball perfection, down to the imitation of his body language, with the voice of a broadcaster playing in one’s head, narrating the sequence of events.

A bane of Roth’s existence, verified repeatedly in Bailey’s many interviews with the man, was paradoxically his breakthrough bestseller Portnoy’s Complaint, not for the welcome revenue it produced and not for the reputation it engendered for Roth as a literary giant (which caused publishers to award him staggering advances on his future novels in the often-thwarted hope of another big best-seller) but rather for the personal embarrassment caused by its readers mistaking Roth’s own thoughts and life-experiences for those of Alexander Portnoy, largely involving the use of liver and the frequency of masturbation, especially in combination.

But it was a fair cop, at least insofar as Roth’s skillful renderings of Portnoy’s thoughts and fantasies and sexual urges. After all, how could Roth have described so eloquently Portnoy’s innermost musings if he hadn’t had similar thoughts himself, even if on rare occasions and even if he guiltily rejected those impure thoughts (neither of which happens to be the case)? To express Portnoy’s thoughts, they must have originated in Roth’s mind, even if some readers (most readers?) went wild simplistically equating Roth’s mind with Portnoy’s. Certainly in the example given here, Roth’s lyrical thoughts about playing centerfield can reasonably be supposed to have originated in his own experiences as a teenaged Brooklyn Dodger fan, decades before they appeared in print in Portnoy’s Complaint. (Roth was a left-handed thrower, by the way, as is Portnoy in the paragraph excerpted above, though Duke Snider threw right-handed, a fine detail Roth might have changed if the memory were Portnoy’s and not his own, to make his fictional creation’s aping of Snider more nearly perfect.)  

The facts (as Roth’s purportedly non-fiction 1988 account was entitled) were that he was a devoted follower of the Dodger teams of his teenaged years:

Roth’s most cherished memory of his team was the day he and a friend, Bob Lapidus, journeyed all the way to Ebbets Field ("We might have taken Conestoga wagons along the Oregon Trail to get there") to see the great Jackie Robinson. "I saw you go eight for nine in a doubleheader against the Pirates in a doubleheader in 1947," said the "awestruck" Roth in 1972 (around the time he was finishing The Great American Novel) when he ran into Robinson at a book party for Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.

What a fantastic memory! In several senses of the word "fantastic": Robinson’s Dodgers played two home doubleheaders against the Pirates in 1947, in one of which (July 15th) Robinson went 3-for-7, and the other (on June 3rd) 2-for-7. If Roth attended either doubleheader (and not one in 1948, or one against the Cincinnati Reds), it was most likely the 3-for-7 extravaganza, in that 3-for-7 is the better hitting day and high school (Roth was 14 years old in 1947) is out in mid-July whereas it’s in full session in early June. (Each doubleheader took place on a Tuesday.)  I wonder, as Robinson (who wouldn’t live out 1972) shook Roth’s hand and thanked him for the memory, if Jackie smiled at him, thinking "That’s a big crock of hooey—if I’d gone 8-for-9 in my rookie year, you can be damned sure I’d remember that day vividly."

Isn’t it amazing what memory can do? I’m sure Roth went home (on the subway and then the bus, no Conestoga wagon needed) and told Newarkers that he’d just seen Jackie Robinson get three hits, and then by 1957, it was four, and by 1972 Robinson’s hit total was all the way up to eight. I wonder if, in Roth’s telling, Robinson broke the MLB record for hits in a doubleheader by the end of Roth’s life in 2018. (If you’re curious, the record is nine, last done by Lee Thomas in 1961.) It’s sort of like telling a pitcher "I saw you throw a no-hitter," when what you saw was a five-hit shutout, the lowest-hit game of the pitcher’s career—there’s no way on earth that pitcher doesn’t know if he threw a no-hitter or not.

But baseball isn’t Bailey’s bailiwick, so the rest of this review will be devoted to non-sporting aspects of Roth’s long and productive life. Unless you consider the hot-blooded pursuit of the female sex a sport, as Roth seems to have done. His sex life, and his love life, not entirely overlapping quantities, are recorded here in painstaking, sometimes excruciating,and copious detail. This is a biography that reads very much like a lively, well-plotted novel, down to the one central event, Roth’s early disastrous marriage and even more disastrous divorce, on which so much depends.

Roth’s life and works seem unusually fueled by anger, hostility, resentment, and conflict, which is odd because he also seems a supremely cerebral, thoughtful, calm, and analytical man, as fiction-writers go, and many of the essential controversies concern the subjects of women and the Jews. "Conflicted" is a word that applies to both, and in two opposed senses: simultaneously, he felt intensely positive and intensely negative towards both women and Jews, and sharp conflict between him and those two groups was the lifelong result.

Each group accused Roth, over his very prolific career, of championing misogyny or anti-Semitism. It’s a close call judging which one has the stronger case, although Roth makes the strongest case of all in his pro se defense: a writer’s raw material is his own experience, and his had been a convoluted series of lies, betrayals, deceptions, guilt-trips, insults, accusations, and carping by the female sex and by Judaism itself, against which he was merely seeking to defend, cleverly and skillfully, his right to live free of their restrictions and control.

Leaving aside the issue of Roth’s treatment at the hands of the Jewish community for the moment, it’s certain that he suffered real agonies dealt out to him by women in his libidinous youth, particularly those meted out by his first wife, who threatened to turn his promising career into a hellish and seemingly eternal struggle of animosity and tedium.  It’s easy (and just) to blame him for marrying this virago in the first place—so many of his lifelong problems could have been avoided simply if Roth had run as far and as fast away from her as he could have at numerous early opportunities.

But then he would have lost much of the material of his first few bildungsroman books, which prominently featured main characters based squarely on the horrible first Mrs. Roth, whom he married after she deceived him into thinking he had impregnated her. (He hadn’t, and the money he gave her to get an illegal abortion she stuck into her pocket, returning hours later with horror tales about the pain she suffered at the hands of an imaginary back-alley abortionist.) He returned to this grim story time and again—the first novel I ever reviewed of his, My Life as a Man in 1974, was the least fictionalized version of this harrowing experience, involving her paying a pregnant woman whom she ran into in a public park to participate in some fictional scientific study that required her to fill a vial with three dollars’ worth of urine (cheap at any price) so that it could be taken into a pharmacy, "proving" that someone was in fact pregnant. (If a concordance to Bailey’s biography is ever undertaken, the term "urine-fraud" will recur more often than in all the rest of the world’s literature combined.) It’s hard to imagine Philip Roth as the trusting, naïve victim of so devious a scam, but he did get taken in by it, and then spent the next decade trying to extricate himself from the wretched marriage that he had entered guiltily into.

With such a start, it’s tempting to sympathize with Roth’s anger towards women in general, or to measure his relief when, having finally divorced this woman (and turned himself into a pauper doing so, another source of great frustration), she was brutally killed, and not of his doing. Bailey sets the gruesome record straight as to what exactly happened to her, both in her pursuit of a wedding ring from Roth and her violent death, examining the various fictional versions of her story as well as the actual historical record. Interviewing Roth at the end of his own life, fifty-odd years after his ex-wife’s death, Bailey got Roth to admit that he had written so many fictional versions of the event that his own memory on the subject was unreliable.

Not all of his experiences with women, of course, were quite that grim—he was a charming, witty, sensitive fellow who had many relationships with equally charming, witty, sensitive women—although his second marriage, to the distinguished actress Claire Bloom, was also a horror-show of an entirely different nature. Bailey spoke with many of these women, who mostly have warm and friendly memories of their time in and out of relationships with Roth of various intensities.

This biography is authoritative, in addition to being authorized, by which I mean to say that it is thorough--every girlfriend, every date, every flirtation, as well as every party, literary discussion, social engagement, in addition to every book, article, short story, and memoir Roth ever wrote or considered writing is covered in great detail, which may not be to the taste of every casual reader who would prefer the high points put into high relief, and a few low points omitted or summarized.

But occasionally, I found myself wanting more detail than Bailey was able to supply. One such tantalizing incident was Roth’s one evening escorting Jacqueline Kennedy to a dinner party on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which is about as far as he could have gone from taking his vulgar, trashy, low-class, mean-minded first wife to his miserable basement apartment in the East Village.  Surprisingly, this dinner party took place only fifteen months after the assassination of Mrs. Kennedy’s husband, in early 1965, and even more surprisingly, Bailey implies, Mrs. Kennedy was wide open to the possibility of a romantic involvement with Roth: most astonishingly, she invited him afterwards up to her Fifth Avenue apartment, where the two spoke for an hour, "kissed lingeringly," but as Roth put it years later, "I wasn’t up to it."

YOU WEREN’T UP TO IT? MISTER, YOU GET YOURSELF UP TO IT!!, as Larry David might express my horrified response to that anecdote. I quipped on Twitter last week to Blake Bailey that this incident, more than any other offense Roth ever gave to the Jewish people, was a true "Shonda fer der goyim." (Which translates roughly as "a shameful act performed by a Jew that Gentiles got to witness." Bailey, somewhat amusingly but necessarily, does yeoman work here, translating the many, many Yiddish expressions that cropped up in Roth’s conversations, writing, letters, and thoughts: the amusing part, to a native speaker, is to see the dry, bland translations into English of expressions that have a juicy and colorful connotation in Yiddish, "schmutz" for "dirt" and "schtarker" for "strong man" and the like read adequately, in the same way that chopped liver can be prepared adequately with mayonnaise instead of schmaltz, a word I will translate, a trifle blandly, in Bailey’s fashion, as "the rendered fat of a chicken.")

Which brings us straight to Roth’s contentious relations with the Jews. Religious belief of any kind repelled Roth, disgusted and angered him, and he felt that it, more than any other cause, was the source of human suffering. He found religion, and particularly Judaism, the one belief system he knew most intimately, to be a confused mixture of primitive nonsensical dogma sanctified by centuries of pious thought that served to oppress, control, and degrade humanity.

On the other hand, he liked many of the Jews he knew, and preferred their company. Many of his best friends, as the expression goes, were Jews, as were of course his family and almost every person he had grown up with in an overwhelmingly Jewish section of Newark, some of whom he felt quite fondly towards and some of whom he despised, leading him to write about his fondness and his despising freely in his fiction. The Jewish community read his admiring passages about Jewish characters and they read his disparaging passages about Jewish characters, and it ordered him "Okay, now write much more about the one type of Jew, and much less about the other," an order Roth took as seriously as it deserved to be taken.

Bailey had enough raw material—reviews of Roth’s work, essays denouncing him as a "self-hating Jew," long letters to and about him from outraged rabbis and self-appointed defenders of the faith-- to write at least two 898-page volumes (one filled with the outrage he engendered, the other full of his cool but furious responses to that outrage) devoted solely to the subject of Roth’s discourse with the Jewish community. Instead, Bailey rather skillfully summarizes it, supplying verbatim written testimony from the long, tedious case of Roth v. The Jews by focusing on an exchange he had with Irving Howe, ending with a 700-word letter Roth wrote to the aged editor of Dissent (!) magazine in which he civilly but scathingly defends his right—his duty, as he saw it—to write about the Jews (and every other topic) as honestly and as fully and as fairly as he can.

That was Roth’s principal defense against the charge of writing anti-Semitic (even pro-Nazi) propaganda: that he refused the titles of "Jewish Author," and "American Author," if their job-descriptions required him to slant the truth in favor of Judaism or of the United States. His function, as he saw it, was to criticize them where he felt they needed his critical eye. With his typical comedic touch, he even denied having any responsibility to speak in favor of the inhabitants of the planet Earth: "I don’t just hate the Jews," he wrote sarcastically to a friend, "I HATE AMERICANS! Tomorrow the galaxy!"

Jews and women were merely the most prominent of the belligerent voices that, by oversimplifying Roth’s critiques of them, opposed and denigrated his writing, not at all unpredictably. A smart man understands what the result will be when he rattles the cages of abused and captive animals, and this smart man certainly understood from the beginning of his career how angrily women and Jews would respond to his complaints about their excesses. But Roth has also been a sharp and smart critic of many other forces in the world, including abusive men and vicious anti-Semites –real abusive men, that is, and genuine anti-Semites. You know, wife-beaters and practitioners of genocide, who went far beyond the peccadilloes of novelists writing about the people whom he understood the best.

Through the magic of the imagination, Roth expanded widely the circle of those he was hostile to, and he sought out new adversaries throughout the world. As one example, he championed the cause of writers and thinkers behind the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe, and mocked the pretensions of the authoritarian governments that sought to justify oppressing them, though Roth had very little visible skin in the game of opposing Communist totalitarianism. He just felt a strong kinship with artists generally—I knew this to be true, but I had never read before in much detail the fine points of all that Roth did to get these suppressed and often literally tortured writers published in the west, and to have their work seriously discussed. Bailey makes all of this crystal-clear.

He also feuded, memorably, with the literary establishment in general—there are comical tales of his extended contretemps with Norman Mailer, and most famously, of a run-in with Jacqueline Susann, which Bailey tells more briefly, and more accurately, than the version I’ve been re-telling for decades. I never actually saw the Tonight Show episode on which the authoress of vulgar sex-and-shopping books like Valley of the Dolls and Son of Valley of the Dolls and The Return of the Valley of the Dolls quipped that she would like to meet Roth but not to shake his hand (another tiresome iteration of the masturbation joke that plagued Roth throughout his post-Portnoy career). For forty years now, I’ve been telling it with Roth being a fellow on-stage guest of Johnny Carson’s and actually having his outstretched hand rejected --which might have made for a funny sight-gag-- and Roth responding, on the air, "You refuse to shake my hand?", topping her with the clear implication that she is a barely literate soft-core pornographer daring to condescend to a distinguished man of letters.  Alas, in Bailey’s telling, Roth also merely watched Susann’s appearance on TV, or maybe not even that. He probably, like me, just heard about the quip, and (probably) thought of the riposte as a kind of esprit de l’escalier, if indeed he ever thought of it at all.  My memory, like Roth’s memory, as Bailey shows here, will occasionally embellish and improve upon the actual event, though Bailey takes care to distinguish those embellishments from reality. Bailey also describes another, far more accomplished author who on television attacked Roth’s work, Truman Capote, accusing Roth of heading up some sort of "Jewish literary mafia" that lionized Jewish authors at the expense of their finer gentile peers (such as Capote, who was bitter about In Cold Blood being overlooked for national awards.) You can imagine Roth’s reaction to the accusation of being some sort of Jewish golden boy, and he made sure to include an emboldened goy in his next novel based on Capote spewing such ridiculous drivel.

Above all, Roth was a master prose stylist.  A perfectionist in his craft, he wrote sentences and paragraphs with consummate skill, even to a greater extent than he infused those words with thoughtful and challenging content.  He was a perfectionist who sought out the most demanding and exacting copyeditors he could find and delighted when they could suggest tiny improvements in his word-choices, his syntax, or even his reasoning. None of the writers he fought with in public could ever deny Roth’s facility with language, in a wide variety of voices, sometimes shpritzing his readers with a cascade of rapid-fire Catskills-style comedy and then shifting, where appropriate, to grave and somber tones.

Bailey covers Roth’s life and work thoroughly—I’ve followed both closely over the years, but I read with the most pleasure the parts of that life and work that I never knew about before: after a brilliant start to his career, publishing at the age of 26  the acclaimed novella Goodbye, Columbus (and assorted short stories, most of them models of the genre), Roth suffered through (and made me suffer through) nearly a decade of failed dramatic writing ("Nobody has ever written worse plays than me. Maybe Henry James"), two miserable, overlong novels (one suffering from Roth’s toxic exposure to Henry James’s most tedious novels)  and a complicated social life, replete with breakups, jiltings, and rejections, all of which I was perversely pleased to read about in ROTH—it’s always cheering to read about the fallow periods in a great writer’s career, knowing that he will emerge to write his greatest works, but finding out in the meantime how he coped with failure.

Roth’s breakthrough triumph, Portnoy’s Complaint, sealed his reputation as, among his many other distinctions, a hilarious comedian. He started writing it as "bits," in the manner of a comic, lampooning overly protective Jewish parents,  and lust-crazed teenaged boys, and neurotic single women on the loose in Manhattan, publishing these funny routines separately in various small literary journals, until it occurred to him that these broadly comic bits (Bailey might have referred to them as "schticklach," and then translated that as "comedy routines") could be collected to form a coherent novel, which is how Portnoy came to be, and how Roth found his literary voice.

He claimed to despise Portnoy’s success but he didn’t, of course, reject the moneys it earned for him, nor the freedom that money liberated him to live on during the rest of his long life, but even more than the jeering and the rude remarks he would hear from strangers on the street once he had become famous, he resented being pigeon-holed as Alexander Portnoy. "Do not understand me too quickly," the French novelist Andre Gide once implored the world (used by Norman Mailer as the epigraph to his third novel, The Deer Park), a sentiment that could have been Philip Roth’s personal credo. "You think I’m funny?" Roth challenged his readers. "I’m a serious author, handling the gravest of issues. Oh, now you think I’m some sort of pompous scholar? Well, I’m a satirist, lampooning politics and world events. So you think my satires are lightweight topical piffle? OK, I’ll give you a metafictional work now that questions the nature of truth and imagination and being—I’ll out-Swift Swift, out-Kafka Kafka" and on and on.

Some of these phases are solid gold, while others aspire to reach the levels of dross and dreck—I’ve always admired his metafictional work, very trendy in the 1970s, when he wrote The Breast (the only Roth novel I’ve dared to teach to college students, and perhaps the most emotionally stirring work of his career) and My Life as a Man, a complicated novel about writing novels, both highly self-referential but in vastly different ways,  and it’s pleasing to find out that Roth, too, numbered these metafictions (perhaps overlapping with his next period, in which he transformed into a kind of magic-realist) among his finest work—most critics condescended to them, even dismissed them, but I found the 1970s to be the pinnacle of Roth’s writerly powers. (My review of 1979’s The Ghost Writer was extremely positive—its too-cute title was "The Gripes of Roth," a pun that eventually must have graced a few dozen other essays about his work, though I’m not sure how much credit I deserve for coming up with it—maybe my editor gets the blame? Yes, I’ll give that one to him, if I’m ever asked.)

His later novels, particularly his last few, I could either take or leave, preferably leave, but even in this, I think his taste coincided with mine: he had the good sense to call it a career after writing a few works that I would as soon take my leave of—many another of Roth’s peers embarrassed themselves by publishing books that should never have been written, long after their powers had left them. I found The Human Stain, a late, complicated novel that got made into a terrible movie (with a terrific cast) to be among his masterpieces—I would recommend it, Portnoy, The Breast, My Life as a Man as starting points for anyone lucky enough to be beginning his or her reading of Roth’s work—but for some reason, I’ve never been able to read his other highly praised late novels (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist) with the same enthusiasm, or to read his "Nemesis" cluster with any at all. Maybe I should give them another try.

With film adaptations of his work, Roth had mostly rotten luck (but much filthy lucre) and I was glad to see that he placed much of the blame squarely on the miscasting of the light comical actor Richard Benjamin who played the dramatic leads in the film versions of both Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, the Dumb and Dumber of the movie world. (I sat through each with high expectations when they were released, and can’t quite believe that I did actually watch both all the way through, although in my defense, I’ll add that I was searching for my only on-screen cameo in a Fifth Avenue long-shot of Portnoy’s Complaint wherein I intruded my teenaged self into a crowd scene.) Roth felt, as who would not, that Al Pacino could have played both roles, as the "nebbishy" Benjamin was incapable, with force and dignity that might have turned either film into a powerful work of art.

In his latter decades, Roth took to using the personal gossip about him and the celebrity he’d earned (but wished banished) into an ingenious game in his published work, both fictional and non-fictional, which distinction he completely obliterated by writing about a character he called "Philip Roth" (sometimes more than one in the same work, the pair of which disliked but understood each other all too well) who corresponded with his fictional alter-egos, who sometimes counseled "Philip" (or Philip) to write about himself instead, or about a different alter-ego, to which Philip (or "Philip") would tell Nathan Zuckerman (or David Kepesh or Peter Tarnopol—it got too confusing to keep straight in novel after novel, memoir after memoir, and finally generic book after generic book) that he was real, or that he was a fictional creation, all the while confirming rumors about the real-life Philip Roth and his all-too-public private life (or denying those rumors) but whether these confirmations or denials were the truth, or just the facts, or a diversionary mixture of the imaginary with the all-too-real—well, after a while, six or ten books’ worth, I came to admire the game and the skill he played it with, but stopped caring entirely which events had happened and which had happened only in the author’s mind. Which, of course, was his goal, that the world would stop knowing and stop caring—but that didn’t mean to me that I needed to read yet another book about the deceptions the author was getting away with by writing books such as Deception in which he admitted he had lied to various lovers but which account he insisted was fictional—or, in the alternative, was the gospel truth. The publisher of Operation Shylock: a Confession (Roth changed publishers more often than publishers change typefaces) listed the book first as fiction, then as non-fiction (after Roth insisted that the Israeli secret service, of which he claimed to be a secret member, compelled him to list it as fiction), and so on and so forth. Oy, what a tangled web!

One final baseball observation for any BJOL readers still with me here: The Great American Novel, a hilariously verbose, high-spirited fantasy about baseball, is suited to its title because Roth has as much to say about the country, and its literature, as he does about its national pastime---that is, its ostensible subject is baseball, but it is one of the three or four works of fiction, ranking behind only one or two or maybe three of Mark Harris’s baseball novels, to observe the whole of U.S. culture and the people who inhabit it, including our love for ranking all things as the best and second- and third-best of their kind (as I have just cleverly done), or as the greatest or second-greatest etc.  I’m sure there were many book reviewers in 1973 who could not resist gobbling up the poisoned bait Roth’s title set out for them, and who (as he was inviting them to do) could not help pointing out that, good though it might be, it fell far short of The G.A.N., which was of course Roth’s point in bestowing that absurd title on any book. He forced the dimmer reviewers of books to be complicit in his critique of American simple-mindedness in creating dumb lists that show absolutely nothing but Americans’ ability to count, sometimes as high as ten, often just up to one or two.

Still and all, it’s A Pretty Damned Good American Novel, for all that: riotously funny in places, poignant in others (Luke Gofannon’s panegyric to the triple is an unforgettable example of the impassioned soliloquy), intricately designed, and obsessively narrated by an amazingly absurd, asinine, annoying, alliterative auteur-manque who calls himself Word Smith. It is also prescient about trends in baseball that, as of 1973, had barely begun: one of the characters in this multitudinous novel (multitudinousness being the unbreachable hurdle for most authors attempting to characterize accurately a complete baseball roster, its opponents, managers, coaches, owners, etc.) is a pipsqueak who tries quantifying the sport in a way that no other character takes seriously, but which in 1973 Bill James was just beginning to scribble notes about. This pre-sabermetric character, taking primitive statistical analysts like Earnshaw Cook and Allan Roth to the nth degree, invents all sorts of ways to make baseball more efficient (less bunting, more selective base-stealing, etc.) but is thoroughly stifled by the stodgy baseball establishment that knows all and, as Roth typifies his adversaries, needs to learn nothing new about the game.

Finally, I must commend Blake Bailey on the simplicity of his title: Philip Roth: the Biography.  Staring at the book’s spine now, at the simple four-letter word ROTH, with no judgmental or elaborating sub-title, I’m reminded of Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that a complete biography of a great writer is an impossibility because a great writer is too many people. Rather than trying to bind Philip Roth’s sixty-year career into a nutshell, Bailey recognizes him as a king of infinite space, as a writer too varied to be categorized, as a wit too fast to be pinned down, as a man who asserted his humanity in all its forms, and so Bailey calls his masterful biography of a master, who wrote about himself and his world perhaps "better than anyone else," by that simple descriptive title. "Here is the flawed but brilliant human being," Bailey implies. "Here is the tremendous but uneven body of work. You may try to put some sort of all-encompassing label on either.  I give you both. I give you roth."









COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

There's an article in 'Harper's' of Roth reviewing his biography. Its clever and it sounds right.
11:46 AM Apr 5th
I'm re-reading 'Portnoy's Complaint' because of this review. Thanks, what a great book. I'll read the biography soon. Wovenstrap, don't listen to the fools who teach you. Misogyny my ass. Read everything, especially what is forbidden and frowned upon. Don't let your world be restricted by the thoughts of others. Don't trust authority, think for yourself. There's an interesting world out there enjoy it.
11:32 AM Apr 5th
Steven Goldleaf
Inneresting. I am watching (for the first time!!!) BONNIE AND CLYDE right now as a direct result of reading that book, half of which concerns the writing and filming of that movie. I should look at MY LIFE AS A MAN again--I've been relying on 50-year-old memories so far, and my memory just ain't that good. Maybe I'll agree with you, but I remember feeling exhilarated by the lively, clean prose (and the trickiness of the form) in Roth's capable hands. I didn't think it was confessional, just imaginative. but then again I didn't know how closely it followed Roth's life either.
1:38 PM Apr 3rd
I'm reading that Harris book right now, as it happens. Pictures at a Revolution, about the 5 Oscar-nominated movies of 1967. Brilliant conceit, brilliant execution.
1:15 PM Apr 3rd
That's interesting. It is a shame that Huck Finn is no longer fit for classrooms in the sense you intend. That sucks.

On "My Life as a Man," I think it is worth saying a few words about why that book, IMO, fails as literature, or fails for the uses in which it was presumably intended. I can respect Roth's guts in letting that book find its way into print. He was definitely unafraid and I can respect that. The first thought that enters my mind is that the intense feelings of hatred/disgust/contempt that Tarnopol exhibits in that book prevent one from "liking" him, in the simple, ordinary, Hollywood sense of relatability that a narrative in some sense requires. But it's not as simple as that, I am NOT looking for a stupidly relatable protagonist on which to attach my narrative desires. (Here it must be said that the continual problem/issue of Roth's works simply being very autobiographical plays a role. The book's array of qualities would play differently if it were about a surfer in Hawaii. It's not, it's about a Jewish writer in New York City.) I think there is an excess of the negative hateful feelings that causes the book to be out of balance, and therefore forces me as the reader to stop thinking about Tarnopol and start thinking about Roth. This to me is a failure of fiction. I did not pick up the book wanting to spend energy wondering about whether Roth himself is unhinged or not — but that's where he took me. I wanted to invest in the artful depiction of character and plot but Roth was not, frankly, sane enough to permit that. I'm being harsh but that's how the book struck me. As a failure because he could not get out of the way of his own autobiographical issues in the project of composing a work of, y'know, fiction.
1:08 PM Apr 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
wovenstrap--you raise some interesting questions about language and registers changing over decades--what was fine in the 1970s may not be so today, or in the 1990s. Back in the 70s, it was sufficient (for me) to feel empathy for Roth's character being deceived by a woman to justify the anger he vented. Nowadays, I suspect there is NO justification for spewing the way he did, and that's a shame. I've told this before, but I finished grad school in the 1980s and taught HUCK FINN shortly afterwards for a few years until that class (American Lit I and II) became a non-stop discussion of the "offensive" name Twain gave to a major character--I finally had to stop teaching the book because I wanted to spend a little class time discussing anything else, but my desire to move on in itself became a cause for complaint: why aren't we discussing this important topic, professor? Uh, because the discussion bores the bejezus out of me? Note that I won't even type the "offensive" word here because I don't want to start that shit. To my mind, in fiction, the whole idea or one of them, anyway, is to offend people--these are imaginary people standing in for real people precisely so we can discuss how they are presented in the book and not their real selves, which do not exist. So Roth's character is pissed off at women, or at Jews, or homosexual Martians? Fine, deal with that character or his/her/their portrayal, but don't censor Roth, and don't act high-and-mighty that he's raising a subject you're uncomfortable with.
6:34 AM Apr 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
As to THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, I was underwhelmed, which "high expectations" will do to ya every time, but I did find a parallel with THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL that I don't know if anyone else has made much of: both books are alternate histories of the U.S. in the 1940s, one suffering from an excess of silliness (which lent a quality of linguistic fun to the book), the other suffering from an excess of somberness (which made the novel less witty and less fun for me to trudge through.) Themes in THE PLOT that Roth had used before--like the aunt's romantic adventures with the turncoat rabbi--were less imaginative, I thought. (In THE GHOST WRITER, I think, Roth's single aunt was imaginatively fixed up with a surviving post-Holocaust Franz Kafka who emigrated to the U.S.--that was fun speculation. The second time around, not so much--but that's Goldleaf's Complaint about a lot of Roth, reusing material that was only so interesting the first time around. I got tired of reading the same book in different guises after a long while.)
5:50 AM Apr 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for the kind words, gentlemen.

I would do Harlan Ellison or Mike Nichols if I could find some baseball connection. I actually went to school with a girl who lived with Ellison (she has nothing good to say about him), and I just read a GREAT book about films of the mid-60s by the author of the Nichols biography, Mark Harris (NOT the author of Bang the Drum Slowly, though that was why I picked up the book in the first place. Another Mark Harris, though just as good a writer.)

As to Marc's point, a lot of Jewish stereotypes that were objected to in Roth's work reinforced biases but not all. In his story "Defender of the Faith," for example, his villain was a Jewish soldier who connived his way out of combat but his hero and narrator was another Jewish soldier who forced him into a combat unit. The objectors asked "Why show a cowardly Jew at all?" and Roth's answer was "Did you notice the heroic Jew I put into that story?" and the objectors came back with "Yes, but why tell that story at all? It puts us in a bad light, shows Jews as cheaters, and connivers" and Roth came back again with "Um, the heroic Jew who appears in the story? Do I get credit for that?" and basically the answer was "no."
10:42 PM Apr 2nd
Marc Schneider
Great review, Steven.

I have read a fair number of Roth's works but not nearly his entire ouvre. I'm curious as to your thoughts about "The Plot Against America", which should certainly dispell any thought that Roth was a "self-hating Jew" (which, of course, is attached to anyone who does not share the approved opinions).

On the other hand, it seems to me that Roth, like most novelists, has an inflated sense of self-worth and belief that he has some sort of duty to write the truth as he sees it without regard to the harm it may cause. The fact is, many of the novels that Jewish groups found most offensive were written not that long after the Holocaust, when people had reason to worry about the reception of gentiles to the kind of stereotypes presented in some of Roth's works. It's not as if anti-semitism didn't and doesn't exist in America.
5:14 PM Apr 2nd
We may have lived parallel lives (that is, as much as someone growing up Catholic in northwest Jersey could possibly be with you) in non-parallel ways, and my discovery of Roth occurred in high school with Portnoy, and continued over the next forty-something years. I recall Sports Illustrated running an excerpt from The Great American Novel (I think I was in college at the time), and the great Gil Gamesh. Some lines seem even more appropriate today than ever ("We wuz all fast once, Kid."). In any event, I enjoy your work very much and look forward to each one. To paraphrase a line from "Marty," "That (Stephen Goldleaf), he sure can write."
10:08 AM Apr 2nd
Do Harlan Ellison. THERE'S a bundle of contradictions if ever there were any.
9:53 AM Apr 2nd
Excellent work, Steven. Now do the new Mike Nichols bio!

I know it's well meant but I would hesitate before recommending My Life as a Man to anyone. I don't know how it came off in the 1970s but when I got to it in the 1990s (I'm younger than you) the misogyny was just too much. The best parts of the book document his transference with his shrink. I don't know. I'd rather put it in a closet, I think.
6:49 PM Apr 1st
Great review, thank you.
4:54 PM Apr 1st
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