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Philip Roth biography: Compelling chronicle of a great unrehabilitated American master

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The great agitator – Philip Roth in New York in 2010

The great agitator – Philip Roth in New York in 2010

Philip Roth: The Biography

Philip Roth: The Biography

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The great agitator – Philip Roth in New York in 2010

In 1960, Philip Roth visited Dublin with William Styron. Roth had just won the National Book Award in the United States with Goodbye, Columbus, a novella and four stories. He was the youngest winner of the prize and together with a Guggenheim Fellowship under his belt, he made the trip to Europe. While their wives went shopping, Styron, who was about to publish his third novel, but yet to pen Sophie’s Choice, and the precocious Roth went to find “some good clean fun” in Ireland’s literary capital.  

Dublin was a disappointment to the American writers. Trinity was covered in scaffolding, the Guinness brewery was closed, and Joyce’s Liffey was full of mud and garbage; the food was vile, and to Roth’s mind, the women repressed. It was, Styron later reflected, “a pathetic odyssey”.

Roth returned to the States to dedicate himself to a blistering and brilliant career as one of America’s greatest novelists, and in Blake Bailey’s compelling and sympathetic biography, we learn in intimate detail of his ferocious commitment to his writing, his triumphs, and his many further disappointments. In that sense, this, the official biography, is a comprehensive and chronological account at over 800 pages, but don’t let the length put you off.

This is a wonderfully engaging biography, tracing Roth’s lower middle-class Jewish upbringing in Weequahic, Newark; his college life as both a sardonic and brilliant student who edited a magazine before teaching as a post-graduate in Chicago, and writing his first fiction.

Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow were lifelong touchstone authors for Roth. John Updike, he held, mostly, in the highest esteem. And for the record, he despised Woody Allen. Roth’s dictum for his own writing was “let the repellent in”, and he did so to shock and excite readers’ tastes across the world, especially in his third, breakthrough novel Portnoy’s Complaint, which freed his voice, especially after the death of his first wife from whom he was separated, and his subsequent psychoanalytic treatment.

The confessional complaint, and self-fictionalising style led to accusations of anti-Semitism against which Roth railed; he was, in any case, first and foremost, an American writer, he protested. He was also an atheist, who revealed that he sometimes knelt to pray at his estate in Connecticut. Having spent time at Yadoo, an artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, Roth wanted to possess his own Yadoo, and with the substantial income from his books, he did just that, buying a 150-acre estate in Warren, Connecticut, which became what he once called the “fiction factory”.

His isolation helped him follow Flaubert’s rule to live an orderly life so that the writing could be wild and original. And Roth was a mercilessly disciplined writer who did not flinch to write the truth, as he saw it, of himself and his times. His output was staggering, and he wrote over 30 books. Bailey’s many extended interviews with Roth and others supplement his research which the biographer weaves expertly so that we see, as Roth proclaims, how Art is Life.

 

Of course, Roth had many love affairs. His longest relationship was with the actress Claire Bloom, who became his second wife, and whose memoir Leaving a Doll’s House caused Roth considerable pain. He considered suing but was persuaded not to; he never forgave what he perceived as a tarnishing of his reputation and he was suspicious of whether Bloom had even written the book herself. And yet, there are many infidelities, encounters and otherwise in Blake’s account which make the reader wince – details of Roth’s private and sex life in other words. Still sex and desire were a preoccupation and subject for his entire writing life; his breakdowns, affairs and failing health are in all his novels.

A lifelong disciple of Kafka, Roth travelled to Prague in the 1970s to meet writers who were prosecuted under the Soviet-backed totalitarian Czech regime; the result was a Penguin book series, Writers from the Other Europe, which included work by Milan Kundera. Roth also visited Israel many times; his research can be seen most conspicuously in his postmodern novel Operation Shylock. That was followed in 1995 by Sabbath’s Theater which was Roth’s favourite novel.

In his American trilogy American Pastoral / I Married a Communist / The Human Stain — however, Roth took on a historical examination of American life. Surprising to his publishers, and perhaps to Roth himself, was his bestseller, The Plot Against America in 2004 which imagines a scenario in which Charles Lindbergh had won the US election and anti-Semitism becomes acceptable in the 1940s. 

Through the decades, Roth continued to win prizes and critical acclaim. At the age of 80, a celebration and conference were held in Roth’s honour, and his great friend Edna O’Brien gave the most memorable speech, describing Roth as “feared and revered, plagiarised, envied, hermit and jester, lover and hater”.

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Tipped regularly to win the Nobel Prize, it was a garland he was never to be awarded, much to the dismay of many of his admirers. When Bob Dylan won in 2016, the first American to secure it since Toni Morrison, 23 years previously, Roth responded with his signature mischievousness. “It’s OK,” he said, “but next year I hope Peter, Paul and Mary get it.”

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Philip Roth: The Biography

Philip Roth: The Biography

Philip Roth: The Biography

His generosity to others was amply evident, in the time he gave, and in the money he gifted. One of his own autobiographies, Patrimony, tells of the tender care and close bond he had with his dying father, a hard-working man all his life who was proud of his son. Roth was chastened by his father’s death and reminded “you must not forget anything”.

“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” Roth told his biographer. “Just make me interesting.” Though there was never any fear of his life story being anything but; Bailey must be commended on a riveting read of a great American master.


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