This review appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

Philip Roth: A Counterlife
by Ira Nadel
(Oxford UP, 2021)

Philip Roth: The Biography
by Blake Bailey
(Norton, 2021)

All writers are egoists. They believe their work is valuable and they have the right to put it before everything else in life. Nice writers—Henry James, Anton Chekhov, Stephen Crane—are rare; nasty ones—Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Genet—are more common. When Philip Roth (1933–2018) helped a mourner throw ceremonial dirt into a grave, the stumbling man ungratefully said it was the only “known act of kindness in Roth’s life.”

Roth’s deceitful first wife, Maggie Martinson, trapped him into marriage by buying urine from another woman to prove she was pregnant. She then pretended to have an abortion and cruelly tormented him till she was killed in a car crash. He had love affairs with dozens of attractive, eager, and vulnerable young women who were coldly cast off when he got bored or they wanted marriage and children. His great wealth—a million dollars from Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969—he initially spent on custom-made suits, the Ritz Hotel, and first-class passage on ocean liners. His life was marked by Old Testament anger and vengeance, a long history of physical and mental illness, his desire for solitude and fear of loneliness.

His second wife, the English actress Claire Bloom, condemned him in her memoir Leaving the Doll’s House (1996).  Deeply in love with Roth but bitter about his behavior, she eviscerated him as rigid, domineering, ill-tempered, poisonous, hateful, caustic, and cruel. His intimate friend the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien described him more sympathetically as “feared and revered, plagiarized and envied, hermit and jester, lover and hater.”

Ira Nadel praises his editor yet has produced a deeply flawed book. He includes in Philip Roth: A Counterlife many trivial facts and hundreds of boring repetitions, often on the same page and in the same paragraph. His massive confusion of notes and pointless disruption of chronology are excruciating. His unfocused, disorienting preface jumps around with quotes from a dozen different novels, and his parenthetical citations break up the flow of his swampy prose. Nadel matches real life people to fictional characters, and offers superficial plot summaries, but relies on reviews of Roth’s books by more perceptive critics. He repeatedly says that Roth’s conversation was witty but gives no examples of his wit. He resorts to unconvincing pop psychology but never explains what insights Roth gained from twenty years of analysis. Although Roth said that Exit Ghost was influenced by Conrad, Nadel’s claim that Conrad’s somber Shadow-Line influenced Roth’s slangy “New Jersey style” is absurd.

Blake Bailey began work on his book in 2012 and enjoyed extraordinary cooperation from Roth. He had extensive interviews and access to his personal papers, including hundreds of unpublished pages both addressed to his biographer and written to counterattack Claire Bloom’s devastating condemnation. Many life-writers who spend a decade on a book begin to dislike their subjects for devouring their lives. By contrast, Bailey has remained sympathetic and perceptive, and made excellent use of all this material. His biography is intelligent and well written, very long but readable to the end. This heavy book is easy to hold, has (amazingly) no typos or errors, includes good photos of Roth’s harem, and provides an excellent index.

Bailey is hostile to Roth’s original biographer, Ross Miller, nephew of Arthur Miller and professor at the University of Connecticut, who plays an unusually prominent role in this book. Miller infuriated Roth by his glacial progress, conducting only eleven interviews between 1996 and 2009 while many crucial informants died. He did a poor job of annotating Roth’s Library of America edition, claimed that he’d actually coauthored Roth’s novels, and was finally condemned by Roth as a “mean, insatiably vilifying spirit.” But Bailey should be grateful to Miller, who returned his four boxes of research, which helped him to write this biography. It compensates for all the delays of Miller and defects of Nadel, and appears when Roth is dead and can no longer criticize it.

Roth’s learned and illuminating allusions to other writers reveal the quality of his mind. It’s worth noting that Bailey misses many of them and attributes the quotes to Roth himself: character is fate: Heraclitus (392); overflow of powerful emotions: Wordsworth (687); the happy few: Stendhal (377); imp of the perverse: Poe (737); now that spring is here: Browning (168); opium of the people: Marx (382); insulted and injured: Dostoyevsky (794); be shameless in your work: Flaubert (578); Education of Philip Roth: Education of Henry Adams (509); crazy sister in the attic: Jane Eyre (327); biography adds new terror to death: Wilde (728); who’s loved by parents is a conquistador: Freud (7); cast a cold eye: Yeats (748); wound and bow: Edmund Wilson (728); beginning of a beautiful friendship: Casablanca (125); Form and Value: Richard Blackmur (235). The “Indian woman” whom Lowell loved was the Latvian-born Indian dancer Vija Vetra (226).

Roth’s marriages to the deranged and treacherous Maggie and to the bitter and vindictive Claire Bloom were the most traumatic and puzzling events in his life. He chose a “bitter, impoverished, sexually undesirable divorceé” with two children instead of the more sane and promising model for the heroine of Goodbye, Columbus. He feared he would kill Maggie if he stayed with her or she would kill herself if he left.  Roth wondered why he needed to torture himself (as Saul Bellow did with his first three wives). But he had to get this valuable material “to turn the shit of that marriage into a book.” He had to be driven crazy to help him see what happened to him. Destructive women forced him to look deeper into himself and understand his motives and behavior. The saddest moment of his life occurred when he was forced to cut off relations with Maggie’s 15-year-old daughter, Helen, whom he’d rescued from a terrible life, patiently educated, and dearly loved. But he had to sever his last connection with Maggie to prevent her from falsely accusing him of sexually molesting Helen.

Maggie was his preferred physical type: petite, thin, blonde, and Gentile. In photographs she and her successor Ann Mudge look like sisters. Other women, Lucy Warner and Lisa Halliday, similar. When Roth tired of his lovers, needed new inspiration, and rejected them, two women tried to commit suicide from despair or to win him back. Fond of adultery, which prevented commitment, he was even unfaithful to those he was unfaithful with. Maggie inspired a deep distrust of women, and he retreated from romantic attachments as if fleeing from a blazing fire. Most of his lovers achieved a kind of anguished immortality in his bed and in his books.

Roth also courted celebrities and movie stars. After their date, Jackie Kennedy said, “Do you want to come upstairs?  Of course you do,” and assured him that her children were sleeping. If Aristotle Onassis, why not Philip Roth? But he confessed that he wasn’t up to more than a farewell kiss. When Nicole Kidman, starring in the film version of The Human Stain, forgot their date, Roth was furious and drove off in his hired limousine. She later remarked, “Tell him to grow up.” He had better luck with Ava Gardner, who aroused Bloom’s jealousy, and with the winsome Mia Farrow, who incited his hatred of Woody Allen. Bailey follows Roth’s sexual trail and tactfully manages to reveal a great deal about his lovers, taste, and stellar performance.

Like Chekhov trying to extinguish his family history of serfdom, Roth tried to “squeeze the Nice Jewish Boy out of himself drop by drop.” But he remained a satirical writer and savage man, selfish, ruthless and unforgiving, angry, aggressive and fueled by hate. He fantasized about sitting on a riverbank and watching the corpses of all his enemies float by. He didn’t want to die and leave behind everything that he hated. Decades of analysis did not calm Roth down. His psychiatrist was an old fraud. He dozed during their sessions, thrived on salacious gossip, reduced everyone to problems with suffocating mothers—though Roth’s mother was loving and benign—and published an article obviously about his famous patient.

Roth demanded absolute loyalty and devotion from all his friends, and expected them to rush to his aid during his frequent medical crises—back pain and heart disease—and his nervous breakdowns. When he was carted off to bypass surgery, Bloom followed the gurney, wept and cried out, “What about me?” Roth left his devoted first agent Candida Donadio and his superb editor Aaron Asher; despised hostile critics Norman Podhoretz and Irving Howe; disliked rivals Harold Brodkey and Truman Capote; rejected treacherous minor novelists Alan Lelchuk and Francine Gray; and quarreled with serious competitors John Updike and Norman Mailer, who threatened to beat him up. Roth adored the boring critic Alfred Kazin and was shocked to discover from his posthumous journal that “one of his idols had loathed him.”

Roth had many positive qualities. He was handsome, intelligent, amusing, and a stimulating teacher. Generous with money (he gave one lover $100,000), he provided valuable assistance to Claire Bloom and to dissident Czech writers. On the basis of only two stories translated from Romanian, he sponsored Norman Manea and got him a Guggenheim, a MacArthur, and a permanent position at Bard College.  “But Roth emerges from this book, in his own words, as ‘an interesting shit.’”

Roth adored Kafka, especially The Metamorphosis, which he called the “best trans-species story.” A Kafka manuscript was his most precious possession, and in Prague he spent days walking around the Old Town, the Jewish ghetto and the Jewish cemetery where Kafka was buried. At the University of Pennsylvania, Roth taught a Kafka-dominated course, which could have been called “Studies in Guilt and Persecution,” and asked his students to write a letter, like Kafka’s accusatory “Letter to His Father,” to their own parent. In Roth’s novel The Professor of Desire, the hero dreams of visiting Kafka’s old prostitute in Prague and questioning her about her client. In his essay on Kafka, “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting,” Roth portrays his “oedipal timidity, perfectionist madness, and insatiable longing for solitude and spiritual purity.”

In Reading Myself and Others (1975), he explained that “my view of life . . . is imbedded in parody, burlesque, slapstick, ridicule, insult, invective, lampoon, wisecrack, in nonsense, in levity, in play.” Roth’s serious themes are Jews and politics, idealism and conscience, sex and beauty, old age and threat of death. He created many memorable scenes and characters: the comic suicide threat in “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959), when the hero climbs onto the roof of a synagogue and forces the frightened spectators to agree with his bizarre religious beliefs; the portrait of Saul Bellow as Felix Abravanel in The Ghost Writer (1979); the re-creation of Anne Frank, as if she’d survived the extermination camp, in The Anatomy Lesson (1983); the attempt to hijack an El Al airplane in The Counterlife (1986). Refuting the attacks by Claire Bloom, he portrays her as Eve Frame, in I Married a Communist (1988), a self-loathing, anti-Semitic Jew who endures physical assaults by her vengeful and overweight daughter. He also penned wicked condemnations of his hostile critics. Irving Howe appeared as Milton Appel in The Anatomy Lesson; Michiko Kakutani was skewered as Kimiko Kakizaki, “the Japanese viperina,” in Sabbath’s Theater (1995). Eight of his novels, from Goodbye, Columbus to American Pastoral, were made into films.

Employing savage indignation to castigate and amuse, Roth wrote more than thirty books in his impressive fifty-year career. But he usually modeled his fictional characters on real people and his autobiographical novels were flawed by his narcissism. He had great understanding but little feeling for anyone except himself. He lacked Bellow’s brilliant mind and coruscating style, Bernard Malamud’s kindness and human warmth.

The recent publication of Bellow’s Letters (2010), Essays (2015), and major two-volume biography by Zachary Leader (2015 and 2018) suggest that his reputation is still high. Bellow remains, with Vladimir Nabokov, the greatest American novelist since World War II. Roth’s lively letters will soon be published, and he’ll continue to be admired by serious readers.

Since this review was commissioned, Blake Bailey has been accused of sexual misconduct and his book withdrawn from the Norton catalog. I believe judgment of his biography of Roth should be kept separate from that of his personal life.  Bailey’s abandonment by his publisher and agent was a strategic rather than a moral move. Although this was publicly damaging, Bailey did get his substantial advance. He will receive royalties from his high-volume initial sales, and from the paperback and electronic editions released by Skyhorse.

I also think Bailey should be judged by the fundamental principle of American law: innocent until proved guilty. He’s been accused by women admittedly angered by his great success but, as of early autumn 2021, no evidence has been presented in court to substantiate these accusations.

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, is most recently the author of Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy, among many other books.