Cynthia Ozick Calls the New Philip Roth Biography a ‘Narrative Masterwork’

The Biography
By Blake Bailey

The 19th-century novel lives on. Its name today is Biography; its nature is that of Dostoyevskian magnitude. And Blake Bailey’s comprehensive life of Philip Roth — to tell it outright — is a narrative masterwork both of wholeness and particularity, of crises wedded to character, of character erupting into insight, insight into desire, and desire into destiny. Roth was never to be a mute inglorious Milton. To imagine him without fame is to strip him bare.

Recognition came quickly. It began first with the fairly conventional praise of “Letting Go” and “When She Was Good,” Roth’s two earliest novels, when he was still under the influence of the graduate student’s devotion to the classic quasi-Jamesian propriety that defined Literature as hallowed. Yet he had already published “Goodbye, Columbus,” a collection of stories that included “Eli, the Fanatic,” “Defender of the Faith” and “The Conversion of the Jews.” Even before the implosion of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” he was notorious — most markedly among Jews — for the shaming and defaming of Jews. A well-brought-up suburban young woman of the ’50s ought not to be depicted as brazenly owning a diaphragm. A young man from a respectable family ought not to be masturbating with an uncooked liver intended to be eaten for dinner.

Worse yet, a Jewish draftee ought not to be shown as a slacker who pretends shul-going piety in order to evade cleaning the barracks on the Sabbath. A spiteful Hebrew school brat ought not to threaten to jump off the roof of the synagogue unless the rabbi kneel before him and publicly declare himself a believer in the miraculous birth of Jesus. (A mischievous Rothian gesture designed to injure, with a single blow, the sensibilities of readers both Jewish and Christian.)

Indignant rabbinical sermons proliferated, and in 1969 when “Portnoy’s Complaint” was published and the uproar of Jewish bitterness grew louder, its more lighthearted buyers in their boisterous thousands were captivated, and Roth, still in his 30s, was catapulted to instant renown. From the viewpoint of the sermonizers, the malicious calumnies of Goebbels that had led to the chimneys were being trafficked anew, inconceivably by an American Jew. What Roth saw, himself bruised and embittered by these vilifications, was ignorant philistinism by minds impenetrable to the comical and freewheeling and antic liberties of good-natured satire.

But “Portnoy” had harvested antagonists who could hardly be dismissed as unsophisticated humorless philistines. Gershom Scholem, the pre-eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, decried the novel as worse than the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” And the formidably intelligent critic Irving Howe, while asserting that “Portnoy” “has become a cultural document of some importance,” wrote scathingly in Commentary magazine of Roth’s “free-floating contempt and animus,” adding that “the cruelest thing anyone can do with ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ is to read it twice” — a quip in Roth’s own vein. Revenge on Howe came a decade later in “The Anatomy Lesson,” in the fictional form of Milton Appel, a self-righteously moralizing academic critic who assaults the scandalous fiction of the fictional novelist Nathan Zuckerman. In one of Roth’s grandest and most copious rants, Zuckerman strikes back: “I’m a ‘case,’ I have a ‘career,’ you of course have a calling. Oh, I’ll tell you your calling — President of the Rabbinical Society for the Suppression of Laughter in the Interest of Loftier Values! Minister of the Official Style for Jewish Books Other Than the Manual for Circumcision,” and other such scorchings. (At the peak of this posthumous moment of rapturous reappraisal of Roth, to read again Howe’s full and contentious 1972 review may be historically enlightening.)

This early skirmish was neither incidental nor marginal nor ephemeral; it cut deep and long. It was fundamental and inescapable and even prophetic of the work to come, especially “The Plot Against America,” where Jews are insidiously trapped by a scheming fascist-style president, and “Operation Shylock,” set in Israel and furiously on fire with Zionists and anti-Zionists. Put aside the irony of a charge of anti-Semitism hurled against a writer for whom anti-Semitism was one of his most visceral antipathies. Under this irony lurked another: Roth’s lifelong insistence that he was not a “Jewish writer,” but a writer, above all an American writer — never mind that his fiction was largely preoccupied with Jews, from a reimagined Anne Frank (“The Ghost Writer”) to Alvin Pepler, the aggrieved former contestant in a rigged TV quiz show (“Zuckerman Unbound”). Open nearly any novel by Roth, and see the Jewish names overflow.

But apart from the presence of so many Jewish characters in the body of work, was the novelist himself to be taken as a communal representative? As a leading public figure with the capacity either to inspire (à la Einstein) or to disgrace (à la Roth)? This question was one that Roth was compelled to face up to, always with heated conviction, on too many occasions. He once declared: “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me. If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” In a 2014 interview he went on to explain as no other American writer, from Henry Adams to Henry James to John Updike, has felt called on to validate:

“The American republic is 238 years old. My family has been here 120 years or for just more than half of America’s existence. They arrived during the second term of President Grover Cleveland, only 17 years after the end of Reconstruction. Civil War veterans were in their 50s. Mark Twain was alive. Sarah Orne Jewett was alive. Henry Adams was alive. All were in their prime. Walt Whitman was dead just two years. Babe Ruth hadn’t been born. If I don’t measure up as an American writer, at least leave me to my delusion.”

A biographer’s ingenuity, and certainly Bailey’s, is to mold mere chronology — a heap of undifferentiated facts and events — into more than trajectory: into coherent theme. As in a novel, what is seen at first to be casual chance is revealed at last to be a steady and powerfully demanding drive. A beginning attraction may be erotic happenstance; its fulfillment in marriage can be predictable hell, and for Roth not once but twice. The same holds for his most inflammatory fiction, as when the playfully priapic young Portnoy becomes in time the chaotically disintegrating satyr Mickey Sabbath of “Sabbath’s Theater.” It is Sabbath who personifies the meaning of Roth’s imagination: the will to “affront and affront and affront till there was no one on earth unaffronted.” Yet to apply platitudes such as épater la bourgeoisie as either a dominating motive or a defining motif of Roth’s work is to fall into undercooked language. His overriding intent is nothing less than to indict humanity’s archenemy, whose name is Nemesis (also the title of Roth’s final novel). “No,” Roth’s fictional avatar argues in “Operation Shylock,” “a man’s character isn’t his fate; a man’s fate is the joke that his life plays on his character.”

Life itself, then, could affront and ridicule and even torment the provocateur: the mocker brutally mocked by personal reality. Maggie Martinson, a divorcée with two children and a mild literary bent, turns out to be a virulent haranguer and harpy and deceiver, who, by means worthy of a bawdy Chaucerian fabliau (faked pregnancy, faked abortion), tricks an unwilling Roth into marriage. The relentless anguish of these years of fury and threat and legal retaliation comes to a violent end when Maggie is killed in a car crash and Roth is suddenly liberated. A second marriage, to the British Claire Bloom, starts out dazzlingly — the pairing of two acclaimed artists, actor and novelist, with Roth writing teleplays explicitly to serve Bloom’s talents. But he was ultimately repelled by Bloom’s bizarre and consuming fixation on Anna Steiger, her daughter from an earlier marriage, and an aspiring opera singer. The stepfather-stepdaughter loathing was mutual. He was also put off by Bloom’s casual anti-Semitism (despite that her paternal grandparents were named Blumenthal and her maternal grandparents Gravitsky, all four emigrants to Britain from Grodno, Belarus), as well as by the pervasive British anti-Semitism he encountered while living in London. Grievance followed grievance when Roth’s “I Married a Communist,” a withering and purposefully recognizable portrayal of Bloom, repaid in full her own vindictive “Leaving a Doll’s House.” Once again a former lover morphs into a vengeful enemy, and Bloom’s version of Roth as an unfeeling misogynist persists until this day.

These calamities were accompanied by the harrowing illnesses, surgeries, agonies, suicidal breakdowns, panics, depressions and drug-induced psychiatric disorientations that dogged Roth for much of his life. And meanwhile, in the intervals between these disabling episodes, came the parade of book after book (31 in toto), award after award, and lover after lover, some long-lasting, others petering out when staleness set in, or when the heat of romance turned into genuine friendship. Marriage was now anathema, but the lure of attractive and loyal young women never cooled, however fraught circumstances otherwise were.

Nor has the charge of misogyny waned, abetted by the roster of smitten young women, soon to be judged as discarded. (“Feminism as the new righteousness,” Roth groused in one of his private notes.) His wooing was sometimes extravagant, even excessive: He hired a limousine to take Brigit (a pseudonym), age 29 — he was then in his 70s — on a shopping spree at the most fashionable emporia, where a “little black dress” was priced at $1,490. The total came to $2,563. Reputation had made him rich; he now owned secluded property in sylvan upscale Connecticut.

And Brigit was as eager as he; she performed a solitary striptease at his bedside, and chose the paint color for her own space when she moved in. Inevitably, if not frequently, not all these pleasing liaisons, long or short, ended peacefully. Ann Mudge, a WASP blue blood whose father was a Pittsburgh steel mogul, was suicidal when her years with Roth during much of the ’60s collapsed. Lucy Warner decamped of her own will. “I can’t save you, Philip. I’m only 22,” she told him.

But if fallings-out with ardently consensual women were mainly Roth’s doings, earning him the misogynist label, how to explain his ruptures with longstanding friends who were men? One such friendship was with Ross Miller, a writer and a nephew of Arthur Miller whom he recruited as a surrogate to punish Bloom for her “serious and libelous distortions of reality” in “Doll’s House.” His scheme was to devise his own corrective biography, ostensibly with Miller as authorized author, while behind the scenes Roth would, in effect, ghostwrite it with proddings and minute supervisions of method and means. Miller’s approach angered Roth: The proposal’s most deleterious thrust, he complained, was “The Story of My Penis.” The project came to nothing, and so, eventually, did the friendship. Miller, he decided, was anyhow a crappy writer.

It was an early sign of Roth’s growing propensity to design and steer his own image. At Yaddo, the woodsy artists’ retreat to which he had fled to escape the wearying clamor of celebrity, he met Alan Lelchuk, a 30-year-old writer inspired by Roth’s trespassing iconoclasm. Roth, who had mentored the progress of Lelchuk’s “American Mischief” toward its ultimate success, had once again happened on a compliant confederate. Because Saul Bellow and the influential Philip Rahv had both dismissed “The Breast,” the plan was to rebuff and rebut his critics in a significant literary venue. A carefully prepared interview, wholly Roth-generated, was to appear in The New York Review of Books, with Lelchuk as supportive interlocutor and Roth in full command of the defense. But since no king will respect either his valet or his vassal, Lelchuk, like Miller before him, was soon to be disposed of: He too, Roth concluded, was a crappy writer. “He needs an English teacher,” he said.

Yet another relationship was doomed to darken: Richard Stern, whose close friendship of five decades Roth had long relished for its omni-devouring intellectual rowdiness, a mind much like his own, and for the robustness of Stern’s literary voice. Though Roth heartily acknowledged him as a peer, Stern’s reputation was static and nearly invisible. His unspoken underground frustration as he witnessed his friend’s high-voltage public soaring finally burst into a mutual thrashing: Roth had disparaged Stern’s last novel, and Stern retaliated. His own prose, he told Roth, had always been “barer, quicker, less intense and striking than yours,” but “yours perhaps errs in the direction of excess, beating a subject to death or boredom.” And Joel Conarroe, whose ubiquitous presence became nearly a family affair (her “other son,” Roth’s mother affirmed), was from early on an all-purpose champion and affable enabler. “What’s my next assignment, boss?” he once joked. But for Roth there was no joking about a public letter Conarroe had signed, intended to protest the revocation of Amiri Baraka’s honorary post as poet laureate of New Jersey. Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) had published a poisonous ditty implying that the Jews were behind the destruction of the twin towers. “A ranting, demagogic, anti-Semitic liar, and a ridiculously untalented poet to boot,” Roth thundered, lashing Conarroe for being a liar himself: He had concealed from his friend his endorsement of the letter (though he later withdrew his signature). The breach was patched up, but the nature of the outrage remained unforgiven.

“I have chosen to make art of my vices rather than what I take to be my virtues,” Roth commented in a rare unironical admission that he had virtues. The range and depth of his self-effacing philanthropy — his lavish personal generosity to individuals — has never been visible, but his “Writers From the Other Europe,” a 17-volume collection of Eastern European writing unknown to English-speaking readers, continues to widen public perception of the universe of contemporary literature. In the ’70s, it was his vision of Kafka that drew Roth to Prague, then under Communist rule, where he championed dissident Czech writers — Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima, among others — and quietly arranged for an Ad Hoc Fund for their succor and support. For this crime he was hounded by the secret police. Europe’s oppressive travail took hold of and consumed him: He became intimate with the brutal death camp histories of Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld and Norman Manea, a Romanian writer who endured both Transnistria and the Communist regime of Ceausescu. It was the force of Roth’s fame that enabled him to facilitate the passage of Manea to a much-honored American literary life.

Some may think that whether Roth is or is not a Jewish writer is too narrow a speculation, too “parochial.” It’s a free country, after all, and its citizens are at liberty to define themselves as they prefer. Definition imposed is tyranny. But there is something else hovering just to the side: the paradox that rises, willy-nilly, from the welter of contrariness Bailey unveils. As the great conductor of the tumultuous orchestra that was his life, the careful supervisor of every aspect of his career, the architect of Newark’s grand municipal celebration of his 80th birthday, the meticulous designer of his own funeral, Roth at times unwittingly advanced what he most railed against. Even so sovereign a will as his could not overcome the vagaries of fallout; out of repudiation came emphasis on the thing repudiated. In his attempts to smother Bloom’s score-settling invective he made it all the more publicly memorable. Of the little ceremony at his graveside, most remarked on was the absence of any hint or vestige of Jewish usage or coloration. Yet in 2014, when the former defamer of the Jews received a dramatically vindicating honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he was moved to think how gratified his parents would have been.

But his father and mother and older brother were long dead. With old age and the accelerated suffering brought on by heart failure, he confessed to loneliness and terror. “It’s the damn poignancy of everything that rocks me a little,” he told Conarroe. He was fond, in a grandfatherly way, of other people’s children. At his burial, Julia Golier, the mother of two of these children, read a melancholy passage from “American Pastoral”: “Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.” Was Roth, who had begun under the wing of Henry James, unconsciously invoking James’s elegy for his own life? “This loneliness,” James had reflected, “what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper about me, at any rate, than anything else: deeper than my ‘genius,’ deeper than my ‘discipline,’ deeper than my pride.” Though Roth wrote in solitude, he was rarely alone. While he lingered at the brink of death, his hospital bed was ringed round with young adorers, veritable disciples, former lovers, friends reclaimed, and more intimate friends whose loyalty was steady and seamless. He lay, like the biblical David, a dying king, a maker, if not of psalms, then of a tower of sardonic, tempestuous and tragic imaginings. Despite the flood of stricken mourners, he belonged to nobody, and nobody belonged to him.

How do we know all this, and with such palpable immediacy, as if touching bone? The biographer’s unintrusive everyday prose is unseen and unheard; yet under Bailey’s strong light what remains on the page is one writer’s life as it was lived, and — almost — as it was felt.

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