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Philip Roth: The Biography

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The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master an The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master and of the postwar literary scene. Bailey shows how Roth emerged from a lower-middle-class Jewish milieu to achieve the heights of literary fame, how his career was nearly derailed by his catastrophic first marriage, and how he championed the work of dissident novelists behind the Iron Curtain. Bailey examines Roth’s rivalrous friendships with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and William Styron, and reveals the truths of his florid love life, culminating in his almost-twenty-year relationship with actress Claire Bloom, who pilloried Roth in her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll's House. Tracing Roth’s path from realism to farce to metafiction to the tragic masterpieces of the American Trilogy, Bailey explores Roth’s engagement with nearly every aspect of postwar American culture.


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The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master an The renowned biographer’s definitive portrait of a literary titan. Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access, Blake Bailey spent years poring over Roth’s personal archive, interviewing his friends, lovers, and colleagues, and engaging Roth himself in breathtakingly candid conversations. The result is an indelible portrait of an American master and of the postwar literary scene. Bailey shows how Roth emerged from a lower-middle-class Jewish milieu to achieve the heights of literary fame, how his career was nearly derailed by his catastrophic first marriage, and how he championed the work of dissident novelists behind the Iron Curtain. Bailey examines Roth’s rivalrous friendships with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and William Styron, and reveals the truths of his florid love life, culminating in his almost-twenty-year relationship with actress Claire Bloom, who pilloried Roth in her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll's House. Tracing Roth’s path from realism to farce to metafiction to the tragic masterpieces of the American Trilogy, Bailey explores Roth’s engagement with nearly every aspect of postwar American culture.

45 review for Philip Roth: The Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    Philip Roth generated more outrage than any American writer since Henry Miller. The mere mention of his name triggers a multi-channel set of associations. Roth the joker, Roth the sex-fiend; Roth the celebrated, Roth the walking ego. Neither judge nor jury, Blake Bailey’s biography presents Roth the writer in all his unvarnished glory. Unusually the ‘early life’ section doesn’t tempt you to skip ahead with a cry of ‘get famous already!’ on your lips. Roth’s ancestors were East-European Jews, thei Philip Roth generated more outrage than any American writer since Henry Miller. The mere mention of his name triggers a multi-channel set of associations. Roth the joker, Roth the sex-fiend; Roth the celebrated, Roth the walking ego. Neither judge nor jury, Blake Bailey’s biography presents Roth the writer in all his unvarnished glory. Unusually the ‘early life’ section doesn’t tempt you to skip ahead with a cry of ‘get famous already!’ on your lips. Roth’s ancestors were East-European Jews, their homes harassed by the Tsars and emptied by the Nazis. ‘Pole, Yid and Hound – each to the same faith bound’ was a message nailed to trees wherever Poles, Jews and dogs had been hanged. Jewish neighbourhoods were routinely ransacked and burned. The Tsar’s adviser outlined his chilling plan for purging the Jews: ‘One-third conversion, one-third emigration, and one-third starvation.’ Once safe in the New World, the family tree bore cruel fruit. His Father’s side suffered from heart disease; his Mother’s relatives suffered from a genetic oddity – the appendix formed and settled abnormally close to the lower intestine. As a result, their appendixes would burst and remain undetectable even a week later. Death from peritonitis was common. Roth inherited and nearly died of both. Young Roth had a happy childhood in Newark, New Jersey, and was known and liked as the class clown. Although never the top of the class, he warmed to books. His favourite authors had a fierce regional loyalty – Sherwood Anderson (especially Winesburg, Ohio), William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. As Roth’s interest in reading grew, so did his other favourite pastime – masturbation. After a failed pass at a local girl, Roth recalled being ‘bent over like a cripple’, limping behind a cluster of bushes to relieve the unbearable urge. The triumph of his young life was sneaking inside a cinema with a group of friends to watch Hedy Lamarr sylph naked through the woods. ‘This is it,’ they cheered. Later in life Roth listed his three great passions as ‘fucking, writing and reading.’ Soldiering was not one of Roth’s passions. Called up in the middle of college, he was swiftly invalided out and spent the next six months bound to a painful back brace. Fortunately, Roth put the experience to good use in an early short story ‘The Defender of The Faith.’ The day the story appeared in The New Yorker – after netting Roth a cheque for $2,200 – Roth spent the day reading his story over and over in blissful triumph, whether strolling through the park or sitting on the toilet. Soon the story was grouped with other early efforts in Roth’s debut book Goodbye, Columbus and published to acclaim. The day before his 27th birthday, Roth became the youngest author to win the National Book Award. The book caused outrage. Angry letters promptly dropped through the letterbox. By portraying American Jewish life without piety or sentimentality, Roth had placed himself beyond the pale. After asking about the complaints he had been receiving, Roth was shown a letter from the President of the Rabbinical Council of America. ‘What is being done to silence this man?’ the letter demanded. ‘Medieval Jews would have known what do with him.’ It took two more novels – both relative duds – before the lesson sunk in. It was not the lesson his detractors meant. To go forward Roth would need to be himself. It was no good, he realised, trying to play the part of the neighbourhood's nicest boy. From now on he would ‘let the repellent in.’ An unfinished play from the time was titled ‘The Taming of the Id.’ Roth’s id would be tamed no longer. The result was his early masterpiece, Portnoy’s Complaint(‘The funniest book about sex ever written’, Tony Tanner.) The novel was to wanking what Moby Dick was to whaling. The novel caused a scandal, outraged middle America, and promptly sold 400,000 copies in hardback. The book was banned in several countries. In Australia, copies were confiscated. Roth was reviled and rich. The success and backlash forever split his life into two halves – before Portnoy, and after. At times he came to regret ever writing the novel. Yet it was Roth’s first breakthrough, capturing a large audience, and freeing his imagination as never before. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Roth’s output became stranger. One of his novels featured a professor that transforms into a 155 pound breast. (‘Why a big brainless bag of dumb, desirable tissue, acted upon instead of acting, unguarded, immobile, hanging, there, as a breast simply hangs and is there?’) The novels also became more self-centred. Through the first of many alter-egos, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth explored and sent up the writing life, including himself. Roth would produce 4 novels with Zuckerman as the main character. In retrospect, the books from here onwards read like a series of status updates. Readers know, of course, not to confuse writers and their characters. As Roth reminded us, our selves are bundled inside each other like Russian Dolls. This strikes many, then as now, as wilfully misleading. When She Was Good contains a scabrous portrait of Roth’s first wife, who died tragically in a car crash. On her death Roth simply said, ‘You’re dead and I didn’t have to do it.’ Readers require few detective skills to spot thinly disguised – and merciless – portraits of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow in his work, two authors that did much to further Roth’s budding career. Even a Father on his deathbed was fair game. Few sons have written about their terminally ill father, as Roth did in Patrimony, walking to the toilet, failing to reach the bowl in time, and ‘exploding’ over the tiled floor. When Roth’s second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, published her memoir of their marriage, Roth acted as he though he’d been mugged in the street. Roth took revenge on her in his next novel, portraying her as a mentally unstable anti-Semite. Bailey is fair to both sides, and does not deny that Roth may deserve the charge most frequently levelled against his work – rampant misogyny. ‘You used to be able to sleep with the girls [his students] in the old days,’ Roth leers to Saul Bellow. ‘And now of course it’s impossible.’ In Sabbath’s Theatre, the main character considers leaving an annual college prize of $500 for any female student who’s ‘fucked more male faculty members than any other.’ Another character refers to himself, with scant irony, as ‘an aesthetician of fucking.’ This is hardly the character’s fault - with all the logic of the bar-room bore, he insists ‘man wouldn’t have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn’t venture off to get fucked. It’s sex that disorders our normally ordered lives.’ You can perhaps see why Roth meant when he told his biographer ‘I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.’ He does – and rounded. Bailey presents Roth’s charity simply and without additional comment, balancing the meanness with the goodness. When a friend and editor was diagnosed with a ‘grapefruit-sized’ brain tumour, Roth paid $5,000 for her medical care, hiring the best nurses. Roth helped to obtain Visas for a family fleeing the civil war in Brazzaville. When a Visa was refused for the eldest daughter, he personally contacted then-President Clinton on her behalf. Two months later the family was reunited, and Roth personally paid the girls’ tuition. The next year they made their high school honour roll. Selves within selves. It was in the 1990s that Roth’s fiction reached its full maturity. The American Trilogy – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain – restored his critical reputation and enjoyed his healthiest sales in years, netting virtually all of America’s major book awards between them. Critics soon took to calling the books ‘The Swedish Trilogy’ – the works that would finally net him the Nobel Prize. Outraged defenders wrote open letters year after year demanding to know why Roth hadn’t won it. Near the end of his life, he would visit New York’s Museum of Natural History and pass the pillar commemorating all the previous American winners. ‘This is actually quite ugly, isn’t it?’ a friend said. ‘Yes’, Roth replied. ‘And it’s getting uglier by the year.’ Philip Roth is Bailey’s fourth literary biography, following Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Charles Jackson. Two books about failures, two about successes. Bailey's steely eye turns each facet of Roth’s personality under the light and captures each reflected spark of genius and each sharp corner. Roth was a giant of the 20th century novel, and this is a biography worthy of his mettle - whether by the end the reader has had ‘an earful of enemas’ or not.

  2. 5 out of 5

    clayton trutor

    Check out my review of the new Philip Roth biography in American History Magazine/HistoryNet: https://www.historynet.com/philip-rot... Check out my review of the new Philip Roth biography in American History Magazine/HistoryNet: https://www.historynet.com/philip-rot...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Peter D

    Engrossing, complete, and surprisingly involving.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Review to follow....

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joyce

    does exactly what it says on the tin, terrific stuff, although can't help but fall into the old dull routine of honorary degrees and awards in the final few pages (not that this is bailey's fault, that's just the nature of biographies of the famous) does exactly what it says on the tin, terrific stuff, although can't help but fall into the old dull routine of honorary degrees and awards in the final few pages (not that this is bailey's fault, that's just the nature of biographies of the famous)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    The economist

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    I can’t put it down and it’s keeping me up at night which says a lot for a biography imo!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Francesco

    Really a great book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Peter Wild

  10. 5 out of 5

    Lung Danut-Lucian

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bob Wake

  12. 5 out of 5

    ron burns

  13. 5 out of 5

    Panio Gianopoulos

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jesse K

  15. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Rovira

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas Firth

  17. 5 out of 5

    R.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Trevor Hill

  19. 5 out of 5

    Joaquim Miróbriga da Flandres

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nikhil Kumar

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rob

  22. 4 out of 5

    Neil Ornstein

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ami

  24. 4 out of 5

    Riley Hamilton

  25. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

  26. 4 out of 5

    Felipe

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  28. 5 out of 5

    C I N D L E

  29. 5 out of 5

    David S.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nicolette

  31. 4 out of 5

    Mike

  32. 5 out of 5

    Tyler Caldwell

  33. 4 out of 5

    Boris

  34. 5 out of 5

    Girish Gowda

  35. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  36. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

  37. 4 out of 5

    Meike

  38. 4 out of 5

    Sai Suresh

  39. 5 out of 5

    Victor Ward

  40. 4 out of 5

    Tashia

  41. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  42. 5 out of 5

    Matej Rumanovský

  43. 5 out of 5

    Kai

  44. 4 out of 5

    SibylM

  45. 5 out of 5

    Douglas

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