Philip Roth Was His Own Favorite Subject. What’s Left for a Biographer?Breaking News
tags: Jewish history, biography, literature, Philip Roth
Philip Roth, who stopped writing in 2010 and died eight years later at age 85, was not sure if he wanted to be the subject of a biography. He was the narrator of his story. King of sitzfleisch, Roth sat at his desk banging out his legacy 340 days a year, starting in his early 20s, returning in over 30 books to protagonists who resembled him: a son of Newark, secular Jew, younger brother and childless bachelor free to indulge his ego and appetites in a country without pogroms. In two senses, his legacy would be the writing: He never had children, so books would be all that would survive him; and his life was there, between all those covers.
He insisted that his work not be read as autobiography, but Roth made a career out of doppelgängers and authorial stand-ins, an ongoing game of hide-and-seek with readers. In the 1993 novel “Operation Shylock,” a character named Philip Roth travels to Israel to confront a look-alike, named Philip Roth, who peddles Middle East peace plans while pretending to be the real Roth. He brackets his 1988 memoirs, “The Facts” — one of his few works of ostensible nonfiction — with letters to and from Nathan Zuckerman, his fictional alter ego. When embarking on “The Facts,” he wrote that he was trying memoir because he was tired of the “makeup and the false whiskers and the wig” of fiction — an implicit confession that he was always lurking just beneath his characters.
In the end, Roth decided on a biography because he wanted to be known. His fiction courted misunderstanding, but he was wounded when misunderstood. Though living in rural Connecticut got him tagged as a recluse, Roth was a compulsive connector, always pressing himself on people, seducing them. After his death, the novelist Nicole Krauss wrote of “the sincerity and absorption with which he listened,” calling him, “the most generous audience one could hope to have.” In a group, he was a cutup, a mimic, a gentle teaser, a raconteur, the embodiment of what Zadie Smith, another friend in his old age, called literature’s “Rothian spirit” — “so full of people and stories and laughter and history and sex and fury.” Here was a famous controversialist who needed to be liked or, failing that, to be right: He had scores to settle with ex-wives and, not incidentally, an ex-biographer.
By 2012, when Roth gave Blake Bailey access to his papers, friends, little black book and innermost thoughts, Roth had parted ways with two previous biographers, courted another and threatened to sue a third. But Bailey, who had appealed to Roth with a sympathetic ear and a brazen request for the job, persuaded the aging author. On April 6, W.W. Norton is publishing “Philip Roth: The Biography.” It is the fourth biography of an American writer by Bailey, a former public-school teacher who has become one of the great chroniclers of this country’s literary lives. In 2003, he published “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates,” which helped earn the author of “Revolutionary Road” the fame that eluded him during a long, poor, drunken life. Six years later, Bailey returned with a biography of another midcentury drunk of gargantuan talent, John Cheever. When Bailey met Roth, he had just finished work on his biography of the “Lost Weekend” author Charles Jackson, whose aptly titled 1944 novel drew on his personal knowledge of blackout alcoholism. Early in their courtship, Roth asked Bailey, “Do you ever write about people who aren’t constantly drunk, or dead?” Bailey replied, “You would be my first.”
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