Among the dozen or so figures who dominated American writing in the half-century following the war, Philip Roth stands as the great defier of his times, and of time itself. Author of The Counterlife, a novel built on realising parallel possibilities, as well as the counterfactual The Plot Against America, he was a chronology scrambler, a walking, wanking paradox. His life, as recounted in a pair of slightly divergent but equally depressing new biographies, took the form less of an arc than of a loop-the-loop, or perhaps a set of interlocking cycles. Breakthrough would be followed by stasis or regression or starting afresh. Sometimes he resembled Benjamin Button, sometimes Phil Connors of Groundhog Day, but more often – and this is the depressing part – Peter Pan. It turns out, as we might have feared, that the brilliant author of Patrimony, Sabbath’s Theater and – I suppose – Portnoy’s Complaint was for the most part a tedious guy, a perennial blamer and grudge-bearer, cocky yet clueless and averse to self-reflection. I wrote ‘pathetic’ in the margin many times.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, Roth seemed equally a product of 1940s bonhomie, 1950s rectitude and 1960s libertinism. Parades and popular radio serials vied in his personal mythology with Partisan Review and the pill. A one-time prodigy – the youngest-ever winner of the National Book Award, for the stories in Goodbye, Columbus – he was also a late bloomer, only getting his act together, at least with any consistency, in middle age. A physical mess for the majority of his life, he graduated to comparative good health, and after many of his rivals had died, shut up shop or simply tailed off, as older novelists are wont to do, he started publishing virtually a book a year, winning every award going for the kind of stentorian social historical novels with which American writers usually make their name, and all this during a period – the early 1990s onwards – when the ascent of Wallace and Franzen and Moody might have suggested that the postmodern cause had triumphed. Perhaps his only sop to convention was to bow out with a series of short, slightly depleted, to varying degrees well-made books, and then hang around for a while, giving the occasional valedictory interview and amassing yet more gongs.
But even as Roth settled into the role of grumbling grand old man, he remained more than ever the entitled child, in permanent need of soothing, powerless to resist a tempting treat or keep a tantrum at bay. ‘Tell him to grow up,’ Nicole Kidman, who played Faunia in the film adaptation of The Human Stain, is reported to have said on learning that Roth was annoyed about a date that went awry. If, as James Wolcott once claimed, Roth was a miracle of modern medicine, he was also one of therapy’s notable failures. For decades, he visited the Prussian psychiatrist Hans Kleinschmidt, whom Roth depicted as Spielvogel in Portnoy’s Complaint and My Life as a Man, and who depicted Roth as a ‘successful Southern playwright’ in his case study ‘The Angry Act: The Role of Aggression in Creativity’. Yet Roth never got a handle on himself or his compulsions. And while Blake Bailey, in his full-dress, trade-press, authorised biography, tries his hardest to dodge the truth, the academic Ira Nadel, in his terser and more thematic – and somewhat scattergun – ‘counterlife’, exhibits no signs of denial, a disparity reflected in Bailey’s attempts (not always very meticulous) to conceal identities and Nadel’s breezy willingness simply to call somebody David.
Both biographers, like Roth and others before them, devote many pages to his first marriage to Maggie Martinson, a divorcée five years Roth’s senior and a survivor of incestuous abuse. Their life together was never harmonious. In a diary entry quoted by Bailey, she confessed to having ‘no conscience’. In February 1959, in a much-recounted act of subterfuge, she paid a pregnant woman in Times Square for a sample of urine, passed it off as her own and told Roth she was pregnant. An ‘abortion’ (she actually went to the movies) came at the cost of a marriage proposal. Roth said that in his madness – by that point, he was ‘nearly as ripe for hospitalization as she was’ – he ‘believed it all’. Looking back at the relationship, which ended in 1963, Roth said, ‘I was in the wrong world – she was a criminal.’ Yet, with ‘just a snap of the finger’, he conceded, it became his world as well. But why? Or, in the words of Martinson’s son, ‘What the fuck were you doing with my mother anyway?’
Bailey struggles to come up with an answer that doesn’t pay deference to his subject’s own benighted one. He quotes a discarded passage from My Life as a Man (‘I married her to be heroic’) and repeats Roth’s claim that he became involved with Martinson ‘for all the “right” reasons’, fulfilling his duty as ‘good Jewish boy’ to her ‘hysterical schizophrenic Gentile girl’. Not exactly case closed. Any other leads? We’re told that Roth disliked the idea that he was ‘working out any particular necessary “destiny”’, preferring to believe that he ‘accidentally stumbled’ into certain kinds of attachment. Recalling his similar – though happier – relationship with the actress Claire Bloom, who wrote the addictive and, we now learn, not terribly reliable marital-misery memoir Leaving a Doll’s House, Roth bemoaned that he had ‘learned NOTHING’. But surely, by his reckoning, there was nothing to learn? Bailey for his part goes as far as saying that Roth had ‘a soft spot for victims of injustice’ (until the end, Roth remained drawn to addictive, volatile or self-destructive partners), and allows himself to point out the irony that Roth dismissed the relevance of character in his own ‘shameful defeats’ but not in the writing of thirty-one books.
Nadel, by contrast, comes right out with it. Roth had a ‘savior complex’: ‘Only in this role can he allow himself to be loved.’ Later, when dealing with Roth’s shaky mental health in the late 1980s and early 1990s, exacerbated by sleeping pills, chronic pain and Bloom’s self-absorption (and possibly John Updike’s review of Operation Shylock), Nadel takes a different, somewhat contradictory line, suggesting that he in fact suffered from a cluster B personality disorder, though he can’t decide which: borderline? histrionic? narcissistic? (It’s something about which Bailey, the author of a family memoir on just that subject, The Splendid Things We Planned, might usefully have expressed a view.) Nadel’s original position seems the more likely: that Roth was the inverted, but no less pathological twin of people like Martinson and (based on these accounts at least) Bloom, a lifelong enabler, dependent on other people’s dependency on him. His repeated gravitation to this dynamic was a marvellous get-out, allowing him to play provider or giver, the sane and steady one, while remaining in every way the emotionally stunted child (‘You didn’t know I loved you when I got you a car?’ he asked one girlfriend). Accountability was never his strong suit. When a herniated disc or appendicitis was ascribed to Roth’s passive-aggressive anger or repressed envy, he dismissed the suggestion as far-fetched. But when the fault could be pinned elsewhere, psychogenic theory was suddenly all the rage. In The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, published in 1988, he expresses surprise that he hadn’t recognised his burst appendix as being Martinson’s ‘handiwork’. The strain of being with Bloom had played havoc with his heart. (Among his other health issues were burning mouth disease and a rectal polyp; in Bailey’s index, Roth’s back gets its own subsection.)
Bailey spends a great deal of his biography in efforts to defend his subject’s record. Long after it has become blazingly clear that Roth was basically a sucker, Bailey tries to praise him for providing ‘moral support’ to Mia Farrow – and not, say, running several miles in the opposite direction – when she expressed the preposterous fear that Woody Allen might arrange to have her killed. Bailey also claims that Roth was ‘quite aware of his own score-keeping’, and then cites a detail from Roth’s fiction, which Bailey has elsewhere acknowledged was the site of ‘unconscious wisdom’. Bailey suggests that when William Gass disparaged The Great American Novel in the New York Review of Books, he was driven by resentment at Roth’s success, even though Bailey himself recognises that Roth’s early 1970s books were ‘rather mystifying’. And dealing with Carmen Callil’s objection to Roth being awarded the International Booker Prize, Bailey says that she mentioned the ‘wonderful’ female characters in American Pastoral ‘the better not to seem bothered by Roth’s alleged misogyny’ (has he googled Carmen Callil?), before adding, in a feeble afterthought, that she might have had ‘reason to feel defensive’ as a founder of Virago, which had published Bloom’s memoir in the UK.
The handling of Gass and Callil is typical of Bailey’s approach. He cannot in good faith attempt to celebrate Roth as a man, at least in his private conduct, except through backfiring piecemeal efforts like the Farrow anecdote or sentences like ‘not all of Roth’s mentoring projects had an erotic component’. So he doubles down, whenever he believes he can remotely justify doing so, on the greatness of the work. He reports without comment the BBC’s bananas contention that Roth was ‘arguably the best writer not to have won the Nobel Prize since Tolstoy’, as well as the maybe even sillier claim made by Roth’s friend Benjamin Taylor that his work is ‘built to outlast whatever unforeseeable chances and changes await us and our descendants’. Quoting postmortem hyperbole is always a tempting recourse for the exhausted biographer bidding farewell, but by loading his epilogue with the encomia of the novelist’s most ardent fans, not exactly absent from the rest of the book, Bailey dodges a far more pressing duty, to explain why Philip Roth – nostalgist, American chauvinist, spouter of ‘amazingly tasteless’ opinions, serial seducer of students, and, latterly and not unrelatedly, critic of #MeToo – has outlasted the changes already upon us.