Blake Bailey’s complaint
The author of a new biography of Philip Roth pushes back against critics who say he was too pro-Roth, and takes on the matter of the great novelist’s Jewishness
When Philip Roth summoned biographer Blake Bailey to his Upper West Side apartment in the spring of 2012 for what was essentially a job interview, he had one pressing question: How was a gentile from Oklahoma equipped to write about a Jew from Newark?
It was a reasonable concern, if also a somewhat comical one. From the start of his protean literary career, Roth established himself as the preeminent sociologist of Jewish-American neurosis — and as he searched for his own personal Boswell, he must have wondered whether Bailey would understand exactly where he was coming from.
Bailey, the author of a trio of well-received biographies on the novelists John Cheever, Richard Yates and Charles Jackson, had a clever response. “I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage,” he told Roth, “but I managed to write a biography of John Cheever.” Bailey got the gig.
Now nearly a decade later, Bailey, 57, is ready to reveal the product of his labor. At nearly a thousand pages, Philip Roth: The Biography — released today by W. W. Norton & Company — is an exhaustive door-stopper of a book that, Bailey argues, lives up to the mandate given to him by his subject: “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.”
For the biographer, that was no small task since Roth was a prolific philanderer who, as Bailey put it, “didn’t have a monogamous bone in his body.” In 1996, Roth’s ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, published a damning account of their relationship, Leaving a Doll’s House: A Memoir — a major impetus behind his desire to find an authorized biographer who would tell his story. But Roth was a careful, almost tyrannical custodian of his image, and he had already butted heads with — and abandoned — a previous biographer by the time Bailey came around.
“He knew that there were certain things that he could not filter out of his biography,” Bailey told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “That didn’t mean he couldn’t do his damnedest, and he bombarded me with hundreds, possibly thousands, of pages of memos, telling me how I ought to think about every single nook and cranny of his life. The idea for Philip was, essentially, to write his biography by proxy, and that’s not what he got in my book.”
Roth, who died in 2018 at 85, isn’t around to see the final product, but Bailey believes he would have approved. Still, as the reviews have come in, Bailey has been surprised to find that some critics regard his portrait as overly forgiving and even exculpatory. “Philip hurt a lot of people in his life,” Bailey acknowledged. “But to say that I’m sympathetic and even complicit with his worst behavior is baffling to me. I don’t know how anyone can read my book in good faith and reach that conclusion. That is astonishing to me.”
In the interview with JI, he discussed his subject’s complicated legacy, the critical response to the book and why he may hold off on publishing a memoir he has already written about his experience working with Roth.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jewish Insider: What do you think Philip Roth would have made of the book now that it’s finally out in the world?
Blake Bailey: What he would have made of the book itself or what he would have made of certain responses to the book?
JI: The book itself, but we can also talk about the responses.
Bailey: Sure. Well, as I quote in my epigraph, Philip said, “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting,” and I took him at his word. I think that I certainly emphasize his considerable flaws, as well as his better qualities, and I think he would have generally approved of that. Philip affected a sort of Olympian detachment from the world’s perception of him. He never publicly answered Claire Bloom’s memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, et cetera. But that was very deceptive. Philip was a very vulnerable, sensitive person, and very obsessive — and he brooded and brooded and brooded. Hardly an hour passed that he didn’t brood about Leaving a Doll’s House. He knew that there were certain things that he could not filter out of his biography. That didn’t mean he couldn’t do his damnedest, and he bombarded me with hundreds, possibly thousands, of pages of memos, telling me how I ought to think about every single nook and cranny of his life. The idea for Philip was, essentially, to write his biography by proxy, and that’s not what he got in my book. Because I emphasize his more darling qualities — and they were considerable — but along with some really mortifying stuff, I think he would see that it sort of all came out in a wash and that his humanity comes through. That’s what he admired about my Cheever book — that I show the worst of Cheever, but the reader never entirely loses sympathy with him.
JI: You mentioned the responses. Cynthia Ozick wrote a pretty glowing appraisal in the Times Book Review, but there have also been some more critical appraisals centering on Roth’s dealings with women and your treatment of that, most notably in The New Republic. That kind of analysis wasn’t new to Roth; what’s your reaction?
Bailey: I think it’s regrettable that there’s been so much cultural pontification about Philip and his messy private life. Certainly, there’s a place for that. Philip hurt a lot of people in his life. But to say that I’m sympathetic and even complicit with his worst behavior is baffling to me. I don’t know how anyone can read my book in good faith and reach that conclusion. That is astonishing to me. And at the same time, I would ask you to remember that David Remnick and James Parker and many other people say the opposite — the opposite — that I am uncowed, that I have let the repellent in on Philip, as a result showing the whole man. And then comes Cynthia Ozick, who finally contends with Philip as a human being and as an artist of massive cultural importance. Thank you, Cynthia Ozick.
JI: Do you feel any sense of validation, given her stature in the Jewish-American literary pantheon, that Ozick has given your book a sort of critical imprimatur? You mention in the acknowledgments section of the biography that when you first sat down with Roth, he wanted to know how a gentile from Oklahoma could possibly capture a Jew from Newark.
Bailey: Do I feel like I pulled it off? I do. And there have been some nice comments about how I evoke the milieu of the early- and mid-century Jewish cultural ethos with some nicety. I’m happy about that. I think what Philip wanted was not to be assessed through a Jewish lens — a Jewish moral lens and a Jewish critical lens. That was something he tried to escape all his life, consistently saying, I am not a Jewish-American writer, I’m an American writer who happens to be a Jew. And that is not to say that Philip had a problem with his own Jewishness. He loved being a Jew. He loved living with Jews. He is now dead and buried at Bard [College] so he could be buried with Jews [the university has a small cemetery on its campus in Dutchess County, N.Y.]. So he didn’t have a problem with the Jews. But he thought that his cultural importance transcended that, and I don’t blame him, frankly.
JI: You say he didn’t have a problem with the Jews, but from the start of his literary career, the Jews had a problem with him, to put it mildly.
Bailey: They had a problem with him because, look, it’s 1959 when he published Goodbye, Columbus; Leon Uris had just published Exodus. Elie Wiesel’s Night was just being published, The Diary of Anne Frank was being staged on Broadway, and a consciousness of the Holocaust was dominant in the lives of American Jews. Not only the tragic dimension of the Holocaust, but the shame of it, the shame of almost being eradicated as a population because you were viewed as lower than animals. And to have one of your own glibly making fun of these parvenu vulgarians in Short Hills trying to pretend like they’re country-club Americans — they didn’t take kindly to that. But that was Philip’s sensibility as a sardonic and rather gifted and condescending young man, and it’s a wonderful book. And people nowadays reading Goodbye, Columbus, I don’t think they find it so shocking as people did in 1959, 14 years after the Holocaust.
JI: Sure. To jump a decade or so later to Portnoy’s Complaint, which was extremely controversial for its time, I didn’t personally find it that shocking when I read it in the late aughts. It was shocking at the time of its publication in 1969, of course, but it read, to me, more like a cultural artifact of Jewish neuroses.
Bailey: Remember what Alfred Kazin said. Kazin didn’t particularly like the book because he thought it was shallow. But he and all Jews of that second and third generation had that shock of recognition — that, yeah, that’s what it’s like, that’s what it’s like to be a son in a Jewish home and have that constant care, care, care and torturing with guilt and ‘I gave you everything’ and ‘Where are my grandchildren?’ That’s not me talking. That’s Kazin and critics of his magnitude talking.
JI: And Gershom Scholem somewhat famously wrote that Portnoy was worse than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That kind of criticism bothered Roth throughout his life, it seems.
Bailey: It was a constant refrain that “if I had to do it all over again, I would have never published Portnoy’s Complaint,” which means he would have never become a millionaire and an international celebrity. But not only the fact that he was regarded as a self-hating Jew, but he was regarded as unserious. People were always focusing on his sort of transgressive side, and Philip thought, certainly toward the end of his career, that he deserved a measure of respect, and he never got as much as he wanted from the so-called cultural journalism, especially the newspaper of record [The New York Times], which was a bête noire of Philip’s.
JI: Do you think he really meant it, that he wouldn’t have published Portnoy’s Complaint?
Bailey: Yes, I do. I mean, I think he liked not having to worry about money. He liked his lovely place in Connecticut and all of that kind of stuff. But being perceived as this unserious jerk-off artist was nothing that appealed to him even remotely.
JI: You say in the acknowledgments that at some point you might write about your experience of interviewing Roth. Have you given any more thought to that? Is that something that you might get to eventually?
Bailey: You mean, write a sort of memoir about working with Philip? I’ve already written it, actually. Whether I will publish it or not is another question. The reaction to the biography from certain quarters has been so disturbing that I don’t want to really throw kerosene on the fire. At the very least, I will wait a few years.
JI: When did you finish the memoir?
Bailey: To be exact, I finished it in Colorado this summer, where I was doing a fellowship in Green Mountain Falls.
JI: It seems appropriate that you’ve written an unpublished memoir about working with Roth, given that he seems to have written so many unreleased memoirs, like Notes for My Biographer and Notes on a Slander-Monger.
Bailey: Well, look, Notes on a Slander-Monger was never, ever meant for publication, and it’s incoherent and repetitive. But Notes for My Biographer was copy-edited professionally and listed on Amazon, so we missed that one coming out into the wider world by kind of a hair’s breadth.
JI: Do you think it’s unfortunate that Roth’s papers may never be released to the public — and may even someday be destroyed by his literary executors?
Bailey: If they do so, it will be in accord with whatever Philip’s final wishes were, and I think that’s his prerogative.
JI: You must feel somewhat privileged to have been privy to all these documents as you worked on the book.
Bailey: I was enormously privileged in that respect. Philip did not want there to be a lot of biographies. He wanted one to be essentially accurate. So he gave everything to me, and then he said, “After that, that’s that.” I don’t know of a precedent for that with a major literary figure like Philip, so I feel enormously fortunate. I’m sorry it’s at other people’s expense, if that’s how they see it, but obviously, I’m happy with it.
JI: Did you expect to receive some blowback for this book? Philip Roth does seem to be kind of the third rail of American literature these days.
Bailey: Right. The third rail. That’s well put. That’s how David Daley put in a consoling note he wrote me yesterday. Did I expect it? Yes, I expected it, but I did not expect it to be as bad as it has been. You’re not going to please everybody with a biography of Philip Roth. But to sort of make this a moment, a sort of moratorium on proper conduct, it’s reductive, at least where Philip is concerned — because Philip had enormously noble qualities, as Lisa Halliday, for one, and any number of other former friends and lovers will tell you — a generous, darling man — but he also had these other things. I mean, I’m not denying his worse qualities. They’re in my book.
JI: Did you approach the project with any sense of weariness or anxiety, given the grudges that Roth held throughout his life, particularly his falling-out with a previous biographer, Ross Miller?
Bailey: I think I would have been pretty damn stupid not to. He told me about Ross Miller’s shortcomings as a would-be biographer, and these were certainly borne out by what I discovered going over the materials he gave me — the taped interviews that Ross did and so on and so forth. But what I told Phil very firmly, at the beginning, was, “You and Ross were best friends. I’m very fond of you, Philip, but I’m not your best friend, I’m your biographer, and I’m going to give you the same deal that I had with the estates of my previous subjects, which is you have to give me everything, and you have to give me complete independence. And you will be able to check my manuscript for factual accuracy, but not interpretive content, and that’s the deal. Are you willing to accept the deal?” And he was.
JI: Of course, he died before the book came out.
Bailey: He was already terminally sedated, but I said goodbye to him on his deathbed. The only person I’ve ever watched dying is Philip Roth, which was actually a surprisingly enriching experience because Philip made it look very natural to die. I was sad on a human level. Nobody who ever got even a little close to Philip wouldn’t feel his absence keenly, and I do. But certainly, as a biographer — and this is a very compartmental distinction — I breathed a little easier.
JI: Do you feel as if there are any parallels — thematically, stylistically — between Roth and your previous subjects?
Bailey: A writer’s work either engages you or it doesn’t, and I was crazy about Philip’s work from a very young age. Why was that? Well, to me it’s like, what’s not to like? Though, of course, there’s plenty not to like: Our Gang and The Breast and The Great American Novel. You’re going to write some dogs. But I loved his work. There are five or six books that I will re-read till the day of my death. I think what Philip has in common with my other subjects is the excellence of his work, his cultural importance and sort of the dilemma between the person who lives the inner life, the person who lives inside of himself all the time, and the sort of precarious persona that that person formulates to meet the world. I don’t think I’m putting that very well, but it’s kind of fascinating to me.
JI: Do you think Roth deserved a Nobel?
Bailey: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the London Telegraph actually said that if the Swedish Academy continues to deny Philip Roth the Nobel Prize, they will lose all credibility. That’s the Telegraph talking, not me. So, yes, he deserved it.
JI: Roth was known for examining Jewish identity and documenting the Jewish-American experience, but he really didn’t seem to know that much or care that much about Judaism itself. Did you talk to him about that?
Bailey: Well, Arnold Eisen, who was the chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that Philip Roth is the greatest sociologist of American Jewish life alive, when he was alive. I certainly think he was concerned with the social predicament of American Jews — and Israeli Jews, for that matter — and the political predicament. But he was not — at all — interested in sort of the mystical and ethnic ritual and esoterica. That just didn’t engage him on any level. Philip just didn’t have a religious bone in his body, just like he didn’t have a monogamous bone in his body.
I think that Philip had a very pronounced and Jewish sense of filial piety. The first thing that occurred to him, at his happiest moments in life — when he got finally the validation of the Jewish cultural establishment with his degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, when he was celebrated in Newark for his 80th birthday, when they had Philip Roth Day in Newark in 2005, these happy, happy occasions — he always wished, above all, that his parents were there.
JI: What did his parents think of Portnoy?
Bailey: Oh, you know, Herman’s praise of his son’s accomplishment was always, “I’m busting my buttons!” And Bess, she kept scrapbooks of every mention of her son in the press — bad, good or in-between. She was just proud. She revered her son.
JI: Is Roth still in your head, now that you’re done with the book?
Bailey: Yeah, and it’s a nice presence. I was just doing Chris Lydon’s Open Source, and he was playing, as part of our show, his old interviews with Philip, and listening to Philip hold forth. Philip, in his maestro persona, spoke with such effortless elegance and wryness. That’s fun to hear again.
JI: You spent so much time with him, and in such an intimate manner — including hearing the stream of his urine from a bathroom in his Connecticut home, as you note in your book. Is there anything that you left on the cutting-room floor you want to mention?
Bailey: There’s something I left on the cutting-room floor that I don’t want to mention. That’s why I left it on the cutting-room floor. I mean, just to generalize, I had enough sordid anecdotes; I didn’t need anymore. Let me just hasten to clarify. When I say sordid, I don’t mean anything illegal. I don’t mean anything coercive. That’s not the nature of Philip’s sins, such as they are, and I want to make that very clear that it’s nothing ominous like that. It’s just embarrassing.