BOOK OF THE WEEK
PHILIP ROTH: THE BIOGRAPHY
by Blake Bailey (Jonathan Cape £ 30,912pp)
Graham Greene said a writer needed an ice splinter in the heart. In the case of the great Jewish-American writer Philip Roth, who died three years ago at the age of 85 after a brilliant but controversial career, it was more like a raging fireball engulfing everyone in its path.
Roth, author of the bestselling book Portnoy’s Complaint, is one of the undisputed heavyweights of the American novel. A National Humanities Medal awarded by Barack Obama in 2011 was one of his mighty ranks of awards – though he never won the most glittering gong of them all, the Nobel Prize in Literature, despite his agent telling him every year to be ready for the press service just to be sure.
Roth always suspected that political correctness was to blame.
Philip Roth died three years ago at the age of 85 after a glittering but controversial career, but was undoubtedly one of the heavyweights of the American novel
But his literary reputation ran counter to his personal reputation, and stories surfaced of his self-centered, offensive behavior, with growing allegations of misogyny, fueled by actress Claire Bloom’s scorching account of her fateful marriage to Roth in her 1996 memoir. Leaving A Doll’s House – which, as one reviewer put it, exposed him as ‘a spectacularly troubled and manipulative man’.
He was always unfaithful and enjoyed playing games in the hall of mirrors – his 1990s novel Deception was about a middle-aged writer named ‘Philip’ who dirty his wife.
Since the publication of Bloom’s book, Roth had arranged for an authorized biography to confirm his side of the story, and worked fully with the chosen writer, Blake Bailey.
But when Bailey came to praise his subject, he eventually buries him under the weight of the patiently cataloged betrayal. At the end of this thoroughly researched book, I was prepared to believe even the most bizarre claims of the various aggrieved parties from whom Bailey is trying to defend his subject.
As a beginning writer, Roth aspired to write a debut novel about a Jewish American who wanted to murder a German in revenge for the Holocaust.
Shock value was part of his game even then, but he found it instead by writing what he knew, and posting fiction in the East Coast suburb in which he grew up.
His literary reputation is at odds with his personal reputation, with growing accusations of misogyny (photo: one of his famous lovers, Ava Gardner)
In 1969, he hit gold with Portnoy’s Complaint, about a compulsive masturbator who finds relief in a piece of raw liver, which is later served by his mother for dinner.
His famous lovers included Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow – but not Penelope Cruz, who ignored his invitation to dinner, or Nicole Kidman (who told him to ‘grow up’) or Jackie Kennedy, who, as Bailey reports, invited him. to come to her house. , at which point Roth appears to have experienced an unusual loss of nerve.
In his twenties, he met his first wife, the troubled divorcee Margaret Martinson, and based his novel My Life As A Man on her, relying on her private diary – which he read while in the hospital after an overdose.
He never forgave her for supposedly cheating on him into marriage by lying about a pregnancy and then pretending she had an abortion. Still, he wasn’t an innocent, cheating on her rampant – Martinson feared even with her own daughter.
“If you ever fuck my daughter, I’ll hit a knife right in your heart,” she told him. Roth hid the knives from the household, fearful of the possible interpretations of what Bailey describes as Martinson’s daughter’s “flirty” behavior.
One of the book’s uglier passages describes his joy when Martinson died in a car accident after their divorce – he realized he would no longer have to divide his income, just as Portnoy’s Complaint was about to become the bestselling novel in history. from its publisher, Random House.
Penelope Cruz ignored his dinner invitation while Nicole Kidman (pictured) told him to ‘grow up’). Jackie Kennedy, who, as Bailey reports, invited him to her home, at which point Roth appears to have experienced an unusual nerve loss.
Roth’s marriage to Claire Bloom fared a little better. Recovering from a bout of suicidal depression, he “strictly” forbade her to return to their New York home and offered to pay her to live elsewhere.
Their relationship had long been troubled. She was in London filming ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited when Roth began an 18-year affair with a married mother of four who lived a mile away from his Connecticut studio.
And in 1988 he was home alone with a twentieth friend of Bloom’s daughter, Anna. One night he thought she wanted him to kiss her; she didn’t. Roth dismissed her outrage as “sexual hysteria” and would answer the phone in later years when she called Anna and said, “Hello, little house squatter.”
He was always unfaithful and enjoyed playing mirrors in the hall of mirrors – his 1990s novel Deception was about a middle-aged writer named ‘Philip’ who dirty his wife (photo: Roth with his wife Claire Bloom in 1986)
Bailey calls all this “obscenity.” Still, a department chair at one of Roth’s universities says he realized he was operating like “a pimp” by admitting students to Roth’s courses.
“Not all of Roth’s mentoring projects had an erotic component,” says Bailey.
How unintentionally destructive.
PHILIP ROTH: THE BIOGRAPHY by Blake Bailey (Jonathan Cape £ 30,912pp)
His dedication to saving space and time for work led him to keep away from the people he used to feed it. He chided a lover for daring to talk at lunch because he was still writing in his head. When a developer wanted to build on land near his studio, Roth bought the land to keep his peace; he bought his neighbors’ apartments in New York for the same reason.
A champion grudge bearer, Roth never forgot that Portnoy’s Complaint was not shortlisted for the National Book Award.
When he learned 36 years later that one of the judges was dying, he sent an intermediary to ask her why he hadn’t been cut.
Not to mention his fondness for what a lover called “ one-sided ” relationships with damaged younger women, or his habit of calling a mistress at work, expecting her to drop everything to listen to him perform a sexual act; even if we’re only haughty about Roth’s novels, it’s hard not to diminish them by his unapproved loans from the women he knew, either from their diaries or (in a disturbing case) secretly a recording phone call with one of his swings. He once asked a lover to write down everything she could remember about their affair before he dumped her and put her in a book.
Ironically, Roth objected to his portrayal in a draft of the 1969 novel Real People written by his friend Alison Lurie. Bailey quotes his letter: “I’m not only so horny (if I’m one) but an interesting and intelligent s ***.”
Too bad this biography only gives us one in three.