BOOK OF THE WEEK
PHILIP ROTH: THE BIOGRAPHY
by Blake Bailey (Jonathan Cape £30, 912pp)
Graham Greene said a writer needed a splinter of ice in the heart. In the case of the great Jewish-American writer Philip Roth, who died three years ago, aged 85, after a glittering but controversial career, it was more like a raging fireball that engulfed anyone in its path.
Roth, author of bestselling Portnoy’s Complaint, is one of the undisputed heavyweights of the American novel. A National Humanities Medal, given by Barack Obama in 2011, was among his mighty haul of awards — although he never won the glitziest gong of them all, the Nobel Prize in Literature, despite his agent telling him each year to be ready for Press duty just in case.
Roth always suspected political correctness was to blame.
Philip Roth died three years ago, aged 85, after a glittering but controversial career but was undoubtedly one of the heavyweights of the American novel
But his literary reputation was at odds with his personal one and accounts surfaced of his self-centred, objectionable behaviour, with growing accusations of misogyny fed by the actress Claire Bloom’s searing account of her ill-fated 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’.
Always unfaithful, he enjoyed hall-of- mirrors game playing — his 1990s novel Deception was about a middle-aged writer called ‘Philip’ doing the dirty on his wife.
Ever since the publication of Bloom’s book, Roth had been making arrangements for an authorised biography to assert his side of the story, cooperating fully with chosen writer, Blake Bailey.
But if Bailey came to praise his subject, he instead ends up burying him under the sheer weight of patiently catalogued betrayals. By the end of this exhaustively researched book I was ready to believe even the most outlandish claims made by the various wronged parties from whom Bailey seeks to defend his subject.
As a rookie writer, Roth aspired to write a debut novel about a Jewish American out to kill 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, setting fiction in the east coast suburbia he grew up in.
His literary reputation at odds with personal one, with growing accusations of misogyny (pictured: one of his famous lovers, Ava Gardner)
In 1969 he struck gold with Portnoy’s Complaint, about a compulsive masturbator who finds relief in a piece of raw liver, later served by his mother for dinner.
His famous lovers included Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow — but not Penelope Cruz, who ignored his dinner invitation, or Nicole Kidman (who told him to ‘grow up’) or Jackie Kennedy, who, as Bailey reports, invited him back to her place, at which point Roth seems to have experienced an uncharacteristic loss of nerve.
In his 20s 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 journal — which he read when she was in hospital after an overdose.
He never forgave her for supposedly duping him into marriage by lying about a pregnancy and then pretending to have an abortion. Yet he was no innocent, rampantly cheating on her — Martinson even feared with her own daughter.
‘If you ever f*** my daughter, I’ll drive a knife right down into your heart,’ she told him. Roth hid the household’s knives, fearful of the possible interpretations of what Bailey describes as the ‘flirtatious’ conduct of Martinson’s daughter.
One of the book’s uglier passages describes his joy when, after their divorce, Martinson died in a car accident — he realised he would no longer have to split his income, just when Portnoy’s Complaint was about to become the bestselling novel in the history of 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 back to her place, at which point Roth seems to have experienced an uncharacteristic loss of nerve
Roth’s marriage to Claire Bloom fared little better. Recovering from a spell of suicidal depression he ‘sternly forbade’ her to return to their New York home, offering to pay for 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 living a mile down the road from his Connecticut studio.
And in 1988 he was briefly home alone with a twentysomething 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 in later years would answer the phone if she called for Anna by saying, ‘Hi, little home-wrecker’.
Always unfaithful, he enjoyed hall-of-mirrors game playing – his 1990s novel Deception was about a middle-aged writer called ‘Philip’ doing the dirty on his wife (pictured: Roth with his wife Claire Bloom in 1986)
Bailey calls all this ‘ribaldry’. Yet a department chair at one of Roth’s universities says he realised he was operating as ‘a pimp’ by admitting students to Roth’s courses.
‘Not all of Roth’s mentoring projects had an erotic component,’ says Bailey.
How unintentionally damning.
PHILIP ROTH: THE BIOGRAPHY by Blake Bailey (Jonathan Cape £30, 912pp)
His dedication to preserving space and time for work led him to keep at arm’s length the people he used to feed it. He chided a lover for daring to talk over 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 maintain his peace; he bought his neighbours’ apartments in New York for the same reason.
Roth, a champion grudge-bearer, never forgot that Portnoy’s Complaint didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award.
When, 36 years later, he heard that one of the judges was dying, he dispatched a go-between to ask her why it hadn’t made the cut.
Never mind his fondness for what one lover called ‘lop-sided’ relationships with damaged younger women, or his habit of ringing up a mistress at work, expecting her to drop everything to listen to him perform a sex act; even if we only concern ourselves high-mindedly with Roth’s novels, it’s hard not to find them diminished by his unsanctioned borrowings from the women he knew, whether from their journals or (in one alarming instance) secretly recording a telephone conversation with one of his flings. He once asked a lover to write down everything she could remember about their affair, before dumping her and putting it 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 am not just a s*** (when I am being one) but an interesting and intelligent s***’.
Pity this biography only gives us one out of three.