On Lives and Counterlives

By Steven G. KellmanApril 8, 2021

On Lives and Counterlives

Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey
Philip Roth: A Counterlife by Ira Nadel

MORTALITY MAKES a mockery of our illusions of control. Philip Roth, however, tried to micromanage everything. His finicky demands about the production and marketing of his books led him to switch editors, publishers, and agents almost as frequently as he did lovers. He even posthumously stage-managed the format of his burial and memorial services, including who should — and who must not — attend. Roth’s bid for sovereignty over his life extended even to his life. “Biography gives a new dimension of terror to dying,” declared Roth, who stared down extinction in Patrimony (1991), Sabbath’s Theater (1995), Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007), Nemesis (2010), and other unsparing texts, but who flinched when other writers turned their gimlet eyes toward him. He put himself in charge of himself when he made “Philip Roth” a character in several of his fictions (there are in fact two characters who claim the name in his 1993 novel, Operation Shylock), and he created Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh as alter egos through which he could ventriloquize.

Instead of accepting the vagaries of his reputation among some as an antisemite, a misogynist, or an onanist, Roth commissioned his own biographer. An early version of his will named Judith Thurman, a National Book Award recipient for her biography of Isak Dinesen, his designated biographer. He later asked Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald, and, most recently, Tom Stoppard, to take on the task. He also, according to Ira Nadel, considered Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor at Stanford. Eventually he anointed Ross Miller, a professor at the University of Connecticut and nephew of Arthur Miller. When Miller, whom he counted a friend, seemed to be fumbling interviews with Roth’s acquaintances and bungling his job editing Roth’s Library of America volumes, the author dismissed him. Then, in 2012, after auditioning Blake Bailey, Roth appointed him to replace Miller.

John Cheever, Charles Jackson, and Richard Yates were all dead, hence conveniently mute, when Bailey published his exceptional biographies of them. Until Roth’s death at 85 in 2018, however, Bailey’s subject was not only looking over his shoulder but sitting in front of him, feeding him information. Bailey reports that he spent a week in Roth’s rural retreat in Warren, Connecticut, interviewing him for six hours a day. He was also given exclusive access to hundreds of pages of unpublished autobiographical writing. The author’s blessing helped secure many of the dozens of interviews Bailey conducted (although Claire Bloom, Roth’s wife in what was a tumultuous, failed marriage, and her daughter, Anna Steiger, declined to be interviewed, Bailey reports that they “were cordial and often forthcoming via email”).

So, although Bailey’s capacious book is an authorized — almost collaborative — biography, it is not hagiography. The biographer does not allow his admiration for the man he understandably calls “our greatest living novelist” to distort the comprehensive account — from grandparents in Galicia and Ukraine to a simple gravestone at Bard College — that he has compiled. Bailey faced a formidable pile of material: 31 published books, as well as letters, diaries, unproduced screenplays, and other documents. He even examines the brief stint that Roth, generally ignorant of and indifferent to cinema, enjoyed as film critic for The New Republic. Roth’s life and career also generated a whole galaxy — or gulag archipelago? — of books by others, including Bloom’s conjugal memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996) and such romans à clef as Janet Hobhouse’s The Furies (1992), Alan Lelchuk’s Ziff: A Life? (2003), and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (2018). Bailey transcribes a wide range of testimony from admirers and detractors, for the most part refraining from offering his own judgment, though of course the decision to dedicate eight years to the recounting of another man’s 85 years is itself an implicit judgment. An occasional footnote or parenthesis will point out a Roth error, as when Bailey states, in parenthesis within a footnote, that Roth believed — “mistakenly, I think” — that his nemesis Francine du Plessix Gray ghostwrote his second wife’s caustic memoir. Bailey captures the sweet generosity of a man who — often secretly — paid others’ medical bills and college tuition and saved endangered writers in Europe and Africa, but also his malice toward those he thought had wronged — or merely bored — him.

One of Roth’s characters sticks Flaubert’s admonition above his desk: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be wild and original in your work.” But Roth — whose first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), made him famous, and whose fourth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), made him rich — hardly lived an ordinary bourgeois life. In a rare judgment about his work, Bailey contends that Roth’s great theme is “the I against the They, a longing to live on one’s own terms, free of the smothering community, amid, too, an abiding wistfulness to belong — to be a good son, a mensch, a libertine, a nihilist — all of the above.” Roth, who left millions of dollars to the Newark Public Library, liked to imagine himself a nice Jewish boy from Weequahic, the neighborhood that renamed a plaza in his honor, but he sought out a troubled Midwestern shiksa for his disastrous first marriage and a panicky English actress for his equally disastrous second one. He consistently avoided marriage to more compatible mates. Even in his final, frail years, Roth was an obsessive philanderer who connected with and discarded women decades younger than himself. He exploited teaching appointments at Chicago, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Bard, and Hunter as opportunities for sexual predation. Roth shared with Bailey an album of photos of dozens of his lovers, many of whom maintained their affection years after being discarded. He maintained strong but often strained relationships with other prominent writers, including Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Milan Kundera, Bernard Malamud, Edna O’Brien, Cynthia Ozick, David Plante, Richard Stern, William Styron, and John Updike.

Bailey recalls that, during his audition for the role of biographer, Roth — who rejected the label “American Jewish novelist” yet wrote compulsively about American Jews — asked him to explain why “a gentile from Oklahoma should write [his] biography.” As if to prove that he has mastered his material, if not his master, Bailey shpritzes his book with Yiddishisms such as schmutz, hock, and dreck, though he commits the faux pas of referring to the “613 mitzvoh” that regulate a pious Jew’s life; the plural should be mitzvot. Nevertheless, the book is Bailey’s most effective response to Roth’s pointed query. Ecco homo, in a balanced, thorough account of an enormously gifted and troubled troublemaker.

Bailey subtitles his book “The Biography,” as if there were no other. A month before its publication, however, another biography appeared, and the subtitle of this Philip Roth, echoing the title of one of Roth’s metafictions (and distinguishing itself from Bailey’s effort at rendering the life), is “The Counterlife.” Its author, Ira Nadel, is a professor at the University of British Columbia who has published biographies of Leon Uris, David Mamet, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Stoppard. Nadel thanks Bailey for being helpful to him “in countless ways,” but he could not say the same for Roth himself, who once scribbled, “Pure rubbish, from the first sentence to the last,” across a scholarly article by Nadel titled “Philip Roth and Film.” Roth would never have chosen Nadel to be his Boswell, and when he discovered that Nadel had signed a contract to write a biography of him, he had his agent, Andrew Wylie, warn that Nadel was denied permission to quote from any published work and that the novelist’s friends and associates would be discouraged from cooperating with his project.

Nevertheless, although Nadel does not seem to have interviewed many sources, he did manage to find much to interest him in the Roth papers that are publicly available at the Library of Congress and elsewhere. His slimmer volume — 576 pages to Bailey’s 912 — presents itself as a thematic study of the man rather than a comprehensive or definitive biography. And its theme is anger, an emotion Nadel himself might have felt toward the subject who sought to stymie his project. “The concern of this narrative,” he announces, “is with the biographical roots and evolution of Roth’s anger and corresponding need for control, its causes and expression, which continued even after his death.” Identifying anger as Roth’s “defense against being stung by life,” Nadel traces those stings from childhood to the grave. They include his mother’s mockery over his claim that he needed a jock strap; Maggie Martinson’s ruse of using a pregnant stranger’s urine to trap him into a miserable marriage; betrayal by his psychiatrist, Hans Kleinschmidt, in a journal article that discusses a thinly disguised version of Roth’s case (much the same way Roth himself would use versions of friends and lovers in his novels); and negative reviews, particularly in The New York Times. Death, the ultimate sting, taunted Roth throughout his life.

Nadel explains Roth’s repeated involvement with younger, needy, fatherless women as evidence of his “savior complex” — his “desire to salvage the lives of women he perceives to be, who or [sic] actually are, damaged in one way or another.” Aside from Maggie Martinson and Claire Bloom, he ended up rejecting each of the women he was attracted to as soon as they showed signs of being overly attached to him. Roth’s squeamishness about marriage could also be explained as wisdom culled from harrowing experience. Maybe his role as savior is not much more complex than the overactive libido of a literary celebrity with license to score.

Much of Nadel’s thesis seems like pathography, though anyone writing about Roth’s life must acknowledge, as Nadel does, the role that physical ailments played in shaping it — a hernia at age 10, a debilitating back injury during army basic training, a burst appendix in his 30s, coronary blockage at 49, unsuccessful knee surgery in his 50s, psychotic reactions to painkillers, a quintuple coronary bypass a few years later, recurrent bouts of depression. The ravages inflicted on a handsome body fond of swimming, feasting, and fornication concentrated Roth’s mind and inspired his resentment.

Nadel observes that a copy of the Declaration of Independence hung in Roth’s childhood home and, like Bailey, makes much of Roth’s nonconformist rejection of convention. According to Nadel, “Only in opposition, Roth believes, can the writer write the truth, opposing sanctity, falsity, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy.” But surely the same could be said of thousands of other writers, from Voltaire to Baudelaire to the present day. It is not necessary to attribute Roth’s adversarial stance to a uniquely tortured psyche. Also questionable — especially since Nadel, like Roth, was born in Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital, though 10 years later — is his contention that Newark is “America’s fourth oldest city”; founded in 1666, a century after St. Augustine, it isn’t even in the top 10. It is also odd that he would make the claim, except metaphorically, that “Newark was a set of gated communities.” And Henry Roth’s sister was named Rose, not, as Nadel states, Ruth.

Out of respect for their privacy, Bailey uses pseudonyms to refer to the children of Roth’s first wife and to several of his lovers. But Nadel, for whom biography is a glare and not a glow, reveals their real names. For his epigraph, he chooses a line from Roth’s 1986 novel The Counterlife: “People are unjust to anger — it can be enlivening and a lot of fun.” Nadel’s thesis, that rage is the key to Roth’s life and art, is suggestive but reductive. Failing to account for all the author’s phases — antic entertainer, country gentleman, generous benefactor, champion of Eastern Europe’s endangered writers — it ignores the fun. “Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends,” Roth declared in a 1974 interview with Joyce Carol Oates. While it may explain Roth’s tendency to alienate his closest human friends, anger does not explain the ambivalence and flippancy of this witticism. It fails to acknowledge the extent to which all lasting art is rage against the dying of the light.


Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005), Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism (2020), and Rambling Prose: Selected Essays (2020).

LARB Contributor

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and The Translingual Imagination.


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