Just as I was sitting down to write my review of Blake Bailey’s authorised biography of Philip Roth, the news broke that Bailey had been accused of two sexual assaults and several other instances of improper behaviour dating back to the 1990s. He was promptly dropped by his literary agent. His American publisher, W.W. Norton, announced it was suspending distribution and promotion of the book, then cancelled it.
Under the circumstances, a straight review would seem to be inappropriate and quite possibly redundant. Whatever the objective merits and shortcomings of the biography itself, it is now destined to be interpreted in light of the serious allegations against Bailey. His position is hardly enhanced by the fact that his thorough account of Roth’s life confirms that the celebrated novelist was something of a lothario.
This does not exactly come as a shock, but it does contribute to sleazy tenor of the whole affair. Given that Roth chose his official biographer because Bailey was willing to be non-judgmental about his busy sex life, and given that Roth’s Achilles heel as a writer is widely considered to be his depiction of women, it would appear that, on top of everything else, the biography is a spectacular own goal. Instead of settling some old scores and consolidating his literary reputation, Roth has associated himself with a posthumous scandal that has inevitably drawn attention to the charges of misogyny that dogged him throughout his career, much to his irritation.
It is difficult not to see this as a Rothian twist. In Operation Shylock, a fictional character named Philip Roth disagrees with a line from Heraclitus, which the real Roth had probably picked up from the famous opening passage of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March: “A man’s character isn’t his fate; a man’s fate is the joke his life plays on his character.” The idea would assume particular importance in Roth’s later novels, in which tragic figures such as Swede Levov in American Pastoral and Coleman Silk in The Human Stain are driven to ruin because they mistakenly believe they can control the narratives of their own lives.
There are deeper and more uncomfortable ironies. At the core of Roth’s literary vision is a conviction that human beings are constitutionally impure: we are all absurdly and fatally compromised by carnal desires and the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to. The great enemy in his work is puritanism. Nothing rankled more than hypocritical piety, which he attacked in his novels with gusto, countering any trace of sanctimony with fusillades of mockery, outrage, obscenity, indignation, fury and disgust.
His theme, he once remarked to his friend John Updike, was “willed extremism at either end of the moral spectrum”. Near the end of his life, having called time on an extraordinary career spanning more than half a century, he reflected that his “master obsession” had been “the implications and ambiguities and contradictions inherent to goodness and badness”.
Thus, it would be something of a betrayal of Roth’s legacy if his authorised biography were to present him as an admirable man − it most certainly does not. Bailey’s generally sympathetic account reveals the considerable extent to which the relentless drive that allowed Roth to create at such a pitch of intensity for such a long time required some unwholesome deformations of character.
Roth was a writer of vast ambition, with an ego to match. He was ferociously disciplined and deeply competitive. Everything was fuel for his art. His personal relationships − including two disastrous marriages that ended in the kind of mutual acrimony from which no one emerges with their dignity intact − tended to suffer as a result. For Roth, the writing always came first. One ex-lover called him “the most ruthless man on this planet”.