Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Philip Roth’s Afterlife

He was very sexual, deeply selfish, and content to be just that. It made for great writing, but at what cost?

Adam Kirsch
April 01, 2021
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography” is the rare book that genuinely deserves the tag “highly anticipated.” While this is partly owed to Bailey’s excellence as a literary biographer (of John Cheever and Richard Yates, among others), I think it has mainly been anticipated in the same way that spectators count down the seconds until a building implodes.

If there was ever a target for today’s cultural demolition experts, it’s Roth, who was being accused of misogyny decades before the term became commonplace. His 2000 novel The Human Stain is a story of cancellation that would fit perfectly in the age of Twitter: Coleman Silk, a professor hiding his own Black identity, is ruined when he asks if some chronically absent students are real or “spooks,” not knowing that the students are Black. Silk’s crime is compounded when it’s revealed that he’s having an affair with a younger woman who works as a janitor at the college, an inadmissible power imbalance that his colleagues can only interpret as abuse.

Readers who approach Roth’s biography looking for examples of discreditable sexual behavior in his own life will find them. There are no instances of violence or abuse in this meticulously detailed 800-page book, but it’s clear that Roth was a lifelong seducer who delighted in transgressing sexual boundaries—whether that meant adultery, infidelity, visiting prostitutes, or buying the affection of younger women with money and expensive gifts. Perhaps the most cancellable offense Bailey documents, by today’s standards, is Roth’s habit of sleeping with his female students at the University of Pennsylvania, who were even selected for him by a friendly administrator on the basis of their looks.

But when it comes to sex, few writers have ever preempted their biographer as thoroughly as Philip Roth. The real surprise would be to learn that Roth didn’t do all those things—if he turned out to be like E.I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer, who turned down the advances of young Amy Bellette because sex was a distraction from writing. In fact, there was a Lonoff side to Roth: Starting in 1972, he spent much of his time holed up with his current wife or girlfriend in a big house in Warren, Connecticut, where there was nothing to do but write. That’s how he managed to publish 31 books over 50 years. But in one way or another, most of those books are about how hilariously, desperately unpleasant it was to be Philip Roth—because of his sexual compulsions, but more fundamentally because of his selfishness.

Roth wasn’t ashamed of being selfish—or rather, he was ashamed of it but stuck to it on principle. He instinctively embraced the morality of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” In Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first book, Neil Krugman gives his own formulation of this principle when he forces Brenda Patimkin to get a diaphragm despite her embarrassed resistance. “You’re the one who’s being selfish. It’s your pleasure,” she complains, to which he replies, “That’s right. My pleasure. Why not!”

My pleasure, why not?—it’s a simple ethic, yet Roth had so much to say about it that he needed several alter egos to express it all: Nathan Zuckerman, Peter Tarnopol, David Kepesh, the clearly fictive “Philip Roth” of Operation Shylock and the apparently autobiographical Philip Roth of The Facts and Patrimony. Most famous of all was Alexander Portnoy, the frantic, high-minded, perverted narrator of his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint.

Bailey conveys just how exceptional Portnoy was, as a cultural phenomenon and in Roth’s career. Before and after it, Roth was a prestige writer whose books were widely reviewed but seldom sold more than 30,000 copies. Portnoy, on the other hand, sold 420,000 copies in hardcover and 3.5 million in paperback over the next five years, making it “the best-selling novel in the illustrious history of Random House.” Bailey calculates that in 1969 Roth made the equivalent of $6,115,000 in today’s dollars.

It was an unrepeatable feat for a literary novelist, the result of a perfect cultural storm. The rise of the sexual revolution made Roth’s gleeful descriptions of masturbation feel cutting-edge, while the collapse of obscenity laws made them publishable. America’s fascination with Jews and Jewish humor was at its peak: Portnoy’s riffs about Jewish mothers were a more extreme form of a joke already familiar from Lenny Bruce and Henny Youngman. 1969 was also just about the last moment when literary fiction was prestigious enough to make a novel like Portnoy’s Complaint a major event—debated on talk shows, parodied in Mad magazine—yet popular enough to make it a bestseller.

The success pleased Roth, of course, but it also unnerved him. One of Bailey’s best anecdotes comes from the spring of 1969, when Roth was hiding out from the Portnoy tidal wave in a rented farmhouse in Woodstock, New York. One day he was walking on a mountain road with his girlfriend at the time, Barbara Sproul, complaining about the overexposure. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she reassured him, “No one cares, and up here no one has any idea who you are.” At that moment, Sproul recalled to Bailey, a woman leaned out the window of a passing car to shout: “It’s Portnoy!

Roth often complained about readers like that, who assumed his novels were directly autobiographical. Bailey notes that The Counterlife, in which Nathan Zuckerman’s father is dead, was pointedly dedicated “To my father at 85.” But the complaint was disingenuous. Portnoy may not be a novelist like Zuckerman or a literature professor like Kepesh—he’s a New York City “assistant commissioner of human opportunity,” a job Roth never had. (Bailey writes that Portnoy’s title was originally “assistant commissioner of human relations,” until Random House’s libel lawyer pointed out that this was a real position held by one Irving Goldhaber, who might not appreciate the comparison.)

But Portnoy was Roth’s age, grew up in Roth’s Newark, and had Roth’s overprotective parents. Most important, he had Roth’s problem, the one that animated his fiction from beginning to end: He insisted on wanting what he knew he wasn’t supposed to want. That’s not a new problem—Adam and Eve were familiar with it—and it’s not a specifically Jewish problem—every religious tradition tries to corral desire with prohibitions and a guilty conscience.

Because Roth was an American Jew, however, with an American Jew’s peculiar combination of responsibility for and indifference to Judaism, desire felt to him like a Jewish problem. All the things that mattered—writing truthfully, leaving home and engaging the world, enjoying sex—presented themselves as victories over Judaism. Or, better—since Roth was uninterested in religious tradition and really knew nothing about it—they were victories over the narrow, timid, stiflingly affectionate Jewish community that meant Judaism to him. This is what lay behind his lifelong impulse to be “exogamous,” as he described himself—or as Portnoy would put it, to have sex with shikses. Bailey uses that Yiddish word repeatedly, borrowing it from Roth, who treated it as a punchline. But it’s an ugly word and I wish it didn’t appear so often in the biography without being “problematized” or “interrogated,” as such words are now supposed to be.

Roth’s need to justify himself against the Jews is what made him such an unerring diagnostician of American Jewish hypocrisy, evasion, and repression—starting in the 1950s with stories like “The Defender of the Faith” and “Eli, the Fanatic,” and continuing through the explosive obscenity of Portnoy, the subversive Anne Frank fantasy of The Ghost Writer, and the confrontation with Zionism in The Counterlife.

There are other Roth canons too, of course—the profane sex-comedy of The Professor of Desire and Sabbath’s Theater, the midcentury nostalgia of American Pastoral and Nemesis. But I think Roth’s most Jewish books are the ones most likely to endure, if only because these books will be indispensable for any future readers who want to understand American Jewry in its postwar golden age. This feels like a fitting irony for Roth, who always disclaimed the label of “Jewish writer” but could never stop “Writing About Jews,” to use the title of the apologia he published in Commentary in 1963.

In his own life, Bailey shows, Roth’s need to set himself apart from Jewishness, and everything he thought it represented, exacted a high price. At first it was fuel for his ascent, taking him out of Newark to Bucknell College, where he got his first glimpse of “real” America. But it also led to what might have been the worst decision of Roth’s life: getting involved with Margaret Martinson, who became his first wife. Roth wrote about “Maggie” a number of times—indirectly in When She Was Good, more directly in My Life as a Man, and then as straight memoir in The Facts—and Bailey’s account of her largely follows the same lines.

When Roth met Maggie in 1956, he was a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago and she was a 31-year-old divorced mother of two who worked as a waitress in a nearby coffee shop. The more time they spent together, the clearer it became—certainly to all of Roth’s friends—that they were incompatible and made each other miserable. But Roth, Bailey writes, “was simply fascinated by all the ‘goyish chaos’ Maggie evoked,” and which he put into his fiction: the alcoholic ex-husband, the childhood sexual abuse, the fits of rage and threats of suicide. These types of chaos aren’t exactly unknown in Jewish lives, of course. But for Roth, contrasting Maggie’s past with his own excessively safe childhood in Weequahic, the Jewish section of Newark, her suffering seemed fascinatingly authentic—an example of what Flaubert called “le vrai,” real life.

This was a parochial idea and Roth paid a steep price for it. When Maggie announced she was pregnant, he agreed to marry her if she got an abortion—his determination not to have children was a constant in his life, the corollary of his principled selfishness. Years later, when the marriage was in ruins, Maggie confessed that she had faked the pregnancy test by paying a pregnant woman in Tompkins Square Park to urinate into a bottle. It was a staggering example of life outdoing fiction, and Roth struggled for years to find a way to write about the experience in a novel, before finally setting out the bare truth in The Facts.

Equally improbable was how the relationship ended. In 1968, after years of bitter divorce litigation and fights over alimony that drove Roth to despair, he got a phone call one morning informing him that Maggie had been killed in a car crash in Central Park. If God had wanted to give Roth a sign that his selfishness was right and good, a pillar of fire wouldn’t have been half as effective. He had been granted what he wanted most of all, freedom, and he didn’t have to lift a finger to get it.

Like his characters, Roth refused the hypocrisy of guilt. On the day of the funeral, Bailey writes, “Roth was walking to the subway when it occurred to him that he no longer had to divide his income; the taxi he took to Campbell’s [the funeral home on Madison Avenue] ‘was the first tangible result’ of his liberation. ‘Got the good news early, huh?’ the cabbie remarked as he pulled to the curb, and Roth realized he’d been whistling the entire ride.”

Which is not to suggest that he lived happily ever after. Bailey shows that Roth’s adult life was shadowed by pain and sickness. A back injury sustained during his army service in 1955—Roth was helping to carry a heavy kettle full of potatoes when the other soldier dropped it—continued to flare up for the rest of his life, requiring periods of immobility and lots of painkillers. In the late 1980s Roth was prescribed Halcion as a sleeping aid and had a terrible reaction to it, leading to the intense depression and hallucinations he writes about in Operation Shylock. Cardiac problems that ran in his family led to another series of ordeals, and he followed a strict regimen of diet and exercise for decades. In his last years, Roth experienced a more common affliction of old age—impotence, whose psychological effects he wrote about in his next to last book, The Humbling.

Bailey was Roth’s authorized biographer, after an earlier choice turned out badly, and he benefited from extensive interviews with his subject in Roth’s last years. He also makes clear that throughout his life, but especially near the end, Roth was fanatical about controlling his public image. A particular obsession was Leaving a Doll’s House, the tell-all memoir published in 1996 by his second wife, Claire Bloom, after their divorce. Bailey reveals that in 2010, after his self-proclaimed retirement from writing, Roth wrote a book-length rebuttal of Bloom’s memoir, which he titled “Notes for My Biographer” and intended to publish until the unanimous advice of his friends made him relent.

Would Roth be happy with the way Bailey represents him for posterity? Overall, I think he would. The book is written on the assumption that Roth’s account of events is basically correct and that the reader is on Roth’s side. Thus Maggie comes across as a crazy, greedy, impossible person who made Roth’s life miserable for no reason. Bailey also uncritically shares Roth’s hostility to the writer Francine du Plessix Grey, a Connecticut neighbor who took Bloom’s side in the divorce, and who Roth suspected of ghost-writing Leaving a Doll’s House.

It is probably right for a biographer to remain a partisan of his subject. Bailey had before him the cautionary example of James Atlas, who came to resent Saul Bellow in ways that curdled the biography he wrote. To his credit, Bailey avoids this trap while still including enough evidence to allow the reader to reach a less sympathetic judgment of Roth. Maggie appears in a rather different light, for example, after one has read about Roth’s many other long-term relationships that ended in bitterness. Her violence and vengefulness, even the pregnancy fraud, come to seem like escalating attempts to force Roth to pay attention, to take her seriously.

The same theme appears in most of the romantic relationships Bailey chronicles. With Roth there was always a thus-far-and-no-further: He wouldn’t get married; he wouldn’t have children; he wouldn’t share living space or adjust his schedule; above all, he wouldn’t be faithful. The combination of charm and affection with nonnegotiable withholding would drive anyone crazy, and many of the relationships Bailey documents ended with the woman threatening or attempting suicide.

To Roth, of course, these weren’t limitations of love, but more refusals of hypocrisy: My pleasure, why not? Jonathan Brent, now the director of YIVO, is one of several people quoted in the biography who saw things differently. Long a close friend of Roth’s, the two fell out in 2000 when Roth urged him to leave his wife; when Brent didn’t, Roth used him as the basis of a “timid, self-righteous” character in The Dying Animal who refuses to get divorced out of fear. Recalling their friendship, Brent told Bailey that Roth “lives in kind of an empty world. Not intellectually empty; not artistically empty; but in some deep psychic way. And it’s an emptiness that he has cultivated very carefully. Because he can control that world. But it leaves him empty and I think he’s in great need of real love that he can’t find.”

Here, too, what Bailey offers is less a revelation or indictment than a confirmation of what Roth’s readers knew all along. Nowhere in his fiction is it promised that selfishness leads to happiness, much less to happy love. Rather, from Alexander Portnoy to Mickey Sabbath, Roth’s obscene alter egos take their stand on principle and hold to it come what may; like Milton’s Satan, they are idealists in reverse. Roth’s belief in the sufficiency of sex and the self is both the key to his power as a writer and his most serious limitation. As with all great artists, those may be two ways of saying the same thing.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.