In Review

Book of the week: Philip Roth by Blake Bailey 

A ‘riveting, serious and deeply intelligent’ biography of the complicated author 

Philip Roth by Blake Bailey 

Philip Roth’s novels are almost all narrated by characters very like him – some of whom are actually called Philip Roth. He was “the most meta of novelists”, said David Baddiel in The Spectator. This poses a problem for a biographer: surely if you want to know who Roth was, isn’t it best just to read his books? This problem evidently didn’t bother Blake Bailey. In this “double doorstopper of a book”, which was authorised by Roth before he died in 2018, he mines his subject’s history “again and again, in even greater detail than the man himself did”. The result is a fascinating account of Roth’s long, complex life. There are plenty of revelations: it tells you who “the insatiable Drenka” in Sabbath’s Theatre was modelled on, and describes Roth’s long affair with her; it tells you which Roth character was based on Saul Bellow. But it’s much more than that: it’s a “riveting, serious and deeply intelligent” biography – the biography Roth deserves. 

One thing it doesn’t do is disguise his attitudes towards women, which are often shocking by present-day standards, said Blake Morrison in The Guardian. His two marriages, to Maggie Martinson and Claire Bloom, were “catastrophes”. While teaching in the 1970s, Roth got a colleague to act as his “pimp”, helping fill his classes with pretty students. He once tried to seduce a friend of Bloom’s daughter, Anna. When challenged, he said: “What’s the point of having a pretty girl in the house if you don’t f*** her?” While acknowledging that his behaviour often showed “breathtaking tastelessness”, Bailey strives to present a more nuanced picture. He emphasises Roth’s generosity, and the fact that “ex-lovers spoke warmly of him and visited his bedside when he was dying”. Roth was clearly no Harvey Weinstein. 

The one weakness of this otherwise “definitive and genuinely gripping” biography is that Bailey’s opinion of Roth’s oeuvre is sometimes “hard to determine”, said Claire Lowdon in The Sunday Times. Although he provides “useful, clear accounts of each novel”, he rarely engages on a deeper critical level. Another failing is a slight tendency to take his subject’s word for things, said Tim Adams in The Observer. “While Roth is allowed his adolescent infatuations and changes of heart, his jilted lovers and their capsized lives are sometimes implicitly dismissed as dull or hysterical.” Still, this is a “compulsively readable” book. And it certainly fulfils Roth’s commissioning brief. “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” Roth told Bailey. “Just make me interesting.” In that task, he has gloriously succeeded.

Jonathan Cape 912pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)

Philip Roth by Blake Bailey 
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

Recommended

30 books for your must-read bucket list
Books
In Focus

30 books for your must-read bucket list

Podcasts: on crime and punishment
The Lazarus Heist
In Review

Podcasts: on crime and punishment

Adam Buxton: my five best books
Adam Buxton
The wish list

Adam Buxton: my five best books

2021 films: new releases and what’s coming up
Aris Servetalis stars in Apples on Curzon Home Cinema
In Review

2021 films: new releases and what’s coming up

Popular articles

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 14 May 2021
10 Downing Street
Daily Briefing

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 14 May 2021

The link between Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein examined
Bill Gates
Behind the scenes

The link between Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein examined

TV crime dramas to watch in 2021
Chris Rock stars in the fourth series of Fargo
In Review

TV crime dramas to watch in 2021