From the April 2012 issue: Roth v. Roth v. Roth
And now we have the authorized biography, appropriately massive (900 pages). Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth comes flapping at us like a magnificent albatross through the mist, a heavy, feathery projectile from beyond the rim of time. Roth’s been dead only three years, but already his writer’s world of big advances, big divorces, big controversies, big houses in Connecticut, and big reviews in The New York Times feels as remote as Elizabethan England.
Bailey is a very good writer and a very good literary biographer. A double- or triple-natured subject is not beyond him. (See 2009’s superb Cheever: A Life.) In 2012, Roth interviewed Bailey, sternly demanding by what authority “a gentile from Oklahoma” would presume to tell the story of one of the century’s most explosive literary Jews. Bailey got the gig; Roth gave him the run of his archive, and the run of his memory.
What a story. Out of Newark, New Jersey, foaming with talent, comes wacky little Philip, son of Bess and Herman, child of the ’40s, obsessed with baseball, obsessed with girls, “savagely beating off” in the bushes near his high school to ease the hydraulics of another unconsummated date. At Fort Dix, on the last night of basic training, he does his back in while hefting a kettle of potatoes: The switch is flipped on a grimacing lifetime of pills, braces, and operations. He publishes caustic, notably irreligious short stories in The New Yorker and The Paris Review; the rabbis begin to howl. (“What is being done to silence this man?”)
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is the breakthrough—the best-selling novel in the history of Random House. So much masturbation, so much self-involvement. “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off,” declares its narrator, Alex Portnoy. The howling of the rabbis becomes deafening, and now they are joined by the intellectuals. “This is just the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying,” pronounces Gershom Scholem. Roth is famous overnight, naughtiness is victorious, but still he does not feel that he has extirpated the “nice Jewish boy” within. Will he ever shake off “that ghastly stinking bastard, that son of a bitch, Shame”?
From the May 2020 issue: Philip Roth’s terrible gift of intimacy
Well, no. Nobody does. “When such as I cast out remorse,” wrote Yeats, “so great a sweetness flows into the breast.” Strictly temporary. As we breathe, we mortify ourselves. So what do you do? You embrace the remorse—you dig into the ore of the shameful. “Let the repellent in” becomes Roth’s mantra. Henceforth the quest, the hero’s journey, is to write what has to be written, without compunction. Working on Operation Shylock in the early ’90s, he makes some rules for himself: “DO NOT JUDGE IT / DO NOT TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT / DO NOT CENSOR IT.” The heavy-metal under-realm of desire, fury, ambition, obsession, compulsion—that’s where he wants to be. Combine this with the moral pressure of his prose, “the need,” in the words of Mickey Sabbath, from Sabbath’s Theater, “to find a strand of significance that will hold together everything that isn’t on TV,” and you have the Philip Roth effect.