The Relentless Philip Roth

In his life as in his fiction, the author pursued the shameful, the libidinous, the repellent.

collage illustration of type and Philip Roth
Illustration by Oliver Munday; Bernard Gotfryd / Hulton Archive; Bettman; Bob Peterson / The Life Images Collection / Getty

This article was published online on March 13, 2021.

Was there ever a novelist who was more of a novelist than Philip Roth? More of a long-haul moralist, more of a titanic grump, more of a sex fiend, more of an industrial reality-processor, more of a deskbound hero, more of a get-up-early-and-feed-your-life-into-the-grinder (even if your back is killing you) type of guy? His prose is prose, definitively prose, anti-felicitous and slightly barbarous. No Updikean grace notes, no heavenly Bellow-isms, no glassy Cheeveresque rhapsodies. When it’s bad, it’s mechanical. When it’s good, it’s biblical: stacked clauses and surging power and a shaking of fists at the skies.

Thirty-one books. A 55-year career that basically turned himself and everyone around him inside out. The questions to which he sought answers, the questions of the mighty novelist—why? why? why?—were primordial and inexhaustible. The agonized alter egos who rotated through his books, the Zuckermans, the Kepeshes, the “Philip Roths,” were not experimental fiddles or metafictional gimmicks: They were ways of coming at it, ways of getting into it, ways of being real. How to crowbar as much of himself into the novel as possible, and then do it again—that was the experiment.

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”?

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.

Entering academe for a spell in the late ’80s, Roth designed and taught two courses at Hunter College: “The Literature of Extreme Situations” and “The Consciousness Industry.” His body of work in a nutshell, really. The novels drive relentlessly toward extremes, while the narrators pick their own psychologies apart. And what the books arrive at, generally, is some manifestation of the distracted, churning libido of America itself. The Human Stain (2000) begins in the thick of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, “the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop … when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton.”

Sex, of course, is the great manhole to the under-realm. Roth, in Philip Roth, has a ferocious amount of it. He pursues, he propositions, he fornicates, he cheats. (“God, I’m fond of adultery.”) More than once he makes his move in an elevator. “Inga,” the model for the wondrously licentious Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater, almost matches Roth in what he calls his “endowment of self-abandonment.” But not quite. When he calls her at her job and masturbates over the line, she is uncharmed. And when the affair is over, it’s time to start fictionalizing, to start working it up. “The butcher, imagination, wastes no time with niceties.” Who but Philip Roth, in his bloody novelist’s apron, could have written that?

A biography is always somehow a travesty, and Roth was probably resigned to misinterpretation. “The fact remains,” reflects Nathan Zuckerman in American Pastoral, “that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.” I think it’s unlikely that Philip Roth gets Philip Roth wrong. Bailey certainly lets the repellent in, and along with it comes the man in his wholeness. He loves jokes; he loathes Woody Allen. He can be unfeeling, but also sensitive to the point of neurasthenia: One of his girlfriends leaves him and his legs stop working. He distrusts shrinks, but he sees one, Dr. Kleinschmidt, who bragged about being the model for the psychiatrist in Roth’s Kafkaesque lark, The Breast.

His work habits, throughout, are magnificent: total isolation, a telephone that doesn’t take incoming calls. (“Malamud has already been at it for two hours,” he chides himself as he clocks in at nine in the morning.) There are whole years when he doesn’t know what he’s writing about; he keeps going. Good reviews, bad reviews, hostile reviews, stupid reviews. “I didn’t come here to be insulted,” his second wife tells him at one point, taking exception to some everyday Rothian banter. Roth laughs. “But of course you did. We all did. That’s what I want carved on my gravestone. ‘Philip Roth. He came here to be insulted.’ ”

By the (very moving) end of Philip Roth, the sex drive and the writing drive both having finally ebbed, Roth is ready to go: “Boy, am I getting tired of my resilience.” And now, for us, the life and the work seem to be offering the same challenge: How close are you, reader, to the wellsprings of your life? Because they’re down there, those torrents, still boiling out of the rock that split at your birth. Can you manage them, harness them, make them work for you? Do you have the Philip Rothness, day after day, for that?

This article appears in the April 2021 print edition with the headline “The Relentless Philip Roth.”