The spoils of Portnoy: The pugnacity, libido--and generosity--of a great American novelist.

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Date: Apr. 9, 2021
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6158)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,581 words
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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The biography


912pp. Cape. 30 [pounds sterling].

In 2012, Philip Roth chose Blake Bailey to be his authorized biographer. Bailey had written fine biographies of three gentile writers--two bisexual, all alcoholics and, to some degree, literary failures. He took on something completely different with Roth, whose vices did not include drinking, was a notorious womanizer, and was widely regarded as the greatest living American novelist. Roth gave him unlimited access to his "miles of files", copious notes and 300 boxes of correspondence, memos and manuscripts at the Library of Congress. In lengthy interviews, he also gave Bailey "almost every particle of pertinent information, no matter how intimate, and let me make of it what I would (after telling me, often exhaustively, what I ought to make of it)". In late May 2018, as Roth was dying of congestive heart failure at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Bailey was among the friends gathered at his bedside. It reminded him, he told an interviewer, of the scene in Patrimony where Roth described his father's death, "because it was the same sort of struggle ... Dying is hard work, and he was a worker" (Eric Cortellessa, Times of Israel, May 25, 2018).

Bailey is a worker, too. Here, only three years later, is his monumental and engrossing book, almost 900 pages. His subtitle--the biography--asserts that it is definitive. But other contenders have already popped up. The Canadian biographer Ira Nadel's Philip Roth: A counterlife takes a more contentious view. Steven J. Zipperstein, a Stanford scholar of Jewish history and culture, is writing a biography for the Yale University Press series Jewish Lives. The competition is shaping up like a Rothian metafiction, with further contributions yet to come from alter egos such as Alvin Pepler, David Kepesh, Peter Tarnapol and Moishe Pipek.

They will join several full and partial lives of Roth, including Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound: A writer and his books (2013); memoirs by friends Bernard Avishai, Benjamin Taylor and James Atlas; Claire Bloom's bombshell tell-all of their failed marriage; Roth's own writing, especially The Facts (1988); and novels by ex-lovers in which he is fictionalized, as the sexy writer Jack Sprat in Janet Hobhouse's The Furies (1992) and the ageing, still domineering Ezra Blazer in Lisa Halliday's affectionate, dazzling Asymmetry (2018).

Bailey brings new information and a fresh perspective, although taking on the biography of a controversial colossus like Philip Roth had many hazards. He won nearly every literary prize except, famously, the Nobel. After his death, the BBC hailed him as "arguably the best writer not to have won the Nobel prize since Tolstoy". While he could make fun of himself--"only Henry James has written worse plays"--he was also hyper-sensitive, controlling, unforgiving to his critics and vengeful to his perceived betrayers. His dearest friends deplored his "relentless self-justification".

Nevertheless, Bailey writes, Roth "was a person toward whom it was hard not to feel tenderly". Unexpectedly, "tender" is a word that comes up often about him in reviews, usually...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A658753492