PositiveThe New YorkerPhilip Roth’s efforts to control the shape of his biography are, inevitably, a part of his biography—especially of one as comprehensive as Blake Bailey’s eight-hundred-page opus, Philip Roth: The Biography. The book is authorized—Roth appointed Bailey to the role—but Bailey was guaranteed editorial independence as well as full access ... Howe had it all wrong. Roth turned self-obsession into art. Over time, he took on vast themes—love, lust, loneliness, marriage, masculinity, ambition, community, solitude, loyalty, betrayal, patriotism, rebellion, piety, disgrace, the body, the imagination, American history, mortality, the relentless mistakes of life—and he did so in a variety of forms: comedy, parody, romance, conventional narrative, postmodernism, autofiction. In each performance of a self, Roth captured a distinct sound and consciousness ... As Roth’s rages, resentments, and cruelties appear through the pages, it’s natural to wonder why he provided Bailey so much access. At the same time, no biographer could surpass the unstinting self-indictments of Roth’s fictional alter egos. Bailey barely wrestles with this. In fact, he scarcely engages with the novels at all—a curious oversight in a literary biography. He summarizes them as they come along, and quotes the reviews, but he plainly feels that his job is elsewhere, researching and assembling the life away from the desk and the page ... Nobody will tackle an eight-hundred-page biography of a novelist without having read at least some of the novels. And readers will know that Roth did not lead a mythopoetic life. He fought no wars, led no political movements ... Bailey also tots up Roth’s extramarital forays. They are numerous ... Roth’s domestic dramas ran parallel to his early creative achievements and struggles ... The result is hardly a subtle engagement with a writer’s mind and work on the level of, say, David Levering Lewis on W. E. B. Du Bois or Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf, but, when it comes to the life, Bailey is industrious, rigorous, and uncowed ... As Bailey’s biography is scavenged for its more scandalous takeaways, some readers may find reason to shun the work, whatever its depth, energy, and variousness. And yet the exposure here is the same self-exposure that Roth always practiced: he revealed himself to his biographer as he once revealed himself to the page ... The man who emerges is a literary genius, constantly getting it wrong, loving others, then hurting them, wrestling with himself and with language, devoted to an almost unfathomable degree to the art of fiction. Roth is never as alive, as funny, as complicated, as enraging, or as intelligent as he is in the books of his own devising. But here we know him better, even if the biographical form cannot quite contain this author’s life and works.
PositiveThe New YorkerHalf book, half brand extension, it’s an entertaining, rambling monologue, a slurry romp through the life of a man who knew every pleasure, denied himself nothing, and never paid the price. Maybe you can’t always get what you want. The rule doesn’t apply to Keith ... At times, the book sounds like a consequence-free version of William Burroughs’s Junky ... Another staple of the rock memoir or biography is the catalogue of sexual conquests, and, on this subject, Richards is almost shy ... Some readers may delight in Richards’s sly have-it-all-ways self-regard, but for me the most winning sections of the book are the tales of his becoming, the way his close adolescent friendship with Jagger and their mutual love for their blues heroes rapidly led to the formation of the Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band in the World.
RaveThe New YorkerI don’t know of a more complex autobiography by an American business figure, certainly not one that allows itself such moments of weakness, embarrassment, and pain. There is plenty of material in Personal History to satisfy the most obvious expectations—all the familiar episodes of the Post’s history are replayed, and famous faces bob into sight as if in a capital version of \'Grand Hotel\'—but more interesting is the degree to which this memoir is a description of the muggy intimacy of the world of Washington and the way one powerful woman learned to live her life there ... For all its glamour and great personages, Personal History is a litany of humiliations, incidents in which the memoirist faults herself for lack of judgment, of independence, or of strength ... Her allegiance to democratic capitalism is no less firm than that of William F. Buckley, Jr., and her inherent faith that the establishment élites will do the right thing is nearly absolute. She really does seem to believe that Watergate was an aberration.