Bailey’s comprehensive life of Philip Roth—to tell it outright—is a narrative masterwork both of wholeness and particularity, of crises wedded to character, of character erupting into insight, insight into desire, and desire into destiny. Roth was never to be a mute inglorious Milton. To imagine him without fame is to strip him bare ... The biographer’s unintrusive everyday prose is unseen and unheard; yet under Bailey’s strong light what remains on the page is one writer’s life as it was lived, and — almost — as it was felt.
Philip 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.
In Bailey’s telling, Roth’s life is a story of a great talent, threatened by other people’s desires and demands ... Yet all of this talent and promise, Bailey suggests, was about to be jeopardized by the appearance of a uniquely destructive woman ... A major point in the case against Martinson is that the 'deepening turbulence' of their relationship, her 'years of constant nagging and irritation,' made it difficult for Roth to write. The account of their relationship reads like a litany of small and not so small acts of career sabotage ... Eventually Roth would have Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man carry out the same deception that Margaret Martinson had in real life, but his desire for a resounding guilty verdict didn’t fade. Bailey seems determined to deliver that verdict for him. Much that Bailey writes about Martinson is difficult to stomach ... Women in this book are forever screeching, berating, flying into a rage, and storming off, as if their emotions exist solely for the purpose of sapping a man’s creative energies ... From book to book, Bailey expresses Roth’s disappointment at uncomprehending reviewers and prize juries—where’s that National Book Award? And how about that Pulitzer? In his personal life, which Bailey documents fling by fling, Roth now often turns to sensible, accommodating women ... Then again, Roth does not come out of this biography looking so great, either, despite getting the chance to tell his side of the story. His final years see a sad procession of young girlfriends floating in and out of his life, as he tries to convert some of them into long-term carers ... Possibly the worst thing you could do for Roth’s reputation would be to defend him on his own terms. His emphasis on settling scores with ex-wives and lovers draws attention to his signal failures of imagination—his lack of interest in the inner lives of women, his limited ability to reconcile his own experiences of pain with the co-existence of others’ suffering ... The parts of Bailey’s book that trace the unraveling of Ross Miller’s Roth biography are among its most revealing.
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 ... Bailey is a very good writer and a very good literary biographer ... 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 ... 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.'
No pushover, this Bailey guy, and his near decade of toil has resulted in a colorful, confident and uncompromising biographical triumph that, at more than 800 pages, also manages to be conversationally readable ... Bailey conveys Roth’s wit and charisma as a handsome, vivacious, all-American baseball-loving kid in Weequahic, N.J., a sly undergrad on the make at Bucknell, and a grad student at the University of Chicago discovering both his literary superpowers and his impatience with the posturing, pedantry and theory-mongering of academe ... But this book is decidedly warts and all. No egotistical rant, petty grievance, control-freak overreach or sexual adventure (often with much younger women) goes unnoted. Nor do neurotic reveries ... And by the end of the book, such is the accrual of medical details, you’ll feel like Roth’s internist. Then again, you wouldn’t want someone vague and squeamish writing about the creator of Portnoy’s Complaint and The Anatomy Lesson. Moreover, this unsparing treatment seems perfectly apt considering that Roth portrayed himself or his counterselves with even more unsparing, unflattering precision ... Bailey doesn’t bow and quake before each of Roth’s dozens of works ... no one writing about Roth will be able to sidestep this foundational biography. If nothing else, Bailey’s book is a crucial decoder ring for deciphering the byzantine layers of who became what in Roth’s romans-à-clef.
Bailey paints a vivid portrait ... Roth’s relationship with Martinson is in some ways the first test of Bailey’s biography — it’s obvious that the author admires his subject, but he’s careful to point out Roth’s own flaws, some of which were quite serious ... Bailey does an excellent job writing not just about [Portnoy's Complaint], but about the furor it caused ... Accusations that Roth hated women enraged the novelist, but Bailey neither exactly acquits nor convicts him of the charges...He does, however, present a warts-and-all portrayal of Roth’s relationships with women ... Bailey writes about Roth’s later years with a sensitivity that’s respectful but not worshipful ... a fair-minded book, and Bailey does an excellent job writing about the life of the author who tended to play his cards close to his vest ... Bailey also proves to be an intelligent reader of Roth’s books, and the biography is peppered with sharp insights — not all favorable ones — into the late author’s canon ... It’s a wonderful book that seems certain to become the definitive biography of Roth’s fascinating, sometimes troubling, life — Roth was a brilliant writer, and Bailey does him justice in this beautifully written and highly readable volume.
From the first page, the message is clear: Roth is owed ... At just under 900 pages, the book is most thoroughly a sprawling apologia for Roth’s treatment of women, on and off the page, and a minutely detailed account of his victimization at the hands of his two wives ... we receive a narrow portrait of a wide life ... Bailey is strangely reticent on the work ... Bailey tells us little; is it because it is so difficult to stage such scenes, to make them interesting? Only if you’re a writer for whom ideas have no glamour, no drama of their own. Roth’s own writing was full of provocations on the art of biography, full of masks and veils and alter egos, obsessed with plucking apart the idea of a self. Bailey avoids it all, offering readings of the most tepid kind, primarily noticing biographical correspondences, most of them familiar by now. In doing so he reduces Roth to the most literal kind of confessionalist, a charge his subject strenuously protested ... Bailey’s proud refusal to seem prim or judgmental blossoms into a troubling tendency to join the fray. It’s strange to see a biographer get his own shots in at a despised ex-wife ... Copious, complicitous, written with style and almost filial tenderness and myopia — in many ways the book feels like an unavoidable stage of public mourning. It has been done, and like the psychiatrist at the end of Portnoy’s Complaint, having heard a mighty torrent of confession and justification, one is tempted to say: 'Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?'
I dived into Blake Bailey’s much-anticipated biography expecting to find what I did: a big, horny genius ... Aside from anything else, Bailey is an astute literary critic, with a clear-eyed appraisal of the novels, even the misfires ... [a] humane and thorough account of Roth, delivered in a witty, wry and even self-deprecating style ... I finished reading through tears.
It’s seemingly all here, every relationship, every affair, every tryst, from Roth’s days as a brash whiz kid out of Newark...to his Viagra-popping dotage as a literary Olympian. We learn of favored positions and accessories, styles of foreplay and dirty talk ... Mr. Bailey’s bird’s-eye style works best in depicting the whirlwind of Roth’s youth ... this all makes for glamorous reading, and there are sparkling scenes ... Roth had endured a terrible marriage to a young mother-of-two named Maggie Martinson. Mr. Bailey is excellent on this bitterly codependent relationship, which Roth’s inexperience endows with real pathos, despite his habitual philandering ... [Roth's] artistic journey, however, is obscured by Mr. Bailey’s clinical treatment of the books: he’s more inclined to explicate their real-life models than to speculate on their aesthetic intentions. But the bigger trouble is that Roth’s private life obtrudes once again in the form of another disastrous marriage, this time to the famous British actress Claire Bloom ... This section of the biography reads less like a rebuttal than the findings of a third-party arbitration in a divorce hearing, as Mr. Bailey goes through the weeds of every accusation, picking out inconsistencies ... Like a hangover headache, a certain sourness lingers throughout the rest of the biography, which snags constantly on Roth’s accumulating feuds ... perhaps [Roth] would be struck by the strange way that such a big, rigorously researched, consummately written biography can make a man look small.
Bailey canvasses contemporary assessments of Roth's 31 books ... That said, Philip Roth: The Biography devotes far more space to 'shmutz' (Yiddish for filth)—Roth's sexual appetite—than to his literary legacy ... Perhaps titillating, this approach becomes tiresome ... As he connects real-life people to fictional characters, Bailey does not illuminate Roth's broader themes. And, although Roth freely discussed (along with Alex Portnoy) the perpetual warfare between his sexual longings, 'often of a perverse nature,' and his 'strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses,' one wonders whether, if he could read Bailey's book, he would conclude, with Oscar Wilde, 'that biography adds to death a new terror.'
In the end there is only the careerist, the professional writer who is first, last, and only a professional writer. The original and so far ultimate careerist in American literature was Philip Roth ... Roth had a persistent public-relations problem. Too often he was confused with his characters. Roth was never not a Jew, but his true creed was secular, his gods success and sex. He made his name writing about race traitors, class traitors, and perverts. He needed to spread the word that he was still a Nice Jewish Boy: responsible, successful, and normal. He was getting too much mail: hate mail from offended New Jersey rabbis and propositions from turned-on Midwestern nurses. He relished it all, but he knew as soon as he had anything that he had a lot to lose ... An exquisitely managed career, right down to this totemic and compulsively readable biography, which young writers are well advised to consult as a blueprint for enduring literary stardom. Its lessons include: never marry; have no children; lawyer up early; keep tight control of your cover designs; listen to the critics while scorning them publicly; when it comes to publishers, follow the money; never give a minute to a hostile interviewer; avoid unflattering photographers; figure out what you’re good at and keep doing it, book after book, with just enough variation to keep them guessing; sell out your friends, sell out your family, sell out your lovers, and sell out yourself; keep going until every younger writer can be called your imitator; don’t stop until all your enemies are dead.
As dogged in his research into Roth’s life as he is adroit in his reading of Roth’s work, Bailey admirably negotiates the two—sorting the conundrums of life and art embedded in a literary corpus and strategy conceived and executed, in essence, to make them unsortable ... Bailey constructs an engaged and engaging intellectual biography, a portrait of the artist as young, middle-aged, and old man that does both Bailey’s subject and his readers justice ... While Bailey fleshes out Roth’s personal biography with abundant and well-documented details, he also keeps faith with his promise by covering events that sometimes seem uneventful. Roth may have transmuted his 'florid love life' into art, for example, but its particulars, putting aside Roth’s history with Claire Bloom, are fairly humdrum. That quibble aside, Bailey’s demonstrable skill as a writer mitigates any limitations and amplifies all the strengths inherent in his subject. He offers a clean narrative arranged in six chronological phases and written in brisk and lucid prose ... a masterful work and a very rewarding read.
... an exhaustive and deeply sympathetic account ... although the kindest thing one can say about him as a critic is that he has a flair for concise précis, Bailey does give the reader a vivid sense of the richly varying modes in which Roth operated ... Eschewing censoriousness, Bailey leaves it to the reader to decide if ['feminist prison' is] where Roth belongs.
Bailey’s account of the last years is touching ... [Roth] would approve of this biography, too, not because it’s partial but because Bailey’s industriousness is on a par with his own. With a “mile of files” and boxes to work through, it’s a miracle that he has published so lucid a book just three years after Roth’s death – and one so packed with good anecdotes and jokes ... given how determined Roth was to control his posthumous reputation, after falling out with his first official biographer, Ross Miller (nephew of Arthur), it’s an achievement for Bailey to have gained as much distance as he has ... 'Why do you want to characterise me … as some sort of heartless rapist manqué?' the Roth character Tarnopol scolds his psychiatrist Dr Spielvogel in My Life As a Man. Some critics will use this biography to do just that. But the story is more complex – and a lot more interesting.
Ashamed by all this fretting, I tried to remind myself that these were different circumstances: that if this book were bad, if this book were a failure, it would have nothing to do with me. The sins of the biographer aren’t borne by the subject, but the other way around. After all, most people read biographies for the subject, not the author. And most sane, rational people would never read a biography of a novelist they hated but would read even a lackluster biography of a novelist they loved. At worst, I told myself, a lackluster biography would be a wasted opportunity and my true fans would come away from it clamoring for another, and another, and another, each one further impressing on them the sense that the only writer who could ever hope to encompass my person in prose was me, myself. I’ve always tried to maintain this distinction between my person and my prose. As a student of Céline and Orwell and the better anti-Semites—and as a writer given to experimentation with alter egos, not to mention with fornication—I’ve long insisted that Life and Work, if they can’t be separated, must at least be separately respected ... On the whole, Bailey’s neat arrangement of Roth’s obviously messy existence is appropriately novelistic—the brazen young man who lampoons his community winds up being cherished by his country as a classic—but this resolution of Roth into beloved canonicity comes prepackaged with a twist, which is how that canonicity is undermined—how it’s been undermined in advance—by Roth’s choice to grant access to a biographer ...The biography is published and the writer’s legacy crumbles. Call it a Reverse Kafka, or a Backwards Brod: by complying with my last wishes, Bailey threatens to ruin my reputation ... In a way, Bailey’s fastidious, scene-by-scene accounting of the biography’s changing authorship is characteristic of his method: he took from my novels the metafictional, or, I guess, now meta-non-fictional, technique of making himself a character in his own book and then leveraged that presence to pick at my flaws. And I’m telling you, it hurts. It wounds my professional pride ... In Bailey’s telling, or non-telling, it’s as if I rarely wrote, and never rewrote, and the lacuna is so conspicuous that I can only conclude that my writing doesn’t interest him at all.
Bailey performs the task of the biographer so gracefully that it’s hard to know the dancer from the dance ... Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth is that rare sort of book, meticulous without sacrificing dramatic energy, endlessly entertaining without ever surrendering critical integrity, candid without forfeiting compassion. There’s a good reason why the subtitle of the Bailey’s book is 'The Biography' rather than a biography ... Bailey’s much-anticipated biography puts Roth’s career into personal and historical perspective ... A lesser biographer would have made of Roth’s life a blizzard of salacious details—there are plenty of them to recount (most of the pseudonyms in the biography are reserved for Roth’s many lovers)—but, instead, with a persuasive critical insight and what can only be called a novelistic sense of empathy, Bailey gives us the picture of a memorable life, a penetrating look into the troubled genius that was Philip Roth ... With this book, Bailey deserves the definite article for himself. He is the biographer of Philip Roth.
... a well-researched and engrossing book, but at times a frustratingly narrow one, despite its heft ... Bailey ably documents the lifelong squabbles over his cancel-worthiness but sidesteps making a ruling ... There’s a downside to all of Bailey’s diligent, dishy accounting of scandals and mapping of Roth’s life to his novels: A reader interested in Roth’s fiction might reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about. Roth was a diligent reviser and thinker about the American scene and a champion of dissident writers. None of that is as seductive as his romantic history. But it means his evolution and value as a writer gets shorter shrift in Bailey’s book. Roth was determined as a writer, he said, to 'let the repellent in.' A stronger biography might’ve shown how he did that, and why it might matter for the writers who’ll follow him.
'I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting,' reads The Biography’s epigraph, a directive from subject to biographer. Roth died in 2018, leaving Bailey to interpret the mandate as he saw fit. Whether you think he succeeded will depend on your interest in Roth’s oeuvre. It’s not that Roth led a mundane existence—despite reclusive tendencies, he found plenty of time for affairs and feuds, all rehashed here with Boswellian élan—but because he so overtly mined his life for his fiction, the salacious details become more than tabloid fodder in the context of the work ... For Roth devotees, there’s a certain satisfaction in the revelations offered ... Bailey’s interpretation of 'interesting' begins to feel suspect as The Biography wears on ... readers of The Biography would be forgiven for thinking that the prolific author spent most of his prime, not honing his craft, but alternately seducing young women and quibbling with publicists over jacket copy ... though Bailey is quick to make clear that Roth remained friendly with most of his girlfriends, and was even a 'de facto' grandfather to some of their kids, I doubt anyone will come away from The Biography thinking: Philip Roth, a paragon of virtue! ... Bailey’s hefty doorstopper is intended to convince us that here lived a giant, his every piss and polyp a matter of import. I understand the impulse. In a literary culture increasingly suspicious of irony, moral ambiguity, and 'unlikeable' characters, Roth’s work feels in danger of fading away. Still, if a case is to be made for his genius, the novels are a better place to start.
No one in Roth World walks into anything without ego, personal failings, biases, hang-ups—issues. And yet, as Bailey, our intrepid goy from Oklahoma, observes and reports, we always wonder, like a Philip Roth character, what’s behind that elegant prose and seamless research ... If there was going to be one person other than Philip Roth that could take on Philip Roth, it appears to be Blake Bailey. He never gilds Roth’s lilies, he never calls attention to himself, and he doesn’t even show off most of his interviews. He seems to have taken Flaubert’s advice that a writer should be like God: present everywhere and visible nowhere. He doesn’t have to tell us not to try this at home. He is behind the scenes, giving us the picture, accurately, elegantly, obscenely.
... compulsively readable ... Bailey duly gives illuminating depth and context to what Roth liked to present as 'the facts' of his 'life as a man' while reserving moral judgment. He is guilty at times, perhaps, of taking the grand male passions described by Roth a little too much in earnest. 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 ... beautifully written.
Everyone who reads Blake Bailey’s 912-page Philip Roth: The Biography will say it is well researched, and they will all be right ... Part of the value of Mr. Bailey’s biography comes from the wealth of information it provides about Roth’s early years ... Mr. Bailey does not condemn Roth for these actions. Nor does he defend him. Instead, he presents his research as evenly as possible, without making judgments ... voluminously researched, good-humored, and honestly written. Readers will discover new information about Roth’s personal life and probably even learn about written works of his that they didn’t know existed. But if Roth wanted it to turn him into Emma Bovary he’d only be disappointed. Again.
... although Bailey’s capacious book is an authorized—almost collaborative—biography, it is not hagiography ... Bailey captures the sweet generosity of a man who—often secretly—paid others’ medical bills and college tuition and saved endangered writers in Europe and Africa, but also his malice toward those he thought had wronged—or merely bored—him ... a balanced, thorough account of an enormously gifted and troubled troublemaker.
The rapport between Philip Roth and award-winning literary biographer Bailey is immediately apparent in this fully authorized, comprehensive, and engrossing chronicle of a driven, complicated, and contentious artistic life. Roth’s voice, by turns funny, furious, anguished, erudite, and reconciled, is heard throughout Bailey’s flowing, vivid, and precise account ... a consummate and unforgettable biography of a controversial, virtuoso, and indelible American writer.
For an author like Roth, who put so much of his own life into his books, this biography is an essential companion to his novels, enabling readers to discover the true-life inspirations for many of his memorable characters and scenes. Recommended for readers who have read and enjoyed Philip Roth’s fiction.
Bailey brings his talents to bear in this remarkable portrait of lauded and divisive literary titan Philip Roth ... Bailey tirelessly unpacks the real-life inspirations behind Roth’s fiction ... Bailey doesn’t shy away from Roth’s dark side, notably his self-involved nature and tendency to let 'old griefs and resentments fester.' In consistently luminous, humorous prose, Bailey vividly evokes Roth as a writer and a man ... A stunning feat, this is as dynamic and gripping as any of Roth’s own fictions.
An acclaimed biographer turns his attention to the author he has called America’s 'greatest living novelist.' ... In this excellent biography, Bailey offers an evenhanded portrait of an author whose many admirers include authors Nicole Krauss, Edna O’Brien, and Zadie Smith but whose depictions of women in novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater infuriated others ... While Bailey notes that Roth may not have been the misogynist some would believe, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out his flaws and blind spots ... An outstanding biography of a prolific author for whom writing was 'a ghastly protracted slog.'