Getting a Grip on Philip Roth

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U.S. President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Novelist Philip Roth during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, March 2, 2011. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Philip Roth: The Biographyby Blake Bailey (W. W. Norton & Company: 2021), 912 pages.

When Philip Roth first sought a biographer in the mid-1990s, he stressed that he didn’t want his life to be remembered as a sequence of “f–ed this one f–ed that one f–ed this one.” Sure, there could be plenty of sex, but the novelist wanted his libido cast in only the most “philosophical” light.

“Why shouldn’t I be treated as seriously as Colette on this?” he ranted, referencing the mid-century French author. “She gave a blow job to this guy in the railway station. Who gives a f– about that? That’s just titillation … that doesn’t tell me anything. What did hand jobs mean to her? Why did she like that? It has a meaning!”

Well, ask and you shall receive. Roth’s biographer Blake Bailey devotes the bulk of his newly released authorized life to rattling off a list of Roth’s sexual escapades, interspersed with the author’s and his lovers’ commentary on what it all meant. Fans hoping for a literary analysis of Roth’s novels will be disappointed. Bailey isn’t interested. Most of his book, as Roth once remarked of disgraced New York governor Elliot Spitzer’s sex scandals, is “just cock.”

But then so were many of Roth’s books. The Newark native is still best known for Portnoy’s Complaint, a 1969 comic novel featuring the ravings of an unmarried, onanistic Jew obsessed with his mother. Portnoy was a runaway bestseller, published at exactly the right time. The sexual revolution was at its peak, and Roth’s riffs on decades worth of intramural Jewish jokes landed on an audience newly receptive to the genre.

It was also a creative breakthrough for Roth. “I knew all those hours I spent locked behind the bathroom door just couldn’t come to nothing,” he declared after an early excerpt met rave reviews. Portnoy defined his public image so much that when Barack Obama (a Roth superfan) awarded him the National Humanities Medal in 2011, the then-president singled out the novel as a perennial favorite.

Roth, for his part, came to hate the book. Not long after it was published, he found himself fending off a near-constant barrage of jokes about his own masturbation habits. Strangers in the street asked if he, like Alexander Portnoy, also pleasured himself with a piece of liver. The attention drove Roth out of New York, where he had become a staple of the social scene.

Roth spent the latter half of his career trying to disassociate himself from the novel. He had the most success with a series starring his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who originally appeared in The Ghost Writer and most memorably in The Counterlife. And in the 1990s, Roth ascended into the literary stratosphere with his American Trilogy, which tackles the high-energy chaos of post-World War II American life. Its first entry, American Pastoral, is often listed as one of the best novels of the 20th century. Roth felt that he had finally buried Portnoy.

“I’d written this book about sex and jerking off and whatever, so I was a kind of clown or f– artist,” he told Bailey. “But I finally beat them down. F–ers.”

Maybe. But Bailey doesn’t let Roth off the hook so easily. Instead, the biographer reveals, often in painstaking detail, that for Roth, masturbation wasn’t just the subject of a few dirty books. And it wasn’t simply an addiction either. It was his way of life.

There are two major reasons why. The first is that Roth delighted in the perverse. Roth’s many lovers–the great majority of whom chose to remain anonymous–attest that throughout his life, he pulled stunts such as sending them semen-encrusted napkins. Another said that he would call her at the office and “as soon as he has come, ejaculated, he bangs the receiver and that’s it.” Roth admitted that his pranks were gross, but always done with a sense of humor.

The other, more subtle reason for Roth’s fixation is that it likely allowed him to feel like he dominated his work. In this way, he was very much like the writers whom one of his nemeses, Norman Podhoretz, described in his memoir, Making It. These men, nervous about their own abilities, used masturbation “to persuade themselves that they are in control.”

And Roth was always making sure that he had complete control. When he was working, he followed a strict writing regimen that called for 12-hour, uninterrupted days often only resulting in a page of usable writing. When he was not, he obsessed over his work’s cosmetic details. Roth wrote his own dust jackets, edited his own Library of America editions, and even attempted (in vain) to dictate how Bailey wrote his biography.

It’s no wonder then that nearly all of Roth’s books are at least in some respect autobiographical. Novel after novel, he examined and reexamined himself as only a committed onanist could. Roth was the only subject that continuously held Roth’s interest. That’s probably why Bailey didn’t feel the need to focus too much on his novels. Better to just let the author do himself.

Nic Rowan is a reporter for the Washington Examiner.

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