Philip Roth: The Imp of the Perverse “I”

Roth in 1973 – Public Domain

I’d written this book about sex and jerking off and whatever, so I was a kind of clown or fuck artist. But then I finally beat them down. Fuckers.

– Philip Roth

Preparing to review Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography (2021), I recalled the conundrum I faced a couple of years back when I was preparing to review Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing. The cultural boo-birds were saying that nobody — mere reader or critic — should have anything to do with Woody Allen; he was being ‘cancelled’ and his career forgotten, as if word had gotten around that Allen was a real-life Judah Rosenthal, the murderous ophthalmologist who brings about a moral crisis in a knowing Cliff Stern, played by Allen.

The prolific writer and director, and American icon for generations, was being accused of child molestation by Mia Farrow, with whom he had a long-term relationship. Apropos of Nothing begins by reminding readers of his long-established cultural worth and then closes with an assault on the career-wrecking allegations of Mia and New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow, Woody’s natural son with Mia. Apropos of Nothing was originally scheduled to be published in April 2020 by Hachette, but when Allen came under fire by influential figures in the mainstream media (including Ronan Farrow’s employer), the book was cancelled by Hachette and then picked up by publisher Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. (See my review.)

Roth biographer Blake Bailey’s situation is different in it details, of course.  Bailey is accused of “grooming” female students when he was a teacher and, later in his life, accused of rape. The MeToo# generation has taught the importance of listening to such allegations. It’s frightening that so many women have come forward with stories of abuse. It reminds one of the John Lennon song, “Women Are the Nigger of the World” (and devilishly follows with lyric, “If you don’t believe me, look at the one you’re with.”) Woke is good, generally, but cancelling other humans, aside from the arrogance implied, is at the cost of basic human rights we claim to champion, and it’s shit.

Blake Bailey’s Roth biography, like Allen’s, was abandoned by its original publisher, W. W. Norton, and then picked up, like Allen’s, by Skyhorse. Bailey has never been tried for any crimes and so must be presumed to be innocent. A full account of the lurid details of the allegations and their contexts can be found at Slate and New Yorker. The latter even draws in English teacher Mr. Ringold, a Roth character in his novel, I Married a Communist, which is said to be Roth’s answer to his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s insinuating memoir of their marriage, Leaving A Doll’s House (1996). I found such conflating of biographer and his subject frankly trashy, as it seems to associate the dead writer, who can’t defend himself, with the alleged sexual abuser, as if author of the New Yorker piece, Jessica Winter, were looking for a two-fer takedown.

But there are some interesting connections between Woody Allen and Philip Roth that make one chuckle at the absurdity of coincidence.  Both Woody’s wife, Mia, and Roth’s wife, Claire Bloom, appeared together in Allen’s “masterpiece” Crimes and Misdemeanors. Further, Roth was good friends with Farrow and had a low opinion of Woody. Bailey quotes Farrow referring to Roth:

“He’s probably the best listener in my life,” Mia Farrow said of Roth, who once asked her why she kept looking out the window during their conversation. Far from seeming incredulous or dismissive when she frankly admitted a fear that Woody Allen would have her killed, Roth became an unfailing source of moral support—because he was fond of Farrow and had unwavering faith in her probity, and also because of his conviction, always firm, that Allen was a bad artist and a bad human being. “He seized upon the persona of the schlemiel as, in all senses, a profitable disguise,” he said of Allen. “But inside this schlemiel there lives a crocodile.”

Of course, as with Bailey, it should be duly noted that Allen has never been convicted of crocodilism.

Philip Roth: The Biography is sectioned into six parts corresponding to chronological periods in his life: Land Ho! 1933–1956; Don’t Step On The Underdog 1956–1968; The Moronic Inferno 1968–1975; Entering A Doll’s House 1975–1995; American Master 1995–2006; Nemeses 2006–2018.  It’s a tome at 1089 pages, but an easy and entertaining read. At times, it is rollickingly funny, especially when Bailey inserts parenthetic one liners and short associative anecdotes that liven the text and prevent it from ever getting flat or uninteresting. It’s like being there as Roth makes a crack about what Bailey just said, an effective strategy for driving the narrative forward at a lively pace.  I have decided to explore a sampling of the text by focusing on three main themes:  Roth’s Women; Roth’s Men and Mensches; and, Roth’s critics. Another major focus is Roth’s concept of the “I” and its ontological reality in the world.

The Imp of the Perverse “I”

A few times Blake Bailey refers to Roth being under the influence of “the imp of the perverse.”  It seems an apt enough term to describe some of the ‘cracked’ behavior Bailey observes in Roth over his lifetime.  The expression comes from an essay by EA Poe and describes a kind of wanton and mirthful impulse to self-destruction; a refusal to be fixed or pinioned. Even to be self-undermining and to never take anyone else more seriously than he takes himself. No doubt, throughout his writing career, Roth struggled with his typically Jewish neurosis derived, perhaps, from an overinvestment in the sexual sagacity of Sigmund Freud, with his triadic dialectical battles between id, ego and super ego.

Sometimes that struggle takes on a dimension that is akin to the restless personae of Bob Dylan and his many aliases (“anything you please”). Other times, especially in his early frantic works, Roth reminds one of the nebbish Woody Allen, who describes his own Jew adjustment problems and the anxiety wrought by dating shiksas. (You can believe that Roth might have penned the gag about coming home to tell Mom that he was seeing a gentile girl, and the Mom, saying nothing, walks quietly into the kitchen, turns on the gas, and sticks her head in the oven).  Diaspora people seem to have trouble locating a self in time and space that they’re fully comfortable with.  With Roth, as Bailey points out, some readers felt that he just repeated himself in the representations of fictional iterations. But Roth always maintained that he wasn’t a “confessional” writer.

Perhaps it was Salman Rushdie who had the best bead on Roth’s method.  (“Privately Roth considered Rushdie ‘a great writer’ and, as a human being, ‘an interesting shit.,’” Bailey shares with us.) The two shared a sense of the surreal and comic that got them both in trouble. Bailey gives us an exchange between the two that is marvelous:

Roth had just returned from his trip to Israel in November 1984, and enthused […] about all the lanky Ethiopian Jews he’d seen as a result of the Israeli rescue mission, Operation Moses. “Did they put them in concentration camps?” Rushdie asked, and Roth told him to go fuck himself. “The next time I saw him he was in my living room,” Roth laughed. “I was going to call the Iranian Embassy”—his voice became urgently sotto voce—“ ‘I won’t tell you my name, but he’s here. . . .’ ”

Rushdie shares his assessment of Roth’s ‘antic disposition’ in a 2013 BBC documentary about the writer’s life, which I believe holds up well as an insight:

You could argue that “farce” got both writers in hot water with the entirely self-serious element, leading to a fatwa for Rushdie (recently paid) and, perhaps, enough critical ‘outrage’ at Roth’s work to keep him from orating to assembled members in Sweden.

Roth’s Women

Roth loved women – raunchily and aesthetically; mostly young but also more mature; and, Bailey dazzles the reader with a long procession of Philip Roth’s sexual intrigues and love interests.  It truly is astonishing. Bailey paints Roth as a serial philgynerer: He loved his “pussy.” And, yes, there’s barely any defense of his seemingly prolific needs being met by a long string of young female partners willing to be ‘objectified’ for Love. Well, MeToo#’s right: This shit’s got to stop. It isn’t funny to anyone who’s been manhandled or morally vandalized. One can’t go around living a life of farcical ruin at other people’s expense. Still, the law was never called in, and there appears to be, in Roth’s case, no hard feelings left behind that need to be adjudicated. Given Bailey’s recent worries, he’s probably wise to mostly enumerate profusely with little comment, other than from Roth’s aggrieved wives at the time, and the occasional girlfriend who imagined a future together.

Roth’s women confusion starts with his childhood in Weequahic, New Jersey. It was Jew-oriented.  But Bailey gives us Roth’s defense against such ghettoization of his neighborhood:

During all my growing up in the Weequahic neighborhood I never saw a skull cap on the head of anybody in the street or on the head of anyone in all the houses of friends and relatives that I drifted through almost daily as a youngster. What you fail to communicate was the triumph of secularism in a mere two generations.

But the descriptions of Roth’s home life are fairly standard issue nuclear Jewish family. Hard-working dad (Adam); loving and tyrannical mom (Eve); Cain and Abel rivalry; the Exile and the Exodus; an affinity for smashmouth politics and refined culture; and, finally a place in the world for Jews to rest their weary diasporic bones – Israel, with its contentions among the Arab peoples. And, arguably, all of this stuff is the stuff Roth wants to explode  with his “farce,” like Rushdie with that jumbo airliner in The Satanic Verses (you could almost picture Roth and Rushdie tumbling from the sky together and discussing the Ethiopian Jews and exchanging loving fuck-yous and finger fatwas).

Farce, indeed. For the chosen Jew, the burden has been heavy since the beginning of human time. Adam was alone and pretty, then God pulled his rib and there was Eve.  Fig leaves, Exile, Eve (Adam’s Rib) now preggers with Cain, murder, more Exile.  Oy! And that’s the shared origin story of the world’s three main religions — you know, the ones that have been punching the snot out of each other for thousands of years. Farce, indeed, and us (mostly), way past taking God seriously. So, a Jew’s life, in this psychological milieu, is perilous and fraught, and Freud just fucks it up even further. Thank Christ, the Superman finally took out the Super-Ego. (Wouldn’t you like to see Marvel enact this battle: Nietzsche vs. Jehovah, grudge match, cage, scalpers.)

So, at home, Philip played Abel to older brother Sandy’s Cain.  And from Bailey’s telling of their respective relationships to Bess Roth, aka, Mom, it’s a shock that Sandy didn’t lay down the boom on his little brother. Sandy was forced to wheel little Philip around in his carriage. Bailey reports:

“He was the best-looking little fucker you ever saw,” Sandy observed. “He had these black, silky-soft curls, strong little face, dark eyes.” Philip was inclined to agree: apart from his winsome appearance, he had a way of saying “napnik” for “napkin,” and no wonder his mother was his “slave” (“I was too adorable for words”). The passion was mutual; indeed, one may wonder whether he ever again found the “pure bliss” afforded by “the colossal bond to my mother’s flesh”—as he wrote in perhaps the most lyrical passage of The Facts—“whose metamorphosed incarnation was a sleek black sealskin coat into which I, the younger, the privileged, the pampered papoose, blissfully wormed myself.”

Ouch, for poor Sandy, the obedient son overshadowed by the younger “very stubborn and very territorial,” who threw tantrums and was rewarded, counterintuitively, with greater access to her love.

Presumably, Sandy was seething inside. But it wasn’t all bliss for poor Philip, Bailey tells us. The lad suffered from “castration anxiety” throughout his youth. The biographer brings in Roth’s psychoanalyst for a quick quip:

“It soon became apparent that his main problem was his castration anxiety vis-à-vis a phallic mother figure,” Roth’s real-life psychiatrist, Hans Kleinschmidt, wrote in a 1967 paper detailing scenes that would soon appear in the funnier, more stylish form of Roth’s novel.

Such work-in-progress anxiety showed up in Roth’s first big splash in bestseller fiction, Portnoy’s Complaint,

Alex Portnoy also remembers the time his mother took him, age eleven, to his uncle’s clothing store to get a bathing suit: “ ‘I want one with a jockstrap in it!’ [Alex says] Yes, sir, this just breaks my mother up. ‘For yourlittle thing?’ she asks, with an amused smile.”

Well, yes, Freud would have a field day with this mess of overbearing affection married to castration implications.

Bailey tells us that as Philip grew up he began to rebel from such oppression, the first sign of which was his choice of dating shiksas.  There would be no “nice” Jewish girl to replace Mom (and be groomed by her).  Bailey tells us that “Portnoy’s Complaint, his 1969 best seller about a mother-haunted, shiksa-chasing Jewish boy who masturbates with a piece of liver (“I fucked my own family’s dinner”)” was just such a break-away couched in the farce that Rushdie describes. And liver! The meat that Jewish mum’s have forced down throats for ages — rejected. You don’t want to think it: But eating the liver was like imbibing Mom, transubstantiative.

Farce, and horror as a reaction, and teenagers everywhere buying the book to be the imp of the perverse for a day. Imagine! A bestseller out of whacking the dandy doodle all day made into a bestseller!  And the topper, Roth in his later years complaining to the Europeans that America had culture, too. Again, Bailey gives us,

Roth was especially eager to ameliorate what he considered French cultural condescension (“this stupid bullshit about ‘McDonald’s America’ ”) and made sure the festival was as much about twentieth-century American art as it was about him and his work.

The French seemed to get it.

Bailey makes us understand that Margaret Martinson, his first wife, from 1959 to 1963 (when they separated), didn’t always get him.  For instance, she never ‘got’ his constant cheating on her and its relation to his writing needs. (“She is a rare person,” he wrote Solotaroff, “and if I were a

little rarer I’d have not screwed things up so often.”) She came from Russian stock; he came from Ukrainian (Kiev); there was always a dispute at the border that separated their fiery egos.

Bailey points out that she was Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good and Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man. But she was a shiksa albatross in their relationship. (He could all but hear his mother cry, Oy, he should have married a nice Jewish girl.) Bailey tells us:

IN THE BEGINNING Roth was simply fascinated by all the “goyish chaos” Maggie evoked: divorce from a monstrous husband, who “stole” her children and farmed them out to dubious cousins in Texas, etc. It was like leafing through the pages of a Dreiser novel, and when the luridness gave him pause, Roth reminded himself that this, after all, was what Flaubert had meant by “le vrai” (real life), and moreover Roth longed to be a man, serious and reliable, perhaps in guilty response to his even greater longing to be free and extravagant.

Maggie tried desperately to hang on to him, including a false-pregnancy scam and a number of suicide attempts. If that weren’t bad enough, Bailey relates, Roth had to endure the stings and arrows, her insinuations:

“She also told me that the reason I couldn’t stay with one woman was not because I was an exuberant, libidinous young man in his twenties but because I was ‘a latent homosexual,’ ” Roth recalled. “That pseudo-Freudian label was used very freely in those years about young men who . . . might not want to marry the women who might want to marry them.”

What outrageous fortune! In short, it didn’t take long for Roth to feel like a moron in marrying her. And Bailey paints Roth as something close to indifferent when he learns Maggie has died in a car crash.

So, Roth compensates. In a move that reminded me of Woody Allen’s second marriage to zany actress Louise Lasser, after being married to a naif, Roth took up light-housekeeping with the well-known and accomplished Jewish (Mama smiles) actress Claire Bloom in 1976 and they were a couple for 14 years before they married, sometimes in New York and sometimes in London, in support of each other’s separate and flourishing careers.  Then the shit hit the fan. As with the shiksa Maggie, Bloom was not enamored of Roth’s extracurricular carnal needs. He just kept at it – ‘chasing skirts’, as they used to say, despite its corrosive effects on longevity in a marriage.  Still, he loved her, and supported her acting career throughout the years, writes Bailey:

Bloom was starting rehearsals for The Innocents, an adaptation of James’s The Turn of the Screw, and Roth was eager to see her at work, especially since the director was Harold Pinter.

And, from Roth’s point of view, Bailey tells us, Bloom’s daughter Anna Steiger, became the stick in his craw; he took potshots at her weight control issues; she undermined his marriage. He recalled, writes Bailey, the better days, seemingly with melancholy:

Roth was appalled by the “abject woman” Bloom became in her daughter’s presence—so unlike the witty, intelligent, self-possessed celebrity he’d come to know during the first year of their affair.

But it got way uglier as time went on, as Bloom would come to bed after snuggling with her daughter, still warm from the embrace, which must have ‘triggered’ memories of “the ‘pure bliss’ afforded by ‘the colossal bond to my mother’s flesh.’” Was Anna giving him the finger, having stolen the warmth that belonged to him by marriage to her mom?  He might have thought the two were in league, even if unconsciously, as this scene from Bailey’s account recommends:

Meanwhile his companions on Fawcett Street [Bloom and Anna] took a dim view of his frailty. When he’d yelp with pain [from a knee injury] while managing the one step down into the kitchen, Bloom would exhort him with bluff English expressions like “Just get on with it!”—which at least were meant to encourage; once, while wretchedly recovering from food poisoning, he’d heard Anna call from the landing outside his bedroom door, “Is he still in there pissing and moaning?” “You’re in a POW camp,” Roth remembered telling himself, “and you have to take care of yourself.

A house divided cannot stand, indeed.  If you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know a Nazi when you hear one.

So, one thing led to another, and before long the couple divorced (after two years of pre-nupped marriage), which led to Bloom writing a tell-all account of an “abusive” and “controlling” marriage titled, Leaving a Doll’s House, after the Ibsen play.  And Bailey tells us that Roth felt the raging urge to respond to with the character Edith Frame in I Married a Communist, which some critics regard as his finest work (but some don’t, too).

Roth had maybe hundreds of sleepover girlfriends, and ogled everywhere: Italian saleswomen; Ingrid; cheerleaders; “Girl Seminary”; “Finally [‘the black cabbie’] glanced over his shoulder and said, “Son, if you can’t get laid in Chicago, you can’t get laid anywhere”; “the women in G-strings”; Diane and Maggie and Roth; “the gorgeous young women he longed to flirt with, if not for Maggie’s hawkish eye”; “Maggie flew into a rage about “all the girls [he] screwed in Europe” [sometimes laughing about it with Milos Kundera]; “the Irish were a terribly repressed people; if you looked directly at the women, he said, they automatically hid their bosoms”; “picking up women at the Metropolitan Museum;” Anne Mudge; Barbara Sproul; “bitchy, castrating women who attract and destroy them, and doting sexual slaves who eventually bore them”; “Roth was seeing no fewer than three women at the time—Krystyna […], Laurie Geisler, and Louise (“the cast I’d remake for Anatomy Lesson,” he admitted);” “Eastern European seductresses”; Mia Farrow; Felicity?; Susan (a lesbian, the exception Phil; Jacquie Rogers. And it goes on. No comment really necessary.

In addition to this quantitative sampling of a satirical lust, Roth had some kind of thing for the symbolism that Anne Frank represented, and seemed to go out of his way, as with the liver, to lampoon the brave, angelic image of Holocaust resiliency (“People are really good at heart”. Say what?) Fuck that shit, he seemed to say. Bailey draws a bead that suggests he’d explode that fraught symbolism by dressing up in his Humbert Humbert pajamas when he referred to her. More confusion is on display when one recalls the recently uncovered diary passages of Anne where she describes the Good German women as going around mit mattresses on dein backs in the Land of Dikes. Fucking Nazis.

Roth’s Men (fellow writers, and father and brother)

In addition to threading Roth’s many sexual escapades throughout his biography, Bailey provides a base relief and balance to that litany of over-loving by engulfing us in his many male influences – filial, writerly and friendships.  As with our exploration of Roth’s early home life and his mother-and-child reunion thing, Bailey has us know how Roth’s father, Herman, and brother, Sandy, influenced his worldview, aside from the sexual vigor of his imagination’s projects. Herman “worked twelve-or thirteen-hour days, six days a week,” and, unlike other workmates, sought supplementary sources of income. As he puts it, “Maybe these men were Italian or Irish or German, in which case, if they failed in America, they could conceivably go back whence they came; Jews had no such option.”

Bess handled the banking and family budget. And she largely managed the education of Sandy and Philip. But Bess didn’t always care about the basic things enough. Bailey gives us another subtle indication of Herman’s uprightedness, admonishing Philip for his penmanship:

Herman would intercede only by accident, as it were, like the time he noticed how ten-year-old Philip signed his name: “You call this handwriting? Write your name right!”

A slovenly mind produces slovenly work, he seemed to be saying to the future author of Portnoy’s Complaint, a future bestseller.

Bailey does a wonderful job detailing Roth’s relationship to the constellation of other brilliant writers in his cosmos. I was delighted to know he so worshipped Saul Bellow and that they had a real menschly correspondence that didn’t spare feelings to get to important critical reads of ach other’s work, and also exchanges of views on women they were involved with.  Similarly, Roth had a healthy respect for the New England Protestant writer, John Updike, one of my favorite writes growing up.  In my mind, Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” and Updike’s “A&P” are great starting points for understanding the entire oeuvres of each writer’s future themes, styles, and – again, h/t Rushdie, their sense of the absurd and farcical.

It was Bellow’s work that first enthralled young writer Roth into seeing the possibilities of what he could do with his work, and how he could establish a voice that was unique, if, at first, partly derivative of the great master’s, who Roth would praise, after reading The Adventures of Augie March (1953), for its “willingness to indulge in sprawling narrative abundance, not at all constrained by Neo-Aristotelian concerns with form and structure.” And Bellow acted as a kind of mentor over Roth’s career, keeping the right distance and proving the right touch of critical feedback:

Interviewed for a 1993 BBC documentary on Roth, Bellow pointed out that he and his younger colleague were both “book-intoxicated street kids from American cities” and particularly applauded the quality in Roth’s work that was arguably most derived from his own—“a combination of street language and literary sophistication”—or, as Roth said of Bellow, “he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon.” While reading Augie March in 1956, it occurred to Roth that he himself had “ideas galore for stories”—stories with actual Jews in them, and Newark too.

It would be this last bit, this vision of telling stories about “real” Jews that would become a Say What? problem with any future Jewish readership, starting with “Conversion” and exploding with Portnoy’s, a novel of wankie doodle dandy wonderland that many Jews recoiled from. As Bailey engagingly outs it, there was

the widespread perception that Roth had written a confession instead of a novel, and never mind the perception among elements of the Jewish establishment that Roth was a propagandist on a par with Goebbels and Streicher. The great Israeli philosopher Gershom Scholem went so far as to suggest that Portnoy would trigger something akin to a second Holocaust.

Was Roth antisemitic?  A self-loather? For fuck’s sake, zip up, Philip, they seemed to say, all the while Updike’s Protestants were buying up the book like they were pervy pancakes. Or, in the take of the much later blockbuster film, American Pie, a good place to the store the weenie fantasies, going from Jewish live to mainstream apple pie. Updike commended Roth’s ribaldry – it dared go further than the shock “A & P” had caused in the Rabbit-meister’s reading congregation.

Other writers who contributed to Roth’s germination of his ‘perverse imp of the I’ were Harold Pinter, Don Delillo, William Styron, and Milan Kundera, chronicler of the many ordeals faced by the Soviet era Czechs and author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Pinter and Styron provided Roth with strains of darkness and paranoia and terror at an unknowable deep state, while, along with Roth and Kundera discussing aspects of art and cultural displacement, they also traded notes on other aspects of life. Bailey tells of a moment when Roth lamented what Kundera had lost when he moved to France and had his Czech citizenship torn up, but Kundera smiles wisely back:

[…]Kundera had lost almost everything when he left his native country—his money, home, parents, language. . . . Kundera shook his head and finally stopped and said, a little impatiently, “Philip! No! I lost sixteen girls!”

The unbearable gravity! On the hand, he moved to France, where there was plenty of lightnesses of being.

Roth’s critics

Philip Roth’s critics were many, and many were firm supporters of his work – George Plimpton, Ted Solotaroff, Bellow, Alfred Kazan, Josh Greenfeld, and Thumbs Up again / Thumbs Down again Times critic Michiko Kakutani.  He had savagers of his work, though, including Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who seemed to carry a major hair across his ass for Roth’s work, and about whom Roth once remarked, writes Bailey, “an insult to the community of American writers.” And Irving Howe wasn’t enamored.  Bailey quotes from a review that Howe wrote of Portnoy’s for The New Republic:

Mr. Roth’s stories do not yield pleasure as much as produce a squirm of recognition: surely, one feels, not all of American Jewish life is like this, but all too much of it is becoming so.” Howe commended the author’s “deadpan malicious accuracy” in sketching the Patimkins, which, he conceded, was “ferociously exact”—indeed, “too exact, too close to surface realities, there is not enough imaginative transformation. Mr. Roth is dedicated to a kind of mimetic revenge.” Roth was affronted by the “slippery” ambivalence of the review (albeit not as affronted as thirteen years later, when Howe would retract almost everything positive from these early impressions): “I figure fuck Howe anyway,” he wrote the Bakers. “It isn’t my fault that people aren’t eating as much chopped liver as they used to.”

Look what Howe’s done to my song, Ma.

And even the late great left-cancelled Christopher Hitchens weighed in, calling Exit Ghost “slight.” Fuck him, too.

There are critics about who have wanted to pillory Roth for his anti-feminist and/or overindulgent needful satisfactions.  To these lot, Roth is akin to Linda Blair crying to the Exorcist, Fuck Me, Jesus, while she ins-and-outs a crucifix down there – you know, Satan showing off. And when the Father is unimpressed, she (he) pukes a stream of green monkey business at him.  Still stoical you fuck? goes the devil, before dropping into a pouty dramatic pause for effect; the priest has been cancelled by the fire and brimstone element.


Blake Bailey, talking with X, has candid response to the question of what the responsibilities of a biographer are, the limits and scope:

A writer like Roth is almost as mysterious in his iterations of the I as Bob Dylan. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to see a film made of Roth’s life and work that was similar to the bio-pic made about Dylan, I’m Not Here (2007), directed by Todd Haynes, which explores the subject’s elusiveness, as well as the viewer’s assumptions.

Roth’s legacy

Roth detested Woody Allen, but did share a method – a seeming exploration of self in their works that some critics, in each case, called “solipsistic.” Roth defended against this interpretation throughout his career. He argued thorough his fiction that the I is not real in the sense of actually knowing who we are at given point in our lives — especially on the Left, where most consciousness of false consciousness happens. Farce, surrealism, and the explosion of self-mythologizing (Nietzsche: “All great men are play actors of their own ideal.” Little wo/men even more.) Another thing Roth and Allen had in common was the emphasis in their early work on the ribald and grotesque, and on reign of terror illusions they bring in their later work (compare The Human Stain with Crimes and Misdemeanors).

In the end, who knows how Roth’s legacy will settle down? If the opening of the BBC documentary, Philip Roth Unleashed, is any indication, with busloads of presumably readerly tourists (although some people just go along for the ride) arriving at Roth’s real home in Weequahic, New Jersey, with Roth himself fielding questions, leading the tour of places he’s frequented, it’s looking like the bizarre aspects of his life and career – never confessional, but certainly symbiotic — are holding their ground against too much psychoanalysis and critical flatulence.  Maybe Rushdie is the most reliable appreciator of Roth’s legacy to writers:

Roth had no problems when friend Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 (although he wasn’t enamored of Pinter’s screed speech against American imperialism), but it must have roiled when, with the last chance he had before he died, his Nobel nomination was set aside to award Bob Dylan the 2016 Prize instead. Bailey tells us:

REACTIONS TO BOB DYLAN’S NOBEL PRIZE: Shock, Elation and Concern for Philip Roth, read a headline in The Washington Post on October 13, 2016. Giving it to Dylan—as The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz tweeted—was “maybe the most effective trolling of Philip Roth the Swedes could ever have come up with” and effectively ended whatever fugitive hope remained for him: After all, twenty-three years had passed since the prize had gone to another American, Toni Morrison, who called Dylan “an impressive choice.” Asked for his own thoughts, Roth said “It’s okay, but next year I hope Peter, Paul and Mary get it.”

But at least Dylan (like Pinter) was a Jew. Maybe the only thing the two had in common was book signing.  Dylan “was told” it was okay if a machine sat in for him at $600 a pop. While Bailey recounts how Roth actually sat a table at new swimming pool and signed  “six thousand books, at two bucks a copy” for patrons, who would share quick quips and bawdy references.

As for Blake Bailey, it’s also too early for a comprehensive weigh-in on his legacy. He seems to have disappeared from “the scene” somewhat. He ain’t interviewing. And he’s now holed up at Skyhorse Publishing – again, where Woody Allen feeds his horses. Bailey has written a number of other biographies including of Richard and Yates and John Cheever. In addition, in an effort to fight back against his accusers of sexual abuse, Repellent: Philip Roth, #MeToo, and Me will be published at Skyhorse in 2023.

Videos of Interest to the Roth aficionado:

Philip Roth Unleashed Part One and Part 2, BBC documentary, 1993.

Philip Roth Unmasked, PBS documentary, 2013.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1972)

Blake Bailey talks Philip Roth: The Biography, YouTube


Philip Roth talks shop in The Paris Review 1984.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.