Exulting in public acclaim and seeking to control his legacy, Roth lived on for another six years, filling his days watching television, visiting haunts near his homes in rural Connecticut and New York City's Upper West Side, and engaging in friendships with young women.
Roth devoted much of his remaining time to influencing the work of his chosen authorized biographer, Blake Bailey, giving numerous interviews, opening his files and directing Bailey to close friends, family members and still friendly former lovers.
Roth granted Bailey freedom to draw his own conclusions and give a full and honest account of Roth's polarizing career.
Bailey's nearly 900-page opus, simply titled "Philip Roth, The Biography" is stirring critical division and controversy similar to that drawn by Roth's 31 books written over 53 years.
Accused by critics of taking a too sympathetic view of Roth's sordid treatment of women, Bailey himself is enmeshed in a sexual abuse scandal. Publisher W.W. Norton stopped printing his book this week, and Bailey's literary agency dropped him over allegations made by former female students whom he taught at a New Orleans middle school before embarking upon his career as a literary biographer.
The women claimed that Bailey fostered affectionate relationships with them as students, then made unwanted sexual advances to them when they had reached adulthood. One of his former students charged him with rape. Bailey vehemently denied the accusations.
Bailey's exhaustive biography gives cracked-mirror, kaleidoscopic views of Roth. Roth's incessant sexual escapades bury Bailey's efforts to make Roth sympathetic.
While Bailey casts blame on Roth's first wife, Maggie Martinson for their disastrous marriage, Roth is revealed as vindictive and malicious. Martinson died in a car accident before her divorce proceedings threatened Roth with financial ruin. After using her as a model for his novel "When She Was Good," Roth never stopped vilifying Martinson.
Roth's long, eventually ruinous relationship with actress Claire Bloom unfold with scenes reminiscent of Marat/Sade. The appalling efforts of two highly intelligent, creative, civilized people to destroy each other unfold with moments of dark comedy. Bloom's account of the once close relationship's demise, "Leaving the Dollhouse," incensed Roth with its allegations of his misogyny and abuse of women.
Until the end of his life, Roth expressed bitterness over Bloom's charges. While casting blame on Bloom, Bailey gives validity to her accusations, detailing Roth's affair with one of his married Connecticut neighbors during his years with Bloom. He also carried out many flings, including an apparent attempt to seduce a friend of Bloom's daughter, the opera singer Anna Steiger. Steiger and Roth's mutual hatred for each other poisoned his relationship with Bloom.
The book details many of Roth's feuds with literary figures. During his life, Roth displayed a propensity to turn against even close friends. One of them was his first chosen biographer, Ross Miller, the nephew of playwright Arthur Miller. When they were pals, Ross Miller regaled Roth with salacious anecdotes about Marilyn Monroe, his former step-aunt.
Roth and John Updike expressed solidarity for each other's similar careers until Roth fell out with Updike over a negative review. Before Updike's death, which saddened Roth, they reconciled.
Roth's close friendship with his Connecticut neighbor, William Styron, ended when Roth refused to see Styron in his last years battling depression. Yet Styron's widow, Rose Styron, who discovered Roth's first triumph "Goodbye Columbus" in the Paris Review slush pile, invited Roth to Styron's memorial, which he remorsefully attended.
Another feud erupted with esteemed critic Irving Howe, one of the Jewish intellectuals who disparaged Roth for what they saw as a betrayal of Jewish culture.
Before "Portnoy," Roth incensed Jewish religious leaders with his short stories "Defender of the Faith," which appeared in the New Yorker, and "The Conversion of the Jews." The stories, collected in "Goodbye Columbus," showed Jews with negative character traits, not an image the Jewish fathers wanted revealed to American readers.
The novella "Goodbye Columbus" also upset the Jewish elders, by showing an assimilated Jewish character, Neil Klugman, pursuing the Jewish Radcliffe student Brenda Patimkin, whose family lives in an affluent suburb. Roth's first steady girlfriend, Maxine Groffsky, later the European editor of the Paris Review, was the model for Patimkin. (Here is a Southern Bookman piece on Groffsky, based on a Paris Review interview with her. Until reading Bailey's book, I didn't realize she had dated Roth.)
Roth's complex relationship with Saul Bellow is another leitmotif. Although Roth idolized his fellow major Jewish novelist, Bellow was less enamored with Roth's work, especially "Portnoy's Complaint," which Bellow saw as close to pornography. The troubled friendship ends with Roth hectoring the aging, dementia-suffering Bellow for an interview published in the New Yorker.
Bailey has been faulted for concentrating on Roth's sexual exploits rather than examining his books. The biographer gives perfunctory, superficial summaries of each book, but not the in-depth analysis some reviewers wanted. Overwhelmed readers likely will feel relieved.
After his initial triumph with "Goodbye Columbus," a collection that included the title novella as well as the short-stories that outraged the Jewish establishment, Roth scored a controversial success with "Portnoy's Complaint." Bailey glaringly lacks an appraisal of where "Portnoy" now stands in American literature. The book's once controversial scenes, such as Portnoy masturbating upon the liver his family will eventually have for dinner, are likely to elicit more groans than laughs these days.
Other early novels, including the heavy-handed satires "The Breast" and "The Great American Novel," were misguided embarrassments, as Bailey concedes.
Roth's late career triumphs, beginning with "The Ghost Writer," the first of several novels narrated by Roth's alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, made him a major novelist. Without late works like "American Pastoral," and the divisive "Sabbath's Theater," Roth would not be worth such a massive biography.
Even in his most accomplished books, Roth relied too heavily on basing fictional characters on real life people, an imaginative weakness for such an esteemed writer. In one of Bailey's most appalling sequences, Roth bases a character on a troubled young woman he's dating at the time. The young woman, addicted to drugs, later died of an overdose.
She's among the many women abused by Roth who receive pseudonyms in Bailey's witness protection program.
The book gives an expansive account of the American publishing world from the 1950s until the early 21st century. Roth's life intersected with those of most of the era's literary figures, from writers to agents and publishers.
Bailey's expansive, often entertaining book is a worthy companion to Mark Harris's recent biography of Mike Nichols. Like Nichols, Roth was an East Coast Jewish intellectual who discovered his artistic vocation at the University of Chicago. The two books in tandem give a complete course in American film, theater and literary culture.
Roth's divided personality merged vindictiveness and a large capacity for resentment with flamboyant gestures of generosity.
With suffocating paternalism, he helped several young women find better lives, and paid for the health care for impoverished writer Veronica Geng in her last illness. He also gained admiration for bringing Eastern European writers crushed by communism to the attention of Western readers.
After the childless Roth made benevolent bequests to close friends, Roth left most of his estate to the financially stressed Newark Public Library, along with his extensive book collection and furnishings from his study, preserved in a special Philip Roth room.
Roth never forgot Weequahic, the close-knit Jewish neighborhood in Newark where he spent his childhood. He often revisited the community in his work.
While Roth was the frequent recipient of major writing awards, the Nobel Prize eluded him. His dismay over the decline of the novel in world culture was confirmed by his witnessing the awarding of the Nobel to Bob Dylan.
Bailey's portrait of the aging, depleted Roth brings sympathy. A series of ailments hasten his physical decline. The rising death toll of his friends and loved ones deepen his loneliness, eased by his father-like mentoring of young women, and his joy at their children.
Not yet three years after Roth's death, the title of "greatest living writer" appears less and less relevant to American literature. Roth's white male hegemony is a vestige of a former era. American literature's increasing diversity erodes the legacy of Roth and other vaunted American male writers.
Yet Roth's best books, with their raging narrative force, will live on.