In the Fall 2012, as the willing subject of one of the most anticipated literary biographies in recent memory, Philip Roth joked that he had surrendered power over his own life to author Blake Bailey.
“I trust you have been getting all the windy emails I’ve been sending you,” Roth wrote to his biographer in correspondence shared by Bailey with The Associated Press. “My whole writing life now revolves around you. Anything to make Blake happy. This is madness.”
Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography is coming out April 6, 2021, W.W. Norton & Company announced. Its 880 pages are the finished result of an undertaking that pre-dates not just Roth’s death in 2018, at age 85, but Roth’s retirement from public writing after 2010 and the involvement of Bailey. The book is also the outcome of an intricate relationship between Roth, the relentless son of Jews from Newark, New Jersey, and Bailey, a Catholic school graduate from Oklahoma City previously known for his acclaimed books on fiction writers Richard Yates, Charles Jackson and John Cheever, whom Roth knew and admired.
“Our association was sometimes complicated, but rarely unhappy and never dull,” Bailey told the AP.
Roth’s novels include American Pastoral, Portnoy’s Complain and many other works of classic, contentious fiction, and his dystopian The Plot Against America, about a fascist US presidency in the 1940s, was adapted into an HBO series that aired this year. He had been thinking of a book about his life since the 1990s, originally asking University of Connecticut professor Ross Miller to be his biographer, for a publication scheduled for release by Harcourt Houghton Mifflin. But Roth and Miller, the nephew of Roth’s friend Arthur Miller, had different ideas for the book and parted ways in 2009.
At the suggestion of fellow literary biographer James Atlas, Bailey got in touch with Roth.
“Why should a gentile from Oklahoma write the biography of Philip Roth?” Bailey remembered Roth asking him.
“I’m not an a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage, but I still managed to write a biography of John Cheever,” Bailey responded.
Biographies of living subjects come in different categories: authorised, in which the subject participates and often has final approval; unauthorised, written without the subject’s cooperation, and those like Bailey’s that land in between.
Bailey began working on the biography in 2012 and received broad access to Roth, to his friends and to Roth’s private papers, including a 295-page rebuttal to an unflattering memoir written by ex-wife Claire Bloom, that will otherwise be destroyed or sealed until 2050. He said that his agreement with Roth was similar to those he had with the literary estates of his previous subjects, all of whom had died before he began biographies of them. Bailey would have full creative control but would allow his manuscript to be vetted for accuracy.
“They can’t tell me what to think or how to interpret,” said Bailey, who added that he hopes readers find his book “page turning” and that whatever perceptions they have of Roth would become “far more nuanced.”
Among the most acclaimed and talked about authors of his time, Roth was protective of his life and work, even openly confronting Wikipedia about errors on its page for his novel “The Human Stain.” Bailey says that Roth “certainly did try” to shape the book’s narrative, but “always responded well” when Bailey pushed back with “civility and professionalism.” Biographers have a long history of disenchantment with their subjects, but Bailey says he came away with great affection for Roth, and that for his book’s epigraph he uses a suggestion made by the author: “Don’t try to rehabilitate me; just make me interesting.”
Roth’s life and literary sensibility differed in many ways from Cheever’s, but Bailey says both compartmentalised their behaviour. According to Bailey, Roth was part conformist, part rebel and part “monk devoted to his art.”
“Chekhov said that he had to squeeze the serf out of himself drop by drop, and for his part Philip said he had to squeeze the nice Jewish boy out of himself drop by drop,” Bailey said. “But he never quite succeeded; he remained both a nice Jewish boy and something very unlike a nice Jewish boy to the end.”
Roth had heart troubles for decades and would speak fatalistically of not being alive for the book’s release. His emails to Bailey reflect his dedication to the biography, to the point of obsession, and his awareness of time and mortality. In a message sent in November 2012, not long after Hurricane Sandy, Roth notes that he has come upon some correspondence from his great contemporary, John Updike, who had died a few years earlier. “I’ll get them to you in the next post-storm-clean-up UPS package,” Roth writes. “This is a hard job, man. I may go back to writing.”
In another email, Roth advises Bailey to get in touch with an 87-year-old friend from his alma mater Bucknell University who had “sounded slightly disoriented” when they last spoke. He provides a phone number and informs Bailey that his friend is expecting his call. Roth also lists recommended subjects, everything from his former landlady, to the “mores and ethos” of Bucknell to the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
“After all that,” Roth tells him, “you are on your own.”