This week: a conversation about the novelist Philip Roth with his biographer, Blake Bailey. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our site.
Look at the reactions to Blake Bailey’s colossal new biography of Philip Roth: “Is this biography as revenge?” asks Laura Marsh; it’s “totemic and compulsively readable,” according to Christian Lorentzen; “MY BIOGRAPHER HAS NO INTEREST IN MY WRITING!!!!” cries Roth as channeled by Joshua Cohen; still, the book’s a “narrative masterwork” to Cynthia Ozick. The Roth biography elicits strong responses, but the responses are all over the place.
This week we talk to Blake Bailey about the novelist who inspired such a profusion of intensities. Bailey has his own explanations for the multiplicity of Roth:
I define it at the end of my book as a tripartite division. There’s the nice Jewish boy—and Philip, from a young age after the Maggie disaster (his first wife) he said, “Just as Chekov had to squeeze the serf out of himself, drop by drop, I have to squeeze the nice Jewish boy out of myself, drop by drop. Because it got me in this fix and it almost destroyed me.” But he never stopped being the nice Jewish boy. He had a streak of filial piety a mile wide. He looked after his sick and ailing friends. He was generous and so forth. He was also Mickey Sabbath [from Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater]. . . Mickey Sabbath’s manifesto is to affront and affront and affront until there is nobody left unaffronted. And there was that side to Philip, decidedly so.
But why put up with the writer who often was this character, this affront, this Mickey Sabbath? Bailey says on our show,
There is, to my knowledge, no more protean career in American letters, okay? I mention in my prologue, in 2006, the New York Times canvassed something like 200 literary critics and professors and so forth to name the best American novel of the last 25 years, from 1981 to 2006. Of the final list of 22 American novels, six were by Philip Roth. Now, one needs to bear in mind that Phillip’s career was 55 years long and on the other side of 1981 was Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, that’s on the Modern Library list of the 100 greatest English language novels. 10 years before that, in 1959, is Goodbye, Columbus, which made him the youngest-ever winner of the National Book Award at age 26. On the other side of 2006 is Everyman and all of those Nemeses novels, which are profound meditations on human fate and mortality, and very somber, very unlike the “farceur” who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang, much less the sort of gentle satire of Goodbye, Columbus. So if you want to talk about how Philip evolved and changed over the course, you are looking at something that is truly awesome.
Listening to Bailey, you get more than an impression of a writer who wanted to leave an impression. You also get a sense for a time when novelists believed they could make a widespread cultural impression in the shape of themselves (see DFW on the “magnificent narcissists”). This emphasis on the literary self (something like the “careerism” cited in Lorentzen’s review) was so powerful, so complete, that Roth saw novel-reading vanishing by the time he himself was done writing:
In Philip’s lifetime, he came to despair of there being anything resembling a literary culture in this country. He said the day will come (and is almost here now) when novel reading will be as cultic an activity as Latin poetry. And indeed, toward the very end, you know, the dominance of the screen, be it an iPhone, be it a computer, be it a TV, enjoys considerable hegemony here in America.
Watch: Philip Roth Movies
This might not be as easy as it sounds. Roth novels are notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen. Here’s David Hudson, writing for Criterion:
2016 was a watershed year for assessments of just what it is about Roth’s work that makes it so difficult to bring to the screen. John Romano had written an adaption of one of Roth’s essential novels, American Pastoral from 1997, and the project was eventually given to Ewan McGregor to direct (and you can listen to Romano discuss the challenge he took on in an episode of the Los Angeles Review of Books’ podcast). Reviews were not great. In the Guardian, John Patterson suggested that one of the film’s many problems is that, in general, “writers are anxious not to step on Big Phil’s toes, so they tend — as happens here — to load scads of the author’s exposition into a voiceover, which is then boomingly intoned as if it’s unamendable holy writ.”
Read: Street of Crocodiles
Bailey’s biography also covers Roth’s championing of Eastern European writers, specifically in Roth’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series with Penguin. One masterpiece that Roth brought to American readers was The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz, a book of short stories that fuse the world of early twentieth-century merchants with mythical, surreal, magical moods. Somehow none of it feels false. Here’s a description of birds raised in a merchant’s home:
It was difficult to anticipate — in these monsters with enormous, fantastic beaks which they opened wide immediately after birth, hissing greedily to show the backs of their throats, in these lizards with frail, naked bodies of hunchbacks — the future peacocks, pheasants, grouse or condors. Placed in cotton wool, in baskets, this dragon brood lifted blind, walleyed heads on thin necks, croaking voicelessly from their dumb throats.
Next Week: The Free World
Keep an ear out next week for our show with Luke Menand and his brick of a book about post-war American intellectual and cultural history.
This week’s ephemeral library:
Masha Gessen on the mystery of breakthrough COVID infections. Ed Yong on the last giraffes. Veteran Times science reporter Gina Kolata on one of the vaccine hunters (great mRNA explainer), Kati Kariko. The GOP is Voting Against its Base. The Rise and Rise of Amanda Gorman.Paul Theroux on turning 80.
That’s all for this week, folks. Take care.