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Philip Roth:

A Counterlife


Ira Nadel


Oxford: University Press, 2021

Hardcover. xx + 546 p. ISBN 978-0199846108. £22.99


Reviewed by Brett Ashley Kaplan

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


“Fiction as Revenge”


- I -

“Roth was a pugilist, a counterpuncher schooled in the streets of Newark” [115]


If you’re looking for a biography that paints a picture of Philip Roth as generous, kind, happy, thoughtful, empathic…well, you’ve come to the wrong place. Ira Nadel, Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, looks at Roth through distinctly un-rose tinted glasses. Nadel paints a portrait of a Roth who is narcissistic, angry, vindictive and yes, sometimes, especially when it comes to championing Eastern European writers, combatting the Vietnam War, writing big checks to family, friends, and lovers, looking after ill companions, thoughtful and empathic. But between multiple adulterous affairs, endless lawsuits and arguments with publishers and potential biographers, and the unending poison of his first [and, well, second] marriage, Roth comes across in this biography as a difficult, selfish man indeed.

Nadel combed through an enormous amount of material in this 546-page biography and its particular angle, which differentiates it from Blake Bailey’s biography, is that Nadel reads Roth as an analyst would. He makes psychoanalytically inflected comments throughout the telling of the story of this writer’s long and eventful life. There were many details about Roth’s life that I had not known, so I learned a great deal through reading this fat, satisfying book. He paces the story of Roth’s life with an interesting and effective mix of speed and depth. He’ll linger on the context in ways that bring the world of Roth’s emergence as a writer to life. Nadel doesn’t just mention that Roth’s early successes revolved around the prestigious literary magazine The Paris Review, he digs into the history of the magazine and the major players that brought it to prominence so that at every turn we’re learning not just the events that made up a life but something about the history surrounding that life.

Roth was inconsistent about the very idea of a biography. He claimed, at one point, that he did not believe the “biography of a writer has anything to do with his books” [425] but he was spurred to accept the idea of a biography in part to correct what he felt were slings and arrows from his second wife, the British actress, Claire Bloom, whose Leaving a Doll’s House [1996] did not paint a pretty picture of the American writer. After chucking out potential biographer Ross Miller, editor of the Library of America volumes on Roth, Roth decided on Blake Bailey and then began dictating how the biography should be. His three hundred page “Notes for My Biographer” contained the facts as Roth wanted them to be recorded. “Roth was,” Nadel summarizes, “directing and even writing his biography” [427]. It will surprise no one to learn that Roth was a bit of a control freak and that before he retreated to his house in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut for the summer he would draw up “diagrams for the exact positioning of the patio furniture” [429] and convey them to the caretaker.

One of the distinctive marks of Nadel’s biography is that he relies heavily on the fiction almost as if it were fact. Philip Roth : A Counterlife, delves into Roth’s psychology through the psychology of his characters as well as through comments and interviews from people close to [or formerly close to] the writer (Roth torpedoed many friendships the moment they soured). “Discontent,” Nadel asserts, “defined Roth from the very beginning of his literary life” [1]. This discontent stemmed from multiple sources: Roth felt betrayed by many friends and lovers, and, at points, “writing itself betrayed him” [3]. Roth was attacked by some members of Jewish communities for his unsavory portraits of Jewish Americans and his first wife, Maggie Williams, betrayed him in an oft-repeated moment whereby she tricked him into marrying him by feigning pregnancy through purchasing a pregnant stranger’s urine. Quite a ploy!

Roth, Nadel details, felt betrayed by Saul Bellow, the giant of Jewish American literature whose writing Roth admired but also felt in deep competition with, when Bellow insulted him during an interview. Roth felt betrayed by the endless attacks from feminists, by his friends selling private documents, and by his life being mined for fiction [3]. This last betrayal is deeply ironic given how many of his friends and critics Roth imported, often scantily disguised, into his fiction (the fictional Milton Appel standing in for Irving Howe, Coleman’s Silk’s entire disgrace based on Melvin Tumin, Catherine Steindler, as Nadel argues [419] for Exit Ghost’s Jamie Logan, and on and on). Roth was also betrayed by his analyst, Dr. Kleinschmidt, who published details of Roth’s case without permission and only thinly veiled in 1967—but again, Roth also, in a sense, betrayed his analyst by presenting him as Portnoy’s Complaint’s Dr. Spielvogel. This grounding in anger, betrayal, disappointment along with the series of psychological insights Nadel offers become the guiding threads to the biography.

Nadel explains in the introduction that the text will be arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Lord knows how anyone would ever be able to juggle the enormous amount of material that Nadel gathered for this project but there were times when the lack of chronology became slightly confusing, especially during the descriptions of Roth’s second marriage, to Claire Bloom. In one moment we are with them in London, Roth hates and absorbs the reserved British anti-Semitism that he will go on to dramatize in The Counterlife, and then the next minute it’s a decade later and they are splitting up. And then we’re ten years earlier again, and there they are, gooey eyed arm and arm strolling down a stunning London street. I am unsure how or even if it’s possible or preferable to write a biography in a straight line, but there were just a few blips when cycling back over things that had already happened disoriented me.

That said, this deeply thought book is rich with information and insight and will be a huge benefit to the scholarly community mushrooming up around Roth’s works as well as to the general reader interested in the riveting life of an important American writer.

- II -

“Without a novel I’m empty and not very happy” [422]

Despite 31 books, Roth experienced only two bestsellers, and neither were his own favorite: Portnoy’s Complaint [1969] and Plot Against America [2004]. It is hard to imagine two more different novels. Despite both being set in Newark, the tone, character, and subject matter of these two texts are remarkably different. The 1969 novel that launched Roth into literary superstardom tells the story of one young Jewish American horny man, Alexander Portnoy, as he adventures through life in New York and remembers masturbation absorbed tweendom in Newark. Thirty five years later in a novel that many will see as both reflecting the Bush years and presciently anticipating the horror of the quartet of Trump years, Plot Against America will concoct a counterhistorical fascist U.S.A. But Nadel reports that “Sabbath’s Theater, Roth’s angriest text, was his favorite” [12].

Throughout his long career, Roth consistently, and beginning very early on, wanted to exert control over the publication and marketing of his books. He constantly kvetched that publishers were not pushing hard enough to get his books out there and he took to “creating demand [for Goodbye, Columbus [1959]] by calling up bookstores, asking for the book, and then quickly hanging up” [110]. Nadel finds that Roth always acts as the “promoter” [111].

Soon after Goodbye, Roth experimented with both play writing and reviewing. His play “The Nice Jewish Boy” enjoyed a “reading in 1964 at a workshop of the American Place Theater with a then unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, taking the lead” [167]. Roth also sparred with LeRoi Jones over his [Roth’s] review of Jones’s play with Jones responding that “Roth was feebleminded in his refusal ‘to see any Negro as a man’” [167]. This is fascinating given how very many Black characters pop into Roth’s novels, often just for brief cameo roles and rarely with any kind of developed consciousness.

Roth’s universe radically changed when Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969 and made such an enormous splash. Jason Epstein tells him: “You will have an effect on the current generation like Byron’s on his so that every man of fashion will have to model himself hereafter on A.P.” [210]. These sorts of grand proclamations were lost on Roth’s parents and his mother, in particular, worried when Roth told her she need not respond to what he anticipated would be multiple phone calls from reporters. She wasn’t anxious about the reporters, those she could handle, she was concerned that “her son seemed to be suffering from delusions of grandeur” [212]. Of course, this was not a psychological malady Roth suffered from in this moment, at least. Reporters did come and Mr. and Mrs. Roth seemed comfortable keeping them at bay. To avoid some of the storm Roth planned a cruise to Israel for them during which Herman Roth famously handed out signed copies of Portnoy’s Complaint “from Philip Roth’s father” [217]. Roth couldn’t go anywhere without being hailed as Portnoy. The novel “allowed Roth to explode into a comic voice of his own, discovering the freedom to express the id, ego, and superego, sometimes all at once” [239]. Nadel offers here an excellent analysis of how Roth, before Portnoy and especially in Letting Go, was trying to be Henry James and not yet finding the aural and humorous landscape of Jewish Newark that would eventually carry him so very far.

- III -

“Narcissism becomes a defense against anxiety” [186]

Roth’s first marriage to Maggie [1959-63] was preceded by several other relationships including with a Black woman whom Nadel does not name but he notes that Roth was struck by her description of others in her family who had passed [79]. This may have been one of the seeds that bloomed into the sole passing (and sole developed Black) character in Roth’s work, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain. When the novel came out in 2000 many scholars, myself included, thought that Silk was at least partly based on Anatole Broyard, the literary critic and writer who was a man about town in the heady Village days (see my Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth for more than you’d ever want to know about Broyard). Roth became seriously irritated and fought back in an open letter in The New Yorker claiming that the novel was only based on the experience of his friend Melvin Tumin. Nadel, though, vindicates scholars who found resonance with the life of Broyard by uncovering, in a letter to John Updike, that Roth “implied that Anatole Broyard was a partial inspiration for Silk” [432]. These kinds of archival nuggets provide important and thickening correctives.

Nadel offers many fascinating details about Roth’s troubled marriage to Maggie. That she converted to Judaism [98], for example, or that she nearly overdosed after she discovered Roth’s affair with a student [101]. Nadel wonders aloud why Roth married this “needy and damaged woman?” Nadel’s response? “He [Roth] wanted the mess, not the cleansing experience of a stable, middle-class, college-educated woman from Short Hills.” This, Nadel concludes, “is the Roth problem” [105]. Nadel will go on to document many more relationships with unstable women and he locates a clear pattern in Roth’s life [naturally mirrored in his fiction] of turning away from women who want children, turning away from women who might actually not be so very messy as Maggie, and, in this account, Claire as well.

Maggie, it turns out, was not only, as Roth would tell us in The Facts, the best fiction teacher he ever had simply because you can’t make up tricks such as the now famous urine ploy, but she also contributed her opinions about his early fiction. “Roth listens to her views,” Nadel notes, “and she plays an important first-reader role in this early stage of his career, which he later, somewhat maliciously, disregards” [141]. After Roth’s first divorce, but while the shadow of that relationship and all its betrayals (on both sides) was still very present to him, Maggie was killed in a car crash in Central Park in 1968. “Ironically, the rabbi who officiated at the funeral was the one who was on the record as thinking Roth a menace to the Jews for his writings” [192]. Like the urine, you just can’t make this stuff up. What are the chances?

For five years after Maggie, Roth was attached to Ann Mudge. Exactly at the moment he would have been free to marry her, he fears becoming embroiled in another marriage; and, indeed, he would not marry again until 1990. “A fundamental anxiety,” Nadel finds, “and fear of a long-term commitment likely leading to marriage created unrest or, as Kleinschmidt might argue, a threat to his artistic anger, originating in narcissism, which sustained his art” [196]. When Roth broke off the relationship with Mudge, she responded by attempting suicide only to be found after two unconscious days [197]. In a moment which makes Roth looks like even more a schmuck than you might have thought him, Nadel reports that he raced from the writer’s colony, Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, to New York City and Ann’s hospital room only to tell her: “’Don’t think by doing this I’m going to marry you’” [198].

Before reading Nadel’s biography I’d of course read Claire Bloom’s account of her marriage to Roth and was looking here for what the “other side” might reveal. Nadel paints Bloom as hysterical and self-aggrandizing, and, despite the truth of some of her portrayals of Roth, she consistently left out her failures as a caring wife. Late in life, involved in a liaison with Susan Fox Rogers, a lesbian who “hadn’t slept with a man since her early twenties” [411] (and thus became partially the model for The Humbling’s Pegeen), Nadel reports that Rogers, “in contrast to Bloom whom, he believed, would repeatedly match incompetence with hysteria in a moment of need” [412] actually cared for Roth. An accurate sense of what Roth’s approximately twenty-year relationship with Bloom was like is hard to find. The deep disappointment she conveys in Leaving a Doll’s House combined with Roth’s magnified fury at the public airing of his dirty laundry makes that relationship impossible to grasp.

Nadel does note that Roth “was in love with Bloom” but also that “Bloom became scornful, resentful, and yet dependent on her daughter, and over time Roth fell out of love” [287]. During the score of years (from the early 1970s until 1995) they spent together, most of that time was split between Bloom’s house in London and Roth’s residences in Cornwall Bridge and/or the Upper West Side. As I read in this biography about Bloom’s hysteria and her inability to care for Roth during his many illnesses, I’m also seeing how forcefully Roth attempted to sunder mother and daughter. He could not tolerate the noise any teenager is likely to generate and Anna Steiger, Bloom’s child from her previous marriage to Rod Steiger, was kicked out of the house by Roth so that he could write. I can only imagine how split down the middle this might have made Bloom feel. As had Maggie, Bloom also helped Roth write: she “would help him improvise dialogue for his books, joining in role-playing games with him, and coming up with lines that would appear in his fiction” [289]. In London, Roth and Bloom established a lively social life with the painter R.B. Kitaj, the writer Ian McEwan, the playwright Harold Pinter and his wife, Antonia Fraser, and many other literati / glitterati. Fraser found that “Roth was always funny” [302] which gives us a different sensation than a Roth who was always angry and fending off needy women. Nadel diagnoses a “savior complex” [290] that he finds as part of the patterning with many of Roth’s consorts.

There’s also a lot of “ambivalence” [368] in Roth’s relationship with his second wife. Nadel, indeed, finds that “It is unclear: does she genuinely want to comfort him, and does he genuinely love her?....Roth’s erratic behavior seemed to exploit Bloom” [372]. Indeed, as she recounts in Leaving a Doll’s House and as Nadel summarizes, Roth became vindictive as their divorce progressed and billed her for his hours, years earlier, when he had helped write a play in which Bloom performed [375].

“Both Bloom and Roth rewrote history,” Nadel concludes [380], in finding that the couple’s letters and other documents unveil much more positive aspects of their relationship than they both publicly revealed after it was over.

- IV -

“Indignation became performance” [69]

Nadel finds that Roth’s “constant challenge” was in locating a stable sense of self. “He pursued that challenge through performances on the page and in person. Performance became both an escape from the self and the means to find it” [331]. Alfred Kazin feels when in Roth’s company that “The cleverness, the sharpness, the continual edge somehow turn an evening, to say nothing of his fiction, into performance. There are no purely meditative, unexpected moments, no reflection” [cited in Nadel : 341]. Kazin was not alone in finding Roth difficult. And yet Nadel does include many moments when Roth “showed patience and empathy” [394], as for example, when he helped a student who had had a mental breakdown, when he offered huge sums of money to friends who needed help, when he bailed out his brother Sandy who left a thankless corporate life for an emotionally rich but materially poor life as a painter, and on and on.

Nadel, who penned biographies of Leonard Cohen, Tom Stoppard, and other major figures so is no stranger to the process, is well aware of the particular challenges of writing a biography of Roth. Roth feuded with several would-be biographers before settling on Blake Bailey, so Nadel’s biography is the “unofficial” one. In the aftermath of the enormous scandal Bailey’s biography caused when the publisher, Norton, canceled the book due to accusations of rape and sexual abuse against Bailey, I wonder what Roth would have said to Bailey. I’m imagining this:

5 May 2021

Bard College Cemetery

Dear Mr. Bailey,

You are quite right. Not winning the Nobel in my lifetime is a thorn in my side. I still feel it, here in the dank sienna toned earth. If I can’t have the Nobel—and who is to say they won’t make an exception? 2017, the year the committee was roiled with a sex scandal could have been my year! If Jean-Claude had been able to keep his miserable putz in his pants The Nobel would have been mine!

I chose you, shaygets, to write my biography because I wanted a LEGACY! Which part of legacy did you not understand? Sure, sure, I joked at my eightieth birthday party, which, by the way, was studded with all the literary stars issuing lovingly crafted homages to my enduring influence. I was just joking, you know, in my favorite novel of all time, Sabbath’s Theater, when my most alter-egoish character, Sabbath, imagines his gravestone: “Beloved Whoremonger, Seducer, Sodomist, Abuser of Women, Destroyer of Morals, Ensnarer of Youth, Uxoricide, Suicide.” But now, because you also couldn’t keep your ridiculous little putz in your pants this is what people will think of me! I was merely being a “polyamorous humorist” [50]—thank you for at least getting that right!

“Roth would always have a weakness for vulnerable young women” [759]. Did you really have to say that? Projection, pure projection, and if I’d been able to read the galleys before dying I would have put “keep it to yourself” in red in the margins.

Now no one will read the magisterial, satisfyingly fat biography all embossed in gold with me on the cover, my thin ankle poking out of my nice suit, backlit, reflective posture a little like The Thinker. Classy, the whole book. And wonderfully well written. Which, now, only sharpens the thorn in my side. If the book had to be unprinted, could it not at least have been crappy? Damn it.

Bailey, you’ve ruined me. But perhaps, like Frankenstein, I’ve created the monster who slayed me.

Philip Roth

That’s what I imagine Roth would have said to Bailey. What would he say to Nadel? Of that, I am not so sure. Nadel’s Roth is angry, vengeful, manipulative, and not very different from many of his own literary creations. But Roth would have appreciated Nadel’s comprehensive research, and this thoughtful book bursting with insight. Nadel combed through zillions of letters, drafts housed at the Library of Congress, interviews, memoirs, and of course Roth’s more than thirty works themselves. I suspect Roth would have relished the psychoanalytic approach Nadel adopts.


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