“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” Philip Roth instructed Blake Bailey. “Just make me interesting.” The headline story can’t fail to be interesting: lower-middle-class grandson of immigrants writes scandalous bestseller about masturbation, is vilified as a self-hating Jew, has two disastrous marriages and many lovers, accumulates a stupendously diverse body of work (comic, surreal, metafictional, naturalistic), comes to be seen as the greatest English-language novelist of his day yet never, to his chagrin, wins the Nobel. But Roth wanted nuances not headlines, suggesting that Bailey call his biography “The Terrible Ambiguity of the ‘I’”. Luckily, that isn’t the title. But ambiguity is central to the story, particularly in relation to Roth’s treatment of women, in life and in fiction, which is where the issue of rehabilitation arises and, as with his peers (Saul Bellow, John Updike and Norman Mailer), can’t really be avoided, least of all now.
“Always it came back to the women,” Bailey writes, the first of them Roth’s mother Bess, who, if not as suffocating as Alex Portnoy’s mother, was so adoring that no subsequent woman in his life could match up. While sharing Bess’s devotion to Philip and his brother Sandy, her husband Herman left a mark in other ways, not least through his work ethic (12-hour days, six days a week). “He who is loved by his parents is a conquistador,” Roth liked to say. Despite the antisemitism of the period, he remembered his childhood as a haven. Newark to him was like Dublin to Joyce: a place he escaped but never left.
At college he discovered the fun of writing satire and, dropping plans to become a “lawyer for the underdog”, poured his energy into short stories. “Bibliography by day, women by night” was the idea, but at 23 he met Maggie Martinson, the first of his two marital “catastrophes”. A “hard-up loser four years my senior”, whose two kids lived with her ex-husband, Martinson was worldlier and more turbulent than any previous girlfriend. But that was the point: he saw her as a test of his maturity. By the time his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, made him famous, he’d had enough. “It isn’t fair,” Maggie said, rightly suspecting that he was sleeping with other women, “You have everything and I have nothing, and now you think you can dump me!” In a ploy to hang on to him, she persuaded a pregnant woman to urinate in a jar as part of “a scientific experiment”, used the positive result to trick Roth into thinking that she was carrying his child, then agreed to have an abortion if he promised to marry her – which he duly did.
It was three years before he discovered the truth and, furious at being conned so easily, began divorce proceedings. Arguments about alimony were still going on when Maggie was killed in a car crash. His income that year was around $800,000 (the equivalent of $6m today) and her death meant he didn’t have to split it. Though relieved that the “goyish chaos” she’d wreaked was behind him, he continued to feel vindictive towards Maggie, and took his revenge in fiction, dubbing her the Monkey because of her stubby legs and having his alter ego Zuckerman express repugnance at her “withered and discoloured” vagina. Bailey’s version of events leans on Roth’s but he tempers it with extracts from Maggie’s diary, the most plaintive of them when she realises “Philip doesn’t care for me – he’s sorry for me”.
Roth’s second catastrophe, with Claire Bloom, wasn’t so much the failure of their marriage but how she wrote about it in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House. In the flush of first love he described her as “a great emotional soul-mate” who’d rescued him from a period of excruciating pain (a back problem which plagued him throughout his life). The domestic harmony didn’t last. He disliked Bloom’s daughter Anna living with them in London. And Bloom felt isolated at Roth’s 40-acre farmhouse in rural Connecticut, which he’d bought for $110,000 when even the paperback rights to one of his worst novels earned him four times as much (it became his own Yaddo, a place to retreat and write, undisturbed – leaving Bloom at a loose end). Among many points of contention was the pass Roth made at Anna’s friend Felicity, which outraged all three women but didn’t merit much of an apology from Roth (“What’s the point of having a pretty girl in the house if you don’t fuck her”).
Most of Roth’s other relationships were with younger women: “I was forty and she was nineteen. Perfect,” he said of one, though his ideal age gap grew as he got older (“A mature woman wouldn’t take your shit,” his analyst told him). He had a theory that sexual interest wears off after two years, but his 18-year affair with “Inge”, the model for Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater, disproved it. Among those he flirted with or knew (however briefly) as friends were Jackie Kennedy, Mia Farrow, Ava Gardner and Barbra Streisand. Other lovers here go unnamed or are given pseudonyms, though not the Playboy pin-up Alice Denham (Miss July, 1956), who called him, approvingly, “a sex fiend”, and not Ann Mudge, who was dropped because her “meek gentility had begun to bore him” (she subsequently attempted suicide).
Bailey doesn’t deny Roth’s “breathtaking tastelessness towards women”. And there were always goatish buddies happy to normalise the misogyny, from disgruntled divorcees whining that their wives had fleeced them, through the teaching colleague who “pimped” for him, to the artist RB Kitaj who would fax him “dashed-off sketches of the decorous Anita Brookner, say, giving blow jobs”.
If Roth admirers will find this hard to take, detractors can’t ignore how connubial and generous he could be; how ex-lovers spoke warmly of him and visited his bedside when he was dying; and how female writers (including Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss and Mary Karr) are among his biggest fans. “I don’t like the way he writes about women,” Nell Freudenberger said in a 2012 poll that voted him America’s greatest living novelist, “and I don’t like the way I sound complaining about it.” When the complaints began 40 years ago, Roth raged against them (“Hysterical fear of the dick. Feminism as the new righteousness”) then took them on board, using fiction to dramatise rather than repudiate.
“To let the repellent in” was a manifesto of his. And if honesty about male sexual desire got him into trouble, he accepted it as a price worth paying. Portnoy’s Complaint began the process and Sabbath’s Theater rounded it off. In later novels – American Pastoral, The Plot Against America and his last, Nemesis, a plague novella – the libido plays less of a part and they’re arguably the better for it. Where the young Roth determinedly killed off the Nice Jewish Boy he’d been brought up as, the ageing Roth was nostalgic for his childhood and adolescence.
Bailey’s account of the last years is touching. Having announced his retirement from writing, Roth talked of “rambling happily into oblivion”, his battles behind him. New awards came. Old friendships were revived. Young women still appeared on his arm but nothing happened in bed beyond cuddles. Asked for his thoughts on the Nobel prize for literature going to Bob Dylan rather than to him, he joked: “It’s OK, but next year I hope Peter, Paul and Mary get it.” When Lisa Halliday’s portrait of him as the elderly Ezra Blazer appeared in her novel Asymmetry shortly before his death, he approved.
He would approve of this biography, too, not because it’s partial but because Bailey’s industriousness is on a par with his own. With a “mile of files” and boxes to work through, it’s a miracle that he has published so lucid a book just three years after Roth’s death – and one so packed with good anecdotes and jokes, including one at his own expense when Roth took a toilet break during their interviews (“I sat on his studio couch, listening to our greatest living novelist empty his bladder, and reflected that this was about as good as it gets for an American literary biographer”). Among the documents he quotes from is “Notes for My Biographer”, a 295-page rejoinder to Bloom that Roth planned to publish till friends and lawyers talked him out of it. Bailey relies on this more than he should, unfairly dismissing her memoir as “scurrilous”. But given how determined Roth was to control his posthumous reputation, after falling out with his first official biographer, Ross Miller (nephew of Arthur), it’s an achievement for Bailey to have gained as much distance as he has.
The frequency with which Roth fell out with people he loved (friends, editors, agents, fellow authors) is just one of the many ambiguities here. The man who liked to quote Flaubert’s dictum “Be orderly and regular in your life like a bourgeois” was drawn to the manic and bacchanalian; published 31 books but found writing novels “a ghastly protracted slog”; studiously avoided having children but doted on other people’s; spoke only English but was passionate on behalf of non-English writers, especially novelists from eastern Europe. Above all there was his attitude to women, which a hagiographer would try to excuse as typical of the era and an enemy would liken to Harvey Weinstein’s, but was too uniquely Rothian to be either. “Why do you want to characterise me … as some sort of heartless rapist manqué?” the Roth character Tarnopol scolds his psychiatrist Dr Spielvogel in My Life As a Man. Some critics will use this biography to do just that. But the story is more complex – and a lot more interesting.
• Philip Roth: The Biography is published by Jonathan Cape (£30) on 8 April. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.