Discussed in this essay:
Philip Roth: The Biography, by Blake Bailey. W. W. Norton. 912 pages. $40.
I ’ve never understood what others make out of non-fiction. Me, I used to make fiction out of it, but that was a while ago and I’m talking about regular people. I’m talking about you people, who apparently even now keep buying and library-borrowing, perhaps even reading, masses of these vast, fact-teeming books whose genre swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. What exactly do you want from them? I can’t imagine you read history for the same reason I did, to cherry-pick period details to use in novels. And what about biographies? Do you read them out of curiosity, envy, jealousy? Do you read them only for comparison? That’s what I did, back when I was alive: I read other lives competitively. I read biographies as a rival. Biographies of writers especially. I read heaps of them; I read piles. Whenever I cracked a bio, I was in a contest and the only way to win was to know the stats. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner: I wanted to know how old these writers were when they wrote their first books; which publishers they sold them to, and how many copies the publishers sold, and what reviews they received, and what prizes they won, and how much money the writers made. I wanted to know how long it took them to write their books; how many drafts were required; and whether they wrote them by hand or typed them up or dictated them to secretaries. And whether they slept with those secretaries, too. I wanted to know how they dealt with marriage, with divorce, with infidelity and infirmity and loss, primarily because I wanted to know how I was doing: How did I stack up? Was I ahead or behind in the rankings? In a way, it almost didn’t matter whether I was reading a biography of Henry Adams or Henry James, Sinclair Lewis or Upton Sinclair, Poe or Twain or one of the Cranes, or George or T. S. Eliot, because I was the shadow subject of them all; my life was; my choices and decisions were; by these bios, I took my measure.
Otherwise, I was a pretty normal guy. From New Jersey. Call me Phil.
Philip Roth, that is—returned from death and retirement to tell you that yes, there’s an afterlife and no, I didn’t retire; I just retired from writing novels.
When I went to my grave in 2018, I went as a nonbeliever, and though I wasn’t quite prepared for life after death, I quickly managed to feel at home here. It helps, of course, that it is home, more or less; it’s all pretty similar to what I left behind. I have the same appetites, the same ailments, the same frayed shirt cuffs and collars, the same mysterious stains on my pants. If you can forget your hackneyed notions of heaven and hell for a moment and tear yourself away from the screen, you might notice what I’m trying to warn you of—the existence of your nonexistence already surrounds you and is closing in fast. As much as I’d like to report that last night I had dinner with my parents, drinks with Updike, and an orgy with all three of the Brontës, the truth is I’m alone here. Death isn’t some supersized Elaine’s; it’s not the Algonquin, either. It’s not even a sparsely attended panel discussion at the Y. It’s just a celestial version of the writing studio I sat in for decades, the one on my old property, mired in darkness and silence and the goyish woods. Mortality has only confirmed what New Yorkers have long suspected: death is Connecticut.
Over the past three years, I’ve been keeping busy—streaming some streamables, lurking on social media, and getting my exercise by walking out every day to check the mailbox and coming back disappointed, empty-handed except for ads. Pest Control. Firewood Delivery. Plowing. But never the book. Never my biography. The biography of me.
Like so many of my friends and enemies who remain terrestrial, I’ve been waiting—patiently, and sometimes not so patiently—for its arrival.
And while I waited, I recognized within me a familiar feeling—namely, the excited, flushed, slightly unhinged feeling of anticipating the publication of a book of mine; a book I’d written. With a clichéd lump in my throat and Nabokov’s butterflies in my stomach, I found myself spending insomniac evenings in propitiatory pacing, making circumambulations of my desk, and worrying about the marketing, the cover design, the interior layout, the blurbs. Had enough women said nice things about me? And what about some black women? Did anyone I hadn’t had a fling with give a comment? Anyone not a Jew? When I did manage to get some sleep, I had my old recurring nightmares of getting panned in the Times and woke up in a sweat, wondering whether anybody had called Cynthia Ozick to line up a review.
(I really hope Ozick is still alive. I really hope she’s still reviewing.)
Ashamed by all this fretting, I tried to remind myself that these were different circumstances: that if this book were bad, if this book were a failure, it would have nothing to do with me. The sins of the biographer aren’t borne by the subject, but the other way around. After all, most people read biographies for the subject, not the author. And most sane, rational people would never read a biography of a novelist they hated but would read even a lackluster biography of a novelist they loved. At worst, I told myself, a lackluster biography would be a wasted opportunity and my true fans would come away from it clamoring for another, and another, and another, each one further impressing on them the sense that the only writer who could ever hope to encompass my person in prose was me, myself.
I’ve always tried to maintain this distinction between my person and my prose. As a student of Céline and Orwell and the better anti-Semites—and as a writer given to experimentation with alter egos, not to mention with fornication—I’ve long insisted that Life and Work, if they can’t be separated, must at least be separately respected.
In my animate days, if you’d criticized my novels, I would have wanted to jump out the window—I would actually have wanted to be dead—but if you’d criticized what I did to write them, if you’d criticized what I did in the breath-brief spells between writing them, I would have survived it; I might have laughed about it . . . who knows, I might even have written about it . . .
I considered getting one of my alter egos to write this for me—Kepesh or Tarnopol, or even Zuckerman, if I could afford him—but when I queried their availabilities, they replied in unison: Enough! We’re out of the business! You’re going to have to write this yourself! And Zuck added, “I’ll write something when it’s my biography!”
So be it. If I’m going to write about somebody else writing about me, I’ll have to write with I—the unknowable first person, bundled up in hat and gloves and scarf, who one cold day in the middle of winter went strolling down the lane and stumbled upon a hulking cardboard package jutting from a snowdrift. I thought: Did I go online in a medicated haze and order a new refrigerator? Or a combination washer-dryer? But then I noticed the sender: W. W. Norton. It was the book! It was my book, which wasn’t mine! And it was too big to fit into my mailbox. I don’t mean for that statement to be read Freudianly; I’m being literal. It was too big to fit into my mailbox, so the mail angel had just left it on the ground. And I considered leaving it there, too, leaving it there to rot and just ordering the e-book, because of how hard it was to pry the sodden cardboard loose and snowball-roll the package up the lane. By the time I got it to my studio and unwrapped it, I had a searing pain in my lower back and had to lie down.
I’m still lying down, and still in pain, under the numbness occasioned either by the opiates or the reading. And yet I’ve managed to read it all, prologue to epilogue, acknowledgments and notes; each one of the book’s 912 pages. Even the index. I read that last. With biographies of people I’ve known, I tend to read the indices first, skipping to the R’s, where I’m usually sandwiched between Rieff, David and Rushdie, Salman.
Sprawled here on the couch, I can almost summon up the voice of my Dr. Spielvogel: “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Vee may perhaps to begin with the title: philip roth, in massive golden sans serif on the cover. A writer, when he makes his debut, gets his name on the cover, surely, but always in a font smaller than that allotted to the title; then, as the writer grows in stature, the point size of his name grows accordingly, sometimes equaling the size of the title, but never, or almost never, exceeding it, unless the writer writes mysteries, or thrillers, or mass-market erotica, or his name happens to be Obama. I achieved that name-title font parity—most iconically with the cover of Portnoy’s Complaint—and rarely surpassed it, and I’m not sure whether I can count myself as having surpassed it even now, given that my marquee-size name on this biography is the title itself and the only other words that appear are the small-font name Blake Bailey and the italicized subtitle, in even smaller font, the biography.
Not a biography, but the biography.
The philip and roth of the title frame a black-and-white photograph of me sitting on a windowsill in Manhattan in 1968, one shoe propped up, showing too much sock. My head is down and I’m brooding, I’d like to think brooding in mourning for a future self who’d reportedly deliver—and who’d later have to read—the book’s epigraph:
I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.
—Philip Roth to his biographer
Putting aside the issue of whether, or how, I meant the utterance, let’s consider the attribution: Blake Bailey doesn’t tag these lines to “me, the guy who wrote this book,” but to “Philip Roth’s biographer,” and so opens his book with one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in anyone’s book: illeism, or the reference to oneself in the third person. This sleight of old-fashioned re-pronouning—so favored by authors and politicians and all those who yearn to project unearned authority—leaves me rattled and reminds me of a tidbit of trivia I picked up from one of my Israeli friends, Amos Oz or David Grossman or A. B. Yehoshua, I can’t remember; I just remember that one of them once told me that the Hebrew word nistar means something hidden, something concealed, often in a secretive and mystical manner, but that it’s also the workaday word for the grammatical third person. When you write with he, you’re writing nistar, and I wondered as I made my way through the table of contents whether I couldn’t manage to read that way too—whether I couldn’t manage to read this biography in the same way I’ve read every other biography, as if the subject weren’t myself, but my opponent, my enemy, my (to use the title of my last novel) nemesis.
Here, then, is a book about “Philip Roth,” a man whose nine decades on earth have been summarily divided into six equipoised Parts, the first and last of which concern the only substantial periods during which he wasn’t entirely consumed with writing the twenty-seven works of fiction and two memoirs that made his name. In “Part One: Land Ho!, 1933–1956” (to be dealt with later in this review), the subject’s primary excuse for not writing that much or that well was that he was just a kid; while in “Part Six: Nemeses, 2006–2018” (a period whose consequences will be dealt with for all of eternity), his primary excuse was that he was too busy dealing with another person’s writing—with Blake Bailey’s writing of these very pages, actually.
In the intervening, productive Parts, this pretty normal guy, Roth, finds so much early acclaim writing Jewish farce that he feels compelled to prove himself as a serious straight novelist in the realist tradition who can write equally well about non-Jews (Part Two). When that approach doesn’t work out for Roth—artistically or commercially—he backslides and forsakes all of his wan, bad allegiances to good literary taste in the production of Portnoy’s Complaint, a polymorphously perverse postadolescent diatribe that makes him rich and famous (Part Three). When Roth finds that success too limiting, or too intimidating to top, he spends decades trying to dissociate himself from it, wandering the overplotted wilderness in search of fresh narrative voices that could channel his penchant for transgression into a new realist mode, one closer to the way that Americans of his age—or at least American men of his age—talked and thought (Part Four). After auditioning the myriad aforementioned surrogates, such as Kepesh, the literature professor, and Tarnopol, the memoirist, Roth finally hits on the consummate mouthpiece, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, the “sugar man” whose sweetness allows the comparatively sour Roth to mature and remake himself as not just the representor of American reality he’d always wanted to be, but (arguably?) the representative representor of American reality of the second half of the twentieth century (Part Five). On the whole, Bailey’s neat arrangement of Roth’s obviously messy existence is appropriately novelistic—the brazen young man who lampoons his community winds up being cherished by his country as a classic—but this resolution of Roth into beloved canonicity comes prepackaged with a twist, which is how that canonicity is undermined—how it’s been undermined in advance—by Roth’s choice to grant access to a biographer (in Part Six, and in the epigraph, but also passim). Every section, every page, every paragraph of this biography traffics in one or another of Roth’s many paradoxical desires: the desire to simultaneously scandalize AND be literarily acclaimed; the desire to simultaneously be literarily acclaimed AND materially successful; the desire to simultaneously remain private AND self-disclose; the desire to simultaneously self-disclose AND self-fictionalize . . . but nowhere do his own internal conflicts come into such relief as in the decision to open his past up like a book and let it be wantonly abridged and plagiarized by a stranger.
It’s Roth’s geriatric decision, even more than Roth’s geriatric death, that I find unfathomable: I just can’t accept that it’s true; I just can’t accept that anyone called “Philip Roth” could’ve chosen this. If I recognize the guy at all, I recognize his often masturbatory passions, and yet this frankly self-abusive passion for being biographized makes him seem so foreign, so alien, so intensely unrehabilitated AND uninteresting to the current me that I’m moved to disclaim, as some of my own books used to disclaim, “any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”
Imagine Kafka, if you can—perhaps the writer closest to my unbeating heart. I think I’ve read every biography of him, or every one in English. And I’m sure you’re familiar with the infamous anecdote, which is included and refuted and debated and discussed in all of them: when Kafka died, he left Max Brod written instructions to burn his unpublished manuscripts, which Brod ignored. Whether you think Kafka expected his friend and executor to honor his wishes or not, the fact is that Brod disobeyed them. By refusing to comply with Kafka’s last wishes, Brod guaranteed his legacy.
Now I’d like you to imagine another situation: a writer who toward the end of his life decides he wants a biography. Never mind why he decides this, he just does; he wants a biography in somewhat the same way as von Aschenbach wanted young boys, or Michael Jordan wanted to play baseball; he deserves a biography like some other old men deserve Porsches. And so he begins auditioning biographers, feeling out how well they’d perform the duplicitous role of an impartial chronicler in public and a co-conspirator in private.
Finally, after what has come to resemble a reality TV series or game show—call it The Apprentice or The Bachelor, or Who Wants to Be a Biographer?—the writer chooses one lucky contestant and gives the guy his archives; he sits with the guy for interviews and arranges interviews between the guy and his friends and former lovers, and not only does he agree not to interfere with the final text at all, but he actually announces that agreement with a modicum of pride (“Appointed by Philip Roth and granted independence and complete access”) and then goes and dies, and not just that but dies heirless—the ultimate method of assuring a biographer his freedom. What happens next? Can you guess?
The biography is published and the writer’s legacy crumbles.
Call it a Reverse Kafka, or a Backwards Brod: by complying with my last wishes, Bailey threatens to ruin my reputation.
It’s pointless to ponder whether anyone would’ve blamed Brod if he’d wound up torching Kafka, because no one would have known about Kafka if he had. But it might be worth asking this question in its more extreme, post-Nuremberg formulations—who’s more at fault, the man who gives the command or the man who carries it out? Bailey was just following orders, which I have to assume I delivered to him while compos mentis. As my mother used to say, “Be careful what you wish for.” As my father used to say, “You asked for it.” But not just that: I begged for it. I set it up; I set it all in motion, and now I’m complaining about being betrayed—but by whom? Angry, resentful, puzzled, perplexed, I’m simply trying to figure out what went wrong.
If I’d wanted a bio to solidify my novelistic cred, this isn’t it: there’s hardly any literary analysis that isn’t summary. If I’d wanted a bio to mitigate the damage done to my career by the various memoirs written by my ex-wife—my second ex-wife—Claire Bloom and a malevolent gaggle of ex-lovers and ex-friends, this isn’t it: the way to dismiss their accusations of misogyny, narcissism, solipsism, miserliness, nymphomania, and psychological abuse would’ve been to ignore them, not to counter them point by point. But if I’d hoped to have a biography that exposed me as exactly the type of person who cared about having a biography; as exactly the type of tedious egoist, egotist, vain control freak and vengeful, delusional grudge holder who’d commission a biography of himself, then bingo, Bailey has brought home the bacon. More than that: he’s shown how the sausage was made.
Because like the Bible, which tells of Moses at Sinai, my biography contains an account of its own creation. It contains the biography of itself, relating the origins I’ve explained above, contextualized by my neediness. Page swaths here are taken up with my initial attempts to hire Ross Miller for the biographer’s job, and my blundering attempts to fire him after he blew through deadlines and spread lies about me to his interviewees—the very interviewees I’d introduced him to. The lineage of the candidates is biblical, too: And verily Ross Miller begat Harry Maurer (author of Sex: An Oral History) begat Lisa Halliday (author of Asymmetry) begat Blake Bailey, who has previously written excellent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever. I chose him because I liked those Waspy bona fides and figured that if the goyim can be redeemed by a Jew named Christ, I might stand a chance with a biographer from Oklahoma. As Bailey writes, he was nominated for the position over a meal at Sarabeth’s by the late James Atlas, who “unwittingly got the ball rolling when he told me . . . that Roth was between biographers at the moment.” Bailey, ever the gentleman, especially when reverting to the first person, asked Atlas why he didn’t take the gig himself: “What about you, Jim?” To which Atlas shook his head and indicated that we’d had a falling out—a falling out that was caused, incidentally, by Atlas’s mean and petty biography of Saul Bellow, which I’d convinced Bellow to let him write, which had caused a rift between Bellow and me . . . a chain of circumstances that Bailey rattles, in detail.
In a way, Bailey’s fastidious, scene-by-scene accounting of the biography’s changing authorship is characteristic of his method: he took from my novels the metafictional, or, I guess, now meta-non-fictional, technique of making himself a character in his own book and then leveraged that presence to pick at my flaws. And I’m telling you, it hurts. It wounds my professional pride. Trust me when I say that I don’t mind being ripped apart by my own invention—I’ve certainly dealt with that before—but I do mind that he doesn’t mention the ironies. I do mind that he doesn’t seem to be enjoying them.
What I enjoyed: Part One, the early chapters. Reading them, I thought: This is what the afterlife should be like, a family reunion where all the men still have their hair! Literature is the closest we can get to this recapturing. The family gathered up on facing pages; the old Jews from Europe meeting the new Jewish-Americans and admiring their clothes and teeth and hyphens. Here was Mom and Dad and brother Sandy again; school and Hebrew school; Newark not yet despoiled, and the Jersey Shore, the boardwalk swarmed by bare-limbed girls. The section appears in sepia and pastel tones; the soundtrack is Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, dream dream dream and cheek to cheek. I’ve never apologized for my nostalgia, and I never will. I understand the arguments against it: that nostalgia, or sentimentality for a past that is gone and lost, is just a way of avoiding real connection, or real engagement, with the present. I’ve heard this from shrinks, I’ve heard this from wives, I’ve heard this from girlfriends: You love your dead, because to love someone alive takes actual commitment. But look, even if that’s true, and I’m not sure it is, we’re still talking about Aunt Ethel and Uncle Mickey!
A much doted-on and admired son of Weequahic, a tight-knit community-cum-Jewish-ghetto of knitwear salesmen, shoe salesmen, gloves salesmen, and insurance guys like my father, I should by the dream logic of American ascension have grown up to be a dentist or gastroenterologist or tax lawyer, and for years and years those are what I imagined myself to be: that’s how I wrote my novels. But if I could imagine myself into my father, or my brother, or the boys on the block, my mother remained inaccessible: it was she who imagined me, constantly promoting me over Sandy as the smart one. It wasn’t that I couldn’t satisfy her, it’s that she was unimpressed: to her, my successes—some of the most outlandish successes in American literature—were to be expected. Of course my first stories would make a splash; of course my first book of stories—which is still my only book of stories—would become a bestseller and get adapted for the screen.
But then there’s another explanation of my success, one that Bailey neglects, which has less to do with my mother than with my motherland—with the fact that I was the major Jewish writer of the first generation of Jews who could legitimately claim to be one hundred percent American. I embarked on my career during a lucky interregnum: with film and TV on the march, but the old pre-screen cultures still vibrant, there were a few decades of delirious détente, during which novelists could also be celebrities. Sales figures for literature rose like a rocket, especially for literature in English, the language that had won the war. One wishes . . . who am I fucking kidding? . . . I wish Bailey had mentioned this. Instead, what he gives us is pettifogging bookkeeping: in the year before Portnoy’s Complaint was published, I earned roughly $827,000, or “about $6,115,000 in 2020 dollars.” Sure! Why not? But why doesn’t he compare my income of that profligate, expense-account age with, say, Herman Wouk’s? Or Leon Uris’s? Or Irving Wallace’s? Or Irving Stone’s? (Just to name some co-religionists who’ve consistently outsold me.)
Perhaps the general blessedness of the era required a younger biographer, or a newer American—I’m thinking an immigrant—not an oblivious boomer writing for boomers. Absent from these pages is any sense of miracle; the almost Jewish sense of chosenness that comes from being too young for the Nazis and Japanese and too old for Vietnam; and the formative privilege—the intellectual and artistic privilege—that derives from being of the middle: of the middle class, of the liberal center, assimilation, integration. This position allowed me to take what I wanted from the culture and counterculture both without belonging, or being beholden, to either. Writing of and to this middle, I could rise to fame by scandalizing it and keep my fame by lauding it—that is, if the fame didn’t drag me down.
It certainly stalled my reading. In Part Three of the book, just short of halfway through, the momentum flags as youth and innocence are lost to middle age, diagnoses, litigation, and books-as-business: the consolidating, conglomerating publishing industry.
It’s a danger faced by all biographies that track their subjects chronologically: they can only follow fame’s trajectory; they can only peak and then repeat. And so after conducting his forensic audit of Portnoy’s, Bailey presents interminable chapters and decades of reputation management, alternating with, if not relieved by, sexual transgressions. I will say that the patterns are clearer in a biography, which I read straight through, than they ever were in my weekly, and sometimes even daily, psychotherapy. I begin a new relationship and start a new book; the book is finished and the relationship ends. Each new book requires a new woman, or women, almost contractually, as a hardcover demands a paperback, an original demands translations, and a bestseller brings in options and scripts.
Given that Bailey fails to mention that for about twelve hours a day, for six or so days a week, for approximately fifty weeks a year, between the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Barack H. Obama, all I did was write, there comes a sense that my days were somehow hollow, or shallow. An unconscientious reader might get the impression that I spent most of the Seventies haggling with my agents and editors about royalties and advances; that I spent much of the Eighties yelling at book publicists and book designers, or hassling assistants about flap copy, jacket copy, and ad budgets. If I took a break from that, I’d fuck a proofreader, or a friend, or a friend’s daughter, or a neighbor, before toweling off and firing my agent, or switching editors. In Bailey’s telling, or non-telling, it’s as if I rarely wrote, and never rewrote, and the lacuna is so conspicuous that I can only conclude that my writing doesn’t interest him at all. Allow me to repeat this, in the now-Trumpian CAPS and exclamations that were such stylistic fixtures of my earlier novels and later faxes and emails: MY BIOGRAPHER HAS NO INTEREST IN MY WRITING!!!! Instead, what he’s interested in is my going to the shrink; he’s interested in my writing the shrink of a woman I was dating in order to get him to tell her I was breaking up with her. He’s interested in my readings (to an audience), but not my reading (at home); he’s interested in my honorary degrees, and the lectures and interviews I gave, and my attempts to prevail on my students and interviewers for blowjobs or handjobs. In the Nineties, he has me going to a lot of parties, and commiserating with Mia Farrow, who during my divorce from Claire was having her own tabloid brouhaha with Woody. In the Aughts, he has me going to a lot of lunches, with approving critics, ailing cousins, senior Newarkers I portrayed in my books, and friends who were writing memoirs about having been friends with me. (A note to out-of-towners: Sarabeth’s, which gets a ton of free press in these pages, isn’t some vaunted literary hangout so much as a mediocre New York chain whose Amsterdam Avenue outpost was near my apartment. I usually ordered the house salad, hold the dressing, and water, hold the ice.) Without belaboring my objections any further, let me just point out that given my writing schedule, I managed to accomplish all of the lechery, careerism, and casual dining that so captivates Bailey in the maybe four or three or two hours per day during which I wasn’t at my desk, or shitting, pissing, or sleeping.
Let it never be said that I wasn’t efficient—except, that is, at the desk, where every novel page that I managed to keep was the result of sheaves revised and reams thrown out. To wit: The approximately two hundred boxes of Writings that I turned over to the Library of Congress. The sixteen boxes of The Counterlife (a 324-page book); the fourteen boxes of My Life as a Man (a 334-page book); the seventeen boxes of Operation Shylock (a 398-page book); and the eighteen boxes (these are not small boxes!) of Sabbath’s Theater (a 451-page book), which include two “Drafts,” seven “Copies” of later versions labeled A through G, seven “Copies” of a “Final” version labeled A through G, plus “Galleys” and three rounds of “Proofs,” and let’s not even get into the additional folders of “background materials,” “miscellaneous pages,” and “notes.” You’d think that Bailey would’ve liked to compare some of these, if only to give a reader an inkling of how I operated. But no. WHY THE FUCK DID I EVEN BOTHER?
In lieu of examining those travails, Bailey gives us passages such as this one, concerning American Pastoral:
A person in the Houghton publicity department wrote a letter to booksellers to run in the front matter of the bound galleys: “Roth is the scourge of banality and middle-class rectitude,” it read in part, “but American Pastoral is a virtual ode to decency and middle-class convention. (As Mr. Roth put it to me recently, in an ironic comment on his own literary reputation, ‘This is the book that gives decency a good name.’) No sex, no jokes, no withering satire—why read it?” Roth considered this vulgar but well-meaning gambit an “abomination”; not only did he veto the letter, but on December 4, 1996, he faxed Wylie [his agent] a message of measured outrage, asking him to inform the publisher that he wouldn’t be signing their contract (“I WILL REIMBURSE TO THEM ALL COSTS WHICH HAVE BEEN INCURRED UNTIL NOW”). Houghton smoothed things over with an apology, and invited Roth to write his own galley letter that would appear over the editorial director’s name: After a concise plot summary, Roth’s letter assured the reader that the present novel represented “the high point of an already illustrious career. I urge you to sit down as soon as you can to read the masterpiece of an American master.” The last six words became the main slogan of the ad campaign, and Roth made sure a slew of public figures received copies, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Though I won’t dispute the accuracy of the account, I will dispute the significance, the balance. Bailey spends 241 words, most of a page, talking about the backstage wrangling over a publicity letter? And then he wastes a few more pages about what Michiko Kakutani and, God help me, Norman Podhoretz wrote in their reviews? And then some blather about the prize circuit, nodding at post-Pulitzer interview requests from CNN and the AP, and congratulatory correspondence from DeLillo (“Put some brandy in your Jell-O tonight”) and Bellow (“I thought I would lay my bouquet”)?
By the time I’d struck my Faustian bargain with Bailey, I’d won the Pulitzer once, the National Book Award twice, and some bauble called the National Humanities Medal that was hung around my neck at the White House; all of my books were being put out in a nifty uniform edition by the Library of America; and Newark, the Gateway City, had dedicated a plaque on Summit Avenue and renamed it, or a corner of it, Philip Roth Plaza.
I’d made it through the gate; my spot was secure, my perch in the pantheon, my niche in Valhalla. I was nearly a landmark myself, or at least a roving tourist attraction in uptown Manhattan, and all I had to do to maintain my legend was keep my goddamned mouth shut. Like so many of my friends did. Like so many of my enemies even did. Like so many of my women always have. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Why? With my books already classics and my posthumity assured—why? I don’t believe in deathbed confessions. I don’t believe in apologies. But I went ahead anyway, jeopardizing all the status I’d hoarded, all the laureled glory I’d so diligently cultivated. Why did I willingly submit myself, as I approached senescence, to the judgment of a professional biographer tasked with writing for a public more aggrieved and sensitive than ever, and less inclined than ever to separate the Work from the Life, especially if both were mine, white, male, and remorselessly heteronormative?
Why, at the end, risk it all?
There’s a Yiddish parable that might be pertinent here, concerning a man who experienced great losses. Throughout all of his afflictions in love and in business, the one thing that consistently cheered him was what we’d now call “suicidal ideation”: the thought that he could, at any moment, kill himself. Whenever he was miserable, he’d think about how killing himself was still an option, and that gave him hope, enough hope to continue. And so he continued, until one day he was walking across a bridge and a nobleman’s horse-drawn carriage ran him over. Arriving in the afterlife, the man found it identical in nearly every respect to the life he’d left, except that killing himself was no longer an option. And so even though he was in heaven, he thought it hell.
The lesson? I’m not sure. But I’ve been thinking about it. Perhaps it’s something along the lines of: Only a man who’s able to destroy himself is free?
Bailey’s explanations for why I wanted this biography are the ones I gave him: That I had to have a biography; that somebody was going to write a biography; that many somebodies were going to write many biographies, after ransacking the papers I couldn’t bring myself to burn, and that while I could, I might as well get out ahead of the pack—ahead of the misandrists and identity-politics brats, ahead of the anti-Semites who thought I wasn’t American enough, the Jews who thought I was self-hating, and the anti-American and anti-Semitic illiterates on the Nobel committee who denied me the trip to Stockholm—and try to dictate the terms of the conversation.
I think I also told him, or just told myself, that literature was dying—but I’d gotten confused, only I was dying—and that biographies were going the way of the dinosaurs, so I’d better make sure to lock one down before it was too late.
Did I believe all of these contradictory things? Perhaps I did, and all of them equally, concurrently. What haven’t I believed? An “American master” should be a master of suggestion, able to convince himself of anything, or at least able to convince his readers.
I (or my Dr. Spielvogel) notoriously defined Portnoy’s Complaint, the disorder, as a rationalization of extremes: exorcising the guilt of sex through performative self-sacrifice, nullifying a Connecticut night of sucking and fucking by spending the next day signing petitions supporting Soviet writers or finding publishers for samizdat smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. Toward the end of my life, however, I was more interested in defining Portnoy’s Cacoëthes: an irresistible desire to do the irrational, an uncontrollable attraction to sabotaging the self, an impulse to do the very thing that’s worst for you (you’ll recall that one of the last works I published in my lifetime was an open letter to Wikipedia). Cacoëthes is from the Greek kakos, meaning “bad,” and ethos, meaning “a disposition or habit,” but like a man, the word finds it difficult to be alone, and so is typically found in Latin combination: cacoëthes scribendi, an irresistible urge to write; cacoëthes loquendi, an irresistible urge to speak; cacoëthes carpendi, an obsessive-compulsive drive to criticize.
The psychoanalysis I went through was unusually stymied by cacoëthes, not least because in my America the psyche’s Eros and libido were associated almost exclusively with sexuality and procreation, not with artistic creation. For Freud, Eros was the creative will to life, and served as the psyche’s defense against Thanatos, the death drive. Libido was the energy expression of Eros—the energy with which the creative act was accomplished—but the patriarch of psychoanalysis was curiously unforthcoming about whether Thanatos might have its own latent and negating energy expression and left it to his disciples to propose one. Freud’s student Paul Federn called this antilibido “mortido”; Federn’s student Edoardo Weiss called it “destrudo.” Both were terms for a propensity to cacoëthes—for a tendency to self-defeating and self-destructive behavior, an urge that might even seek to tarnish one’s posthumous reputation.
I used to believe this crap, too, or at least I used to entertain it. But then I died, and if death has shown me anything, it’s the true source of these cacoëthes. I now know from whence they come. Goyim have called them devils, cacodemons, and imps of the perverse; but my Yiddish-speaking ancestors called them dybbukim, and then they died and became dybbukim themselves: wandering souls that slipped through my nostrils and took up residence in my skin and possessed me; torturing me with their unfinished business, in a mystical and malevolent process that only those who’ve never experienced it can regard as “inspiration.” I wonder how Bailey feels about such possession. I wonder whether any of the dozens of writers who’ve published academic monographs and memoirs about me since my death (Nadel, Schreier, Taylor, et al.) have felt possessed. Or the historian and critic Steven Zipperstein, who’s currently under contract to write an unofficial, unauthorized biography of me . . . ha ha ha ha ha . . . I can’t wait to sneak my way into that guy and start haunting his sentences . . . ha ha ha ha ha . . . When the spring weather arrives and my back pain lets up, I’m going to have some words for him! And for the rest of them too! And for you! You can’t imagine the evil I’m cooking up! The misjudgments I’m planning, the blunders and boners! When the trees are in bloom and the girls’ dresses get flimsy, I’m going to head down to the city and breathe on you! I’m going to stick my hand up your ass and move your mouth! Think of what you’ll get up to, once I take possession! Think of what you’ll write! My career is only just beginning!