April 6, 2021   8 mins

In 1975, Philip Roth made another trip to Czechoslovakia, where he had already gone to help dissident writers in the Soviet-occupied homeland of his beloved Kafka. This time, after he left, “the shit hit the fan”, with secret-police raids on his contacts and gruelling interrogations. “What is Roth doing here in Czechoslovakia?” the spooks demanded of his friend Ivan Klíma. “Don’t you read his books?” Klíma answered. “He is here for the girls.”

For many critics — sometimes, admittedly, for Roth himself — that retort seems to account for Roth’s presence on the planet. He’s here for the girls. The erotic and emotional melodrama that fills the work, and fuelled the life, of the novelist from the Jewish suburbs of Newark, New Jersey enthralled, titillated and outraged readers from his 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus, through the epochal scandal of Portnoy’s Complaint a decade later, to the farewell verdicts after his death, aged 85, in May 2018. Hardly unjust, you might think, for an author who as a University of Chicago student in the mid-1950s had defined his ideal life as “bibliography by day, women by night”. Yet dreams, like deeds, have consequences. In 2014 he could lament after “thirty-one books of a writing career… the truly indelible mark that I made is as a dirty writer”.

Inevitably, the “dirty writer” and his tangled web of relationships has come to the fore in responses to the monumental authorised life produced — a mere three year’s after its subject’s passing — by Blake Bailey. True, it would take a heart of stone and brain of silicon to read Philip Roth: The Biography and not be swept up into the 24/7 floorshow-cum-car crash of the writer’s sexual life, from the two catastrophic marriages (to waitress-secretary Maggie Martinson and English actress Claire Bloom), through stormy long-haul affairs to passing dalliances with partners who stretch from Texan lasses who need to ask him “What’s fascism?” to Ava Gardner herself. With Jackie Kennedy, things never quite worked out, even though the widowed First Lady did apparently try.

Bailey’s narrative supplies bulging boxes of evidence for both prosecution and defence. Should the priapic titan from Newark go to “feminist prison” (“you serve twenty years to life,” he kvetched to co-offender Saul Bellow) or be remembered as at least (so he put it to Alison Lurie) “not just a shit (when I am being one) but an interesting and intelligent shit”? A shit he could certainly be, whether in the Strindberg-like horrors, both inflicted and endured, of his marriage to Bloom or the casual predations of his later-life pick-ups. You cheer for the dames who fought back, like the prospect he cruised in a Connecticut bar and blithely advised to read his spectacularly filthy (and deeply accomplished) 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater. When she then stood him up, he rang: “‘You are never to call me again,’ she said, and hung up.” That’s the spirit.

The best defence, perhaps, lies in Bailey’s roster of distinguished women whom Roth (genuinely) befriended and supported, from Lurie herself to Edna O’Brien, Hermione Lee, Mia Farrow — he even furnished the disaffected teenage Ronan with a reading list — and Zadie Smith. In her inaugural Philip Roth Lecture at Newark Public Library (to which he donated all his books), Smith cut to the core of Roth’s emancipatory, taboo-busting power. “I stole Portnoy’s liberties long ago,” Smith said. “He is part of the reason, when I write, that I do not try to create positive black role models for my black readers, and more generally have no interest in conjuring ideal humans for my readers to emulate”. Even in 1959, some Jewish readers of his early stories found in them a shanda fur die goyim — shaming ammunition for gentilesRoth’s shamelessness printed a ticket to freedom for his heirs.

Faced with this career-long carnival of unruly desire, it sounds bizarre to switch attention from gender politics to geopolitics — the sort of soporific stunt pulled by the blockhead professors he loved to guy. Even sex, though, takes place in time. Yet Bailey’s supremely readable chronicle opens out into the world beyond the bedroom arenas where Roth’s gladiatorial couplings unfold. As Bailey suggests, Roth and his male literary peers came to maturity in a post-Second World War United States coming to terms with its role as a consumer cornucopia at home and global superpower abroad. Born in 1933, in the darkest hour of the Depression, he grew up in the belly of a strong young beast. America’s new hegemony showered at least some of its citizens with unimagined goodies, and bestrode the Cold War stage like an adolescent colossus. He and his high-achieving coevals were children of the long boom that saw US GDP soar from $243 billion in 1947 to $2.8 trillion in 1980.

The fruits of plenty were unevenly spread. But this age of gold shone on striving millions – many, like Roth, the offspring of fairly recent immigrant families — as median household incomes rose (in real, inflation-adjusted terms) from $34,710 in 1954 to $62,153 in 1973. Despite the Vietnam imbroglio, racial unrest in the cities and youth revolt, US unemployment dropped to a historic low of 3.4 per cent just as Roth published Portnoy in 1969. The suburban plenty whose seamy side Roth unpicked reflected in miniature the zenith of US affluence and authority. If you want to understand why a serious literary novelist (albeit one with a satirical, scurrilous side) could hit such peaks of fame, look at the annual figures for the award of US first degrees. They shot up from 136,000 in 1945 to 1,094,000 in 1990, with a hike from 520,000 t0 840,000 between 1965 and 1970 alone.

Wealthier, better educated, better informed — as seriously written city and regional newspapers still competed with the TV networks — this new mass public amplified Roth’s voice, and his glory. The paperback of Portnoy sold 3.5 million within five years.

At least until his late-career reflorescence, Roth was aware that he stuck to the narrow patch he knew. “I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole,” he said. Reading Bailey, though, you grasp that this seemingly narrow shaft — Newark, Jewish suburbia, upward mobility, male sexual hubris and nemesis, American success and its discontents, time, age and mortality — contains not just of bedrooms, but boardrooms and war-rooms. In 1997, the masterly American Pastoral marked Roth’s second coming as a full-fledged historical novelist of epic, not just domestic, scope. Its narrator, Roth’s regular alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, reflects that the tragic hero “Swede” Levov must have been “baffled” by the question: “How had he become history’s plaything”. Even as they yearn, strive and plot, with the next lay, the next game, the next raise in view, Roth’s heroes remain history’s playthings.

He thought of calling the great turn-of the-21st-century trilogy that began with American Pastoral and continued with I Married a Communist and The Human Stain “Blindsided”. Its aghast protagonists find themselves ambushed and felled by unforeseen outcomes of the postwar American Dream of prosperity, progress and self-realisation. As early as his baseball fable The Great American Novel in 1973, Roth understood that he was telling mythic stories about the rise and fall of a superpower — not just the ups and downs of little guys. Baseball might serve, he said, as “a means to dramatise the struggle between the benign national myth of itself that a great power prefers to perpetuate, and the relentlessly insidious, very nearly demonic reality”.

For writers, birth dates matter. Always in Roth’s sight lay the just-senior writers who had experienced the Second World War as young adults: Norman Mailer who served in the Pacific; Gore Vidal, a naval officer; Roth’s idol Saul Bellow, a Merchant Marine volunteer; or Joseph Heller, a B-25 bombardier. In contrast, he and 1930s-born contemporaries such as John Updike and Don DeLillo were (Bailey argues) “abstemious children of the Depression”. They eschewed grand gestures, “kept their noses to the grindstone”, and maximised their productivity. Not every one of these Depression wunderkinder stood an equal chance. Toni Morrison, born in 1931, only published her first novel in 1970 — however, her job as a New York fiction editor had to a degree lowered the formidable obstacles arising from her race and sex.

Roth was a compartmentaliser. His proneness to excess applied strictly in the bedroom. In a taste-defying metaphor, he compared the male sexual adventurers of the early Sixties to the GIs who vanquished Nazism: “I sometimes think of my generation of men as the first wave of determined D-Day invaders, over whose bloody, wounded carcasses the flower children subsequently stepped ashore”. With sex, Roth went over the top. Otherwise, he maintained his work-rate at a punishingly high level, like any harassed postwar corporate executive. Friends and lovers comment on his “monkish habits”, especially after he bought (cash down, $110,000) a farmhouse in Warren, Connecticut and shut himself away — girlfriends excepted — for seasons on end. He dubbed it “The Fiction Factory”.

From their fiction factories, Roth and his Depression-born buddies delivered the goods: year after year, book after book, high-minded rivals to the suited stiffs at IBM, Standard Oil or Chrysler. (Roth, with his 31 volumes, even envied Updike his “fucking fluency”.) The kid from Newark, whose adored father Herman had served the Metropolitan Life insurance company for 36 years, adhered to a thoroughly bourgeois model of hard graft. His progress traces an all-American postwar gradient of social mobility, professional attainment, career milestones and late-life plaudits. “We’re hicks,” Roth said of his group, “It’s just because we’re such hicks that we’ve all become so sophisticated.” Ascent meant vindication, too. In Herman Roth’s day, Bailey reveals, a Jew could not hope to advance beyond branch manager at Met Life.

His son Philip rose along with Mad Men America, in an age of aspiration, reward and newly-bestowed entitlement – an entitlement that Roth drew on in the currency of sex. The money came in handy, too. His advances and fees soon skyrocketed. In 1968, Roth reckoned his income as $827,000 — more than $6 million today. Slacker times (relatively) ensued, but by 1989 his new agent Andrew Wylie could strike a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster for $1.8 million. In the heyday of corporate America, this was high literature as big business. Roth gave much of the dosh away: charitably, to exes, girlfriends, chums, or family; and, commercially, to the myriad doctors and hospitals who treated his chronic back pain and worsening heart conditions. That he could earn it in the first place shows how America’s postwar high tide lifted even the toughest, rudest critic of the puritan and philistine mainstream.

But all good things — and bad things — come to end. (After an 80th birthday gala hosted by Edna O’Brien, Roth wrote that “the meaning of life is that it stops”.) Decline, private and public, shadows his later fiction, often given burnt-out, strife-torn form in the recession-wrecked city of Newark. And with that geopolitical fall came the discredit and opprobrium that now attached to the kind of cocksure strutting that Roth the man (not Roth the novelist) had sometimes indulged. Shame once more dogged his heels, above all after Claire Bloom published her damning memoir Leaving a Doll’s House. One TV show, unimprovably, dubbed it “her thermonuclear dish-all”. Bailey draws on Roth’s unpublished “295-page rebuttal” of her accusations. Yes, 295-page.

Roth might deplore “this media eagerness to find culpability in matters large and small”. But it wasn’t just personal. The toppling of alpha male entitlement, literary and otherwise, partnered the eclipse of the alpha superpower as Cold War “victory” failed to stop the rot. Not for nothing did Roth call one of his final, frail novellas The Humbling. At least his gifts remained undimmed when it came to fantasy solutions for the American fix that wore a MAGA cap. In 2004, he spookily modelled the lure of Trumpish populism in the historical dystopia of The Plot Against America. When the real thing came along, he called the orange one a “massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac”. Even Nixon got off lighter.

In recent times, the reputation of Roth, Mailer, Updike et al has come to resemble a sort of crumbling rustbelt in itself. Their more modest American (and British) successors tend to play nicely, move in packs and — above all — stay in their appointed lanes. The upshot is a more wholesome if less ambitious literary scene — more Brooklyn artisan bakery than some flaming, roaring, polluting steel plant in Pennsylvania (or New Jersey). Bailey’s mammoth testament may, or may not, push the graph of Roth stock up a little. In any case, his biography shows that it took, not a village, but a clumsily confident behemoth of a victorious nation, to raise these wayward, favoured children. These flawed literary giants could grow so tall because a one-off confluence of historical forces nourished them. Their empire has now toppled. How are China’s best-known novelists behaving in private? We might soon need to know.

Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.