Private Sins Aside, Philip Roth’s Biographer Fails to Understand His Jewish Context

July 28 2021

This year saw the publication of two biographies of Philip Roth, who died in 2018 after a long, controversial, and much-celebrated literary career. In her review, Judith Shulevitz focuses on the one written by Blake Bailey, whom Roth carefully chose for the job. To Shulevitz, the work is marred by an excessive willingness to accept its subject’s view of things—which is no doubt what Roth intended:

Bailey took as his epigraph Roth’s instruction, “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.” By the time you reach the last of the book’s 912 pages, however, Roth’s directive may strike the reader as disingenuous. Roth commissioned his biography—indeed, he began trying to commission it decades before he met Bailey—precisely to rehabilitate himself, which is not the same as being interesting. In particular, Roth felt that he had been unfairly besmirched by a damning memoir by his former second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, and he was not a man to let go of a grievance. Bailey’s biography was supposed to give him the last word.

But that’s not the only flaw:

Bailey lacks a feel for Jews of Roth’s generation. In particular, it doesn’t occur to him to think about how they got out from under the weight of the past. They didn’t go in for family history the way Jews do now, and though Roth began locating lost relatives and soliciting their stories late in life, he never had more than a hazy understanding of previous generations. A well-researched account of his grandparents’ transition from the familiar but pogrom-ridden Galicia to the unknown wilds of New Jersey could have told us many things about Roth that Roth spent most of his life not finding out.

The old country was not at all like a certain Broadway musical, as Roth observed, but what was it like for the Roths and his mother’s family, the Finkels? Bailey is as vague as Roth. He uses thirdhand sources and Roth’s own limited knowledge to reconstruct their corner of Galicia, the city of Tarnopol (Roth made it the surname of another of his alter egos). Bailey quotes Irving Howe about shtetl sociology here, offers an anecdote from Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March there, and serves up credulous generalities about Polish Jewish life: “Solace was found in ritual and piety. A good Jew’s life was finely regulated by 613 mitzvoth. . . . The law was embodied by rabbis.”

In a coda to the review, Shulevitz treats the scandal that swept up Bailey’s book when, in an all-too-real plot-twist that seemed straight out of one of Roth’s novels, reports surfaced accusing the biographer of execrable personal behavior.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish literature, Biography, Philip Roth

 

Don’t Let Iran Go Nuclear

Sept. 29 2022

In an interview on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the Biden administration remains committed to nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as it pursues its brutal crackdown on the protests that have swept the country. Robert Satloff argues not only that it is foolish to pursue the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also that the White House’s current approach is failing on its own terms:

[The] nuclear threat is much worse today than it was when President Biden took office. Oddly, Washington hasn’t really done much about it. On the diplomatic front, the administration has sweetened its offer to entice Iran into a new nuclear deal. While it quite rightly held firm on Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from an official list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” Washington has given ground on many other items.

On the nuclear side of the agreement, the United States has purportedly agreed to allow Iran to keep, in storage, thousands of advanced centrifuges it has made contrary to the terms of the original deal. . . . And on economic matters, the new deal purportedly gives Iran immediate access to a certain amount of blocked assets, before it even exports most of its massive stockpile of enriched uranium for safekeeping in a third country. . . . Even with these added incentives, Iran is still holding out on an agreement. Indeed, according to the most recent reports, Tehran has actually hardened its position.

Regardless of the exact reason why, the menacing reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is galloping ahead—and the United States is doing very little about it. . . . The result has been a stunning passivity in U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear issue.

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Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Iran nuclear deal, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy