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

July 28, 2021 | Judith Shulevitz
About the author:

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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