Biographer Bailey (
Cheever) brings his talents to bear in this remarkable portrait of lauded and divisive literary titan Philip Roth (1933–2018). Roth was born in Newark, N.J., in “perhaps the most anti-Semitic decade in American history” and was, according to his father, “an all-American boy who loved baseball.” The Roth that Bailey brings to life is a complex mix of confidence and self-doubt; Roth became the youngest winner of the National Book Award and, Bailey writes, questioned “the whole concept of what a novel was, or what he himself was supposed to be as a writer.” Bailey tirelessly unpacks the real-life inspirations behind Roth’s fiction, shedding light on an early girlfriend who inspired Brenda Patimkin in his 1959 debut Goodbye, Columbus and the romantic fling who became a character 30 years later in The Human Stain. Bailey doesn’t shy away from Roth’s dark side, notably his self-involved nature and tendency to let “old griefs and resentments fester.” In consistently luminous, humorous prose, Bailey vividly evokes Roth as a writer and a man—Roth would, for example, spend “the odd weekend” in 1964 with his girlfriend, and “by Sunday afternoons... would be almost beside himself: ‘You have to leave now! I have to work!’ ” A stunning feat, this is as dynamic and gripping as any of Roth’s own fictions. Photos. Agent: Shane Salerno. (Apr.)
"Blake Bailey’s book is definitive. It’s also often funny, sometimes appalling, and always fascinatinglike its subject."
Jacqueline Cutler - New York Daily News
"Bailey is industrious, rigorous, and uncowed. … Although Roth would not have enjoyed some of the tumult that will now attend its publication, he might have admired his biographer’s ... refusal to fall under his subject’s sway. The man who emerges is a literary genius, constantly getting it wrong, loving others, then hurting them, wrestling with himself and with language, devoted to an almost unfathomable degree to the art of fiction."
David Remnick - The New Yorker
"Blake Bailey’s comprehensive life of Philip Rothto tell it outrightis a narrative masterwork … As in a novel, what is seen at first to be casual chance is revealed at last to be a steady and powerfully demanding drive. … under Bailey’s strong light what remains on the page is one writer’s life as it was lived, andalmostas it was felt."
Cynthia Ozick - New York Times Book Review (cover)
"Fully authorized, comprehensive, and engrossing … a consummate and unforgettable biography of a controversial, virtuoso, and indelible American writer."
Booklist (starred review)
"Superlative … Bailey's account is definitive and genuinely gripping to boot. … He leads us lucidly through a dense palimpsest of overlapping drafts, fictional identities, literary feuds and women."
Claire Lowdon - Times of London
"To have our most notable literary biographer tackle a man consistently listed among the planet’s master novelists is a monumental gift in the realm of international letters. Not only does Blake Bailey bring his famously scrupulous research to bear on this life packed with equal parts honor and scandal, he does so with economy and narrative forceall while working in elegant, unforgettable prose. As a friend of Roth late in his life, I rue certain stories detailed here. But Bailey also conjures in riveting, almost-holographic detail a man I loved quite literally to death, partly because he never bored me. I wept and railed, marveled and shook my fist at the sky. Just make me interesting, Roth asked of Bailey, and this unputdownable page-turner does just that."
"A wonderful book that seems certain to become the definitive biography of Roth’s fascinating, sometimes troubling, lifeRoth was a brilliant writer, and Bailey does him justice in this beautifully written and highly readable volume."
Michael Schaub - Boston Globe
"[Roth] got to be remembered [in Bailey's biography] as a man: hilarious, mercurial, genuinely kind but fickle and meanspirited too. A man, rather than an inert legacy."
Mark Oppenheimer - New York Times Magazine
"Meticulous, masterfully organized and heroically fair-minded … [T]here are sparkling scenes portraying Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, lunching with the Kennedys on Martha’s Vineyard, even a flirtation with Jackie Onassis, the only woman Roth was too awed by to pursue."
Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal
"Beautifully written … compulsively readable … It is hard to imagine a book that will come up with a more definitive series of answers than this one."
"'Magisterial' and 'definitive' … don't do justice to Blake Bailey's years-in-the-making opus. … Bailey meticulously conjures the career of one of America's literary titans, the devils and angels that shaped his work."
"Fascinating … Bailey's utterly engrossing biography shows Roth led a life just as strange and intense as his fictionalized alter egos."
Tomiwa Owolade - Evening Standard
"Unassailable as to fact … clear-eyed … quickly moving …
Philip Roth seems as brightly peopled as a Victorian novel. … What [Bailey] does superbly … is chart Roth's sexual and emotional life, and map its effects on his work."
Michael Gorra - New York Review of Books
"Monumental and engrossing … Bailey brings new information and a fresh perspective … Is Bailey’s compassionate and comprehensive book
the biography? No other biographer will have known Roth so well, had such unlimited access to his archives, had a chance to ask him rude questions, even to watch him as he lay dying."
Elaine Showalter - Times Literary Supplement (cover)
"Philip Roth, for all his flaws, for all that I know his legacy will continue to be judged in judgmental times and found wanting, deserves this riveting, serious and deeply intelligent biography."
David Baddiel - The Spectator
"[A] totemic and compulsively readable biography."
Christian Lorentzen - Bookforum
"Bailey is a very good writer and a very good literary biographer. A double- or triple-natured subject is not beyond him. … What a story. … Bailey certainly lets the repellent in, and along with it comes the man in his wholeness."
James Parker - The Atlantic
"Roth would approve of this biography, too, not because it's partial but because Bailey's industriousness is on a par with his own … it's a miracle that he has published so lucid a book just three years after Roth's deathand one so packed with good anecdotes and jokes."
Blake Morrison - The Guardian
"Philip Roth, to go with his legendary talent, was a lucky man. That streak continues with Blake Bailey’s charming, wise, and witty biography, which achieves a balance and comprehensiveness that shouldn’t have been possible so soon after Roth’s death."
"Everything you ever wanted to know about Philip Roth you can discover in his novels. Everything you ever wanted to know about what it took to become one of the greatest American writers of our time, you will find in Blake Bailey’s breathtaking biography."
In the years before his death in 2018, Philip Roth was often acclaimed as America's greatest living writer. In this comprehensive biography, Bailey (
Cheever: A Life) takes on the task of untangling the details of the author's life from his often semi-autobiographical fiction. Bailey presents Roth as a talented and dedicated writer who is increasingly sensitive to his reputation. Driven by his ego and his libido, Roth's life was marked by his prolific literary output and his many romantic relationships. Bailey is a sympathetic biographer, often dismissive of charges of misogyny in Roth's writing and clearly favoring Roth's account of his fraught and highly publicized relationship with the actress Claire Bloom. This work is evidence of Bailey's exhaustive research and unique access to his subject; Roth selected Bailey as his biographer, and the two had extensive interviews in preparation for the book. VERDICT For an author like Roth, who put so much of his own life into his books, this biography is an essential companion to his novels, enabling readers to discover the true-life inspirations for many of his memorable characters and scenes. Recommended for readers who have read and enjoyed Philip Roth's fiction. —Nicholas Graham, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
An acclaimed biographer turns his attention to the author he has called America’s “greatest living novelist."
Philip Roth (1933-2018) was famous enough to socialize with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Claudette Colbert; at one point, he turned down the advances of recently widowed Jackie Kennedy. In this excellent biography, Bailey offers an evenhanded portrait of an author whose many admirers include authors Nicole Krauss, Edna O’Brien, and Zadie Smith but whose depictions of women in novels such as
Portnoy’s Complaintand Sabbath’s Theaterinfuriated others. For example, in 2011, his Man Booker International Prize spurred one of the judges—Carmen Callil, founder of the feminist Virago Press, the English publisher of Leaving a Doll’s House, the scathing memoir by Roth’s ex-wife, Claire Bloom—to resign in protest. Roth gave Bailey access to his archive and sat down for interviews, and it shows, especially in the many intimate details about Roth’s personal life: his Jewish upbringing in Newark; his friendships and rivalries with John Updike, William Styron, and other contemporaries; his ailments, from lifelong back trouble to coronary artery disease, for which he preferred a bypass over beta blockers because the medicine made him impotent; and his many affairs, including while married to Bloom. Bailey offers positive and negative assessments of Roth’s books, from describing Goodbye, Columbusas “a kind of Jewish Gatsby, given the charm of its prose and humor, its concision, and its theme of meretricious American-style success,” to calling out the “breathtaking tastelessness toward women” in The Great American Novel. While Bailey notes that Roth may not have been the misogynist some would believe, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out his flaws and blind spots—e.g., when Roth referred to the “ghastly pansy rhetoric” of Edward Albee’s play Tiny Alicein a 1965 review or when he organized a party for Bloom’s 62nd birthday with his married lover in attendance.
An outstanding biography of a prolific author for whom writing was “a ghastly protracted slog."