Long-awaited Roth bio out April 2021

Times Colonist - - Arts - HILLEL ITALIE

NEW YORK — In fall 2012, as the will­ing sub­ject of one of the most an­tic­i­pated lit­er­ary bi­ogra­phies in re­cent me­mory, Philip Roth joked that he had sur­ren­dered power over his own life to au­thor Blake Bailey.

“I trust you have been get­ting all the windy emails I’ve been send­ing you,” Roth wrote to his bi­og­ra­pher in cor­re­spon­dence shared by Bailey with the As­so­ci­ated Press. “My whole writ­ing life now re­volves around you. Anything to make Blake happy. This is mad­ness.”

Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Bi­og­ra­phy is com­ing out April 6, 2021, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany an­nounced last week. Its 880 pages are the fin­ished re­sult of an un­der­tak­ing that pre-dates not just Roth’s death in 2018, at age 85, but Roth’s re­tire­ment from pub­lic writ­ing after 2010 and the in­volve­ment of Bailey. The book is also the out­come of an in­tri­cate re­la­tion­ship be­tween Roth, the re­lent­less son of Jews from Ne­wark, New Jersey, and Bailey, a Catholic school grad­u­ate from Ok­la­homa City pre­vi­ously known for his ac­claimed books on fic­tion writ­ers Richard Yates, Charles Jack­son and John Cheever, whom Roth knew and ad­mired.

“Our as­so­ci­a­tion was some­times com­pli­cated, but rarely un­happy and never dull,” Bailey told the AP.

Roth’s nov­els in­clude Amer­i­can Pas­toral, Port­noy’s Com­plaint and many other works of clas­sic, con­tentious fic­tion, and his dystopian The Plot Against Amer­ica, about a fas­cist U.S. pres­i­dency in the 1940s, was adapted into an HBO se­ries that aired this year. He had been think­ing of a book about his life since the 1990s, orig­i­nally ask­ing Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut pro­fes­sor Ross Miller to be his bi­og­ra­pher. But Roth and Miller, the nephew of Roth’s friend Arthur Miller, had dif­fer­ent ideas for the book and parted ways in 2009.

At the sug­ges­tion of fellow lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­pher James At­las, Bailey got in touch with Roth.

“Why should a gen­tile from Ok­la­homa write the bi­og­ra­phy of Philip Roth?” Bailey re­mem­bered Roth ask­ing him.

“I’m not an a bi­sex­ual al­co­holic with an an­cient Pu­ri­tan lin­eage, but I still man­aged to write a bi­og­ra­phy of John Cheever,” Bailey re­sponded.

Bi­ogra­phies of liv­ing sub­jects come in dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories: autho­rized, in which the sub­ject par­tic­i­pates and of­ten has fi­nal approval; unau­tho­rized, writ­ten with­out the sub­ject’s co-op­er­a­tion, and those like Bailey’s that land in be­tween.

Bailey be­gan work­ing on the bi­og­ra­phy in 2012 and re­ceived broad ac­cess to Roth, to his friends and to Roth’s pri­vate pa­pers, in­clud­ing a 295-page re­but­tal to an un­flat­ter­ing mem­oir writ­ten by ex-wife Claire Bloom, that will oth­er­wise be de­stroyed or sealed un­til 2050. He said that his agree­ment with Roth was sim­i­lar to those he had with the lit­er­ary es­tates of his pre­vi­ous sub­jects, all of whom had died be­fore he be­gan bi­ogra­phies of them. Bailey would have full cre­ative con­trol, but would al­low his man­u­script to be vet­ted for ac­cu­racy.

“They can’t tell me what to think or how to in­ter­pret,” said Bailey, who added that he hopes read­ers find his book “page turn­ing” and that what­ever per­cep­tions they have of Roth would become “far more nu­anced.”

Among the most ac­claimed and talked about au­thors of his time, Roth was pro­tec­tive of his life and work, even openly con­fronting Wikipedia about er­rors on its page for his novel The Hu­man Stain. Bailey says that Roth “certainly did try” to shape the book’s nar­ra­tive, but “al­ways re­sponded well” when Bailey pushed back with “ci­vil­ity and pro­fes­sion­al­ism.” Biog­ra­phers have a long his­tory of dis­en­chant­ment with their sub­jects, but Bailey says he came away with great af­fec­tion for Roth, and that for his book’s epi­graph he uses a sug­ges­tion made by the au­thor: “Don’t try to re­ha­bil­i­tate me; just make me in­ter­est­ing.”

According to Bailey, Roth was part con­form­ist, part rebel and part “monk de­voted to his art.”

“Chekhov said that he had to squeeze the serf out of him­self drop by drop, and for his part, Philip said he had to squeeze the nice Jewish boy out of him­self drop by drop,” Bailey said. “He re­mained both a nice Jewish boy and some­thing very un­like a nice Jewish boy to the end.”

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