NEW YORK – The life of Philip Roth was a story. So was the writing of his biography.
Blake Bailey's “Philip Roth,” a volume Roth had imagined in some form for more than 20 years, comes out April 6. Ever willing to provoke or amplify an argument, the author of “American Pastoral,” “Sabbath's Theater” and other novels had been thinking of a biography ever since his former wife, actress Claire Bloom, depicted him as unfaithful, cruel and irrational in her 1996 memoir “Leaving a Doll's House.”
Roth was determined to have his side come out, but wanted someone else to tell it. He first recruited Ross Miller, an English professor and nephew of playwright Arthur Miller, but became so unhappy with what he believed was Miller's narrow scope that the two had a falling out. So in 2012, Roth brought in Bailey, granting him full access to his papers, his friends and, the highest hurdle, the author himself.
Bailey would have the final say.
“Philip understood what the deal was," Bailey told The Associated Press, "and mostly abided by it.”
Over the next six years, until Roth died in 2018, he and Bailey were collaborators, friends and sometimes combatants. As Bailey writes in the book's acknowledgements, their time together could be “complicated but rarely unhappy and never dull.” One moment, Roth might be cracking jokes or cheerfully looking through a photo album of old girlfriends — there were many — and the next he was seething over Bloom's alleged crimes.
The British author Edmund Gosse once defined a biography as “the faithful portrait of a soul in its adventures through life.” Bailey's book is more than 800 pages and could have lasted hundreds more. Roth completed more than 30 books and lived many lives in 85 years. Bailey assumes the roles of critic, confessor, psychologist, even marriage counselor.
He traces Roth's life from his stable but inhibiting middle-class childhood in Newark, New Jersey, to adult years of literary discipline and personal liberties, and his final years of self-imposed retirement.