Philip Roth Was His Own Favorite Subject. What’s Left for a Biographer?

Beholding six years of accumulated research into one man’s life is like coming upon a finished jigsaw puzzle covering a ballroom floor: a...

Beholding six years of accumulated research into one man’s life is like coming upon a finished jigsaw puzzle covering a ballroom floor: awesome, but it hurts to imagine the effort. Researching a writer’s life is slow work, a mix of shoe-leather reporting and endless archival research. Bailey read most of Roth’s books multiple times — hundreds of hours’ labor. “You have to be able to cold-call people, as if you were trying to sell insurance,” Bailey said. “I can do the social persona, and I can enjoy it, but I am just as happy not talking to another living soul for weeks at a time. That is a good combination for a biographer.”

Bailey’s archivist tendencies have resulted in a book that is exhaustive in its attention to the details of Roth’s life: everything from the drudgery of his Army service in the mid-1950s to his disastrous marriages to his struggle with mental illness. The book is often sympathetic, presenting Roth as a figure who lived a life of equal parts discipline (the famed work routine that treated writing as a miracle hewed out of monkish labor) and exuberance (he enjoys one tryst with Ava Gardner and rejects another with Jackie Kennedy). We are thrust into the minutiae of the writer’s finances, feuds and psychoanalysis. The figure that emerges is a man capable of great kindness, irrational grudges and casual cruelty.

There aren’t many writers like Bailey in American culture, where literary biography is an anemic tradition. “To the best of anyone’s knowledge,” Rachel Donadio wrote in The Times Book Review, in 2007, no biography was “underway for Cormac McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie or John Updike.” Since then, only Updike has been the subject of a major biography. Besides Bailey and a handful of others — like Roth’s friend Judith Thurman, biographer of Isak Dinesen and Colette — few Americans do great work in this genre. In Britain, by contrast, writers like Claire Tomalin, biographer of Dickens; Michael Holroyd, biographer of Shaw; and Hermione Lee, biographer of Woolf, are widely praised. Britons care about their writers in a blessedly prurient way, and they want to read about their lives. When in 1994 Martin Amis left his agent for a newer, flashier one (Andrew Wylie, incidentally), the British tabloids swarmed. The sex life, or lack thereof, of the poet Philip Larkin was of national concern. In the United States, by contrast, Roth is one of few writers whose lives have excited a high level of gossip. (What do you know of Jonathan Franzen’s private life? Lorrie Moore’s?) We take our writers seriously, which means elevating their work above their lives.

It is not surprising, then, that it would fall to a failed novelist to tell our national literary-​biographical story. Born in Oklahoma in 1963, Bailey aspired to an acting career until, as a 16-year-old on his way to audition for the Matt Dillon movie “Tex,” he read “The Great Gatsby.” By the time he arrived, he had decided that “acting seemed a pretty silly ambition.” (He flubbed the audition.) After graduating from Tulane, Bailey eventually landed a job teaching middle school in New Orleans, tried his hand at fiction and discovered an admiration for Frederick Exley. “I was feeling,” Bailey writes in his 2014 memoirs, “The Splendid Things We Planned,” “a keen affinity” for Exley, with “his alcoholism, his morbid interest in sports, his contempt for the workaday world — the whole narcissistic juvenile whirl.”

“He wanted to be Richard Yates, not write about Richard Yates,” his first agent, Elizabeth Kaplan, told me. But his only success had been with nonfiction — most notably, a Spy magazine article about how the Revlon tycoon Ron Perelman’s wife at the time terrorized her home contractors. “ ‘Write me a proposal,’” he recalled Kaplan telling him, “ ‘about something that interests you intensely.’ What really interested me at that moment in time was Richard Yates.”

In 1999, Bailey found Yates’s middle daughter, Monica, who liked that Bailey wasn’t an academic — she held professors responsible for her father’s ignominy. She cooperated with Bailey, and he got a book deal. As it happened, “Revolutionary Road” was already scheduled to be reissued in April 2000, and Bailey’s publisher wanted his biography to benefit from what it hoped would be a Yates resurgence. “I signed the contract in late January 2001, and I was given until March 15, 2002, to research and write the book,” Bailey said. “For the next 14 months, I spent every waking hour, except when I was eating or defecating, doing Yates.” “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” was published in July 2003; as Yates climbed out of the grave and into the literary canon, Bailey’s biography was lauded for finding the narrative tension in the writing life — which in Yates’s case involved living alone in poverty, smoking and typing all day then knocking off for the bar. The book became a finalist for that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. Bailey was a schoolteacher no more.

After the critic Janet Maslin raved about the Yates biography in The Times, her husband, the writer Benjamin Cheever, took Bailey to dinner and asked if he might want to write about his father, John. Bailey said yes, and the Cheever biography was published in 2009. Roth, who was about to publish his final novel and despairing of finding yet another biographer, read it admiringly.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Philip Roth Was His Own Favorite Subject. What’s Left for a Biographer?
Philip Roth Was His Own Favorite Subject. What’s Left for a Biographer?
Newsrust - US Top News
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